Improved fuel efficiency has become an important part of many consumers' car-buying plans, and for some "gas mileage" is at least as important as horsepower and style.
For those shoppers, or anyone who values squeezing every last mile out of each gallon of gasoline, the elite 40 mpg club is a good place to start looking.
These are cars that deliver at least 40 miles per gallon fuel efficiency on the federal EPA's highway test cycle. (Sorry, no trucks yet.) At the moment, the numbers are small, but club membership is growing, albeit slowly, thanks to advances in engine design, aerodynamics and lightweight materials. These help automakers overcome their vehicles' inherent handicaps of engine inefficiency, aerodynamic drag and weight that that saps fuel economy.
There are dozens of vehicles with hybrid, diesel and electric powertrains that exceed 40 mpg on the highway, but this article is for shoppers who prefer to stick with gasoline.
Here's a detailed look at the members of the gas-powered 40 mpg highway club, including two new entrants: The 2015 Honda Fit LX with optional CVT and the 2015 Mazda 6 i-Grand Touring with a special fuel efficiency package.
Each model listed includes some insights into the way it achieves extreme efficiency without resorting to a diesel engine, hybrid technology or electric power. This reliance on the conventional internal-combustion engine is important because it helps keep the cars affordable.
While alternative-fuel vehicles offer advanced technology and sometimes-significant fuel efficiency, they also tend to come with a big price premium. It can take years to earn back the purchase price through fuel savings alone, so a more affordable conventional car with a good mpg rating can be a smarter choice for many consumers.
A word of advice: Most of the 40-mpg gasoline cars are specialized, low-volume variants of their mainstream counterparts. Many achieve their fuel efficiency through special equipment packages not found on more mainstream models.
So if fuel efficiency is a feature that's at the top of your shopping list, make sure you zero in on the super-saver versions. And if you want to see a much broader list of fuel-efficient cars, including diesels and electric-drive models, check our story that lists the new cars that get at least 30 mpg in the EPA's combined city/highway rating. We cover late-model used cars that get at least 30 mpg in a separate article.
And, as always, please remember that the EPA bestows the mileage ratings cited, usually based on tests performed by the automakers using EPA-developed laboratory procedures. Real-world fuel efficiency will vary, sometimes substantially, depending on factors that include cargo load, terrain, climate conditions and, of course, the weight of the driver's accelerator-pedal foot.
2015 Chevrolet Cruze Eco
This is the fifth year for the 42-mpg highway Chevy Cruze Eco, which first hit the market as a 2011 model. The EPA-estimated fuel economy of the 2015 Chevrolet Cruze Eco is unchanged from the previous model year at 33 mpg combined (42 highway/28 city) for the six-speed manual transmission model. The Cruze Eco with six-speed automatic doesn't quite make the cut, earning an EPA highway rating of 39 mpg.
General Motors attributes some of the Cruze Eco's fuel efficiency to aerodynamic improvements, including the partial blockage of the upper grille to reduce drag, an extension of the front chin spoiler, a rear spoiler, underbody panels to reduce drag and a lower overall ride height. The Eco also has a shutter behind the lower part of the front grille that closes at high speed to reduce aerodynamic drag and then opens at low speed to optimize engine-cooling airflow.
GM says that these and related enhancements reduce aerodynamic drag by 10 percent over a non-Eco Cruze.
At 3,005 pounds, the Chevy Cruze Eco is also relatively light, and it comes in at 113 pounds less than a conventional Cruze 1LT with automatic transmission. The engineers accomplished this by reducing the size or thickness of some of the sheet metal and by using lightweight, cast-aluminum 17-inch wheels.
The final piece of the Cruze Eco's fuel-saving combination is the turbocharged 138-horsepower 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine with a six-speed manual transmission. It has an especially tall overdrive ratio for sixth gear that reduces engine rpm at cruising speed for better fuel economy.
2015 Chevrolet Sonic Turbo
There are two trim levels of the 2015 Chevrolet Sonic that get the coveted 40 mpg highway rating for 2015, both with the optional $700 turbocharged 1.4-liter Ecotec four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission. That combo helps both the Sonic LT and Sonic LTZ join the 40 mpg highway club (both hatchbacks and sedans).
With this turbocharged 1.4-liter engine and the manual transmission, the Sonic delivers 33 mpg combined (40 highway/29 city).
2015 Dodge Dart Aero
For its Dart small sedan, Dodge uses a suite of aerodynamic and weight-saving tweaks to boost the Aero version into 40-mpg territory on the highway.
Dodge offers two transmissions, and both versions achieve more than 40 mpg on the highway. The 2015 Dodge Dart Aero with the six-speed manual transmission is EPA-rated at 32 mpg combined (41 highway/28 city). The Aero with a six-speed automatic has a rating of 32 mpg combined (40 highway/28 city).
All Dart Aeros use a turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine. Major aerodynamic improvements on the Aero versus other Dart models include active grille shutters and underbody air deflectors and channeling to reduce the turbulence that makes cars work harder (thus using more fuel) to move forward.
2015 Fiat 500
Fiat manages to place almost all of its 2015 Fiat 500 models into the 40 mpg highway club — provided they have manual transmissions. The only members of the manual-transmission Fiat 500 family that are not EPA-rated at 40 mpg on the open road are the sporty turbocharged 500T and Abarth models. The rest of the manual transmission family, including both convertibles, get 34 mpg combined (40 highway/31 city) ratings for 2015, courtesy of a tall final-drive gear ratio and improved aerodynamics.
The optional six-speed automatic reduces the car's EPA-rated fuel efficiency to 34 mpg highway.
2015 Ford Fiesta SE SFE
SFE stands for "super fuel economy." It's a package of fuel-conserving measures that specially equips the 2015 Ford Fiesta with Ford's turbocharged 1.0-liter three-cylinder "EcoBoost" engine and a five-speed manual. The Fiesta SE with EcoBoost gets a thrifty-at-the-pump rating of 36 mpg combined (43 highway/31 city).
The SFE package is available only on the Fiesta SE trim level in both hatchback and sedan styles.
2015 Ford Focus SFE
Ford introduced the compact Focus sedan with optional SFE package as a 2012 model. It's the Fiesta SFE's big brother. As with the Fiesta, the SFE option is only available on the SE trim level of the Focus.
The 2015 Focus SE SFE features the same turbocharged1.0 liter engine as the Fiesta SFE, with a six-speed automated manual transmission. Ford says the six-speed transmission helps reduce fuel consumption by up to 9 percent compared to a traditional four-speed automatic. The EPA ratings for the 20125 Focus lineup were not available as this was written, but the 2014 Focus SFE with a larger, 2.0-liter engine, is rated at is 33 mpg combined (40 highway/28 city).
The SFE package includes fully active shutters behind the grille to help optimize aerodynamics. If the engine needs air for cooling, the vents open. If it doesn't need airflow, the vents close, significantly reducing aerodynamic drag.
2015 Honda Civic HF
The 2015 Honda Civic HF is Honda's modern-day entry in the 40 mpg highway club, coming in at 35 mpg combined (41 highway/31 city). The initials stand for "high fuel efficiency."
The 2015 Honda Civic HF is equipped with a 1.8-liter inline-4 engine that combines a respectable 140 hp with that 41-mpg highway rating. It's equipped with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) and a special package of components to improve aerodynamics.
This car features Eco Assist, a Honda technology that is designed to help drivers develop a fuel-efficient driving style. It uses dashboard visual aids to tell them when they are driving efficiently — and when they aren't.
2015 Honda Fit LX
The base model of the redesigned 2015 Honda Fit compact hatchback joins the 40 mpg club for the first time. It combines a peppy 130-horsepower, 1.5-liter engine and an optional CVT to help achieve an EPA combined rating of 36 mpg (41 highway/33 city).
Other CVT-equipped Fit models–the EX and EX-L — don't make the 40-mpg cut because they offer mileage-robbing features including sunroofs, larger wheels and more electronics. All these things add weight. They earn EPA-rated highway fuel efficiency ratings of 38 mpg.
2015 Mazda 3
The 2015 Mazda 3 compact comes in a multitude of sedan and hatchback versions. This year marks the first time the fuel-efficient compact gets 40-mpg highway ratings for most of its hatchbacks as well as the sedans, which bump up to 41 mpg on the highway for the 2014 model.
In past years, only a few select Mazda 3 sedan models came with an optional high-efficiency package. But all 2015 Mazda 3 i trim levels with the 2.0-liter engine are in the 40 mpg-plus highway club.
The i trim levels use Mazda's 2.0-liter Skyactiv inline-4 engine that helps Mazda deliver the fuel-efficiency goods with features including lightweight components, variable valve timing and direct fuel injection. There also are a number of aerodynamic improvements in both body styles.
EPA ratings on the 2.0-liter sedans with automatic transmission are 34 mpg combined (41 highway/30 city). Sedans with a manual transmission get 33 mpg combined (41 highway/29 city). Mazda 3 hatchbacks with the 2.0-liter engine and automatic transmission are rated at 33 combined (40 highway/30 city), while models with a manual transmission get a 33 combined (40 highway/29 city) rating.
Making the club for the first time is the 2015 Mazda 3 s GT with the special i-Eloop fuel efficiency package. The GT offers a 2.5-liter engine that, with Mazda's six-speed automatic and the special efficiency package, earned a 33-mpg combined rating from the EPA (40 highway/29 city).
The term i-Eloop stands for "intelligent energy loop," a specialized regenerative braking system that lets Mazda models equipped with the package store braking energy in a supercapacitor. The stored power is used to help operate onboard electronics when the engine is shut down during stops, thanks to the engine stop-start system, and to charge the 12-volt battery so engine power isn't diverted to those chores.
2015 Mazda 6 with i-Eloop
This one style of the midsize Mazda 6 sedan is equipped with a special package of fuel-saving technologies. It is offered as an option on the 2015 Mazda 6 i Grand Touring sedan and earns an EPA rating of 32 mpg combined (40 highway/28 city).
2015 Mitsubishi Mirage
Mitsubishi's 2015 Mirage hatchback comes in CVT and five-speed manual versions that both break the 40-mpg highway barrier. The CVT-equipped model also gets 40 mpg in its combined rating — the only gasoline burning, non-hybrid car in the U.S. market to achieve that lofty number so far.
A tiny, fuel-sipping 1.2-liter three-cylinder engine is one part of Mitsubishi's fuel economy recipe, along with a lightweight chassis and a CVT in the 40 mpg combined (44 highway/37 city) DE and DS styles. The DE and DS hatchbacks with five-speed manuals are rated at 37 mpg combined (42 highway/34 city).
2015 Nissan Sentra FE+
Nissan continues membership in the 40 mpg club with several vehicles this year, including the 2015 Nissan Sentra FE+ S and Sentra FE+ SV sedans.
EPA ratings for the 2015 models are not yet out, but there are few, if any, changes from the 2014 model year when both FE+ trim levels were rated at 34 mpg combined (40 highway/30 city). A rear spoiler, special underbody air deflectors that reduce efficiency-robbing turbulence and low-rolling-resistance tires make up the FE+ package and, along with the CVT, earned the 2014 FE+ Sentras their 40 mpg club membership. Standard Sentras with the CVT get a 39-mpg highway rating.
2015 Nissan Versa
Nissan's other 40-mpg clubber is the 2014 Versa. All 2015 Versa sedan styles with the CVT get the EPA's 35 mpg combined (40 highway/31 city) rating, as do CVT-equipped Versa Note hatchbacks.
The CVT is a real fuel economy booster, adding 4 mpg to the compact car's highway rating when compared to the base model with the five-speed manual. It boosts highway mileage by 5 mpg over the base model with the four-speed automatic.
2015 Toyota Corolla LE Eco
Toyota's only member of the gasoline-only 40 mpg highway club is the 2015 Toyota Corolla LE Eco, a model that comes with a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine coupled with a CVT. The base Corolla LE Eco is rated at 35 mpg combined (42 highway/30 city). Due to slightly different equipment, the Corolla LE Eco Plus and Corolla LE Eco Premium styles are rated at 34 mpg combined (40 highway/30 city).
All three Eco models use specially tuned engines and transmissions, the efficiency of the CVT, a variety of aerodynamic tweaks and low-rolling-resistance tires to hit or exceed the 40-mpg highway mark.
Look for More
The 40 mpg club membership roll for the 2015 model year is 85 percent longer than the 2012 and 2013 lists, when there were just seven gasoline-powered cars that boasted of achieving 40 mpg on the EPA's highway cycle. Yes, 14 models is still a pretty low number, but quite a few 2015 gasoline models achieved 39-mpg highway ratings from the EPA. We expect a number of them to push into 40-mpg territory as government regulators continue to seek to reduce emissions and oil consumption