Small Relief for Gas Pain: Economy Car Champs

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Let’s face it, large SUVs are dead and deserve to be buried due to their dangerous handling and gas guzzling addiction. Long live the real kings of the road, the rediscovered compact car. Maybe sanity will return to the highways of America when these full sized SUVs are relegated to the back lots of car dealers where they belong.

For years The Car Family has been touting gas mileage and safety as defining traits of a desirable family transportation. It is simple to make a vehicle go fast or stop quickly when compared to the problems that must be overcome and the complexity of dealing with the fact that light weight improves fuel mileage, but unless well engineered, can create low crash scores. In the past few years this problem has been conquered as both side and front airbags have become standard equipment in many vehicles. Just as importantly, manufacturers have used antilock brakes and stability control as incentives for safer driving. But the real secret is unseen by the pubic and that the use of different types of steel that absorb the energy of a crash to before it reaches the occupants. Of course, that adds weight, but with more refined and electronically controlled engine management systems a 3000-pound car can provide the same fuel mileage as a 2000 pounder from two decades ago. And, 3000 pounds is a good weight for safety and high fuel mileage. However, many of the best gas sippers come in slightly under that weight and so ordering all the airbags available is good insurance in this day of cell talking SUV drivers.

Before you buy any car look at what its resale it going to be like should gas prices top $5, which they have in many places. Chrysler is offering a three-year cap of $2.99 per gallon for three years after purchase with mileage restrictions. Once that vehicle is past that what is the value going to be? In the world of the future vehicles that are not getting an average of at least 30 mpg are going to be slow sellers, but more importantly, may be the subject of negative attention in a world where conspicuous consumption is becoming less well received to a declining middle class. And we are not even mentioning the avoidable harm to the environment.

The Very Best Gas Mileage Compact and Sub Compact Cars

Before we start with our choices we have made several restrictions to what is considered. First of all, we don’t select any vehicle that required premium fuel, which is more expensive. This removed some terrific cars from this gas mileage oriented review such as the great Audi A4 sedan that gas us 38 mpg on the highway (story) going the actual 65 mph speed limit and we survived. And, the new Volvos, the Saabs, and the BMW and Acura vehicles. All of these are excellent performers, but are pricier to run than the non-premium fuel using compacts. However, if you don’t mind paying the difference the MINI and MINI Clubman are the champs at 19/26. The top sporty car is the Audi TT at 23/31 and its turbocharged engine is very responsive. The best convertible is the Volkswagen Eos, and with its hardtop with a glass sunroof no less, this is a funky friend to the sun worshipers and 21/30 is darn good.

Finally, we did not select any hybrids. They are unique vehicles and we have reviewed those separately. Beware that the battery pack is going to have to be replaced and the cost could well be a couple of thousand dollars. Add to that the fact that battery technology is moving into Lithium and you may have bought yourself a car that gets great gas mileage, but may need to be retrofitted with better batteries. Indeed, some companies are offering products that make the Prius run on battery power only until the electricity available falls below a certain level and the gas engine starts. This means that if you travel under 45 miles per hour your entire trip may not use any gas at all depending on the length of your journey.

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Interesting Findings

This list has six remarkable listings. First, the efficiency of the Suzuki and the Subaru all wheel drive models. We have tested these and found that 22/26 gas mileage was the norm. If you feel you need all wheel drive, and remember this feature adds weight to the car and does nothing to help it stop or in dry weather. All wheel drive is also more expensive to maintain. But, if you must have a family vehicle with this type of traction these are the models to buy. Don’t forget the 100,000-mile warranty on the Suzuki or the higher residual value of the Subaru. Our recommendation is the SR4 is for a couple and a child and the Subarus for a family. Stay away from the turbocharged Subarus if you want good mileage on regular fuel. Although they are a hoot to drive.

Secondly, the American manufactures are offering very efficient vehicles that shouldn’t be ignored. The Chevrolet Cobalt, Pontiac G, Chrysler PT Cruiser, and Ford Focus are well worth a test drive. Don’t let an old bias against American products prevent you from getting a great deal on a gas sipper.

Thirdly, large cars such as the Ford Tarsus are nearly as fuel efficient if you travel on the road a great deal. This spacious vehicle gets 19/28 and it has a strong V6, too. And, the new Saturn Aura/Chevrolet Malibu offers 22/30 mileage. Other large cars in this fuel economy range include the Hyundai Sonata, Honda Accord, Toyota Avalon, and Chevrolet Impala. Surprisingly, these large sedans don’t necessarily cost more than the compact cars with some starting under $20,000. If you travel on the highway extensively a larger vehicle well provide excellent fuel economy driven at the speed limit. Their larger engines don’t need to work as hard as they can use higher gearing.

Fourth, these cars are fun to drive and funky looking. They are cars for creative people. The xD Scion is a toaster on wheels and the Nissan Versa is a throwback to the French Citroen. Toyota’s Yaris looks like a shrunken Camry, and the Volkswagen Beetle and Chevrolet Aveo are as different in appearance at could be. And what can be said about the Toyota Solara that looks big, but has a small interior and yet delivers sterling gas mileage while looking good.

Sixth, look what Volkswagen has done to gain back market share. They have more fuel efficient vehicles in this category than any other if you consider those that run on premium fuel such as the Eos and GTI (22/29).

Finally, these cars perform. For the most part they handle well, are a breeze to park, and have a lot of response when the engines are on task. They give their all and don’t charge much for the effort. Some such as the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla are legendary leaders in resale value. But with the apparently unstoppable climb of fuel prices the resale rates of lesser vehicles such as the Suzuki and the Cobalt are bound to rise as people struggle to find economical transportation.

The top picks

If you drive a lot on the open road the Volkswagen Jetta TDI, a new diesel that is coming to dealers this fall, is tremendous. It is easy to get nearly 50 mpg on the road, but in the city the mileage “falls” to about 35. Plus there is less maintenance with the Jetta than the hybrids. And yes, higher diesel fuel costs and the fact that not as many stations carry it means that you better do your homework before you buy this highway flyer. The station wagon is especially handy and once underway you don’t know you are driving a diesel. It is the best car for fuel mileage and cargo space you can buy. Hopefully, Volkswagen’s quality is top notch, too. This is our top pick.

Ford’s much refined Focus is a good value at $15,000 and really does deliver a 35-mpg average in mixed driving. With its low initial cost it is a strong consideration if you watch your options. Don’t look for the strong resale of the Volkswagen or the hybrids either. We like the Focus and find it is a value leader, especially with the great lease deals Ford is now offering with monthly payments well under $200. The Focus is so vastly improved over previous models that it difficult to compare them. They are underrated and spacious considering their size. You are not going to find a better bargain in this segment.

The Smart For Two averages about 40 mpg and has very little storage room, although the driver and passenger feel comfy thanks to offset seats. The three-cylinder engine has to work awfully hard, but if you can get a base model at about $12,000 you might be okay. However, be warned that build quality and resale have not been tested. Our advice is to avoid the Smart Car. Unless you drive exclusively in the city this is not a good choice. They also don’t let all journalists test these cars, which is worrisome, as we can’t provide our readers with an accurate description of what they are like for a family. Realistically, if you live where there is strong winds, and inclement weather go elsewhere. Cute, but not a bargain when order any of the option packages. A city slicker, not a family vehicle.

The Honda Fit is very frisky with a useful cargo area and enough power to make it fun and frugal. Look for a two-wheel drive model to get you over 30 mpg in mixed driving. We love its versatility, however, Honda has served notice that it is going to bring out a bigger Fit next year. If they follow the same pattern as they did with the Accord and Civic it is going to be larger, but not necessarily better. Unless, of course, they do what they should have done years ago and that is make the Fit a hybrid or make available a small diesel powerplant. The Fit is a first rate handler with a very useful rear cargo area and a tiny price. Highly recommended.

Mom’s view: The Jetta wagon is so handy, easy to maneuver, and a delight to drive on the highway. Besides, it is a great way to meet truck drivers when you stop for diesel fuel. I don’t have a second choice. A woman knows what she wants.

Dad’s view: The Nissan Versa is versatile, quirky looking, and they are dealing on these models. It has a big car feeling inside and is spunky. Get the hatchback, even though it looks a bit unfinished. The Jetta diesel wagon would be my second choice. Just a great car. I hope the quality holds up.

Young nearly working woman’s view: The Suzuki Sx4 is as cute as a bug (whatever that means) and you have a great seating position and a warranty that covers just about everything for a decade or 100,000 or until I get a full time job, which every comes first. The Saturn Astra would be my second choice based on good looks and sporty handling.

Young male college graduate’s view: Any Subaru. They have a lot of cargo room, go anywhere, and are built to take the hard life of college parking lots. Easy to drive and always ready for skiing season. Second place would be the Honda Civic. A bit tame, but you can’t argue with its resale and fuel mileage. No, make my second choice the Mazda 3. Better cargo area and better handling.

Compact and Subcompact Gas Mileage Chart

Volkswagen Jetta Diesel 30/41

Toyota Yaris 29/355.7

Honda Fit 28/34

Toyota Corolla 27/35

Scion xD 27/33

Nissan Versa 27/33

Hyundai Accent/Kia Rio 27/32

Honda Civic 26/34

Pontiac G3

Pontiac G5 25/35

Chevrolet Aveo 6 25/34

Nissan Sentra 25/33

Chevrolet Cobalt 24/33

Honda Civic CNG 24/36

Ford Focus/Mazda 3/ Saturn Astra 24/35

Suzuki SX4/ Toyota Solara 23/31

Honda Accord 22/31

Pontiac G6 22/30

Volkswagen Jetta/Rabbit 22/29

Mitsubishi Lancer 22/30

Toyota Solara 21/31

Scion tC 21/29

Chrysler PT Cruiser 21/26

Suzuki Forenza/ Reno/ VW Beetle 20/28

Subaru Impreza 20/28

Subaru Legacy 20/27

Subaru Legacy AWD 20/26

Larger Car Mileage Chart for Comparison Purposes

Hyundai Sonata 21/31

Toyota Camry 21/31

Kia Optima 21/31

Honda Accord 21/31

Dodge Avenger/Chrysler Sebring 21/30

Mazda 6 21/29

Volkswagen Passat 20/29

Ford Fusion/Mercury Milan 20/28

Pontiac G6 18/29

Saturn Aura/Chevrolet Malibu 18/29

Ford Taurus/Mercury Sable 18/28

Pontiac Grand Prix 18/28

Hyundai Azera 18/26


A review of all sedans

Chevrolet Cobalt review:

Dodge Nitro review:

Honda Accord review:

Mitsubishi reviews:

Rabbit review:

Saturn Astra review:

Saturn Aura review:

Scion reviews:

Toyota reviews:

Toyota Corolla review: