Secret Swillers: Nine Small Cars with a Drinking Problem

If there’s a water cooler at your place of business, the people who gather around it are probably talking about the price of gasoline. We don’t blame them. The average price of a gallon of regular gas sold on February 5th was $3.43 but came in at $3.92 two months later. In many areas, it’s now over $4 a gallon.

While some people are busy arguing about what is causing these spikes, others are asking another important question: should I buy a new, smaller car? The answer isn’t always a clear-cut yes.

If you’re looking at purchasing a small car, for instance, there are ten cars that will achieve 40 mpg or better on the highway: Mazda’s 3, Hyundai’s Veloster, Accent, and Elantra, Kia’s Rio, Chevrolet’s Sonic and Cruze Eco, Ford’s Fiesta SFE and Focus SFE, and Honda’s Civic HF. Many hybrids do even better. Those cars might save you money at the pump, but we’ve also flipped through the EPA’s list of small cars and found nine that might not. We call them our nine “small cars with a drinking problem.”

Mazda 3 Grand Touring: 20 mpg city / 28 mpg highway

Mazda’s 3 may have recently earned the 40-mpg crown, but that accolade only goes to 3s equipped with a Skyactiv-G 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. The 3 is also offered with a 2.5-liter engine for sportier drivers, but they’ll pay a lot more at the pump.

The 3 with the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine only gets 20 mpg city/28 mpg highway. The larger engine does have the benefit of more power and torque (and additional 12 hp and 20 lb-ft), but the cost is steep: 7 mpg in the city and 11 mpg on the highway, compared to the new 2.0-liter Skyactiv-G engine.

Scion xB: 22 mpg city / 28 mpg highway

The Scion xB certainly looks like an economical car, but it’s got a dirty secret: it isn’t. The xB is powered by a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine making 158 hp, which is good, but it comes at a cost: the xB is rated at 22 mpg city/28 mpg highway. You can blame those low numbers on the current generation xB’s larger engine. The original xB returned 30 mpg in the city and 34 on the highway, but it had just 108 hp, 50 fewer than today’s model.

If the xB’s drinking habits are too much for you, we’d suggest taking a look at the Kia Soul. The similarly shaped Soul easily tops the xB in fuel economy, with either of its two available engines. The base model’s 122-hp four is rated at 27 mpg city/35 mpg highway; the ! and + models (yes, Kia uses symbols to denote trim levels) get 26 mpg city/34 mpg highway from their more powerful, 142-hp engine. That’s still 16 fewer horses than the xB, but the Soul is roughly 250 pounds lighter than the Scion, so most drivers won’t feel the power deficit.

Volkswagen Beetle 2.5 automatic: 22 mpg city / 29 mpg highway

The most basic Volkswagen Beetle on the market is powered by an engine that doesn’t get a lot of love at Automobile Magazine: Volkswagen’s 2.5-liter inline-five cylinder. The motor might make a hefty 170 hp and 177 lb-ft, but with it the Beetle gets a disappointing 22 mpg city/29 mpg highway.

There are two possible solutions. 1: Shift for yourself. With the six-speed manual, the Beetle 2.5 gets a much more respectable 25 mpg city/31 mpg highway. 2: Upgrade to the Beetle Turbo. It uses the VW GTI‘s 2.0-liter turbo four and six-speed DSG, which not only gives you an additional 30 hp and 30 lb-ft but also gains one mile per gallon on the highway.

Mitsubishi Lancer SE: 22 mpg city / 29 mpg highway

The Lancer SE combines a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, a continuously variable transmission, and All-Wheel Control (all-wheel drive), a simpler version of the Super All-Wheel Control system in the Lancer Evolution.

The Lancer SE weighs about 100 pounds more than the equivalent front-wheel-drive Lancer GT, and manages just 22 mpg city/29 mpg highway (1 mpg worse on both counts). Keep in mind, also, that the EPA arrived at those numbers with the Lancer running in front-wheel-drive mode. If you were to run the car in all-wheel drive mode, those numbers would likely be lower.

Suzuki SX4 Crossover: 23 mpg city / 29 mpg highway

It’s hard to understand why the Suzuki SX4 drinks as much gas as it does. It doesn’t weigh much — just 2954 pounds with all-wheel drive and a continuously variable transmission — and it’s powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. Still, the car manages just 23 mpg city/29 mpg highway.

You could blame it on all-wheel drive, but the brand new Subaru Impreza Sport hatchback, which also has all-wheel drive, scores 27 mpg city/36 mpg highway, about 20 percent better than the Suzuki.

Nissan Sentra: 24 mpg city / 31 mpg highway

Check this out: a Nissan Sentra with a manual transmission is rated at 24 mpg city/31 mpg highway. That’s respectable, but another Nissan gets basically the same numbers: the significantly larger Altima.

Buyers of the sporty Sentra SE-R, which has a larger engine than basic Sentra models, have it worse. Its 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine gets 24 mpg city/30 mpg highway when equipped with a continuously variable transmission. Opt for the SE-R Spec V package and its six-speed manual, and you’ll get 21 mpg city/28 highway. No matter which way you look at it, the Sentra’s numbers are mediocre at best.

Buick Verano: 21 mpg city / 32 mpg highway

There are many reasons to buy the Buick Verano over a Chevrolet Cruze, its similarly sized sibling. The Verano is more luxurious than the Cruze, it’s quieter than the Cruze, and it has more equipment than the Cruze. It also has a larger engine, and that drags down its fuel economy.

The Verano has a 2.4-liter four-cylinder making 180 hp, and it weighs about 3300 pounds. As a result, the car gets 21 mpg city/32 mpg highway, which is less than larger, mid-size sedans like the Toyota Camry. It’s also much less than the Cruze, which gets 22 mpg city/35 mpg highway with its base 1.8-liter and 26 mpg city/38 mpg highway with the 1.4-liter turbo. The Verano might excel at being a luxury compact sedan, but it doesn’t do its owners many favors at the pump.

MINI Cooper S automatic: 26 mpg city / 34 mpg highway
Fiat 500 automatic: 27 mpg city / 34 mpg highway

We know, we know, putting two small cars that get 34 miles per gallon on the highway seems like an odd choice. But we’ve got two good reasons: first, both the Fiat 500 and Mini Cooper S take premium gasoline (which is more expensive than the regular stuff you can put in every other car on this list), and second, the Cooper S and 500’s numbers are matched or exceeded by cars with more space. For example, a Ford Focus boasts 18 percent more passenger volume than either the Fiat or Mini but will go 3 more mpg.

We’ll readily admit that here are definite reasons to buy a Mini Cooper S or Fiat 500. The Fiat 500 is a retro throwback, a fashion accessory with wheels, and the Mini Cooper S boasts more horsepower than anything else on this list save the Sentra SE-R Spec V. Buyers should buy the 500 for its twee styling and the Cooper S for its quick, lively driving experience. They shouldn’t buy these cars primarily for their fuel economy.

What’s the takeaway? These cars may get good gas mileage, but with the price of gas hovering around the $4/gallon mark, good isn’t good enough anymore, particularly in this size class. Many automakers have responded and are using cutting-edge technology such as direct injection, downsizing engines and adding turbochargers, and updating or changing transmissions to push fuel economy numbers from good to great. We hope these laggards follow suit.