The Anti-Hummers: Fuel-Efficient Smaller Vehicles

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

Even though gas prices are down to reasonable levels again (for now), gas mileage in the teens is definitely out. The car companies can’t give away large SUVs and trucks. Efficiency is in.

The good news is modern small cars don’t suck — and not just gas, either. They typically have 30-40 percent more power under the hood than the econoboxes of the ’80s, reach 60 mph in around 10 seconds (vs. 20-30 seconds in the Bad Old Days), easily handle 70 mph highway driving, are built much more substantially, have (or offer) creature comforts that used to be luxury car-only (such as climate control AC, GPS and excellent stereos) and they get 40 mpg (or better) doing it.

Check ’em out:

2009.5 Nissan Versa 1.6 (Base price: $9,990)

While the ’09 Versa itself is basically the same car as last year, Nissan has just added a new 1.6 liter “value edition” to the lineup that is priced about $2,000 below the sticker price of last year’s least expensive Versa (which cost about $12k) as well as competitors like the Toyota Yaris ($12,965), Hyundai Accent sedan ($12,920) and Chevy Aveo sedan ($11,965).

The up-front savings can be equivalent to nearly a year’s worth of free gas relative to the cost of competitors — and the Versa’s mileage figures of 26 city/34 highway will save on gas costs down the road, too.

The icing on the cake is the Versa’s surprisingly roomy interior,which offers more head and legroom (especially for back seat occupants) than most competitors.

* 2009 BMW Mini Cooper (Base price: $18,550)

The Mini is a modern reincarnation of the iconic ’60s-era Mini Cooper micro-car. Like the original, it’s small on the outside but amazingly roomy inside. It’s also both sporty and economical, so its technical classification is as unique as its looks. It can be a much more fun alternative to a traditional economy compact — or it can be a high-mileage, high-performance alternative to a gas-slurping sports car.

The two-door, four-seater Mini only weighs about 2,500 lbs. — which is why you get 0-60 in less than 8 seconds and 37 mpg on the highway. Even city mileage (28 MPG) is exceptional given the zippiness of the car. Also, the Mini’s six-speed transmission (both the automatic and the manual) is a noteworthy feature at the $18k price point. Most cars in this price range only come with five-speeds.

Even the base $18k model is well-equipped with AC, six-speaker stereo, power windows and locks, tilt/telescoping wheel and leatherette trim all included.

* 2010 Honda Insight (MSRP: $19,800)

This five-door hatchback hybrid is a Great Leap Forward in terms of practicality compared with the old two-seater micro-compact Insight hybrid of the late 1990s. Instead of seating just two, it can take five — or two and a mountain bike. The Insight’s second row seats fold flat to create a 32 cubic foot cargo space, which is made even more usable by the car’s tall roofline. Even with the second row in place, there’s still almost 16 cubic feet of “trunk” space left behind them — comparable to a current large sedan.

But the Insight’s strongest hand is its hybrid gas-electric powertrain, which can return 40 MPG in city driving and 43 on the highway.

Like the Toyota Prius, the Insight is a full hybrid that is fully capable of operating on electric/battery power alone up to 30 mph or so. In city-type stop-and-go driving, the gas engine may run only intermittently, in order to maximize efficiency.

The Insight has one other card to play, too. It comes nicely equipped with AC, power windows and locks plus a decent stereo all standard — at a price that’s thousands of dollars less than the cost of its archrival, the Toyota Prius, which begins at $23,500.

* 2010 Toyota Prius (MSRP $23,500)

The Prius has been in service for more than ten years now — more than proving the viability of hybrid gas-electric powertrains. If problems were going to happen, they probably would have cropped up by now. This track record of durability is one of the Prius’ strongest selling points. Also, that it is the most fuel-efficient hybrid on the market right now, capable of 51 MPGs in city driving and 48 on the highway. This superior performance at the pump could also offset its higher up-front cost relative to the new Honda Insight hybrid.

The Prius is also powerful, as hybrids go. Its tandem gas-electric drivetrain boasts a fairly large 1.8 liter gasoline engine that produces 134 hp. This is boosted when necessary by an electric battery pack and drive motors. Its acceleration is thus a bit sharper than the Insight’s — which makes due with a smaller 1.3 liter, 98 hp engine (plus battery packs/motors).

The 2010 Prius is also a little larger — with more room for back seat occupants as well as more total cargo capacity, 40 cubic feet with the second row down and 21.4 with the second row up. It may thus be a better choice for those who need the extra space.

Like the Insight, the Prius is very high-tech both functionally and in terms of its futuristic dash layout, which includes touch-screen displays as well as an unusual toggle-style shifter for the automatic transmission. It takes a little getting used to but once you get the hang of it, you’ll feel like you’re driving a car from 20 years from now.

* 2009 VW Jetta Sportwagen TDI (MSRP $23,789)

Diesel powered vehicles are making a comeback — and can be a great alternative to a hybrid like the Insight or the Prius.

Diesel powered vehicles are making a comeback in the United States and can be a great alternative to a hybrid like the Insight or the Prius — especially if you do a lot of highway driving. Hybrids are at their best at speeds under 40 mph, but diesels are optimized for efficient high-speed use.

The Sportwagen is capable of 41 MPG on the highway and 30 MPG in city driving — efficiency that rivals the best hybrids (and beats most gas-engined compact-economy cars). It is also a good performer, reaching 60 mph about 2 seconds sooner than either the Prius or the Insight, with ample power for extended high-speed highway driving.

The “sport” part of Sportwagen is also manifested in the availability of a six-speed manual transmission. The hybrids are all automatic-only.

Potential buyers who haven’t driven a diesel-powered passenger car lately should be aware that in addition to high performance and high mileage, modern diesels like the Sportwagen are also quiet and free of the noxious black soot spewing from the exhaust pipe that was once a diesel downside back in the Bad Old Days.

Today, the only negative to diesel ownership is the fuel — which can be pricey. And the pumps — which can be grimy. The first is offset by the superior mileage, as well as down-the-road longevity, of the diesel engine. As for the second, keep an old glove in the trunk and you’ll be all set.

* 2010 BMW 335d (MSRP $43,900)

In Europe, high-mileage and high-performance diesel luxury-sport sedans are commonplace. Here in the U.S., we’re finally getting access to some of these remarkable cars — the newest of which is BMW’s diesel-powered 3-series sedan.

The 335d’s six-cylinder diesel engine returns 36 mpg on the highway (23 in city driving) or about the same mileage as you’d get in a conventional front-wheel-drive subcompact economy car like the Toyota Yaris or Honda Civic — except you get to drive a luxury rear-wheel-drive sport sedan instead.

Its 0-60 time of 5.9 seconds ought to convince any doubters.

The chief negative here is the 335d’s price tag — which is $10,300 higher than the price of a standard 328i sedan with gasoline engine ($33,600). However, the diesel is much more powerful, quicker and gets much better mileage (the 328i’s figures are 18 city and 28 highway). BMW also pads the 335d with features such as 17-inch wheels, power (and heated) seats, a better audio system and other upgrades that are either extra cost options or not offered on the lower cost/base versions of the 3-Series sedan.

Bottom line, the diesel lets you have your luxury car cake and decent fuel economy, too.

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