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10 fast and fuel-frugal sports cars

Jim Gorzelany
May 17, 2012


It doesn’t take a market research maven to determine that with gas prices still hovering around the $4.00 mark, fuel economy remains of paramount importance among new-car buyers. But what if your vehicular preferences run more toward the fast and the furious – can a true sports car be both entertaining to drive and fuel efficient?

The answer, surprisingly, is yes.

While the sports car market is still populated with plenty of gas-guzzlers, there are a number of models – some of which are among the quickest rides on the road – that boast downright decent fuel economy.

And while it could be said that anyone who’s able to afford a costly sports car could well absorb sky-high gasoline prices, consider the environmental effects of choosing a “greener” alternative. According to the EPA’s figures, the aforementioned 911 Carrera S will burn an average 10.3 fewer barrels of oil and spew 4.6 fewer tons of greenhouse-gas emissions annually than will either the comparably performing Lambo or Aston Martin. Such emissions include carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane, which are said to be major contributors to global warming. (For fuel economy and emissions ratings for all vehicles, check the EPA’s website at www.fueleconomy.gov.)

We sorted through both the EPA’s official fuel economy ratings and posted 0-60 mph times for all sport coupes/convertibles sold in the U.S. to compile a formidable list of ten models that can reach 60 mph in well under six seconds, yet achieve an estimated combined city/highway fuel economy of 22 mpg or better. These include fleet-footed models like the Porsche 911, Boxster and Cayman, the Lotus Evora, Nissan 370Z, Audi TT, Mercedes-Benz SLK, Hyundai Genesis Coupe, Infiniti G37 and an unexpectedly frugal version of the venerable Ford Mustang.

While most of these cars offer the choice of either a standard stick shift or an automatic transmission, you’ll note that many models achieve their quickest 0-60 mph times and top fuel economy ratings with the latter, particularly if it’s a sophisticated dual-clutch automated manual gearbox. While such racecar-inspired transmissions can be operated by hand for a quasi-manual effect, in fully automatic mode they typically shift faster and more precisely than most humans could muster.

One caveat, however. The EPA’s ratings are based on standardized tests conducted under strictly controlled conditions on a dynamometer, which is like a treadmill for cars. Out in the real world lead-footed motorists will likely never achieve any of these models’ lofty estimates. The EPA cautions that “aggressive” driving (i.e. the manner for which sports cars are built) can reduce a vehicle’s gas mileage by as much as 33 percent at highway speeds and by 5 percent in the city. As they say, your mileage may vary.

Given that corporate average fuel economy regulations here and in Europe are scheduled to rise significantly in the coming years, expect sports-car builders to pay added attention to their models’ mileage down the road. This will likely include expanded use of lighter-weight materials like aluminum and carbon fiber; all else being equal, decreasing a vehicle’s mass by 10 percent enables about a three percent increase in fuel economy. Expect widespread use of technology like direct fuel injection and turbocharging to help make smaller engines perform like larger ones, as well as a so-called stop-start function that automatically de-powers an engine while the car is at idle to save fuel.

We’ll also be seeing more hybrid, plug-in hybrid and all-electric sports cars in subsequent model years. The recently discontinued Tesla Roadster proved that a battery-powered sports car could maintain top performance (0-60 mph in around four seconds) and use no gasoline at all. Porsche is currently testing a plug-in hybrid 918 Spyder “supercar” it plans to introduce in the fourth quarter of 2013. While it’s expected to break the bank at a reported $845,000, Porsche says the 918 Spyder will boast the equivalent of over 770 horsepower and get around 78 mpg (three liters per 100 km).

Now that’s really fast and frugal.

1. Porsche 911 Carrera

The latest version of the iconic Porsche 911 continues the brand’s tradition of combining stellar performance with responsible fuel consumption. Powered by a 350-hp 3.4-liter flat-six engine and optional seven speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission, the base 911 can sprint to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds and is estimated at 20/28 city/highway mpg. The 911 Carrera S, which packs a 400-hp 3.8-liter flat-six, is even quicker at 4.1 seconds to 60 mph, but manages similar fuel economy at 20/27 mpg.

2. Porsche Boxster

Porsche’s swift and nimble roadster features a 255-hp 2.9-liter flat-six engine that, combined with the available seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, can make the 0-60 mph run in 5.4 seconds (5.2 seconds with the optional Sport Chrono package), yet it achieves an estimated 22/32 mpg. The Boxster S with its 315-hp 3.4-liter flat-six beats it by a few ticks at 4.7 seconds to 60 mph (4.5 with Sport Chrono) and boasts fuel economy that’s pegged at 21/30 mpg.

3. Porsche Cayman

The two-seat Cayman coupe is the “poor person’s” alternative to the costlier Porsche 911, and is arguably every bit as entertaining to drive. The base version’s 2.9-liter engine and optional seven-speed automated manual gearbox enable a 5.4-second 0-60 mph time with fuel economy at 20/29 mpg. Meanwhile the 3.4-liter flat-six in the Cayman S generates 320 hp and reaches 60 mph in just 4.8 seconds, with the Cayman R packing 330 horses and hitting the 60 mph mark in 4.6 seconds, with both at 20/29 mpg. All of the above 0-60 times can be shaved by 0.2 seconds by choosing the available Sport Chrono package.

4. Lotus Evora

The seductively styled Evora comes powered by a mid-mounted Lotus-tuned version of Toyota’s familiar 3.5-liter V6 powerplant; here it generates 276 hp, which is good for a 0-60 mph time of 5.0 seconds and fuel economy estimated at 20/28 mpg with the available six-speed automatic transmission. The Evora S version is turbocharged to reach 60 mph in a quicker 4.5 seconds with similar fuel economy at 19/28 mpg.

5. Hyundai Genesis Coupe

Receiving a welcome power boost with an early 2013 update, the best balance of speed and economy in Hyundai’s sporty Genesis Coupe line can be found with 3.8 versions that pack a spirited 348-hp 3.8-liter V6. Reports suggest 0-60 times around 5.2 seconds, with fuel economy estimated at 18/28 with the available eight-speed automatic transmission and 18/27 with the standard six-speed stick shift.

6. Nissan 370Z

Available either as a two-seat coupe or convertible, Nissan’s “Z” continues to deftly deliver dynamic performance at reasonable prices. A 332-hp V6 engine and six-speed manual gearbox enable the car to reach 60 mph in 5.2 seconds with an estimated 19/26 mpg.

7. Audi TT

Offered as a curvy all-wheel-drive coupe or convertible, the base TT with its modestly powered 211-hp 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and six-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission can sprint to 60 mph in a lively 5.3 seconds and get an impressive 23/31 mpg.

8. Mercedes-Benz SLK350

The V6-equipped version of Mercedes’ retractable hardtop roadster strikes the best balance of speed and efficiency in the line. The SLK350’s 3.5-liter engine generates a hearty 302 hp, which is sufficient to propel this tidy little two-seater to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds with the standard seven-speed automatic, while maintaining decent fuel economy at 20/28 mpg.

9. Ford Mustang

That’s right, the latter-day version of original “pony car” makes the cut in our top 10 fast and frugal list – at least in its base V6-powered coupe and convertible renditions – with an estimated 5.8-second leap to 60 mph with an EPA-estimated 19/31 mpg (19/30 with the convertible). Its fuel economy is particularly impressive when one considers that, at 305 hp, the standard V6 is about as powerful as the GT version’s V8 was back in 2010.

10. Infiniti G37

Essentially a distinctively styled version of the Nissan 370Z that’s fitted with a smallish back seat and added amenities, the G37 coupe and convertible share that model’s 3.7-liter V6 engine. Saddled with extra weight and five fewer horses at 330, it’s not as quick as the Z, though it can still reach 60 mph from a standing stop in 5.8 seconds and garner an estimated 19/27 mpg with the seven-speed automatic transmission.