Come the year 2020, new cars and light trucks sold in the U.S. must average 35 mpg. It's the law. But why wait? We've rounded up eight new models that deliver a 35-mpg average right now, more or less, according to federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) calculations.
Reality check: Although the Congress has mandated 35 mpg, our tests show that 35-mpg cars get 25 to 27 mpg in the real world. Close enough for government work? Well, yes, but there is a solid logic at work here. CAFE is a regulatory process first and foremost, and CAFE mpg comes from laboratory tests designed to reliably measure mileage for regulatory purposes. Any resemblance of your mileage to CAFE is purely coincidental.
But there is a payoff. The government tests are extremely reliable in producing the CAFE mileage number, and jacking that number to 35 mpg will produce more efficient cars than the ones we've been driving up to now that were built to the old 27.5-mpg mandate. Just don't expect to get 35 mpg. If you're shopping for mpg today on a budget appropriate to strained economic times, you'd look at small cars. Something around $18,000? Six new models have arrived since our last small-car comparison ["Sensible Shoes," December 2006], and the Ford Focus has enjoyed a major upgrade.
Our rule for comparisons is this: The winner gets an automatic invitation next time, losers are out. Too bad, third-place Honda Civic; tough break, second-finishing Mazda 3. Welcome back, defending champ Volkswagen Rabbit (CAFE: 30 mpg).
The Rabbit is facing a tough bunch of new guys, starting with a freshly baked Toyota Corolla, bestseller in the class. We find that Toyotas typically outfrugal the competition in our tests. And sure enough, the top CAFE ranking of 40 mpg is shared here by a pair of Toyotas. The 1798cc Corolla is a traditional four-door. Untraditional is the company's curveball to left-brainers, the Scion xD.
Mitsubishi has a new take on its compact Lancer, a large-for-the-class four-door boasting "shark nose" styling. With the newly available 2.4-liter four, it carries a 31-mpg CAFE score. Saturn replaces its unloved four-door Ion with the five-door hatchback Astra from Germany -- CAFE, 36 mpg.
Small-car specialist Suzuki just introduced a four-door take on its SX4 (CAFE: 34 mpg), formerly offered only as a hatchback. Subaru, famous for all-wheel drive all the time, has an all-new Impreza. The downside: It's the heaviest car of the bunch, and mileage suffers accordingly, achieving a 29-mpg CAFE.
We promised 35 mpg, "more or less." Our assembled group ranges from 29 to 40 mpg CAFE. Let's see what they do on the road.
Eighth Place: 2008 Ford Focus SE
35 City/24 Highway || Free Price Quote
This car raises a single question over and over: "What are they thinking?" With the chrome gills pasted on the fenders? With the imitation-leather look of the leather seats? With the tin-box flatness of the sheetmetal between the taillights? With the overly knobbed and overly buttoned center stack that glows blue at night like the interior of a vodka bar?
If you can get past the presentation, this Ford, rehabbed for 2008, is a willing performer. Acceleration is midpack, fuel economy is third best on our test run, it rides smoothly, and it aced the lane-change test. On the other hand, stopping from 70 mph required 203 feet, the weakest showing here by far.
It has an American-style driver's seat. That means a wide, flat cushion for those whose buns are now loaves. The door and the center armrests are slightly soft to the elbows; the console has two generous cup holders, and there's another in each front door along with a map pocket. However, Ford's efforts to overamp a portfolio of gimmicky details -- especially the clunky-chunky dial markings and the glut of techno trickery, including the voice-activated Sync system -- seem misplaced when many normally expected automotive features are missing. Why no back-seat headrests? No door pockets in back, either, and only the right front seat has a pocket on the back side. And don't bother reaching for a grab handle over any door.
Rear passengers will find excellent foot space. The seat cushion is high and firm. But adding a center passenger back there pushes the others into the low-head-clearance zones.
Imagine our joy, however, when we discovered we could adjust the lighting in the cup holders and foot wells through seven different colors. Oddly, there's also a beacon down by the gas pedal that shines the chosen color up into the driver's eyes.
What are they thinking?
Seventh Place: 2008 Scion xD
33 City/27 Highway || Free Price Quote
This bite-size four-door, like all Scion models, tries hard to be what older people at Toyota think younger people want. Our enthusiasm for it is obviously well contained.
Scion's bait for said younger people consists of: (1) low prices and (2) provocative (read "bizarre") styling. The xD's $15,170 base price falls into the group's bargain basement. At $17,088 as tested, our Scion is below the test average. The styling is inspired by noncar ideas, and this brings up the nugget of truth about this car: It fights with our car expectations. The driving position is too buslike, the seat cushion feels like a dome, certain controls -- radio on/off, for example, and the tach -- are contrived simply to be different, not better. The buckets have no height adjusters, and the pedals are way too close to the seat. Our jury has two exceptionally tall guys, both six feet five. The xD is least comfortable for them. Average-height drivers downgraded it for the same reason.
In size, this is a snippet of a sedan, 25.2 inches shorter than the Mitsubishi Lancer, the group's longest. Yet the rear is quite comfortable for two passengers, thanks to the high, firmly packed cushion. Three across bring the shoulder belts hard against the necks of the outer passengers. Interestingly, the whole rear seat slides on easy-adjust tracks with about six inches of fore-and-aft travel. Someone wants less legroom? Probably not, but you might want to trade off some passenger space for more hauling capacity behind, or perhaps move a child-seated infant within easier reach of the front.
Beneath the bizarre, this Scion is a Toyota. Fuel economy, 26 mpg on our drive, is second only to the Corolla's, and acceleration to 60 mph is 0.7 second better, a payoff due to 100 fewer pounds of curb weight.
Bottom line: too much attitude, not enough hospitality.