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.

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.

Buying Guide
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2012 FIAT 500

2012 FIAT 500

MSRP $15,500 Pop Hatchback

0-60 MPH:

10.1 SECS


30 City / 38 Hwy

Horse Power:

101 @ 6500