The dashboard readout said 62.6 miles per gallon. It was unbelievable.
Had we been driving a Toyota Prius at a slow pace, that kind of mileage might have been conceivable. But we were barreling down the highway in a Chevrolet Cruze Eco, just an average compact sedan.
It was an epic road trip from New York to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The little Chevy was so packed with passengers and cargo that the rear end sagged toward the pavement. Yet, at the end of our 1,404-mile journey, it averaged 39.8 mpg, way better than the Environmental Protection Agency's 33-mpg estimate.
Periodic spot checks proved this "Eco" version of the Cruze lives up to its high-mileage hype. The astounding 62.6 mpg reading popped up on a 31-mile stint from a mall just outside D.C. to a relative's house.
There's nothing particularly fancy or newfangled about the technology the car uses to achieve such numbers. It has a small turbocharged four-cylinder engine that runs on regular, some extra aerodynamic bits, lightweight wheels with special tires, and an overdrive sixth gear. It's how Chevrolet brings it all together that really makes the difference. The engine is smaller than the four-cylinder engines in competing cars such as the Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra, so it sips less fuel than either of those. Yet, the turbocharger compensates by boosting the power without sacrificing efficiency. Add the miserly manual transmission and other bits, each of which helps improve fuel economy just a little bit more, and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
Most buyers will probably opt for the automatic transmission, but we liked the standard six-speed on our test model - and not just because it improves fuel economy. The stick shift is particularly rewarding with the Cruze because the turbocharged engine needs to be revved to tap full power. But there is plenty of pep once you get above 3,000 rpm. Passing slower vehicles was a cinch, even going up steep hills.
Inside, it's so quiet and comfortable, the ride so smooth and supple that the Cruze feels almost like a premium European sedan – not light and lively like a Honda Civic or Nissan Sentra. It's spacious, too: The trunk swallowed an amazing amount of luggage. No one in our road trip crew packed light, so, in addition to a main duffel bag for each of the five passengers, the trunk was able to hold a couple of large totes filled with sporting and beach gear, some portable electronics cases, including a shoebox-sized container of CDs/DVDs, a 10-person tent, a bulky makeup kit, a large beach parasol, and three grocery bags.
This little four-door really impressed us, and not just for the gas mileage. By being so comfortable and enjoyable to drive, we never felt fatigued after long stretches of driving. We expect that from pricey luxury sedans, but it's remarkable for an affordable compact car. [Starts at $19,700; chevrolet.com]