Top photo: Mazda USA, bottom photo: Chevrolet

It used to be, if you wanted the affordability and decent gas milage of a small sedan you had to give up styling and sportiness. And that usually meant rolling around town in an “econo-box.”

Today, car makers are pushing smaller 4-doors off the line that not only deliver a hybrid-like 38-40+ mpg highway without using hybrid technologies, but are actually fun to drive. With looks and style that won’t make you feel like you need to wear a disguise when you’re behind the wheel.

Two of the more popular gas-sipping 4-doors are the Mazda3 SkyActiv and the Chevy Cruze Eco, and we test drove them for a week to see how they performed. Here’s what we found:

Exterior Eyeball

Neither of these sedans looks boxy or cheap or “eco,” or has the unfortunate contortions given to some hybrids.

Chevy has stepped up their styling in recent years, deciding that the more muscled products — the Camaros and Corvettes — shouldn’t be the only ones to have some eyeball on the street. I’ve been a fairly outspoken opponent on domestic styling over the years, and have loudly voiced my opinion to the designers at GM and the other two of the Big Three. The Cruze is a step closer. A small step, but a good step.

Photo: Chevrolet

The 2012 Mazda3 retains its sleek and sporty look, with a slight tweak here and there, like the new front facia. In my opinion, of these smaller sedans – including the Corolla, the Civic, etc – the 3 has the most refined exterior styling.

Photo: Mazda USA

Trading Power for Fuel Economy?

One of the things that’s so key in these vehicles is the driving experience. We’re talking about a pair of cars that both claim to be fun to drive, yet feature fairly modest engines: The 3 SkyActiv I drove came with the 2.0-liter inline 4 that put out 155 horsepower. The Cruze was equipped with their Ecotech 1.8-liter inline 4, that pushed 138 horses.

One of my daily drivers is a Mazda3 sport with a 2.5 liter engine, and it’s flat out one of my favorite cars to drive. With the SkyActiv, I could feel a lag in the weaker engine, but not enough to make me regret getting nearly double the fuel economy than my 2.5. Mazda still packed enough of their “zoom zoom” into the SkyActiv to keep you smiling behind the wheel as you pass all those gas stations.

The Cruze was surprising. I’d driven one of the earlier models and was frankly unimpressed. (I should also point out that I drove it on the same day I tested the Camaro RS, so that might have had something to do with it…) So when I got in this new Cruze with its “eco” badging, I expected a sluggish throttle response. Not so. Chevy has squeezed every last drop of power out of that efficient little engine to make this Cruze surprisingly responsive. Even more so than the Mazda with its additional horses.

Inside Looking Out

Remember that problem I had with the domestic exteriors? Well the interiors drive me even more crazy. I’ve actually asked a GM interior design manager why they insisted on making every vehicle look like a rental car on the inside. And I was told that would change. It has on the new Cruze. Even though it’s an eco model, it gets some nice fit and finish on the interior. Softer materials, some brushed aluminum looking trim to the center stack and wheel, and the one I drove had a large 7-inch navi with touchscreen. And a digital mileage tracking graphic on the center dash that let me know what my average mpg was on one side, and the “best score” mpg on the other. (It was a little distracting. I spent a late night ride home on the highway trying to beat the best of 32.6 mpg. I crushed it with 35.4.)

Photo: Chevrolet


The Mazda has a cockpit-like interior with seats built to support you when you drive through the tight turns the car is designed to handle, and a three-spoke steering wheel packed with controls. You also get three main info areas: The center dash and two info screens above the center stack. The left screen can be replaced by the optional navigation system. My only problem with this is it’s tiny (by comparison), and doesn’t allow for touch. And with even entry level cars today coming with large touch screens, a car like the 3 should offer more.

Photo: Mazda USA


The Mazda3 center stack. Optional navi screen replaces the top left screen. Photos: Mazda USA

Overall, both give a lot of bang for the buck once you’re behind the wheel.

Should You Go “Eco”?

Both the Cruze Eco and the Mazda3 SkyActiv are very drivable cars, considering they come with “small” engines that deliver 38 and 40 mpg highway respectively. Both handle well, can accelerate you onto a freeway without feeling like that truck is going to plow through your trunk, and both have exterior and interior styling that belie their economy status.

That’s economy both in fuel efficiency and cost. Each car I tested came loaded with all or most of the available bells and whistles for around $24,000. Add in the yearly fuel savings from this pair of light drinkers and you can have a lot of car for a little money. Without feeling cheap.