For years, auto executives—especially those from Detroit—insisted it wasn't possible to build high-mileage cars at reasonable prices that Americans would want to drive. Thrifty drivers were stuck with weezy econoboxes like the Ford Escort or Chevy Cavalier, designed not to delight drivers but to raise the automakers' fleetwide fuel economy, assuage regulators, and compensate for gas-guzzling SUVs. Early hybrids from Toyota and Honda upped the ante, with mpg in the 40s and 50s, but their high mileage required tradeoffs that produced a mediocre driving experience, at best.
But over the last few years, automakers have kicked their engineering departments into high gear, and they're starting to turn out some truly fun cars that get eye-popping mileage. It's not happening by accident. New gas-mileage requirements passed by both the Bush and Obama administrations are forcing automakers to either downsize their cars or come up with technology that will dramatically boost mileage. The carmakers are doing both. Most of them now build hybrids, which J.D. Power estimates will comprise a sizeable 8.6 percent of the market by 2015. And many automakers will soon be rolling out electric vehicles that can be charged more cheaply from a receptacle at home. But other types of technology are pushing mileage higher for traditional gas-powered engines, with less complexity than a hybrid or electric, lower costs, and practically no driving tradeoffs. Here are some of the vehicles proving that cars can be cool and thrifty at the same time:
Volkswagen Golf TDI (Starting price, $22,354; 30 mpg city/42 mpg highway). Once you try a diesel, you may never go back. Today's "clean diesel" technology eliminates most of the pollutants—and grimy black smoke—that gave diesels a bad name 25 years ago. And most modern diesels are paired with a turbocharger, producing meaty torque you'd never expect from a car that makes so few pit stops. The Golf is a feisty, upscale compact that fulfills VW's claim to European sportiness. In a weeklong test drive, I exceeded the Golf's official mileage by about 2 mpg, which is an oddly uplifting sensation. Like other diesels, the Golf TDI costs a bit more. It's basically the top trim line in the Golf lineup, about $4,700 more expensive than the entry-level model (with several premium features in addition to the turbodiesel). Drivers should be aware that diesel fuel isn't as widely available as gasoline, and that prices can be about 20 cents higher per gallon than regular gasoline. Mileage, however, tends to be about 30 percent better, which more than offsets the cost of the fuel. Volkswagen also offers diesel versions of its Jetta sedan and Touareg SUV, and the A3 turbodiesel offered by sister company Audi is a gentrified version of the Golf. All are worth checking out.
Hyundai Sonata ($19,195; 22 city/35 highway). This head-turning new sedan from Hyundai offers game-changing value and startling mileage for a car that holds five adults comfortably. Part of the technology that makes this possible is direct-injection technology in the Sonata's four-cylinder engine, in place of traditional fuel injectors. Direct-injection basically gets the fuel into the cylinders more efficiently, which equates to more power from less fuel. The technology isn't new, but in the past it's been too expensive for most cars. It's still more expensive than ordinary fuel injection, but automakers are finding new ways to lower the cost, and if it becomes widespread, the cost difference could end up being negligible. Drivers will notice that direct injection allows a four-cylinder engine to deliver power comparable to a V-6, and a six-cylinder the power of a V-8. The Sonata isn't a barnburner, but it's got plenty of power for a family sedan—with mileage comparable to many compacts. Hyundai is so confident in the package that it doesn't even offer a V-6 alternative.
Ford Mustang ($22,145; 19 city/31 highway). Ford used to build entry-level "muscle cars" with wimpy engines that must have made its engineers want to hide in the bathroom. Lesson learned. The base Mustang these days comes with a 305-horsepower V-6 that's tweaked in dozens of ways to deliver mileage comparable to a four-cylinder. Such innovations have even provoked mileage wars in Detroit, a modern-day adjunct to the age-old horsepower wars: The Chevy Camaro, the Mustang's closest rival, comes in a close second with a highway rating of 29 mpg.
Chevy Equinox ($22,615; 22 city/32 highway). This durable crossover feels rugged on the road, but dainty when it comes to gas. Parent company General Motors used to offer small engines on its family haulers mostly as an afterthought, while trying to herd buyers toward its pricier V-6 and V-8 offerings. But GM is now putting effort into refining its smaller engines, with enhancements like a six-speed automatic transmission on the Equinox pushing mileage well above the competition's. If GM is doing that, times have really changed. Also check out the GMC Equinox, a slightly fancier version of the Equinox that gets the same mileage.
Mini Cooper ($19,500; 28 city/37 highway). It's been around for nearly 10 years, yet the Mini is still the car to beat for huge fun in a small package—and mileage that's near the top for conventional, gas-powered cars. The Honda Fit accomplishes the same thing in a lower price range. The smart fortwo, by contrast, misses the mark with a truly puny interior, hesitant throttle, and other tradeoffs that have led to disappointing sales. The fortwo has actually made the Mini look better.
[See why American seem to be lousy drivers.]
Hyundai Elantra ($14,145; 26 city/35 highway). Any car can get mileage in the 30s if you strip out all the niceties and power down the engine to something approaching a lawnmower. The Elantra proves that formula won't cut it any more. Offerings in the low-priced compact category must now match the Elantra's sturdy handling, comfortable interior, and proven reliability.
Ford Fiesta ($13,320; 29 city/38 highway). It's been earning fans in Europe since 2008, and Ford's popular compact is finally doing the same on U.S. shores. The Fiesta's mileage trumps some hybrids, yet it still manages to offer a peppy, fun driving experience that's rare in cars this thrifty—or this cheap. Later this year, GM will launch the Chevy Cruze, which it promises will do the same thing. If so, the two vehicles would mark a small-car revolution that Detroit has been promising for years, but hasn't yet delivered.
BMW 335d ($43,950; 23 city/36 highway). This turbocharged, clean-diesel version of the vaunted 3-Series may offer a more authentic Bavarian experience than any gas-powered Bimmer. Diesels are popular in Europe, partly because they generate high torque that translates into superb passing power. That may not be as flashy as a screeching off-the-line sprint, but discriminating drivers know better. Behind the wheel of the 335d, you'll never know you're driving the most efficient BMW on U.S. roads.
Mercedes-Benz ML350 Blue-Tec ($49,700; 18 city/25 highway). The mileage might not sound impressive, except that this diesel can do just about anything you'd ever ask of an SUV, to include towing a 7,200-pound trailer. That usually requires a V-8 likely to need a spare fuel bladder to finish the trip. The diesel version of the M Class gets about 17 percent better mileage than the entry-level gas version, and costs about $5,000 less than a hybrid model that gets just 5 percent better mileage. In a recent analysis of high-mileage vehicles, Edmunds found the ML350 Blue-Tec to have lowest "payback" period , requiring just one year for its higher mileage to make up for the higher cost, compared with an equivalent gas-powered model.
Honda Accord, 4-cylinder ($21,055; 21 city/31 highway). Honda would prefer that you buy a pricier V-6 model, but the 4-cylinder Accord has plenty of power for sanguine drivers. What makes the Accord exceptional is a roomy interior and cavernous back seat that recall an earlier era in American motoring, when a car represented space and freedom. Maybe it will again—this time, with less risk of ruinous gas bills.