These days there are a lot of small cars pounding their chests and claiming they get the best gas mileage around. Well, we got tired of the talk and decided to settle the score. Right here, right now!
We picked three cars from our long-term fleet known for squeezing extra miles out of every gallon of gas: the spunky 2008 Smart Fortwo with a 1.0-liter, three-cylinder engine, the thrifty 2008 Ford Focus SES coupe with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and a 2005 Volkswagen Jetta TDI, with its legendary 1.9-liter "TDI" diesel engine. Then we added a heavily favored gasoline-electric hybrid to the mix: a 2008 Toyota Prius.
While the EPA's fuel economy estimates are a good guide for determining a car's overall economy, we wanted to know how the cars performed in a variety of driving situations. Let's face it. Every car has a different personality, and if you drive it differently you'll get a different level of fuel economy. The only way to settle things was with a fuel economy cage match. Four cars enter; only one leaves.
Our contest consisted of five rounds: three distinctly different driving routes to highlight the cars' different strengths and two bonus rounds of calculation-based challenges.
Here's the card for the first of what we hope to be an annual Gas-Sipper Smackdown:
- Best back-roads cruiser — 50-65 mph for 334 miles of back roads
- Best city roller — stop-and-go for 133 miles of Las Vegas city streets
- Best highway flier — a steady 75 mph for 209 miles of interstate
- Lowest fuel costs — Which of the challengers saved us the most cash?
- Greenest small car — Which spewed the least greenhouse gases on our trip?
Round 1: Best Back-Roads Cruiser
The challengers gathered at a gas station on Interstate 15 near Fontana, California. They were given rubdowns and teeth guards, and their tire pressure was checked. Then they came out driving. We battled it out on back roads up through Death Valley and then into Las Vegas, cruising at 50-65 mph over a distance of 334 miles.
Due to its fuel tank of just 8.8 gallons, we didn't know if the Smart Fortwo could go the distance (to Las Vegas). But it made it with fuel to spare. This was the first tip-off that our Euro-themed Smart was going to be a contender. But when the dust settled, we had a different winner.
The champ: VW Jetta TDI at 47.3 mpg
2nd Place: Toyota Prius, 46.0 mpg
3rd Place: Smart Fortwo, 43.9 mpg
4th Place: Ford Focus, 36.9 mpg
Round 2: Best City Roller
There's an awful lot of Las Vegas. And we saw it all during 133 miles of six grueling hours behind the wheel. Up and down the Strip. Past the "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign. Back and forth across the city, winding up back at our starting gas station.
Not-so-fun fact: Las Vegas has the longest traffic lights in the world. So while the Ford, Smart and VW sucked gas for minutes at a time, the Prius, thanks to its hybrid powertrain, just shut down and chilled. The result was like a cold-cocking haymaker to the non-hybrids, particularly the Focus.
The champ: Toyota Prius at 52.4 mpg
2nd place: Smart Fortwo, 34.0 mpg
3rd place: VW Jetta TDI, 32.6 mpg
4th place: Ford Focus, 23.6 mpg
Round 3: Best Highway Flier
After hours of city driving, Interstate 15 was like a "get out of jail" card. We flew for 209 miles at 75 mph with only one quick pit stop. The Jetta's torque-rich 1.9-liter engine hardly broke a sweat and handled the mountain passes like a cruise-weight boxer. The Prius' nifty hybrid powertrain, meanwhile, wasn't in its element.
The champ: VW Jetta TDI at 48.9 mpg
2nd place: Toyota Prius, 47.7 mpg
3rd place: Smart Fortwo, 40.0 mpg
4th place: Ford Focus, 37.5 mpg
Round 4: Lowest Fuel Costs
To find a winner for this round, we averaged the fuel economy of all the legs of the journey and divided by the total cost of the fuel consumed. While some of the contenders burned less fuel, the type of fuel they ran on was more costly and hurt them more than a tombstone pile-driver. Diesel got slammed to the mat big time on fuel that cost up to $4.43 per gallon during our test. The Smart also got whacked because it required premium gas at prices up to $4.17 a gallon.
The champ: Toyota Prius, $53.32 of regular gas with a trip average of 47.7 mpg
2nd Place: Smart Fortwo, $66.37 of premium gas with a trip average of 40.0 mpg
3rd Place: VW Jetta TDI, $66.66 (a scary price) with a trip average of 43.81 mpg
4th Place: Ford Focus, $75.96 with a trip average of 33.3 mpg
Round 5: Greenhouse Gas Smackdown
This is a horrible contradiction in terms. Greenies don't usually smack each other, bash each other with folding chairs or drop each other on their heads. But in our test we pitted these tree-huggers against each other for one final dust-up. We calculated the amount of greenhouse gases that each emitted. Greenhouse gases are not the visible pollution (called particulate matter) that can be seen chugging out of the Jetta's tailpipe. It's the gases that are blamed for turning up the thermostat on the planet. Here's how the contestants stacked up over the 669.2 miles driven.
The champ: Toyota Prius, emitting 0.18 ton of greenhouse gasses
2nd Place: VW Jetta TDI, emitting 0.19 ton greenhouse gasses
3rd Place: Smart Fortwo, emitting 0.22 ton of greenhouse gasses
4th Place: Ford Focus, emitting 0.26 ton of greenhouse gasses
Overall Winner and Contenders
The Toyota Prius was the overall winner, with victories in three rounds: best city roller, lowest fuel costs and greenest car. The Jetta snagged two rounds as the best back-roads cruiser and the best highway flier. Meanwhile, the Smart Fortwo scored two 2nd-place finishes for best city roller and lowest fuel costs. The Ford Focus, while undistinguished in any one category, performed surprisingly well on the highway with fuel economy up to 37.5 mpg, well above the EPA's estimated 35 mpg highway rating.
Anyone thinking of buying one of these cars should take a look at this comparator and choose the car that suits their primary type of driving. (We included a 2008 VW Jetta for an apples-to-apples comparison.) If your driving is mainly around town, the Toyota Prius is a great choice — if you have the money. If you only drive short hops and parking is tight, the Smart Fortwo is a nifty ride. The Ford Focus is another budget selection that gave us surprisingly good fuel economy on the open road. And finally, our used car contender, the 2005 VW Jetta TDI, gobbled up the open road while providing better-than-average around-town mpg.
Remember: Before buying, get a realistic picture of a car's fuel economy. Ideally, you should allow enough time for your own test-drive smackdown, since the winner will be your daily driver for years to come.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.