Chevrolet’s Fuel Sippers: Volt, Cruze, Equinox

by The Car Family

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Chevrolet, General Motors’ price leading brand, has brought to the increasingly fuel efficiency conscious American consumer three vehicles that are impressive in their diversity and mpg ratings. The Chevrolet Volt, Equinox, and Cruze Eco have rushed to the top of the coveted gas mileage rating guides in dramatic fashion. What is especially appealing is that the each model shows that Chevrolet is moving closer to future in terms of providing family oriented vehicles with frugal family economy.

Chevrolet Volt

The vehicle attracting the most media attention is the Volt. It is a hybrid sedan that offers the versatility of a lithium-ion battery pack and a four-cylinder engine. We found that if you plug it in at night you can go 50 miles at highway speed before the gas engine takes up the challenge. Thus is is very difficult to provide mile per gallon information. If you don’t travel more than 50 miles per day and plug it in daily, you simple don’t need to use the gas engine. If you are only using the gas engine you get about 34 mpg. So the Volt is one vehicle where there really isn’t a miles per gallon rating that is accurate for everyone. The Volt costs slightly over $40,000 and that does not include the $7,500 federal tax credit. Add to that the fact that if you want a faster charge you need to buy a special unit that enables the batteries to get a bigger does of your electric bill. We figure it costs us about a dollar a day, but rates vary signifcantly. We doubt that if you travel 50 miles you are going to spend much more than a buck for the charge. Using the same yardstick, even with the very efficient Chevrolet Cruze, you would spend over four dollars at today’s fuel costs.

With seating for four, a lot of standard equipment including automatic climate control, cruise control, auto-dimming rearview mirror, a Bluetooth, OnStar, a navigation system with touchscreen, voice controls and real-time traffic, and a Bose stereo with CD/DVD player with auxiliary audio jack, iPod/USB capabilities there isn’t much more you need in the Volt. However, we always recommend the rear camera and park assist package as visibility to the back is hindered by the high trunk. The Volt also has a steeply raked front hood that makes it difficult to know how close you are to an obstruction in front and large A and B pillars that can compromise visibility to the sides. Safety wise you get ABS, stability control, front side and knee airbags and full-length side curtain airbags. Braking is good.

We like the Volt and its driveability. It was quick off the mark and kept pace with traffic with ease. The dash and readouts are easy to master, but the modernist layout takes a while to master, especially with the bright, white plastic that covered the center stack on our test vehicle.  The Volt comes with a cell phone application that enables you to work with the vehicle and more. The battery pack is placed low in the vehicle for better handling and when you raise the hood you are going to  know for certain that tinkering is not in the cards.

The electric motor and 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine work seamlessly and are the best we have tested. The engine does sound strained at times, but one look at the miles per gallon read-out is a balm for those occasions. However, the engine does seek premium fuel. The Volt holds four adults and, although the doors shut with a reassuring solid sound, there are signs that some sacrifices were made in the interest of a weight reduction with the lack of power seats and a maller back seat. The trunk is useful in size and the rear seats fold down to help when caring longer packages.

Handling is surprisingly good and the brakes don’t have that numb feel that some hybrids possess. In a nutshell, the Volt is a playful, practical, and pretty sedan and well worth a drive if you can afford the price and can benefit from its electric only range. If those attributes don’t meet your needs , climb aboard the Chevrolet Cruze Eco which provides 36 mpg in mixed driving and costs under $20,000.

Chevrolet Cruze Eco

Finally, a smaller Chevrolet that is downright zippy, gets excellent gas mileage, and has enough room for the average family. The problem is that the Eco, with its six speed manual transmission, is so frisky people are going to think you are just practical,when the reality is that the Eco is a hoot to drive. The inline-4 engine is perky, a bit playful, and quiet enough so that you have to train yourself to shift into its overdrive sixth gear because if feels and sounds so right in fifth.

There is an abundance of airbags front, side, knee and rear, and the Eco has stability and traction control, ABS, daytime running lights, OnStar, and more. Crash test scores are excellent. Chevrolet went all out on this model and it gives the competition a real run for money. And, if you order the Cruze with the larger engine it is even more invigorating. Of course the competition is significant especially with the new Hyundai Elantra and Ford Focus, but neither are as fun to drive. There are a plethoraof models and options in the Cruze catalog, but our Eco was probably the best choice with the connectivity and cruise package for $525.

The Eco’s turbocharged 1.4-liter inline-4 generates 138 horsepower and is good for slightly sub ten second runs to 60 mph. Initial acceleration really isn’t its forte. Itt comes alive when you need a little zip to pass. Just downshift a gear or two and let the turbocharger perk things up. Fuel economy ratings for the six speed model are 28 mpg city/42 mpg highway a couple of miles per gallon less with the automatic. If you commute a lot, the automatic is probably the better choice.

Interior design is modern and comfortable, but rear seat leg room is a bit tight, as it is for most cars in its class. The dash is covered in a material that isn’t easy to clean and the interior’s overall look is trim, not fancy. The trunk is very large and the entire car is larger on the inside than it looks from the outside. Easy to shift, fun to drive, and excellent fuel mileage make this a must test drive vehicle for those who feel that the Asian competitors build the best compacts. We think you are going to be surprised, and there are some great deals being made.

Chevrolet Equinox

We liked the early model Equinox better because it was smaller and more nimble. But this plus-sized new one isn’t that hard to love if you like practicality and are willing to live with its reduced visibility to the sides.

The good news here is that the Equinox and its standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with 182 horsepower and 172 pound-feet of torque is powerful enough to handle most daily tasks in the front wheel drive model and delivers great economy. Moving to the 3.0-liter V6 and its 264 horsepower and six-speed automatic isn’t necessary, unless towing or with the all wheel drive option. There are several models from the basic LS to the upscale LTZ and all are well-equipped, with power front seat adjustments, a sliding and reclining backseat, and optional equipment extends from audio goodies to a power lift gate. However, third row seating is not offered. The Car Family feels that if you need seating for six or more on a regular basis a minivan is safer.

The range and fuel economy with the base engine is outstanding. We averaged over 26 mpg in mixed driving and the driving range before refueling can reach well into the 400 miles category. The EPA gives the Equinox a top notch 32-mpg EPA highway rating.

A nice feature of the Equinox are large side view mirrors, which as very handy as visibility to the sides is restricted due to the large A and B pillars. There is ample room inside and the seats are fairly comfortable. The cargo space, center console are quite spacious and the various storage bins are numerous.

The ride is what you would expect of a SUV and the acceleration acceptable. But what sets the Equinox apart is its combination of economy, room, and attention to details such as the ability to program the height the power tailgate reaches. This makes it ideal for shorter owners. Overall, a well thought out SUV that provides good family values.

Family conference: If it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger and General Motors recent battle with bankruptcy has indeed resulted in some better models. No longer lingering are the Bob Lutz Hummer H2 and the stink of ignoring the American buyer’s interest. These three are all worth a long look and, perhaps, a return to the USA for family vehicle buyers.