Five Fun and Frugal Cars

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2012 Ford Focus SFE vs. 2012 Ford Focus SE
The 2012 Ford Focus only achieves the magical 40 mpg mark on the highway if buyers spring for the special fuel-saving SFE option package. Focus sedans so equipped wear unique 16-inch steel wheels with special aerodynamic covers, low rolling-resistance tires, a new rear spoiler, and active grille shutters that can close to reduce drag. The SFE model, however, is available only with Ford's six-speed dual-clutch transmission. Called PowerShift, the new transmission debuted on the 2011 Ford Fiesta and then the 2012 Focus.

Our chief complaint is that, because it is designed for optimum efficiency, the PowerShift transmission tends to stay in high gears as much as possible. This dulls acceleration and can frustrate enthusiasts like us. Drivers can use tiny toggle switches on the side of the shift lever to force gear changes, but the buttons do little to sate our desire for driving involvement. For that reason, we'd opt for a Focus SE with a six-speed manual transmission. It gives owners a more engaging driving experience, as well as the option for prettier alloy wheels and higher-performance tires than are offered on the Focus SFE.

The difference in fuel economy is minimal. Focus SFE models are rated at 28/40 mpg (city/highway), whereas SE models with a manual transmission get ratings of 26/36 mpg. According to the EPA, that's a difference of just $13 in monthly gasoline costs for the average driver. Not convinced? Allow us to remind you that opting for the SFE package adds $495 to the purchase price of a new Focus. Based on the EPA's numbers, it will take more than four years of driving to recoup the SFE model's price premium in lower fuel purchase


2012 Smart Fortwo vs. 2012 Fiat 500
It may be one of the easiest cars to park, but the Smart Fortwo isn't necessarily the "smartest" new-car choice. With just two seats and seriously minimal cargo room, the Fortwo forces lots of compromises in its pursuit of a tiny footprint. Though it is very small and fuel efficient, the Smart accelerates lethargically, and its automated transmission produces rough shifts.

We believe a better option is the Fiat 500. It, too, is small enough to make parking a breeze, yet the Italian hatch offers twice as much seating and nearly two cubic feet more cargo capacity than the Fortwo. Better still, it feels solid and usable on the highway, plus its chassis is both planted at speed and willing when darting through urban traffic. In short, the Fortwo is a tiny car that satisfies only with its compact footprint, while the Fiat 500 is a tiny car that quickly endears itself to drivers.

Neither car is particularly powerful, though infrequent trips to gas station should compensate drivers by way of their wallets. The Smart's 1.0-liter inline-three engine returns 33/41 mpg (city/highway), while the Fiat's gutsier 1.4-liter inline-four scores EPA ratings of 30/38 mpg when mated to a manual transmission, or 27/34 mpg with an automatic transmission. The Fiat 500 is a much more substantial car than the Smart Fortwo, and with fuel economy numbers so close, buyers of the 500 are giving up only $12 in monthly gas bills compared to buying the less-practical Fortwo.


2012 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid vs. 2012 Hyundai Sonata 2.0T
The latest version of Hyundai's Sonata midsize sedan, which launched here for the 2011 model year, offers three different powertrain choices: a 198-hp, 2.4-liter inline-four; a 274-hp, 2.0-liter turbo-four; or a hybrid drivetrain rated at 35/40 mpg (city/highway). The hybrid would appear the obvious choice for Sonata drivers trying to save some cash at the pump, but we don't think it's the best model of the three.

Hyundai's is one of the most impressive midsize hybrid sedans we've ever driven. The switchover between electric and gasoline propulsion is smooth, and the Sonata hybrid drives just as competently as its non-hybrid brethren. Yet its laudable 40 mpg highway rating isn't enough to sway us from picking a far more thrilling version of the sedan -- the Sonata 2.0T.

A direct-injection, turbocharged 2.0-liter engine produces 274 hp and 269 lb-ft, enough to rocket the Sonata 2.0T to 60 mph in a claimed 6.5 seconds. The car even gets steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters for the automatic transmission. Even with all that power, the Sonata 2.0T achieves EPA ratings of 22/34 mpg. That may sound far worse than the hybrid model, but the EPA says a month's worth of gasoline for the turbo Sonata would only cost $50 more than filling up the hybrid. We firmly believe that Volkswagen GTI-beating acceleration is worth an extra $50 in fuel bills each month.

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northshore94
Good article, but the Ford only offers the Focus with a five-speed manual.
usnidc
Why not buy a Mazda3 SkyActiv, 40 mpg AND fun to drive!

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