• Four Fuel Sippers: 2009 Honda Fit Sport, 2010 Ford Fiesta, 2010 Honda Insight, 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI

Four Fuel Sippers: 2009 Honda Fit Sport, 2010 Ford Fiesta, 2010 Honda Insight, 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI

June 12, 2009
0906 16 Z+fuel Sipping Cars+insight Jetta TDI Fiesta Fit
We know. Gas is $2.50 a gallon, which means you're not interested in fuel economy. But you will be. As our job market recovers, it's almost a given that oil prices will too. Perhaps more importantly, the newly boosted CAFE requirements virtually guarantee that automakers will be trying to sell you smaller, more efficient cars.
Perfect evidence of the latter point has been our car board as of late. Editors recently had a choice of no fewer than four ultra-efficient small cars representing three different approaches to saving fuel. There was the Honda Insight, the most affordable purveyor yet of hybrid technology, along with the similarly priced and nearly-as-parsimonious Volkswagen Jetta TDI. Then we had the recently redesigned Honda Fit and yet-to-be-released Ford Fiesta, both of which get the most out of their fuel tanks the old fashion way, via small four-cylinder engines and low curb weights. Which approach and which car is the best way to prepare for this brave new world? Read on for our impressions.
0906 07 Z+2009 Honda Fit Sport+front Three Quarter Quarter
2009 Honda Fit
The Fit exhibits all the talents one would expect of a small Honda, starting with its reasonably thrifty, 29 mpg combined fuel economy rating. That's not going to scare a Toyota Prius, but its $14,460 starting price means you'll have lots of extra fuel money compared to a pricey hybrid. More important for folks like us, the Fit's sharp steering and absolutely faultless manual shifter provide a bit of the spunk and driver involvement that's sorely missing in most hybrids.
A lot of thought clearly went into the design of the interior, which could give some crossovers a run for their money in terms of utility. The rear cargo hold is spacious and has a low load height, and if you need more space, say for a bike or some furniture, the rear "magic seats" either flip up or fold completely flat. We only wish the cabin were nicer to look at, as the shiny plastic dash and cheap, difficult-to-clean carpeting and upholstery scream "economy." And our Fit, priced at $18,580 with optional equipment, is no cheap car.
The Fit's Achilles heel though, is its highway ride. The 1.5-liter, 117-hp four-cylinder has no trouble attaining highway speeds but once there, the buzzy engine creates a constant drone in the cabin, and crosswinds are sure to grab your attention, as the Fit tends to dance around its lane. Adding a sixth gear and wider tires would help a lot.
Of course, vehicles of this size are called city cars for a reason. Those who spend more time navigating through traffic and searching for parking spaces than they do blitzing down the interstate will love the Fit's small size and marvel at its surprising utility. The fact that it's fun on a curvy road is a nice bonus.
Base Price: $16,930 (Fit Sport)
As Tested: $18,{{{780}}} (Fit Sport w/ Navigation)
Body style: 4-door hatchback
Accommodation: 5 passengers
Engine: 16-valve SOHC I-4
Displacement: 1.5 liters
Horsepower: 117 hp @ 6600 rpm
Torque: 106 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm
Transmission type: 5-speed manual
Drive: Front-wheel
EPA Fuel Economy: 27/33/29 mpg (city/highway/combined)
On sale: Now
0906 04 Z+2010 Ford Fiesta+side View
2010 Ford Fiesta
It's been a long time since Ford has offered U.S. buyers any kind of subcompact, but in far away Europe, the Fiesta - remember the Fiesta? - has found more than 170,000 customers since being redesigned last fall. And it's on its way here.
After sampling a European-spec Fiesta on our own roads, we can see plenty of reasons for the car's success. Compared to the sprightly, yet sometimes nervous Fit, the Fiesta is more relaxed and comfortable. Quick steering and a rev-happy, 118-hp four-cylinder allow you to zig-zag through traffic and have fun doing it, but there's just enough suspension compliance to make life easier on pitted streets. And as one would expect of a European design, the Fiesta displays better high-speed manners than your average city car. Like the Fit, it lacks a sixth gear, meaning it revs rather frenetically on the interstate, but it's reasonably quiet, and doesn't get skittish until you've hit 85 mph or higher.
The interior is more of a mixed bag. On the one hand, soft-touch materials and interesting textures make for a more pleasant cabin than the utilitarian Fit. However, the Fiesta can't come close to the Honda's versatility. The rear seat backs don't fold completely flat, and the seat bottoms don't fold at all. There's still enough space for two or three people and their luggage, but not much more.
There's still a good deal we don't know about the Fiesta. European fuel economy ratings don't tell us much about how the Fiesta will perform in the EPA cycle, and there's no guarantee Ford won't try and "improve" the suspension for U.S. customers (though it promises us it won't). The big question with the Fiesta though, is price. As we saw with General Motors' effort to market the Opel Astra Stateside, Americans aren't always willing to pay for European refinement in their domestic small cars. Ford will be building the American-market Fiesta in Mexico in effort to keep the costs down, and company officials say pricing will be competitive with other subcompacts, but haven't heard specifics. That said, if a Fiesta like the one we sampled hits the market for about the same money as our well-equipped Fit, it certainly will be worthy alternative.
Base Price: $15,000 (est.)
As Tested: N/A
Body style: 4-door hatchback
Accommodation: 5 passengers
Engine: N/A
Displacement: 1.6 liters
Horsepower: 118 hp
Torque: 112 lb-ft
Transmission type: 5-speed manual
Drive: Front-wheel
EPA Fuel Economy: N/A
On sale: 2011 (est.)
0906 10 Z+2010 Honda Insight+front Three Quarter View
2010 Honda Insight
The new Honda Insight's obvious competitor is the Toyota Prius, but when you climb inside and take in its panoramic view and hard plastic dash, the first car to come to mind is the Fit. No coincidence here, as the Insight borrows quite liberally from Honda's entry-level offering, including most of its suspension bits. This allows Honda to offer a nicely packaged hybrid for almost four grand less than a Civic with similar technology.
It's hard to argue with the results. The Insight betters the Fit's already impressive combined fuel economy by 12 mpg while sacrificing only 19 hp and gaining 17 lb-ft of torque. The Insight also preserves a good deal of the Fit's utility, despite having much of its floor taken up by batteries. The seatbacks fold completely flat and the high tail provides clearance for tall items.
Behind the wheel however, the Insight is a bit of a letdown, as it feels every bit like a heavier, less responsive Fit. The 1.3-liter four-cylinder and 10-hp electric motor work hard around town, which wouldn't be all that bad if the Insight wasn't also saddled with a slower steering rack and a CVT-automatic instead of the Fit's wonderful manual. The Insight is still better than most hybrids we've driven, but doesn't reward the driver as much as the other cars in this test. At least there is some payback on the highway, where the Insight is quiet and reasonably stable.
The choice of interior materials also disappointed us. With navigation, our Insight listed for $23,770, but except for the easy-to-read digital speedometer, the cabin didn't feel much different or more expensive that of the much cheaper Fit. It certainly did not compare well with the posh environs of our $23,090 Jetta TDI.
Despite those complaints, the Insight lives up to the promise as an inexpensive hybrid that offers real fuel-efficiency gains. Particularly in its base, $20,510 form, it makes an ideal choice for economy-conscious shoppers who have previously shied away from hybrids because of their premiums. Those willing to spend a bit more in search of driver involvement and refinement should read on.
Base Price: $20,510
As Tested: $23,770
Body style: 4-door hatchback
Accommodation: 5 passengers
Engine: 8-valve SOHC I-4
Displacement: 1.3 liters
Horsepower: 98 hp @ 5800 rpm
Torque: 123 lb-ft @ 1000 rpm
Transmission type: CVT-automatic
Drive: Front-wheel
EPA Fuel Economy: 40/43/41 mpg (city/highway/combined)
On sale: Now
0906 15 Z+2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI+front Three Quarter View
2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI
The biggest negative with the Volkswagen Jetta TDI is the price of diesel fuel; the car itself is great. Our TDI, a Four Seasons test car with nearly 20,000 miles on the clock, was easily the best riding car of this bunch. Some of this can be attributed to its size - it's an inch longer and two inches wider than the Insight. But it clearly benefits from having an independent rear suspension, as opposed to the torsion beam setup employed in the other three cars, which helps it provide the sort of ride one expects from a mid-size or larger car.
The TDI also has the nicest interior, with exemplary fit and finish and soft-touch surfaces worthy of Volkswagen/Audi's reputation for industry-leading interior design. Being a sedan in the company of hatchbacks, our Jetta fell short on the utility front, but it's far from a slouch thanks to an easily accessible, cavernous trunk (amazingly, it's about two cubic feet bigger than what you'll find in the midsize VW Passat or Honda Accord). For those who need more room, the TDI is also available as a wagon.
What traditionally separates German sedans from the pack are their driving dynamics, and for the most part, the TDI doesn't disappoint. Around town, there's plenty of power on tap - provided you're willing to work the six-speed manual transmission to keep the 2.0-liter four-cylinder in its torquey sweet spot. Most of the time, that's hardly a chore, thanks to a smooth gearbox and linear, low-effort clutch. Commuters who spend lots of time in traffic might prefer the optional dual-clutch automatic. In any event, the TDI is really at home cruising on the highway, where the engine relaxes and the miles melt away with nary a fuel fill-up required. We guarantee you'll need a pit stop before the Jetta does.
Unfortunately, once it does finally need refueling, its diesel fuel might cost you quite a bit more than gasoline, although situation seems to depend heavily on where you live. If your primary motive in going green is to save some green, the unleaded-sipping Insight might be a better choice. But if you're looking for a practical, comfortable, fun small car that also goes well with your Captain Planet T-shirt, the TDI makes for an unbeatable choice.
Base Price: $23,090
As Tested: $23,090
Body style:  
Engine: SOHC 16-valve turbo-diesel I-4
Displacement: N/A
Horsepower: 140 hp @ {{{4000}}} rpm
Torque: 236 lb-ft @ 1750 rpm
Transmission type: 6-speed manual
Drive: Front-wheel
EPA Fuel Economy: 30/41/34 mpg (city/highway/combined)
On sale: Now


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