The Great Fuel Mileage Debate

THE GREAT FUEL MILEAGE DEBATE

An Enthusiast’s Observations on an Alternatively-Fueled Reality

The same discussion seems subject to frequent revolutions throughout our daily ramblings: What to make of alternative-fueled vehicles in the U.S. Marketplace? To one, it may be like comparing a lox-and-bagel sandwich with regular or light cream cheese (same taste, slightly different content and outcome). To an enthusiast though, the prospect of federally-mandated lower-horsepower, smaller-displacement, higher-efficiency mills powering our trusty chariots is simply preposterous. How dare our government tell us that accelerating from 0-60 in 4.8 seconds is illegal unless it’s done with, at minimum, a “Nader-esque” standard of responsibility? Simply put, how can automakers responsibly revolutionize our automotive landscape without taking the ‘drive’ out of driving?

Recently, Car and Driver magazine pitted a 2011 Chevrolet Volt against a 2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco (C&D, September 2011). To some, the purpose of this comparison may have been two-fold. First, was an inexpensive, gasoline-powered subcompact (Cruze) an acceptable ‘real-world’ substitute for an eco-hallmark like the Volt? Second (and more importantly), were these two eco-mobiles able to retain any semblance of a fun-to-drive characteristic? The results were quite surprising.

To begin, in the automotive realm, the proposition of real-world economy is simple. Summed up for business types, the 2011 Volt has a base MSRP of $39,995 whereas the Cruze Eco can be had for a mere $19,995. Hold your horses, though; Before the torches and spears come out, let’s allow for an explanation that may (or may not) factually debunk the Volt’s price premium. Both cars are built off of GM’s new ‘global’ compact car architecture, meaning that many of their core chassis, interior and exterior parts are shared. Subsequently, Car and Driver found the interior plastics and switchgear in the Volt to have a more minimalistic, insubstantial quality and feel even compared to those utilized in the Cruze. The Volt is also woefully absent of common features like a power driver’s seat, which seems to be a standard fixture in most vehicles costing substantially less.

Granted, the cost of engineering the Volt’s complicated hybrid powertrain can be easily factored in to the equation. How is it, though, that during Car and Driver’s real-world 42-mile Michigan commute (Ann Arbor-Chelsea-Dexter-Ann Arbor), the Cruze managed a whopping 47mpg solely on gasoline? The Volt reached 119mpgE (a complicated formula) solely on electricity, but what if the car had a zero or partial-charge and had to rely on its own engine? Over a near-900-mile highway trip, combining gasoline and electricity, the Volt returned the equivalent of only 40mpg. It’s also worth mentioning that the Volt required frequent recharging to ensure maximum electric range. Perhaps on a gasoline-only cross-country road trip, the Volt’s real-world mileage would max out in the mid-to-high 30s. The value proposition for this $40,000 car, then, would become increasingly more difficult and complex relative to the affordable $20k Cruze.

More importantly to us enthusiast types, though, is the relative “fun-to-drive” quotient. For both the Cruze and Volt within their respective market segments, there is not much to live up to. Other than the overtly-communicative Mazda3, cars like the Toyota Prius, Volkswagen Jetta, Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic have not (at least in recent years) been exactly setting the bar for handling and driver involvement. This is the modern era of the automobile, though, and is henceforth where Chevrolet has shown a few flashes of brilliance with the Cruze. The Cruze Eco comes standard with a 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder good for 138 horsepower and a whopping 148 pound-feet of torque available at a very low 2500rpm. Though the engine is a gem, the true brilliance of the Eco shines through VIA a six-speed manual transmission with tall 4th, 5th and 6th gear ratios. Through this engine and transmission combination, Car and Driver tested the Cruze Eco’s 0-60 time at a very respectable 8.4 seconds. Needless to say as well, there is true comfort in knowing that an automaker can still visualize a need for a genuine manual transmission for both economy and driver involvement. In the handling department, the Cruze and Volt both employ a four-wheel independent suspension and four-wheel disc brakes which, believe it or not, are becoming rarities amongst their competitors. The Cruze’s curb weight, though, is a comparatively svelte 3015lbs, nearly 750lbs slimmer than the Volt’s 3766lbs. Granted, the Cruze does without the Volt’s batteries, regenerative braking components and other weight-adding subtleties. One cannot help but wonder, though, how much better a performer the Volt might be if it lost a few hundred pounds.

The Volt’s powertrain, on the other hand, employs a completely different philosophy for its forward momentum. There is a 149hp electric drive motor providing thrust to the front wheels VIA a continuously-variable transmission. Depending on how the car is driven (and several other factors), the electric-only operability is good for between 25-50 miles. Once the pure electricity runs out, power is routed through both the electric motors and a 1.4-liter naturally-aspirated four-cylinder engine good for a mere 84hp and 93 pound-feet of torque. Despite the gasoline engine’s low output though, the acceleration numbers for the Volt with full electric power available are truly respectable. 8.8 seconds from 0-60, 5.9 seconds from 50-70mph, and a “Cruze-comparable” 16.7-second quarter-mile run at 85mph (the Cruze did it in 16.6 seconds at the same 85mph trap speed). Based upon acceleration numbers alone, it would seem that as a ‘performance electric,’ the Volt does a decent job. As to what happens after the juice runs out, however, it can only be noted that there are a paltry 84 horsepower and limited electric capabilities powering nearly 3800lbs of mass. One could only hope that their afternoon commute, then, were completely devoid of long up-hill stretches and the need for evasive highway passing maneuvers.

To sum it all up, in a perfect world, the Volt would make perfect sense for the well-to-do commuter. Having a 30-mile average commute infused with traffic and construction would be the Volt’s bread-and-butter. Within a realistic perspective though, given the limited capabilities of both ourselves and our infrastructure, the high-mileage fossil-fuel burners still remain our best bet. With the implementation of technologies like lower-friction metals, direct fuel injection and adaptive engine/transmission mapping, automakers are continuing to build more efficient vehicles without sacrificing technological advancement or fun-to-drive capabilities. As enthusiasts, we simply cannot wait for both the next-generation Cruze Eco and Volt. If the Cruze’s engine were to employ lower-friction metals and direct fuel injection and the Volt lost 500lbs (and gained a proper urban support system), the possibilities would be endless. Until then, we remain perfectly content with cars like the high-mileage turbocharged 2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco. Let’s just hope that Chevy minds the demands of us enthusiasts and hangs on to that glorious six-speed manual gearbox.

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