Five Fun and Frugal Cars

The American auto industry has become fixated on 40 mpg. This new benchmark dominates car advertising, and nearly every manufacturer is rushing to tweak its models -- or bring out entirely new cars -- in order to achieve that figure in EPA fuel-economy testing. That's a good thing for the environment and consumers' wallets, but higher-mileage cars often come at the expense of driving enjoyment. While a tiny hybrid car might be incredibly efficient, it probably won't get its driver's heart racing.

Due to the way EPA fuel economy is measured, in miles traveled per gallons used, the incremental reduction in fuel consumption decreases as overall economy rises. So the difference in fuel used between cars averaging 18 and 20 mpg is much greater than the difference between cars averaging 38 and 40 mpg. As a result, opting for a 40-mpg efficiency machine doesn't always save a huge amount of fuel versus buying a more interesting car with economy in the high-30 mpg range.

In other words, don't feel you must sacrifice a fun driving experience to save money at the gas pump. We put together a list of thrifty cars that score 40 mpg or higher on the EPA's highway fuel-economy test, and then found alternative rides that are much more interesting to drive. The fun cars would only use a few extra Hamiltons worth of gasoline each month, yet are considerably more satisfying to drive.

2012 Honda Civic Hybrid vs. 2012 Honda CR-Z
The 2012 Honda Civic hybrid has been redesigned to make it even more fuel efficient, with ratings of 44 mpg in both city and highway driving. While it is plenty thrifty, the Civic hybrid has a boring exterior design and provides an unremarkable driving experience. The car will help reduce your visits to the gas station, but it won't hold your attention for very long.

The Honda CR-Z also is a hybrid, but it is engineered more for fun than all-out efficiency. The wedge-shaped hatchback sits low to the ground with a design that recalls Honda's famed CRX Si of the 1980s and 1990s. Like that car, the CR-Z has just two seats and is considerably lighter than comparable cars, at 2600 to 2800 pounds depending on trim level. The most telling nod to excitement, though, is that the Honda CR-Z is the only hybrid car on sale today with a manual transmission.

The CR-Z's hybrid drivetrain and 1.5-liter inline-four engine combine for 31/37 mpg with a manual or 35/39 mpg with a continuously variable transmission. A glowing instrument cluster, precise steering, and handling designed for occasional clipping of apexes help make the CR-Z one of the most exciting hybrid cars around. Practical buyers, however, may be put off by the car's meager luggage room and lack of a rear seat.

If you can afford to skimp on interior room, the Honda CR-Z is a compelling alternative to the Civic hybrid. The former is cooler and more engaging to drive, yet still uses Honda's hybrid technology to deliver impressive fuel economy. According to EPA figures, the average driver will spend only $29 more per month to fuel the CR-Z instead of the Civic hybrid.

2012 Kia Rio vs. 2012 Kia Forte Koup SX
The 2012 Kia Rio is a truly impressive small car, transforming the old Rio from a dour and pragmatic small car to one that is stylish and on par with the best in its segment. From its Euro-chic styling and smart interior design, to its impressively smooth engine and pleasant ride-and-handling mix, the new Rio is a surprisingly good vehicle. Yet for the car enthusiast, the Rio pales in comparison to Kia's Forte Koup SX.

The Forte Koup, used as the basis of Kia's Grand-Am race cars, is meant to appeal to young, hip buyers who are actually interested in driving cars. With angular, aggressive styling; a competent chassis; and wide tires mounted on 17-inch wheels, the Forte Koup SX is an entertaining car for enthusiastic drivers. The SX trim gets a 2.4-liter inline-four engine producing 173 hp and 168 lb-ft of torque, making for swift acceleration when coupled to the manual gearbox.

Equipped with a six-speed manual, a requisite for more fun behind the wheel, the Koup SX returns 22/32 mpg (city/highway). Although that lags behind the Rio's ratings of 30/40 mpg, the EPA says that the average driver would spend only $40 more each month to fuel to the Forte compared to the Rio. As good as the new Rio may be, it is far less substantial and interesting than the Forte Koup. For that reason, we'd skip the fuel-scrimping subcompact and buy the zesty two-door.

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Good article, but the Ford only offers the Focus with a five-speed manual.
Why not buy a Mazda3 SkyActiv, 40 mpg AND fun to drive!

New Car Research

Find reviews, photos & pricing for:

Honda Civic

Honda CR-Z

Kia Rio

Kia Forte Koup

Hyundai Sonata

Fiat 500

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