The familiar headlines blare about the pain at the pump, but before putting on a hair shirt and ordering up an anemic econobox as atonement, a look through our road test data confirms what we've intuitively felt all along -- high performance does not necessarily come at the expense of poor fuel economy.
All too often, sporty cars are lumped in with pickup trucks and sport utes as fuel-wasters. True, there's a fair share of exotic cars with EPA ratings in the basement, but more often than not, cars with an enthusiast bent post fuel economy that would be respectable for most family haulers while still providing enough 0-60-mph muscle and roadholding grip to bring a smile to any car lover's face.
To develop our index for The Fast and The Frugal, we took basic performance figures from our instrumented test regimen and through the magic mathematical formula devised by Engineering Editor Dennis Simanaitis, we developed an index that balances fuel economy with fun factors. In winnowing our list of test cars, we decided the car must be capable of exceeding certain thresholds including 0-60-mph acceleration of less than 7 seconds, a slalom speed in excess of 65 mph and an average EPA mileage rating of at least 20 mpg, all while carrying a sticker price of less than $60,000. All of the cars in our top 10 exceeded 100 points on the index, which further reinforces our belief that these cars are top performers under the pedal or at the pump.
In addition to our formula, we've also added a few other useful nuggets, including the size of the car's fuel tank, the vehicle's Theoretical Maximum Range (which is tank size times the EPA highway rating), how much it costs to fill that tank and finally, the official EPA annual fuel cost, which is based on the agency's combined mileage figure over 15,000 miles times a fuel cost of $3.94 per gallon.
After all the number crunching, here's our top 10 list of the Fast and the Frugal -- it contains some of the usual suspects as well as some big surprises.
Audi TT 3.2 Quattro
Fast & Frugal Index: 101.71
While the front-drive version of the Audi TT with its 200-bhp turbo 2.0-liter would at first blush seem the obvious choice, the 3.2-liter V-6-powered version provides 50 more ponies and a lot more fun without an undue penalty at the pump. The stylish TT earned its way onto our list with an average fuel economy of 20.5 mpg (we actually observed 21 mpg during our time with the car) and a strong performance at the test track. By putting power down to all four wheels, the TT hit 60 mph is just 5.1 sec., while its skidpad performance was equally impressive at 0.93g. Among the improvements in this second-generation TT is the roomier cabin and generous fuel tank size of 15.9 gal. Now, if only Audi can see its way to offer us the new TDI diesel version with its 170 bhp and 260 lb.-ft. of torque and promise of nearly 40 mpg highway, perhaps the TT will move higher up the list.
Fast & Frugal Index: 102.03
The MX-5, nee Miata, has long been a fast and frugal favorite. Its compact size, curb weight of less than 2500 lb. and spirited performance are the essential ingredients of the quintessential sports car. The test numbers from this 166-bhp 2.0-liter 2-seater are impressive; note the 6.5-sec. 0-60-mph time and the ability to pull 0.87g at the skidpad. Even though it has grown in size, gotten more muscular in the performance department, and now sports an optional power retractable hardtop, the MX-5 remains true to its mission of delivering great performance without putting a major dent in your wallet when it comes time to pull up to the pump. And even though its fuel tank is a relatively modest 12.7 gal., it still will go well beyond 300 miles between refills on highway cruises and yet won't require a credit check when you top off the tank. The Miata is so frugal, it is one of the few cars we've tested where our observed mileage of 26 mpg actually exceeded our EPA average.
Pontiac Solstice GXP
Fast & Frugal Index: 102.42
This is one of those instances where the hot version is actually more frugal than the base model. The Solstice GXP generates its 260 bhp from a turbocharged 2.0-liter Ecotec 4-cylinder powerplant, while the standard model generates 177 bhp from a larger, normally aspirated 2.4-liter variant of the same engine. According to the EPA, both cars are rated at 19 mpg city, but the GXP has a 2-mpg advantage on the highway due to its engine's smaller displacement. And while that saves on the fuel department, when it comes time to tear it up on the track, the GXP delivers with a 0-60 performance of 5.5 sec. And while we've complained in the past of the dearth of trunk space, the fuel tank has ample capacity at 13.6 gal. to easily hit the 300-mile-plus mark in highway cruising. Things can only look up for the Solstice on the fuel-economy front with a slicker wind-cheating coupe body waiting in the wings and if Pontiac ever decides to add another cog to its 5-speed manual.