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Gas-powered cars that get 40 mpg

To put an automotive spin on an old axiom, 40 really is the new 30—in miles per gallon. What’s particularly remarkable is that this impressive highway-mileage figure is increasingly being achieved not only by hybrids and other alt-fuel cars—which post their best numbers in the city—but by regular gasoline-powered vehicles with relatively low price tags.

A look at eleven current and forthcoming cars that deliver 40 mpg highway reveals MSRPs ranging from $12,490 (for a two-door Smart car) to around $20,000 (for a four-door Ford Focus SE). With global turmoil continuing to push pump prices higher, it’s clear manufacturers understand they can boost sales by focusing on a statistic that for most of the past few decades was a non-issue for the American automotive consumer. In fact, Ford recently started running ads that specifically boast about reaching the 40 mpg mark.

“Even five years ago, consumers wanted horsepower and driving dynamics, but now we have rising gas prices,” says Tracy Handler, senior analyst at IHS Automotive. “In the end, even more than CAFE standards (federally mandated fuel economy targets) gas prices really drive what companies are doing now, because of what concerns their customers. So they’ve set 40 (mpg) as a target, mainly for advertising reasons, and are achieving it with innovations ranging from air-flow louvers with sensors to simply cleaning up the underbody for better aerodynamics.”

Here’s a quick look at models that deliver 40 mpg on the highway:

2011 Ford Fiesta SE Sedan, 40/29 highway/city mpg (6-speed automatic transmission), $16,290: Ford commercials may boast about the Fiesta's 40 mpg, but you'll only see that kind of savings if you spring for the optional automatic transmission ($1,095), which uses an extra gear ratio to eke another 3 mpg out of the manual version's 37 mpg highway figure. This compact sedan is a bit short on cargo room, but offers quality interior appointments along with its impressive mileage. A list of high-tech options is available, but remember that the more weight you add, the worse the fuel economy.

2011 Ford Fiesta SE hatchback, 40/29, $17,300: For anyone thinking about stowing a bike or other athletic gear into the rear of your Fiesta, the hatchback is the way to go. What you give up in terms of the formal stance of a sedan you gain with regard to overall versatility.

2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco (manual transmission), 42/28, $18,175: The Cruze takes the same 1.4-liter engine stuffed inside its Volt cousin but in this guise integrates this engine’s turbocharger housing into the exhaust manifold, thus reducing weight. Also on board are electrically controlled air louvers that adjust according to the car’s aerodynamic needs.

2011 Hyundai Elantra, 40/29, $14,830 base MSRP: Helping this automaker leave its once ho-hum reputation in the dust is the Elantra, offering interesting looks, a quality (and quiet) cabin and a range of creature comfort options at a base price that’s one of the lowest around for a sedan.

2011 Smart ForTwo, 41/33, $12,490: This European import (and staple of cramped Old World capitals) belongs in the city, where it fits in tight parking spaces and can literally be parked with its rear to the curb. Concerns include the limited cargo space, and the thought of what might happen if you're unlucky enough to get T-boned by a 6,000-pound SUV.

2012 Ford Focus SE Sedan, 40/28, $18,790: Equipped with the optional SFE (Super Fuel Economy) package, which includes low rolling-resistance tires and Ford's six-speed automatic transmission, the redesigned Focus looks like the well put-together big brother to the Fiesta. It's a handsome sedan with respectable build quality that comes packed with features such as anti-lock brakes, six airbags, and remote keyless entry.

2012 Honda Civic Si Coupe

2012 Honda Civic Si Coupe

2012 Honda Civic HF, 41/unavailable, spring: Honda’s entry into the 40 mpg arena comes in the form of this competent if plain sedan, packing a 1.8-liter engine good for 140 hp. It also shares its aerodynamic exterior design with Honda’s current Civic Hybrid.

2012 Hyundai Accent, 40/-, spring: Hyundai’s budget-conscious model shares the same swoopy styling as its Elantra and Sonata cousins, though in a slightly more compact body. But thanks to a small (3-inch) growth spurt, it provides commendable cargo space and interior room.

2012 Hyundai Veloster (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

2012 Hyundai Veloster (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

2012 Hyundai Veloster, 40/-, summer, $17,500: This Tiburon replacement promises to win the Korean automaker even more attention, thanks to aggressive styling and a dual-clutch automated transmission that’s responsible for a 5% mileage gain over a traditional auto box.

2012 Kia Rio, 40/-, fall: The redesigned Rio comes in a variety of configurations (from three- to five-door) and with a range of engines (different displacement gas and diesel options). No word just yet which combo will garner that chart-topping highway mileage, though it’s likely to be one of the smaller (and lighter) gas engines mated to an automatic transmission.

2011 Mazda3

2011 Mazda3

2012 Mazda3, 40/-, fall: Mazda’s already handsome and well-regarded 3 gets a facelift as well as a new engine called the Sky-G. The two-liter inline four-cylinder engine generates 158 horsepower and is linked to a new six-speed auto transmission, whose improved efficiency and reduced weight no doubt contribute to Mazda hitting the big four-oh.