Gas Mileage: 40 MPG is the New 30

Last Updated Feb 14, 2011 9:10 AM EST

How much do Americans really care about high gas mileage? Pump prices above $3 a gallon have not deterred buyers of pickups and big SUVs. But portents in the January sales figures and a recent opinion survey suggest that car shoppers do care. And the new marketing mantra aimed at the mileage shopper is 40 miles per gallon.

Consider these developments:

  • Ford says it doubled its small car sales over a year earlier, led by its new Fiesta model. General Motors cited its small-car Chevrolet Cruze as one of its best sales performers. Both the Fiesta and the Cruze have versions rated by the EPA at 40 mpg or more on the highway.
  • Hyundai, which built on its hot 2010 sales trends with a 22% gain in January, has also been doing well with its 40 mpg models: It sold 4,792 Elantras and Sonata hybrids last month. That's about 13% of company sales. Hyundai also challenged competitors by saying it will publish a monthly average fuel economy for its vehicles sold (34.7 mpg in January, already not far from the 35.1 mpg required by federal regulations in 2016). Unlike Detroit companies, however, Hyundai does not sell pickups or many big SUVs.
  • A Kelley Blue Book survey of visitors to its web site found that 70% said gas price influenced the vehicles they considered buying.
If you doubt that these cars will actually take you 40 miles on the highway for every gallon you pump, well, your skepticism is justified. As the EPA is fond of noting with its ratings, real-world experience may differ. Nonetheless, the EPA ratings are a useful guide in comparing one car to another. For instance, the mileage champ Toyota Prius hybrid (51 mpg city, 48 highway) will surely visit the gas pump less often than the also thrifty Ford Fusion hybrid (41 mpg city, 36 highway).

With that in mind, here is a look at four small cars that have just come on the market or will do so in the next few months:

Hyundai Elantra As part of its wave of new or redesigned models, Hyundai has given its Elantra, a complete makeover. Though bigger than its predecessor, it's lighter. Throw in the combination of a new, more powerful engine and an improved transmission, and that's how you get to the magical 40 mpg highway (29 city). Reviewers in early test drives noted reasonably responsive power, especially with the automatic transmission, and measured mileage not too far off the ratings. The low-end, manual Elantra starts at $15,500 -- competitive with the Ford Focus and Chrysler Group's new Fiat 500. Successive trim levels that add leather seats, GPS and other attractions put the starting price for the top end Elantra Limited Premium at $22,700.

Chevrolet Cruze Adapted from a car already popular in Europe, the Cruze is part of a trend to offer standard and optional equipment in small cars that used to be out of reach unless you jumped up to midsize. Reviewers praise its comfort, spacious interior and good manufacturing quality.The Cruze with the turbocharged, four-cylinder "Ecotec" engine is rated 42 mpg highway, 28 city, and starts at $18,995. A clever Super Bowl ad about oldsters who couldn't understand let Chevy repeat the 42 mpg over and over. The non-Ecotec Cruze versions are rated at 24 mpg city, 36 highway. The list price range is $16,275 to $21,975.

Ford Fiesta. The 2011 Fiesta seems to be backing up Ford's hopes that new styling and comfort imported from Europe would generate small-car sales here. Reviewers surveyed by U.S.News rank it the No. 1affordable small car. Fiesta (left) comes in sedan and five-door hatchback models and with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. The engine is a 118-horsepower 1.6 liter four-cylinder. With automatic transmission and the SFE (super fuel economy) package, Fiesta does hit the magic 29 mpg city, 40 highway. Other models are rated at 29 city, 38 highway. Base prices run from $13,320 to $17,120 before options.

Ford Focus Ford has sold a U.S. version of the Focus since 2000, but in recent years it has been a boring also-ran in the compact car class. Now the redesigned Focus (at right) -- bigger than the Fiesta and a more direct competitor with the Hyundai Elantra and Chevrolet Cruze -- will go on sale this Spring as a 2012 model. Like the Fiesta, the SFE version will hit 29 mpg city, 40 highway. The sedan version will start at $16,995 and the hatchback at $18,790. Early reviewers are predicting that the interior comfort and features will appeal to buyers.

If you are among those looking for high mileage but unwilling to spend the premium price for a hybrid, good 40 mpg choices are now out there at lower prices.

Photos courtesy of the manufacturers

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.