Small cars are the bread and butter for car manufacturers in almost every market except the United States because they’re compact, fuel-efficient, easy to maneuver in congested cities, and typically more economical than larger models. While small cars are not as popular in the U.S. as they are in other countries, the segment as a whole has been on the rise in the U.S. due to soaring gas prices. If you’re a looking to buy a small car to achieve better fuel economy and save money at the pump, don’t just assume all small cars will feature similar fuel economy; sports-tuned models with turbocharged high-horsepower engines and manual transmissions tend to have much lower fuel economy than their non-sporty counterparts. In fact, as you will see, the difference in fuel economy between trim levels of the same model can vary greatly.
5. 2012 Volkswagen Golf R
MPG: 19 city/27 hwy/22 combined
Alternative Model: Golf 2.0L TDI 2dr
MPG: 30 city/42 hwy/33 combined
The 2012 Golf R is an enthusiast’s version of the Volkswagen Golf and Volkswagen GTI offering turbocharged power, precise handling, and 243 lb-ft of torquey fun via a 256-horsepower/2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine. The Golf R is the type of hatchback that racecar drivers would enjoy driving when they’re not circling the racetrack, and it offers a sophistication and formidable list of standard options. If you want higher fuel economy and a lower selling price, try the diesel-powered Golf TDI -- although diesel fuel is pricey, so is premium gas, which is the fuel required for the Golf R. Diesels are known for their torque-driven power and their fuel economy, as well as their higher price tags. This one is still just under $10K less than the Golf R and it gets 42 mpg on the highway. Not too shabby.
MPG: 20 city/26 hwy/23 combined
Alternative Trim: 5dr Wagon Man L FWD
MPG: 26 city/32 hwy/29 combined
Based on the same platform as the popular Toyota Corolla, the 2012 Toyota Matrix is practical, enjoyable to drive and reliable. Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder here, as ample power with the 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine of the 2012 Matrix S achieves sluggish fuel economy, but sluggish power in the 132-horsepower, 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine Toyota Matrix helps achieve attractive fuel economy. If you find fuel economy (and the savings at the gas pump) more beautiful than power, than you might opt for the latter.
Reality check: The 2012 Toyota Corolla with a 132 horsepower/1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine is more spacious and achieves better fuel economy than both of the Toyota Matrix trims.
MPG: 18 city/25 hwy/21 combined
Alternative Trim: 4dr Sedan CVT ES FWD
MPG: 26 city/34 hwy/30 combined
The sporty and stylish Mitsubishi Lancer goes 0-60 in 6.7 seconds via a 237-horsepower, turbocharged 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine. You may save on space with this small car, but because of what you gain in power, you don’t see any cash savings at the gas pump. Try the more fuel-efficient continuously variable transmission (CVT) powered trim of the Mitsubishi Lancer that improves fuel economy by 9 points across city, highway and combined fuel economy – you’ll shed dollars at the dealership and at the pump.
Reality check: The 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera (with 7-speed PDK automatic transmission) gets better economy than the Ralliart trim of the Mitsubishi Lancer.
MPG: 18 city/25 hwy/21 combined
Alternative Trim: 4dr Sedan Auto i Grand Touring
MPG: 28 city/40 hwy/33 combined
Two roads diverge in a wood for Mazda3 buyers; same model, similar exterior, similar price – much different performance and fuel economy. The Mazdaspeed3 is a great choice for those who prefer to drive and not be driven, offering spirited driving dynamics and impressive acceleration of 0-60 mph in 6.3 seconds. The Mazdaspeed3 delivers 263 horsepower/280-lb-ft of torque via a turbocharged, 2.3-liter, four-cylinder engine. As the story goes, power is at the expense of fuel economy; opt for the Mazda i Grand Touring sedan and you shave 10 mpg on the city/15 mpg on the highway and 13 mpg combined. With the introduction of Mazda’s new Skyactiv technology, look for power and fuel economy to not have as adversarial a relationship as they begin to roll out the technology in all their models.
Reality check: Let’s talk about space and size. For around the same price and fuel economy and comparable power as the Mazdaspeed3, you can get the 2012 Honda Odyssey which seats seven passengers (two more than the Mazda), has nearly double the passenger volume (172.5 cubic feet versus 94.6 cubic feet) plus another 25 or so inches in length (202.9 versus 177.6).
MPG: 17 city/23 hwy/ 19.8 combined
Alternative Trim: 5dr Auto 2.0i Sport Limited
MPG: 27 city/36 hwy/31 combined
Although the 2012 Subaru Impreza was completely redesigned for the 2012 model year, the high-performance, sport-tuned WRX STI trim carried over unchanged from the previous year. A turbocharged 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine that can produce 305 horsepower and 290-lb-ft of torque delivers a powerful punch from the small car, but it also drives down fuel economy and drives up the price. If you have fuel economy on your mind, try the 2.0i Sport Limited trim and fuel economy soars up by more than 10 mpg for highway mpg and 11 mpg combined and drops the price down by more than $10K.
Reality check: The much smaller Subaru Impreza Wagon WRX STI gets the same fuel economy as the brawny Ford F-150 truck, which carries a 3.7-liter V-6 engine that can generate 302 horsepower and 278-lb-ft of torque and weighs (curb weight) 1300 more pounds than the Subaru Impreza Wagon (4,685 pounds versus 3,384 pounds).