The Winding Road Guide To Beating $4 Gas

By Winding Road Staff

May 24, 2011

For drivers, this escalation in fuel prices sucks big time. But let us not despair. Some of our favorite driver’s cars also happen to best the competition in fuel economy, whether sipping regular, premium, or diesel, and even sometimes with a chaser of electrons from a battery pack.
We’ve combined two useful resources to cull this list of entertaining fuel misers. We went to the Environmental Protection Agency for 2011 model year economy numbers and average annual fuel costs to find the more wallet- (and planet-) friendly cars available. Then, we cross-referenced that with our very own Involvement Index to make sure you’re getting the most fun for your buck. The result is a list of our picks of cars you can honestly enjoy while minimizing expensive trips to the pump. Best combined fuel-econ/involvement score wins the category; though we couldn’t resist throwing in some very tempting runners up. Take that, $4 gas.
We’ve categorized the cars into groups defined by the EPA—an interesting exercise in and of itself. According to the 2011 Fuel Economy Guide, cars (excepting two-seaters, which speak for themselves) are classified by combined cargo and passenger volume, which we have noted next to the individual categories. The EPA’s categorization leads, as you will see, to some strange bedfellows, but it also makes for compelling arguments between outright involvement and mpgs.
Are there other $4 fuel beaters you think deserve some consideration? Head on over to the Winding Road Forums to add your two cents.
Honda CR-Z 6MT
Involvement Score: 74
Fuel Economy (City/Highway): 31/37 mpg
A hybrid with a manual transmission? We must be dreaming. It’s true, though, and it’s not just any manual transmission; it’s a Honda-style manual, with a fairly short throw and crisp, snickety shifts. But if green cred is more important to you than shifting on your own, the CVT-equipped version is also available, offering 35 miles per gallon in the city, and 39 on the highway.
The little CR-Z is a pleasure to steer, with its fast steering rack and ability to rotate, though we wouldn’t mind a little more feel from the helm for more accurate transitioning between corners. It’s light on its feet, though, at just 2637 pounds, and reacts quickly to inputs from hands and feet. Its electric motor gives it that extra bit of shove down low, while keeping the revs high allows full use of the car’s 122 horsepower.
And while it is small, the CR-Z doesn’t lack room. Behind the front seats, there is plenty of storage space under the nostalgic, CRX-inspired hatch.
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Mazda MX-5 5MT
  • A true roadster with little weight, fast reflexes, great rotation, and exceptional fuel economy. A low asking price and user-friendly convertible top make this an ideal second car.
  • Involvement Score: 81
  • Fuel Economy (City/Highway): 22/28 mpg
Porsche 911 Speedster
  • This high-class German offering will definitely turn heads. Porsche performance and respectable fuel economy make open-top cruising a guiltless joy.
  • Involvement Score: 85
  • Fuel Economy (City/Highway): 19/26 mpg
Nissan 370Z 6MT
  • For the true driving enthusiast, the iconic Z offers a high level of involvement for an affordable cost. A great choice for the track.
  • Involvement Score: 80
  • Fuel Economy (City/Highway): 18/26 mpg
Mini Compact Cars (Under 85 cubic feet)
Mini Cooper 6MT
Involvement Score: 72
Fuel Economy (City/Highway): 29/37 mpg

With a super-short wheelbase and a rapid steering rack, the base Mini Cooper is arguably one of the most frugal ways to put a big smile on your face. By pushing the wheels out to the farthest corners of the vehicle, Mini has designed a car that is extremely easy to place on the roadway and quick to rotate, making carving through turns a cinch.

At the same time, the 1.6-liter I-4 returns a fuel-pump-friendly 29 miles per gallon in the city, and 37 on the highway when equipped with the six-speed manual. Despite only churning out 121 horsepower, the Cooper always feels peppy and ready to be run. It also has a rather burly exhaust note that belies its small engine.

The short wheelbase can make the ride a bit jarring, and we wouldn’t mind a bit more communication from the tiller. That being said, there are few cars at this price point that combine fuel economy and a fun-to-drive character so seamlessly.

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Porsche 911 Turbo 7AT
  • 500 horsepower. All-wheel drive. 25 miles per gallon on the freeway. Yes, it is possible. It’s a Porsche 911 Turbo. And it will return that freeway number when equipped with Porsche’s PDK gearbox, all while hitting 60 miles per hour in 3.2 seconds.
  • Involvement Score: 90
  • Fuel Economy (City/Highway): 17/25 mpg
Jaguar XK
  • In terms of grand tourers, there are few cars that can match the majestic Jaguar XJ. Its 5.0-liter V-8 only delivers 385 horsepower, but it feels far more powerful, easily accelerating the big cat to an electronically limited 155-mile-per-hour top speed. Oh yeah, it returns 24 miles per gallon on the freeway, which makes the Jag an economical choice for a cross-country GT.
  • Involvement Score: 72
  • Fuel Economy (City/Highway): 16/24 mpg
Subcompact Cars (85 to 99 cubic feet)
Ford Fiesta 5MT
Involvement Score: 65
Fuel Economy (City/Highway): 28/37 mpg
The Fiesta might not have the highest involvement score, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t capable of putting a big smile on the face of its driver. Acceleration and steering feel are the two areas that hurt the Fiesta, as the 120-horsepower 1.6-liter struggles with the economy minded gearing of the five-speed manual.

The thing that redeems this little motor is the sound it emits. It’s a nicely muscular note that makes you think there are more than 120 ponies kicking around under the hood.

In terms of steering, the rack is solid and quick to turn, but it lacks the kind of feedback that we like to see. That being said, the ride is quite comfortable, without sacrificing the ability to carve up a really twisty piece of road.

That same gearing that hurts the acceleration makes it easy to hit the EPA-estimated numbers. 28 miles per gallon in the city and 37 on the highway seem easily attainable without resorting to hypermiling.
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Audi TTS
  • Quattro all-wheel drive and a turbocharged four guarantee more than enough acceleration, while the solid steering and a fairly neutral character highlight the handling experience.
  • Involvement Score: 81
  • Fuel Economy (City/Highway): 21/29 mpg
Mini Clubman S JCW
  • A properly quick hot hatch, the JCW ekes out over 200 horsepower from its blown 1.6-liter engine. Along with its point-and-shoot handling, cheap thrills have never been so easy to come by.
  • Involvement Score: 78
  • Fuel Economy (City/Highway): 25/33 mpg
Honda Civic Si
  • Driven respectably, the Civic Si will behave in the same fuel-sipping manner as any other Civic. But only the Si has got the powerful motor, great gearbox, and terrific handling that we really want.
  • Involvement Score: 76
  • Fuel Economy (City/Highway): 22/31 mpg
Compact Cars (100 to 109 cubic feet)
Lexus CT200h
Involvement Score: 68
Fuel Economy (City/Highway): 43/40 mpg
We were pleasantly surprised by this fun little hatchback from Lexus when we took it for a spin earlier this year. It’s an easy car to throw around in corners, and is still very comfortable when cruising at high speeds or navigating heavy traffic. Thanks to hybrid technology borrowed from the Prius, the CT earns truly impressive fuel economy figures in all types of driving.
The interior isn’t a bad place to spend time. It’s a Lexus, so comfort is a given. Nice materials are used throughout the cabin, and the design is fresh. We especially like the choice of interchangeable trim plates for the passenger side of the dash—the bamboo looks very cool.
And, of course, there’s fun to be had in using the different driving modes: Eco, Normal, Sport, and EV. Can you guess which is our favorite?
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Mazda2 5MT
  • The 2 shares a lot of driving DNA with the MX-5, which is a good thing. It’s small, light, spirited, and economical.
  • Involvement Score: 72
  • Fuel Economy (City/Highway): 29/35 mpg
Ford Focus 5MT
  • The new Focus is hugely refined compared to the previous generation. It responds well to fast juggling of the steering wheel, too.
  • Involvement Score: 68
  • Fuel Economy (City/Highway): 26/36 mpg
Volkswagen Golf TDI
  • Turbocharged diesel means good low-end torque on top of great fuel mileage. The Golf is a great urban runabout—diesel is one of our favorite fuels.
  • Involvement Score: 71
  • Fuel Economy (City/Highway): 30/42 mpg
Midsize Cars (110 to 119 cubic feet)
Chevrolet Cruze Eco 6MT
Involvement Score: 67
Fuel Economy (City/Highway): 28/42 mpg
Chevy has achieved some magic with the Eco version of its Cruze, by making the most fuel-efficient version of the line the most fun to drive, too. We couldn’t believe it either.
So, while a 67 on the Involvement Index isn’t particularly high, the number does represent a solid score for something in the compact/economy end of the market, which tends toward the dreary. Cruze avoids that fate by offering a decent manual gearbox with which to get the best of its engine’s modest power.
Better still, the small Chevy handles like a bigger and more expensive sedan. The suspension offers a great balance between ride comfort and handling, softening the worst roads but allowing a driver to enjoy the twisty parts. We rarely feel caught out when pushing this eco-minded sedan through a hard bend, and it’s remarkably easy to keep hold of our morning coffee when we chance upon a pothole.
Cruze Eco won’t sneak into Ferrari territory on the Involvement Index any time soon, but it won’t ask for much $4 gas, either.
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Hyundai Elantra
  • Well screwed together and massively efficient, Hyundai’s all-new Elantra is an all-around bargain in this segment. Not the most involving ride though. 
  • Involvement Score: 64
  • Fuel Economy (City/Highway): 29/40 mpg
Kia Optima EX
  • Another strong effort from the surging Kia brand, the Optima looks to put standards like the Toyota Camry on notice with its high-value proposition.
  • Involvement Score: 68
  • Fuel Economy (City/Highway): 24/34 mpg
Subaru Legacy 2.5GT
  • The grown-up’s version of a WRX. We love driving the turbo-fed Legacy whenever we have the chance. Slightly dicey fuel econ for this segment is augmented by huge fun.
  • Involvement Score: 71
  • Fuel Economy (City/Highway): 18/25 mpg
Large Cars (120 or more cubic feet)
Hyundai Sonata – Involvement Score: 66. Fuel Economy (City/Highway): 22/35 mpg.
That 35-mpg figure on the highway is impressive when you consider Sonata’s really great 200-horsepower engine, and all of the kit it offers at a reasonable price. Ever since this Sonata debuted we’ve been singing its praises as the next great mainstream sedan. Camry, Accord, Fusion, Malibu, and Altima all have a lot of ground to make up.
And the ascendance of Hyundai isn’t all based on value either—this car is pretty fun to push when one deems it time. Especially when equipped with the paddle-operable version of its transmission, the 2.4-liter mill can be mined for just the power you’re looking for, just when you want it. Sure, the chassis and suspension are tuned more for comfortable cruising than they are for outright thrills, but knowing that the Sonata won’t wallow and float when pushed around a bit is a pretty big get in this mainstream segment.
Hyundai’s on a roll these days, and this Sonata is a big part of that. With fuel prices high and climbing, we expect to see many more examples of this capable sedan on every winding road we drive.
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Honda Accord SE 
  • The old standard for good fuel economy in a reasonably competent driving package. Honda’s Accord may be hunting for an update, but it’ll still offer fairly painless frugal driving.
  • Involvement Score: 64
  • Fuel Economy (City/Highway): 23/34 mpg
Porsche Panamera 3.6
  • The V-6-powered Porsche is far and away the most exciting car in this category, even if its high-ish mpg score keeps it from being the best mix overall. 27 mpg is rarely so much fun.
  • Involvement Score: 76
  • Fuel Economy (City/Highway): 18/27 mpg
Small Station Wagons (Under 130 cubic feet)
Audi A3 TDI
Involvement Score: 67.
Fuel Economy (City/Highway): 30/42 mpg.
We love this turbocharged diesel engine both for its fuel-sipping qualities and its good delivery of power. It builds speed pretty quickly despite the bit of turbo lag on the low end. It’s a nice car to steer, but it’s also pretty stable for the high-speed, straight-line fare. The paddle shifters are good to use, and add an extra touch of driver involvement. Unfortunately, Quattro all-wheel drive is unavailable, but that would also mean sacrificing some of the car’s excellent fuel economy.
The ride is comfortable, as the suspension tunes out a lot of the bumps and imperfections in the road. The interior is nice and cozy, meaning longer drives are much more bearable. The MMI interface is a good piece of technology, and easy to use. The interior is tidy, with quality materials. If you like the classic, no-frills design of an Audi interior, you’ll feel right at home in the A3 TDI. Heck, you won’t want to leave.
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Nissan Juke 6MT
  • It offers a good sense of speed, thanks in part to a vibrant little motor. It feels stable and doesn’t roll in the corners, despite its extra bit of clearance.
  • Involvement Score: 72
  • Fuel Economy (City/Highway): 24/31 mpg
Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback GTS CVT
  • The CVT means better fuel economy, but the driver-friendly column-mounted paddle shifters retain the fun of shifting. The big butt means room for more stuff, too.
  • Involvement Score: 72
  • Fuel Economy (City/Highway): 23/29 mpg
Honda Fit Sport
  • A revvy engine and crisp manual transmission translate into an entertaining drive. Plus, it feels huge on the inside, despite its small footprint.
  • Involvement Score: 70
  • Fuel Economy (City/Highway): 27/33 mpg