Fuel-efficient vehicles

As the government pounded out an ambitious new fuel-economy standard of 54.5 mpg, proposed to kick in by 2025, automakers were working on the technology and designs that will make that fuel economy possible. The cars we tested for this issue reflect some of the ways that automakers are stretching gas mileage, with more small cars and greater use of hybrid, diesel, and electric powertrains.

All of the cars in this group returned very good fuel economy, ranging from 33 to 40 mpg overall. But they’re made for different buyers, and each has high and low points.

Our upscale Lexus CT 200h hybrid hatchback (available to subscribers) achieved the highest overall test score, 71, but also had the highest price, $32,012. It’s powered by the same drivetrain used in the Toyota Prius and gets an excellent 40 mpg overall. But the Prius is roomier and gets 44 mpg. The CT’s handling is capable but isn’t very sporty. Acceleration is leisurely, the ride is stiff, and the cabin is well finished but snug and noisy.

Rounding out the group are the diesel-powered Volkswagen Jetta TDIHonda Civic Hybrid, and small Fiat 500 (all available to subscribers).

The Jetta sedan was redesigned for 2011. The TDI model gets 34 mpg overall, which is much better than the 25 mpg we got in the gas-powered Jetta SE. But diesel usually costs more than regular gas, so you won’t see as much savings at the pump. At $25,100, our TDI also cost notably more than the $20,300 SE.

Redesigned for 2012, the Civic Hybrid now uses a lithium-ion battery, which is lighter than the previous nickel-metal-hydride unit, and gets much better fuel economy than its conventional counterpart (40 mpg overall compared with 30). But at $24,800 the Civic Hybrid costs about the same as a basic Prius, which gets better gas mileage and scored much higher in our tests.

Perhaps the least expensive way to get better fuel economy is to buy a very small car with a tiny engine. The $18,600 Fiat 500 fits that description. Widely anticipated in the U.S. since the Italian automaker took control of Chrysler, the 500 is a retro-styled sporty car that competes with the Mini Cooper. The 500’s 1.4-liter, four-cylinder engine helps it achieve an overall fuel economy of 33 mpg, although acceleration is leisurely. Passengers also experience a choppy ride, noisy cabin, and tight rear seats in this subcompact.

None of vehicles we tested for this issue is recommended. The CT 200h and Jetta TDI are too new for us to have reliability information. The Civic Hybrid and 500 scored too low in our testing to be recommended.

More fuel-efficient vehicles are on the way. We’re currently testing the Nissan Leaf, the first mainstream fully electric car. Electric and hybrid versions of the redesigned-for-2012 Ford Focus are coming, as is a plug-in and a larger wagon version of the Prius. A diesel version of the Chevrolet Cruze will arrive for 2013 along with the Chevrolet Spark minicar. Among new gas-powered cars, redesigns of the Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio recently went on sale. Soon to come will be redesigned versions of the Nissan Versa and Toyota Yaris and the new Chevrolet Sonic.

Extra review: Chevrolet Volt

After more than seven months of driving, we’ve completed our all-season testing of the Volt, an innovative electric car with a backup gasoline engine that eliminates the range anxiety of pure electric vehicles. See our review of the Chevrolet Volt (available to subscribers).

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