Variety prevails in our selection of 40-mpg cars. From six different car brands we have two subcompact hatchbacks, two compact sedans, a sporty coupe and a large family sedan. Each is also a class leader in its own right. We think this disproves the notion that you have to drive a lethargic, cramped penalty box in order to get fuel-sipping mpg. Plus, each of these cars can be had for a reasonable price, another automotive breakthrough in the last five years. After all, a hybrid might easily get 40 mpg, but it customarily carries a sizable cost mark-up to pay for its exotic technology.
The Chevrolet Sonic ($18,695 as tested) is one of the most appealing subcompact cars thanks to its fun-to-drive nature. Besides its lively handling, the Sonic offers fun from its optional turbocharged 1.4-liter engine. Such performance upgrades almost always come with a fuel economy trade-off, but in this case, the turbo actually achieves better fuel economy than the standard four-cylinder. Pairing it with the six-speed manual transmission gets you to 40 mpg.
Next up is the Hyundai Veloster ($21,395 as tested), which is subcompact in size, although its strange three-door hatchback body style and stranger styling prove that you can drive something both funky and fuel-efficient. Sadly, the Veloster's optional turbocharged engine can't match the Sonic's fun-yet-40 trick, so we had to stick with the standard 1.6-liter four-cylinder (shared with the Rio) that hits 40 mpg when paired with a six-speed manual transmission.
The Kia Rio 5 ($18,450 as tested) is another one of our top choices in the subcompact class. Despite its modest price, the Rio offers a stylish, relatively well-appointed cabin with an ample list of features. And unlike the other cars in this test, the Rio boasts 40 mpg highway regardless of transmission or body style. Also included on the Rio is an additional Active Eco mode, which slightly alters the calibration of the engine and transmission response to optimize fuel economy.
Moving up a segment, we find the Mazda 3i ($24,495 as tested) Grand Touring sedan and its highly advanced "Skyactiv" four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission introduced for 2012. In the past, the Mazda 3 has always impressed with its eager driving dynamics and overall refinement, but it was always one of the least fuel-efficient vehicles in its class. No longer.
The Ford Focus ($20,660 as tested) is also one of our top choices in the compact segment. Its powerful, fuel-efficient four-cylinder engine is a key element of the car's customer appeal and can achieve 40 mpg when you opt for the $495 Super Fuel Economy (SFE) package. We're not sure the SFE is worth the extra dough, but 40 is still 40.
And finally, the Volkswagen Passat TDI ($28,665 as tested) is the black sheep in this group. While the other cars are small and fueled by 87-octane gasoline, the Passat is a comparatively enormous family sedan that must visit the green pump for its diesel fuel.
(It's important to note that you must usually buy a specific engine, transmission or even body style to achieve 40 mpg. At the end of this article, we provide more specifics on each 40-mpg model of these cars.)