Welcome back to Holy Grails, the Autopian series where you tell us some of the coolest, most underrated cars that you love. Our inbox continues to fill with epic car history, and honestly it’s hard to choose just one to write about. After years of writing about our holy grails, it’s awesome to see yours! This time, our grail is a car that you’ve certainly seen at dealerships and on the road, then probably immediately forgot. But this car is actually one of the automaker’s most important, and GM still did some weird things with it. This is a car where the eco-friendly version was actually the fastest, and was the first GM passenger car to feature a diesel engine in decades.
Last week, reader James got us all hot and bothered with the closest thing to a legitimate BMW M7. BMW South Africa took the already fast BMW 745i and made it even faster by shoving in the engine from an M5. And the reason was just as silly as the swap. The turbo of the regular 745i took up the space needed for the steering shaft in the right-hand-drive version.
This suggestion comes from reader David R, and it sent me down memory lane. I’ve long had a tradition of going to the Chicago Auto Show. It started when I was a teenager in 2009. I would go to the show with my friends and we’d watch the automaker presentations and sit inside of our dream cars. When we went in 2010, Chevrolet had a big reveal at its display. The car on Chevy’s turntable was the new Cruze.
Released in late 2009, but making an appearance at Chicago’s February 2010 show, I still remember what the display’s host told the crowd. The Cruze was the replacement for the Cobalt, and its design and development involved a global team of people.
General Motors’ Bet On The Future
The Cruze came to America at the right point in time. The Great Recession made fuel inefficient vehicles a bit too expensive for Americans to drive and unfortunate sacrifices for the Car Allowance Rebate System. General Motors itself took a beating, ending a run of losses in the aughts by filing for bankruptcy in 2009.
Thankfully, GM’s financial crisis didn’t derail what some publications have called the company’s most important car in its history. I know that you’re scratching your head, so I’ll let Edmunds explain:
Known internally as project J300, the Cruze is the very first GM car to be planned from its green light back in late 2006 as a totally global model. It’s taken GM awhile to set up something as brilliantly cost-effective as this car, but it’s finally here and there is now no looking back. Here’s hoping it’s not too little, too late.
Engineering for the J300 project has been headquartered in Germany at GM Europe’s headquarters in Rüsselsheim, Germany. All design work has been led by the international team in Incheon, South Korea, at the former Daewoo facility, with designers Dave Lyon and Taewan Kim presiding (love the BMW 3 Series-style taillights also found on the recently sexed-up Citroën C5). Cruze production is cranking full steam at a plant in Bupyong, South Korea, and will soon also rev up in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Shenyang in China.
With today’s globalized perspective, all this makes the Cruze GM’s most significant car ever. Provided economies in key markets pick up in timely fashion, annual worldwide sales of the Cruze could easily top 1 million vehicles. The best year for worldwide Chevy Cobalt sales came in 2005 with 148,949 sales; the total dipped to 118,349 in 2008. The Cruze has been given the task of exceeding these numbers in the U.S. alone.
The image of the car depends on the market you’re talking about. In Southeast Asia (and perhaps in China as the Buick Cruze), it’s a family’s dream car. In Korea or Russia and Eastern Europe, it’s a solid midmarket player, a clear notch above the Korean brands or VW-based Škoda. In Europe and Australia, the Cruze is the smart, well-finished alternative with big-car room and small-car practicality. For us in North America, the Cruze needs to steal customers from the Japanese, the Koreans, and from the Ford Focus.
Edmunds wasn’t alone in calling the Cruze hugely important for GM, as Autoline Network felt similar. CNN Money said the Cruze was “perhaps [GM’s] most important car in decades.” Forbes alleged that even people within GM knew how important this car was to proving that GM could be successful again. Automotive legend Bob Lutz reportedly considers the Cruze one of the triumphs from his time at GM.
The Cruze was important to GM because this global car had the potential to sell tons of units all over the world, helping to put GM on solid ground once again And it did just that. Sales first started in 2008 in South Korea and by 2016, General Motors managed to sell four million of them around the world. Back then, Chevy called the Cruze its best-selling car around the world. Basically, the Cruze was the vehicle to gauge GM’s recovery.
What Makes This Cruze Good
For many people, this might be where the story of the Cruze ends. Perhaps you’ve driven one as a rental or perhaps even owned one without putting much thought about it. That’s not the case for reader David R. In one of the very first Holy Grail submissions, this reader points out that the Cruze had a couple of weird versions with the Eco and the Turbo Diesel. Despite the name, the Eco version is the fastest, and the diesel is historically significant. This reader gave us a whole list to explain:
Good day, all you crazy diamond Autopian staff! Keep shining your lights onto the wild and wacky in the automotive industry! I’m loving all your content, and happy to keep clicking! In the comments my handle is Drive By Commenter.
For a special edition, I’d like to direct your attention to the 1st generation Chevy Cruze Eco, specifically the 2011-2013 model years. What makes it special? Well, let’s start:
1. It was the most efficient gas ICE car on sale in the US at the time at 42 mpg highway.
2. It was also the fastest 0-60 in the Cruze lineup at about 7.9 seconds.
3. It weighed 200 lbs less than others. Think removed sound deadening and no spare along with some more exotic weight savings like shaved welds.
4. Forged lightweight 17″ Alcoa aluminum wheels. Everything else was cast or steel.
5. It was manual transmission only at first.
6. For 2011 and 2012 it was the only way to get GM’s very tunable 1.4T engine with a manual.
7. Ride height was slightly lower than others.
8. They had a possibly GM-first adjustable grille shutters for better aero.
9. The underside was slathered in aerodynamic trays and aids unlike the others.
10. There was one option at first: a cruise control and Bluetooth package. This eventually got added as stock for 2012 and the only option became transmission choice.
11. These machines had short gears 1-3 and overdrive gears 4-6. So romping up an on ramp without ruining a 44 mpg tank was doable.
12. If this sounds like the engineers snuck a slightly warmer performance variant past the bean counters, yeah, they did.
13. The little “Eco” badge is on the left side of the trunk lid instead of the right.
14. The front grille opening is an inch narrower than other Cruzes.
They’re almost indistinguishable from a regular Cruze aside from the wheels, narrower grille opening and little “Eco” badge on the trunk. A layperson wouldn’t know the fun stuff happening under the sheetmetal.
If this isn’t special enough, research the Cruze diesel that took on the Jetta TDI. Those took the Eco shell and dropped in a 2 liter VM Motori derived (IIRC) turbodiesel with a bespoke automatic. They also got other upgrades like larger front brakes. If the Eco is a bit of a zebra, the Cruze diesel is a polka-dot rainbow unicorn. Lordstown got taken over by hypermilers for a little while in the early aughts, and those were the results.
The Holy Grail
Starting with the Cruze Eco, I looked into this list and incredibly, it’s pretty accurate. A brochure for the 2012 Cruze opens with “THIS IS the compact car that is taking a stance. Poised, confident and ready to take on the world. Choose Eco for the best highway mileage of any gas engine in America. Surprisingly roomy. Perfectly appointed. It’s time to take one out for a spin and CRUZE.”
Initially, the Cruze came with two engine choices. For $16,525, you could get a Cruze LS, which came with a 1.8-liter Ecotec four making 138 HP and 125 lb-ft torque. Throw in a little more money at $18,425, and you could get a Cruze 1LT, which sports a 1.4-liter Ecotec turbo four making 138 HP and 148 lb-ft torque. For the LT, 1LT, 2LT, RS, and LTZ, the turbocharged engine means an acceleration from 0 mph to 60 mph in about 9 seconds. The 1.4-liter four combined with a six-speed manual meant up to 38 mpg.
But there’s one more version of the first-generation Cruze that was available in 2011 to 3013, and it’s the Cruze Eco. This version of the Cruze was targeted towards the car buyer wanting to squeeze every mile-per-gallon out of their car. The Cruze Eco scores up to an estimated 42 mpg on the highway, better than anything else that wasn’t a hybrid. And how did GM do it? In part by putting the Cruze on an aggressive diet.
As Motor Trend notes, GM ditched the spare tire, ripped out some sound deadening, and even made the fuel tank 3 gallons smaller. That’s not enough weight gone, so GM dug deeper to shave more off. Motor Trend continues:
Up front, the anti-roll bar links joining the bar to the shock body are made of plastic, with orderly chunks hewn out to liberate a couple ounces (fear not, the mounting points are still metal). The Eco manual is also missing the Watt’s linkage affixed to the torsion-bar rear suspension on other Cruze models, all in the name of saving fuel.
The wheels of a Cruze Eco are also different, eschewing the steelies of the LS and the cast alloy of the other trims for 17-inch forged aluminum wheels.
The weight loss was dramatic, with GM finding 179 pounds to remove, with the Cruze coming in at 3,029 pounds. And Chevy still wasn’t done, as it lowered the Cruze Eco and added active shutters to its grille. According to GM Authority, the Cruze Eco was the first GM vehicle to get active grille shutters, and the technology later spread across GM’s lineup. And indeed, just as our reader says, the Eco’s six-speed manual got a wider overall gear ratio spread than the other Cruze trims.
And sure enough, period tests reveal that the Eco is the fastest Cruze that Americans got. While non-Eco models hit 60 mph in as fast as about 9 seconds, Motor Trend found the Eco able to do the job in 8.1 seconds. The publication cited a short first gear in helping the car get there. Not bad performance for the price of $18,425.
GM’s First Diesel Car In 28 Years
And we’re not done yet. Starting with the 2014 model year for $25,695, the Cruze became available with a 2.0-liter LUZ turbodiesel making 151 HP and 264 lb-ft torque. This powertrain comes from an engine family developed jointly between General Motors and Fiat.
With this diesel engine, the Chevy didn’t just destroy the Honda Civic and Ford Focus competition with fuel economy, but it even then took on the king of diesel cars in America: Volkswagen. A Volkswagen Jetta TDI scored up to 42 mpg in 2014. But the Cruze? It scored 46 mpg highway in its testing. And as our reader says, the Cruze Turbo Diesel did it with help from an automatic transmission not found on other Cruze versions.
All of that is cool enough, but the Cruze Turbo Diesel also comes with another factoid: This was General Motors’ first diesel car in America since 1986. Back in the late 1970s and into the mid-1980s, General Motors experimented with cramming diesel engines into passenger cars. As Diesel World magazine writes, these engines were allegedly rushed into production and had corners cut, sometimes leading to serious reliability issues. GM ironed those issues out, just in time for buyers to get turned off from diesel. GM then killed off its diesel cars for 28 years.
Amazingly, the Cruze diesel survived the Dieselgate era, and continued to be sold until the Cruze itself was discontinued in America in 2019. The second-generation Cruze’s diesel was a 1.6-liter turbo four making 137 horsepower and 240 lb-ft torque. And it continued to beat Volkswagen at its own game, getting an estimated 48 mpg on the highway.
Ultimately, the Cruze was a wildly successful car for General Motors, and it came at just the right time as people wanted efficient transportation. Like the Mercury Tracer LTS that kicked off this series, the Cruze doesn’t look like much on the outside. Heck, I’ve seen people run Chevy Cruzes on Gambler 500 rallies, so they’re already throwaway cars for some. But if you look under the skin, GM was doing some cool things with the Cruze. And as gas prices continue to be high, it might be worth considering a Cruze Eco as your next commuter.
Do you know of a ‘holy grail’ of a car out there? If so, we want to read about it! Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and give us a pitch for why you think your favorite car is a ‘holy grail.’
(Photo credits to General Motors.)