Join Date: May 2012
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Prices at the pump just keep going up. But here at PM, we've driven plenty of cars over the past few years with the mpg chops to survive pricey petrol. And though we've been impressed with cars like the Ford Fusion Hybrid and the Nissan Leaf EV, our list shows that you can buy a standard engine and still get great mileage. These are our favorite fuel-sippers, along with the mpg (or range, in the case of the Leaf) that PM test drivers recorded during our test drives.
Chevrolet Cruze Eco
Price as Tested: $19,745
PM-Tested Fuel Economy (city/hwy): 28/42
Forget Chevrolet's star-crossed small cars of the past. The new2011 Cruze Eco flat-out works. Like the Focus, the Cruze Eco features aerodynamic slats behind the grille that automatically open at low speeds to keep the engine cool, but then close when cruising to reduce drag. And, of course, it has low-rolling-resistance tires. The star here is a 138-hp, 1.4-liter turbo motor that performs like a much larger engine. To enable the Cruze's 42-mpg highway rating, the Eco's engine is lashed to a six-speed manual transmission, with overdrive ratios for the top three gears. At a steady 70 mph, the tiny engine is only turning about 2000 rpm, but even the slightest grade can mean downshifting to third. The Cruze's rear seat is tight, but the interior mixes interesting textures and quality switchgear. On the outside, the Cruze wears beautiful crimson paint and blingity-bling chrome wheels. It looks expensive, yet carries a modest $19,745 sticker.
Price as Tested: $18,150
PM-Tested Fuel Economy (city/hwy): 30/38
Fiat's new-for-America 500 scored just 30/38 in its mileage tests, lower than many of the competitors. What the 500 has is personality. Its retro body, bolt-upright cabin, dinky wheelbase, narrow width and 195/45R16 tires on aluminum wheels make it look like a Sardinian skateboard. It's a high-style microcar that competes with the Mini Cooper and, maybe, a high-end Vespa. There's a toy-like countenance to the 500 that makes it quite effective at slicing through traffic and attacking off ramps. The 101-hp engine uses Fiat's MultiAir variable valve-lift system to increase efficiency, but the motor works hard, so the 500 is not the fuel-economy champ. There's no surplus of oomph—but enough to make the 500 drive as spunky as it looks.
Ford Focus SFE
Price as Tested: $20,780
PM-Tested Fuel Economy (city/hwy): 28/40
With its sculpted flanks and radical windshield slope, the Focus looks like a 21st-century small car. The SFE model is tricked out for fuel economy. The 2.0-liter engine features direct fuel injection—good for a 10 percent efficiency gain, Ford says—and is coupled to an automated twin-clutch six-speed gearbox that drives low-rolling-resistance tires. Opening the Focus's thick, triple-sealed doors is like peeling back a Tupperware lid. But despite that sensation of solidity, the Focus was the most consistently economical car PM has tested. Throw in neat Ford stuff like Sync, LED interior lighting, Millennium Falcon instrumentation and a $20,780 as-tested price, and the Focus becomes impossible to ignore.
Price as Tested: $17,760
PM-Tested Fuel Economy (city/hwy): 29/40
Hyundai's all-new 2011 Elantra features aerodynamically slick “fluidic sculpture” styling with solid hardware—a new 148-hp engine, an optional six-speed automatic that delivers the same fuel-economy ratings as the manual, six airbags, plenty of standard features and a USB port for plumbing into the sound system. This is a well-done conventional car that's just not pioneering anything. The interior decoration is restrained, the materials are high quality (almost like a Honda's), and the controls are logically arrayed. Even back-seat passengers shouldn't complain. Much. Beyond that, the Elantra rides comfortably, is quick enough to stay out of trouble and handles okay even if the electric power steering is a bit numb. The Elantra is not sporty; rather, it's quiet and comfortable. The fuel economy isn't the best, but with an as-tested price of $17,760, Elantra buyers can afford a few extra gallons.
Volkswagen Jetta TDI
Price as Tested: $24,965
PM-Tested Fuel Economy (city/hwy): 30/42
Volkswagen's turbodiesels remain boutique items here in America. With the new Jetta, however, that boutique is looking like a Walmart. The Americanized Jetta is bigger and roomier than the previous model, and a simpler beam axle has replaced the independent rear suspension. That change won't affect most buyers. However, each one will notice how the new Jetta's interior feels cheaper and seems more antiseptic than we're used to in VWs, a consequence of the gas-powered Jetta's $15,995 starting price. The diesel version has copious amounts of satisfying low-end torque. But as much as we love diesels, the Jetta is not far enough ahead to make it the obvious choice. Besides the $4000-plus premium for the TDI, diesel is about 30 cents per gallon more expensive than gas, and it's still a chore finding filling stations that stock the fuel.