The Cruze Eco can be identified by its lower grille
The Cruze Eco can be identified by its lower grille. Click image to enlarge

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Article and photos by Jil McIntosh

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GM’s new fuel-efficient models

Chevrolet Cruze Eco, Chevrolet Volt, Cadillac Urban Luxury Concept, Buick LaCrosse eAssist

Los Angeles, California – At auto shows in years past, you could count on hearing all about horsepower and torque – big numbers for both – at most of the new-model presentations. At this year’s Los Angeles Auto Show, open to the press on November 17 and 18, the key phrase was “miles per gallon.” Had I made a drinking game out of how many times I heard “mpg,” I would have been on the other side of walking condition well before noon.

The Cruze Eco can be identified by its lower grille
The Cruze Eco can be identified by its lower grille. Click image to enlarge

Thanks to petrol prices, government regulations and environmental concerns, fuel economy has pretty much moved to the top of the list for all of the mainstream automakers. It certainly is for General Motors, which presented a number of fuel-efficient vehicles: the Chevrolet Cruze Eco and Chevrolet Volt, Buick LaCrosse eAssist, and at a special function on the eve of the show, Cadillac’s new Urban Luxury Concept.

The Cruze Eco is a special model of the Cruze compact sedan. It uses such tricks as weight reduction, aerodynamics and a lower ride height to achieve better fuel figures than the conventional Cruze. Trimmed similarly to the mid-range Cruze LT, it shares that model’s turbocharged 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine, and while it will initially be offered with a six-speed manual transmission, a six-speed automatic will eventually be added. The Eco weighs 97 kilograms less than its conventional sibling, and its official Natural Resources Canada rating for the manual transmission puts it at 7.2 L/100 km (39 mpg Imp) in the city and 4.6 (61) on the highway, versus 7.8 (36) and 5.4 (52) for the manual-equipped regular 1.4-litre Cruze. Saving money costs slightly more: at $19,495, the manual-equipped Eco is the same price as the automatic-equipped LT.

One of the Eco’s tricks for saving fuel is a clever set of shutters behind the lower grille air intake – the protective plastic mesh over top of the shutters being one way of quickly differentiating the Eco from other Cruze models. At highway speeds, when wind drag can cut ferociously into fuel mileage, the shutters close like Venetian blinds to make the Cruze’s nose more aerodynamic. At lower speeds, when more airflow is needed for engine cooling, the shutters open. GM says the closed shutters produce a five per cent improvement in aerodynamic drag. The Eco model is expected to go on sale in January 2011.

A green spot marks the Cruze Eco's most economical gear
A green spot marks the Cruze Eco’s most economical gear. Click image to enlarge

I had the chance to drive the Eco through downtown Los Angeles – which guaranteed I wouldn’t be experiencing the closed air shutters! – and found that, as expected, it drives and handles exactly the same as the regular Cruze. The gearshift has a green dot around sixth gear to indicate that it’s the most economical. One major difference between the Eco and the regular Cruze is in its rear suspension. Regular Cruze models feature a sophisticated setup called a Watts link, or Z-link, which works with the torsion bar to keep the rear end centred. To keep costs down, the Eco has only the torsion bar without the link. When I drove the Cruze at GM’s proving grounds earlier this year, I found that on a patch of extremely rough road, the Watts link kept the rear end firmly planted even at higher speeds, especially when compared with the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic models that were also on hand. Without it, the Cruze Eco handles similarly to its competitors.

A row of road-ready Volts
2012 Chevrolet Volt
2012 Chevrolet Volt
A row of road-ready Volts (top). Click image to enlarge

Bringing the Cruze back to my starting point, I then had a chance to drive the Volt – my second time behind the wheel in GM’s upcoming extended-range electric sedan, but the first time I’d driven it out with other traffic on regular roads. As most everyone now knows, the Volt gets plugged into a wall socket to charge its lithium-ion battery, which then takes it on a range of 40 to 80 kilometres on electric power only, depending on driving conditions. Once the battery runs out of juice, a 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine comes on board to produce more electricity to run the car – the idea being that should you run out of your initial electrical charge, you aren’t left stranded.

There was quite the kerfuffle in the press recently with the news that the Volt’s gasoline engine will be able to send mechanical power directly to the wheels, raising the question of whether the Volt really is an electric car, or if it’s an overhyped hybrid. So I asked Rob Peterson, a Detroit-based Volt spokesperson, who said that the Volt is indeed an electric car.

The Volt actually has two electric motors, one of which – GM calls it “Motor B” – is the one that directly powers the wheels. The smaller one, “Motor A,” is the generator that creates the electricity for Motor B to move the car. If the car has depleted its initial wall-socket charge and is now using the gasoline engine to create electricity, and there’s a high-load situation such as heavy acceleration, some of the gasoline engine’s mechanical torque will be fed to Motor B to augment the electric power.

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