Small but stylish cars: No need to sacrifice 'cool' to save on fuel
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Remember when buying a fuel-efficient car meant choosing between bad and downright awful styling? The Chevrolet Vega, Ford's Pinto, AMC's Gremlin and Pacer, and the early bug-eyed versions of Datsun (now Nissan) and Honda come to mind.
Luckily, shopping around for a gas-friendly ride today doesn't mean having to settle on something that's sure to generate barbs from friends and family members. If you want a fuel-thrifty small car and a good dollop of fun and driving pleasure to boot, automakers have your number.
Combined with models we've tested extensively or on weekend "ride and drive" events, and aided with fuel mileage figures and research from Cars.com, PG On Wheels presents the following cars that not only get good gas mileage, but also won't make you feel ashamed when you're behind the wheel.
First, some ground rules: The Cars.com research was derived by combining the base sticker price with a fuel cost estimate, based on the car's average gas mileage. Fuel costs assume that the car is driven 15,000 miles per year, 45 percent of the driving occurs on the highway, the cost of regular unleaded gasoline will average $2.92 a gallon ($2.96 for diesel) over the course of the car's ownership and the car is owned for eight years. If you're not a "shift for yourself" kind of person, add about $800 to $1,000 onto the sticker prices on cars without an automatic as standard equipment and subtract a mile or two per gallon off the mileage figures. Also, figures were not available for all models.
Now here are our picks:
Manual transmission; 34 mpg city/40 highway; base sticker price, $10,950; lifetime fuel cost, $9,394.10; combined purchase and fuel cost, $20,344.10
Toyota's Yaris is a spacious, well-built subcompact that replaces the old Toyota Echo. It comes in sedan and hatchback models as well, and a long list of packages and options are available. It was peppy and handled strongly during driving tests, and it is full of storage compartments. It's also got a surprisingly plush interior. Of course, it has that Toyota reputation for quality.
Automatic 30/40; base sticker price, $15,360, lifetime fuel cost, $10,156.52; combined cost, $25,516.52
This is a compact car that's worthy of the cartoon characters in "The Jetsons." It's got futuristic styling with a wild dashboard that looks straight out of a rocket ship. Laden with technology and a long list of safety features, this one is a can't miss proposition.
Problems? The two-tiered dashboard takes some getting used to, and given its popularity, it may take a while to find -- and cost more in the end because of it.
Manual/diesel; 36/41; base price, $21,605; lifetime fuel cost, $9,286.27; combined cost, $30,981.27
The Jetta is easily one of the most luxurious small cars on the market, with interior styling that rivals Audi. And like all Jettas before it, the new one is a blast to drive with strong handling and cornering characteristics. It's built like a tank, too.
Drawbacks are its comparatively high price, and for some people, the exterior styling is more Japanese than German. Also, rear seat room tends to be at a premium.
Automatic; 25/34; base price, $12,400; fuel cost figures unavailable
We picked the Cobalt because of its lengthy standard equipment list, good looks and fuel economy, and its high fun-to-drive factor. Quick steering, modest size and a strong engine make this one of the more nimble small sedans. In coupe form, particularly SS Supercharged, it's one of Chevy's wild ones, and quite the performer in rallies and tuner car events.
Drawbacks? The interior fit and finish, while much improved, still isn't up to standards, and there have been reports of some small quality control niggles here and there.
Automatic; 26/30; base price, $13,425; fuel cost figures a not available
The Caliber is a new front-wheel drive hatchback that also can be ordered in all-wheel drive, a big bonus in Pittsburgh. It has lots of room and novel features such as an in-car cooler and a drop down from the hatchroof amplifier set.
Drawbacks: It's heavier than the others on the list, and that takes its toll on the acceleration potential. Also, the blocky, macho, push-the-envelope styling can be a turnoff.
Manual; 32/35; base price, $12,455; lifetime fuel costs, $10,506.75; combined cost, $22,961.75
The Accent has gone upscale in quality and content while still having a low price tag. Two-toned interiors, durable, nice fabric for the seats, lots of safety and convenience features and its 10 year/100,000 mile limited powertrain warranty help make this one a buy.
The biggest problem I had was the lack of cruise control and a remote trunk release button on the car keys.
Manual; 33/38; base price, $13,850; lifetime fuel costs, $9,940.43; combined costs, $23,790.43
This is one of the sportiest of the small cars, and it's a real hoot around corners and getting around in traffic. The flexible, large interior space is a big plus here, as is the luxurious ambience of the interior itself. The Fit also has one of the longest lists of safety equipment you'll find anywhere.
The biggest problem is getting one; waiting lists are now forming in many dealerships, according to Honda officials.
Automatic; 31/38; base price, $13,580; lifetime fuel costs, $10,260.61; combined costs, $23,840.61
This one's strong points are its fun-to-drive factor and that Toyota quality and long standard equipment list. It can be personalized with an almost bewildering number of dealer accessories, so you'll seldom see two that look exactly alike.
I wasn't real crazy about the audio controls, and rear seat room is at a premium.
Manual; 28/36; lifetime fuel costs unavailable.
This is one ball of fun to drive on the road, and they don't call it a go-kart for nothing. Lightning-quick steering, flat handling and a remarkable fun-to-drive factor keep this one at the top of the class. It's also easy to customize, with dozens of factory and dealer accessories, toys and goodies available for it. And it's no longer all that tough to order one now.
The biggest problems for some are a ride that can be harsh, especially on bad surfaces, and a decided lack of interior space in the rear.
TOYOTA PRIUS HYBRID
Fuel economy: 60/51; base price, $21,725; lifetime fuel costs, $6,262.73; combined costs $27,987.73
Winner and still champion of the hybrid derby in style, comfort, and innovation, the Prius is still a "must see" for anyone who doesn't want to give up interesting style and design for fuel economy. A sleek fastback hatch shape, a futuristic interior and interesting graphics for its dashboard keep the Prius in the ball game.
Problems include visibility out of the unusual glass hatchback and reports of price gouging by some dealers that still arise every so often.
First Published May 11, 2006 12:00 am