Gas is at $4 per gallon already - and it’s just barely spring. By summer it could easily be $5 (or even more) and that reality is is behind a reboot in the popularity of small, high-mileage cars. In the past, though, most small, high-mileage cars sucked – even if they didn’t suck much gas. They were slow, ugly and sparsely equipped. You got good gas mileage – and that’s about all you got.
If there’s a bright spot in this resurgence of latte-priced fuel, it’s that modern small cars do not suck. They are cars you’d want to buy even if regular unleaded still cost a buck fifty per.
Check out what’s available – or soon to be available:
The scoop: In densely populated Europe, Fiat is big because its cars are small – and also extremely fuel-efficient. That’s important when gas is pushing $10 per gallon – as it may soon be here, too. The 500 (Cinquecento) is even smaller (on the outside) than the Mini Me-size BMW Mini Cooper – by almost half a foot – but it has a taller profile that allows for more head and legroom (even for backseat occupants) than even the super space-efficient Mini offers. It also may offer close to 60 MPG, if we’re lucky and get the TwinAir turbocharged two-cylinder engine that’s currently available in European-spec 500s. But even standard models equipped with the conventional 1.4 liter, 101 hp four cylinder engine should be able to deliver close to 40 MPG on the highway, according to Fiat.
The Ups: Cute as a newborn puppy. As easy to park as a Moped. Huge roster of factory/dealer options, including 14 different possible color combos,including two-tones and stripes. AC,most power options standard on base Pop trim. Good performance as well as economy, due to very light (2,350 lb.) curb weight.
The Downs: Fiat has never managed to thrive in the U.S. before and may not make it this time, either. Buyers could find themselves without dealer support five or six years from now if Fiat can’t maintain a beach head.
* Ford Focus (base price $18,065)
The Scoop: Car journalists who’ve had a chance to test-drive the completely redesigned Focus agree it’s – by far – the best small car that Ford has ever offered. Available in standard sedan and hatchback sedan versions, the new Focus is capable of about 40 MPGs on the highway thanks to state-of-the-art technology such as a fully-automated six-speed dual-clutch manual transmission that functions like a conventional automatic transmission, electric power steering and a Super Fuel Economy Package that includes wind-chating aerodynamic tweaks and low-rolling resistance tires. The Focus also offers razzle dazzle features such as Automated Park Assist which will literally parallel park the car for you, as well as available heat seats and other luxury creature comforts. AC, keyless entry and most power equipment are all standard, too.
The Ups: Family-size car, economy-car MPGs. Doesn’t look, feel or drive like a Blue Light Special.
* Chevy Sonic (base price $12,500 – estimated)
The Scoop: This new – and much improved – model will replace the long-serving (and long out-of-date) Aveo as Chevy’s most affordable – and most economical – subcompact car. It will be targeting current under $13k value leaders such as the Hyundai Accent and Nissan Versa 1.6 but not just on bottom line price. Like the Fiat 500, the Sonic serves up some style – and performance – to go with the anticipated high (close to 40 MPG) fuel efficiency. For example, a turbocharged 1.4 liter engine/six-speed manual gearbox combination will be offered and even the standard version will come with a 135 hp, 1.8 liter engine – making it about 10-15 hp peppier than other micro-compacts.
The Ups: Class-leading acceleration/handling (Corvette engineers worked on the Sonic’s suspension turning) along with class-leading interior and cargo space. Super affordable MSRP.
* VW Golf TDI diesel (base price $23,225)
The Scoop: The TDI Golf’s 30 MPG in city driving is almost as good as many current economy car’s highway mileage – and its 42 MPG highway rating is better than anything else on the road that’s not a hybrid (or a motorcycle). The 2.0 liter turbocharged, direct-injected diesel is also powerful: 140 hp and a 236 lbs.-ft of torque (comparable to many gas V-6s), all of it produced way down low in the power band (just 1,750 RPM). All that power just off idle speed makes the Golf TDI an ideal city/commuter car, but unlike most hybrids, it has the legs for high-speed highway work, too. And the range – more than 600 miles on a full tank – is enough to drive from DC to New York and back without stopping to refuel.
The Ups: Near-hybrid fuel economy without the hybrid car complexity, cost – or a bad case of The Slows. No batteries to replace – ever - and the diesel engine should last 300,000 miles or more with decent care.
The Downs: The car is fairly pricey (relative to other current small cars) and so is the fuel. As expensive as gas is, diesel is even more so.
The Scoop: The last true mass-produced electric car was built in the 1990s, by GM (the EV1). It didn’t make the cut in part because at the time gas was half what it costs today – and also because the EV1 was a super-tiny two-seater, which made it impractical except as a second car or commuter. The Leaf has a better chance because the economics of electric cars make at least some sense now – and also because the Leaf has four doors and can carry more than two people.
The Ups: No more gas bills! And there’s a $7,000 federal tax credit for electric car buyers, pushing the actual net cost of the Leaf closer to $25k, which is only about $10k more than a similar-in-size, gas-powered Nissan Sentra ($15,840). At the current $4 per gallon and assuming four fill-ups a month, a Sentra would use about $3,000 worth of gas annually – so the “break even” point with the Leaf comes after about three years of driving. After that, the Leaf should save you several thousand a year vs. driving something comparable with a gas-burning engine, like the Sentra.
The Downs: Electricity isn’t free. You may not pay at the pump, but pay you will. Still takes several hours to recharge; requires custom-wired 220V recharge station at your home. Max range between charges is just 100 miles.
* Mini Cooper Countryman (base price $21,650)
The Scoop: Everyone (ok, almost everyone) likes the Mini Cooper – the reincarnated, updated version of the micro-car Brit car of the 1960s. The problem has been that not everyone can use the Mini – which up to now came with just two doors and room for two only (or at least, realistically only two). So for 2011, the Mini has grown a pair – of doors. This version of the Mini is called the Countryman. It seats up to five people (with the optional second row three-across bench seat). It also offers all-wheel-drive as an available option, which is another new feature no previous Mini offered. These two updates ought to make Mini ownership more plausible for buyers who liked the original concept but needed a bit more everyday practicality – and better winter-weather capability.
The Ups: As snarky as ever; almost limitless factory/dealer customization possible. Affordable – and efficient – fun.
The Downs: AWD-equipped ALL4 version’s mileage only so-so (25 city, 31 highway) and can get pretty pricey pretty quickly if you’re not careful with options.
* Mazda2 (base price $14,180)
The Scoop: The 2 sedan is Mazda’s newest model and an ultra-ultra compact; it is about a foot and half shorter overall – and weighs about 300 pounds less – than its corporate cousin, the compact-sized 2011 Ford Fiesta – but it manages to give backseat occupants several inches more legroom (34.8 inches) than the larger -on-the-outside Fiesta (31.2 inches). The little Mazda also has a decent-sized trunk – 13.3 cubic feet – vs. 12.8 for the physically larger Fiesta and just 9.3 cubic feet for the similar-sized Toyota Yaris. It also has a surprisingly uptown interior, which can be finished with “piano black” trim inserts and you get the same sporty red-backlit gauge cluster found in other Mazda cars, too. Expect 35 MPGs on the highway.
The Ups: A great car to play Frogger with in city traffic. Lightweight equals peppy performance – and good gas mileage, too.
The Downs: Factory GPS not offered; mileage (surprisingly) isn’t quite as good as the larger – and heavier - Fiesta’s. Try to avoid being hit by an Escalade.
* Scion iQ (base price $13,500 – estimated)
The Scoop: Toyota’s take on the Smart car – take two, you might call it. Because though it’s small and designed mainly to be an in-city runabout like the Smart car, its not scary small like the Smart car is. It’s more than a foot longer – and it seats four. Maybe not comfortably, but nonetheless. The Smart car’s cramped, two-seater-only layout and nonexistent trunk (the iQ has 9.3 cubic feet of storage) made it less than, well, smart for most buyers. The iQ is also peppy: It’s powered by a high-efficiency 1.3 liter engine teamed up with a Continuously Variable (CVT) automatic transmission. In-city gas mileage will reportedly be in the high 30s, according to Toyota. And to address understandable buyer concerns about this teensy car’s safety, all trims will come standard with 10 (count ‘em) air bags.
The Ups: Perfect for city dwellers who have to deal with on-street (or in alley) parking. Moped-like mileage. Usable interior and cargo-carrying ability. A conversation starter.
The Downs: For in-city use only; not built to deal with road trips or highway speeds.
* Audi A3 TDI diesel (base price $30,250)
The Scoop: This compact entry-luxury wagon makes a lot of sense in a world dealing with $4 gas – because it burns diesel instead and gets 42 MPGs on the highway – better mileage than any current (gas-powered) compact economy car. Its 34 MPG city rating is pretty solid, too. Oh yeah, that’s with Quattro all-wheel-drive, standard as part of the package. The 2 liter turbodiesel engine scoots the A3 to 60 in about 8.7-8.8 seconds – so it’s not slow, either. And unlike previous diesel cars, which were only sold in a few states because of emissions control issues, the A3 TDI is “50 state” compliant, so you can shop one at any Audi dealer, anywhere in the country.
The Ups: Luxury and economy without compromising either. Long-lived diesel engine should outlast gas burners, cost less to maintain down the road than a hybrid. Wagon layout provides plenty of space (20 cubic feet) and everyday usability.
* Honda CR-Z (base price $19,345)
The Scoop: Here’s an updated take on the super-popular CRX of the 1980s: Like its ancestor, the CR-Z is small and snazzy. But unlike the old CRX, the CR-Z is a hybrid. It’s powered by a by a 1.5 liter gas engine boosted (on demand) by a small electric motor and battery pack, for a total rated output of 122 hp. A six-speed manual (with Hill Star Assist) is the standard transmission, with a Continuously Variable (CVT) automatic transmission with Sport, Normal and Economy modes the optional unit. Zero to 60 happens in about 9.6-9.8 seconds, quick for a hybrid. EPA rates this one at 31 city, 37 highway.
The Downs: Long-term, down-the-road expenses (such as battery maintenance) could offset economy gains. Could be quicker; mileage could be better.