Stretch Your Petro-Dollar Without Compromising Driving Enjoyment
For a list of fuel efficient 2008 models, click here.
Even with recent price increases, automotive fuel still isn't as expensive as designer water or a grande latte at Starbucks. Then again, no one consumes water or coffee at the rate of a car engine swilling dinosaur juice, and it hurts to drop a big chunk of paycheck at the pump every month. However, there are choices that can stretch your petro-dollar without compromising the pleasure of driving or settling for a car the size of Paris Hilton's doggy.
For this list, we arbitrarily drew a line at 35 mpg or better on the EPA highway cycle. Compared to the hundreds of models available, there aren't many cars which can boast this figure, but among those few are enough choices to satisfy virtually every automotive need.
Volkswagen Golf TDI: 38 city/46 hwy
Forget about slow and smelly. VW's 1.9-liter turbocharged diesel four-cylinder is a gem of efficient power production. It's one thing to get good mileage: In the Jetta, Golf and New Beetle, this engine returns 38 mph in the city and 46 on the highway. But, it's also comforting to know the car has enough power reserves to get where you want to go quickly, even if it's climbing a mountain pass. The engine's 105 horsepower doesn't seem like much, but with 184 pound-feet of torque at only 1,900 rpm, the TDI pulls strongly enough to keep up with the traffic that's burning a lot more fuel. Until diesel fuel gets cleaned up in 2007, however, five U.S. states prohibit sales of new diesel-powered cars. Sometimes living in California has its drawbacks.
Mercedes-Benz E320 CDI: 27 city/37 hwy
This handsome sedan is just the first of a multitude of Mercedes-Benz diesels, which are already huge hits in Europe because of their combination of economy and performance. If you don't care about coaxing max mileage from the turbocharged six-cylinder, it will power from zero to 60 mph in just 6.6 seconds. It also will run all day at autobahn speeds without stopping for a refill every couple of inches on the map. Once the sulfur in U.S. diesel fuel is lowered to mandated limits, expect Mercedes to move quickly, and strongly, in this direction with all its vehicles. Hydrogen power, after all, is a very long way off.
Honda Civic HX: 36 city/44 hwy
No car list is complete without a Honda on it, and the Civic that qualifies for this one is a great example of optimizing the gasoline internal combustion engine. The HX's four-cylinder gasoline engine benefits from lean-burn technology to deliver outstanding mileage will no perceptible compromise to the traditional Honda driving experience: routine and uneventful at worst, swift and comfortable at best. The 115-hp engine is as polished as any other of Honda's power plants, and those wishing for even smoother motoring can order the HX with a CVT transmission, though it will not achieve quite the mileage figures of a five-speed manual HX.
Mini Cooper 1.6: 28 city/36 hwy
Just backing out of the driveway feels sporty in a Mini. When it's powered by the 1.6-liter four that's the smallest of its engine options, the Mini matches its high fun factor with frugality. Social responsibility has rarely provided such a payback. Appropriately the most efficient of the so-called "minicompact" class of cars, the Mini stormed its way to success at the same time giant SUVs were peaking in their popularity. Guess which of them is still going strong? Small on the outside and big on the inside, the Mini's appeal should only strengthen as Americans discover small can be a big deal.
Mazda 3: 28 city/35 hwy
We've always liked Mazda for its "European" character, and this small four-door sedan would be right at home on the streets and highways of Germany. Not only is it fun to drive thanks to the base 148-hp 2.0-liter, excellent brakes and crisp handling, it's got the look of a car from much further up the market. Lots of standard features, lots of style, lots of miles between fuel stops.
Honda Insight: 61 city/66 hwy
OK, if all you need is to haul your butt from Point A to Point B, this hybrid is a good choice. The most fuel-efficient automobile sold in America, the Insight looks as unconventional as its gas-electric powertrain, which also benefits from regenerative braking and automatic stop-start at stoplights. Expect to be bullied by everyone else on the road except fellow environmentalists, and tell everyone you'll be just a little bit late, because you're more interested in how many miles you can get out of a tank of gas than being on time.