New Car Reviews

Small Car Fuel Economy Comparison – Sip Gas, Save Cash

Fuel economy ratings may sell cars these days, but it’s really just one piece of a much larger puzzle that determines the cost to own and drive a car. According to IntelliChoice, the true cost includes depreciation, financing, insurance, state fees, maintenance and repairs, and of course, fuel. We’ve used these numbers to calculate a total cost of ownership over a five-year period with 14,000 miles of driving each year in order to determine which of our test cars offers the best value. Is it worth sacrificing top-of-the-ladder fuel economy ratings for a bargain price? Or is hybrid technology the end-all for the fuel and money frugal? Here’s what it takes to own these five subcompacts and one miserly hybrid.

Suzuki SX4 Sport
Base price: $14,999
Fuel cost: $9327
Cost of ownership: $29,013

Suzuki‘s SX4 is the most expensive car to operate over a five year period, primarily due to the car’s steep depreciation and middling fuel economy. On the highway, the SX4 achieves a respectable, if not stellar, 31 mpg. It’s the 23-mpg EPA city rating that really calls the SX4’s subcompact credentials into question. Estimated fuel costs for five years are more than $1000 higher than any other car in the comparison. Additionally, after five years of use, the SX4 will be worth about $8650 less than its purchase price.

With 143 hp on tap, the SX4 is the brute of the subcompact bunch, beating all of the other cars by more than 30 hp. The clutch and shifter work well together and short gearing makes sprightly acceleration part of the Suzuki’s DNA. The Suzuki’s ride, however, is less than ideal. While the SX4 sedan we drove only comes in front-wheel drive, its five-door hatchback sibling is unique to the subcompact class in offering standard all-wheel drive for the snow-averse.

Base price: $15,445
Fuel cost: $8199
Cost of ownership: $27,260

Like the Suzuki, the Accent suffers with below-average resale value and fuel economy that is slightly behind the others. EPA ratings place the smallest Hyundai‘s fuel economy at 27 mpg city and 32 mpg highway. The Accent has the lowest repair costs of the vehicles in the comparison, as the car’s five-year warranty puts all of the work on Hyundai’s credit card.

Of the subcompacts gathered here, we find the Accent at the top of the list in terms of driver engagement. Its slick B&M racing shifter and capable chassis tuning make it fun to drive. However, The Accent lacks some of the comforts that we would want in a car serving as a daily driver, particularly on the highway where engine buzz and harsh bumps invade the cabin.

Chevrolet Aveo5 LS
Base price: $12,680
Fuel cost: $8220
Cost of ownership: $23,913

At more than $3000, there is a significant difference in the cost to operate the Aveo5 and , driven largely by the fact that the Accent depreciates much quicker. Over five years of driving, the cost to own an Aveo5 is just $17 more than the Fit. Recent engine tweaks had only a minor affect on the Aveo‘s power numbers but helped boost its city fuel economy from 24 mpg to 27 mpg. Highway fuel economy is rated at 34 mpg. While the Aveo5 may be middle-of-the-pack when it comes to cost, that’s far ahead of where it places with regards to driving.

It’s a car that is five years behind the competition in terms of refinement, with a spongy suspension, vague transmission and poorly calibrated throttle. Years ago, the subcompact driving experience evolved from automotive persecution to modern comfort, style and dynamics, yet the Aveo5 seems like it was built for that bygone era. GM has done a commendable job on the interior of this car; it’s just a shame that equal effort wasn’t spent on the mechanicals.

Base price: $15,940
Fuel cost: $7800
Cost of ownership: $23,897

The Honda Fit is a well-rounded fuel-sipper, earning 28 mpg in the city and 34 mpg on the highway. That efficiency will save you $1000 in fuel over five years compared to the Chevrolet, Hyundai, and Suzuki. In terms of overall ownership cost, our Fit cracks the top half of our six-car test.

Driving the Fit is satisfactory, but by no means thrilling. The engine does its part well, but the shifter lacks feel and the suspension is tuned on the soft side. What the Fit lacks in driving pizzazz, it makes up for in functionality. Honda has done an excellent job with packaging inside the Fit. Despite a diminutive size, the Fit offers incredible interior space and its rear seats perform a number of acrobatic moves to make cargo hauling even easier.

Base price: $22,220
Fuel cost: $5292
Cost of ownership: $23,028

Even low-weight, small-engined subcompacts can’t put up fuel economy numbers like the Toyota Prius hybrid’s. Rated at 48 mpg in the city and 45 mpg on the highway, the Prius will save you more than $2000 in fuel costs over five years compared to these other cars. Because the Prius has a higher price of entry than its competitors here, you’ll end up paying more to finance the vehicle, one reason it hasn’t won the cost-of-ownership battle.

The Prius may not be quick on the straights or spirited through turns, but it is certainly a respectable driver for around-town jaunts and highway cruising. What it lacks in driving dynamics, it makes up for with the electronic energy display on the dash that turns feather-footed acceleration into a game. While the Prius may sticker $7000 higher than many of our subcompacts, that doesn’t translate into more style or comfort. Toyota’s money clearly went into the hybrid powertrain, leaving the dash a dull expanse of plastic. Several of the budget subcompacts here have way more style inside than the Prius. Still, many people will appreciate that the Prius offers more interior space for moving people and gear than the small cars while still returning the best fuel economy.

Base price: $13,945
Fuel cost: $7440
Cost of ownership: $21,785

The Yaris is able to win the cost-of-ownership contest by carrying below-average costs in nearly every category from depreciation to financing to fuel. Achieving 29 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway makes it the most fuel-efficient car in the test after the Prius.

The Yaris can be a bit of a bore behind the wheel, combining a lackadaisical engine and drab interior. Opting for the manual transmission will help to keep you interested. By adding a five-door hatchback model for 2009, Toyota has established a trio of Yarises to offer consumers whatever body style fits their lifestyle. Owning a Yaris for five years will save you about $1300 over a Prius. While hybrids may be a smart way to tackle high gas prices, Toyota itself has proven that they’re not the cheapest way to drive.

Buying Guide
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2008 Toyota Prius

2008 Toyota Prius

MSRP $21,500 Standard Hatchback


48 City / 45 Hwy

Safety (IIHS):


Horse Power:

76 @ 5000