New York Auto Show: Big Buzz for Small Cars

Last Updated Apr 21, 2011 5:25 PM EDT

With high gas mileage taking a starring role in the era of $4-a-gallon gasoline, automakers at this week's New York International Auto Show are showing off redesigned high-mileage stalwarts as sleeker, sexier choices.

Starting with the Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Fiesta last year, car commercials have been touting cars that get 40 mpg on the highway. But as other models get redesigned to hit the same mileage target, automakers are marketing them as a style choice, rather than just a frugality play.

The most-watched redesign was a new "muscular" look for the Volkswagen Beetle, which we covered earlier this week. Here are details on some of the other notable makeovers:

Honda Civic
Many of the Auto Show cars don't become available till sometime in the future, but the 2012 Civic is on sale at dealers this week. Though redesigned, the sedan (at right) and coupe models aren't radical departures from the last generation. Prices range from $15,605 for the base model DX coupe to $26,750 for the updated, well-equipped Civic Hybrid model, rated at 44 mpg in city driving and 44 mpg on the highway. The Civic has another 40-plus highway model, called HF (for "high fuel" economy) and rated at 29 mpg city, 41 highway.

The Civic undoubtedly will continue to be a top-selling small car, reliable and with high resale value. But for those who care about style, it may seem design-challenged next to competitors like the Hyundai Elantra, which got a makeover this year with sweeping exterior curves.

Hyundai Accent
The redesigned Accent -- with a curvy look similar to the Elantra and mid-size Sonata -- is the latest Hyundai model to be rated 40 mpg on the highway. And as company executives like to say, it's "without an asterisk": Unlike competing brands such as Honda and Chevrolet, you don't have to buy a special model (with an asterisk in advertising) to get that rating. The subcompact Accent, rated at 30 mpg city, 40 highway, comes in both sedan and five-door hatchback (at left) models. On sale this summer, prices range from $12,445 base price to $16,795 with all available options. As a subcompact, Accent competes with Honda Fit, Ford Fiesta and Nissan Versa.

Nissan Versa
Speaking of the Versa: The redesigned sedan (right) has a sleeker look but maintains its interior roominess. Especially notable for a subcompact: Its rear-seat leg room equals that of some midsize cars, as the company notes. The Versa is rated at 30 mpg city, 37 highway; Nissan executives say they would have had to sacrifice too much performance to hit the magic marketing number of 40 mpg. On sale this summer, the Versa base model will start at $10,990; full pricing has not yet been released.

Kia Rio
Like its Korean corporate stable mate Hyundai, Kia posted record sales in 2010. Also like Hyundai, it boasts of the 40 mpg highway rating on standard models of its new Rio subcompact sedan (at left) and hatchback. With the addition of technology that shuts off the engine during full stops similar to hybrid models, the Rio sedan is rated at 30 mpg city, 40 highway. Pricing was not immediately announced for the new Rios, which go on sale late this year, but current models range from $12,295 to $16,095.

Mercedes-Benz A-class
Even Mercedes-Benz was talking about smaller, gas-saving choices. Music in its display space ranged from Janis Joplin's "Lord Won't You Buy Me a Mercedes-Benz" (for baby boomers) to current hits by rapper Estelle (a nod to the younger buyers the automaker hopes to attract), as the German car maker introduced a concept version of its small-car A-class (at right), previously sold only in Europe but now planned for the U.S. market. Details were few - but based on the sleek show car, the A-class may well be the most stylish small car on the road when it comes and among the priciest. (Competitor BMW's small-car 128i, already sold here, starts at $30,950.)

Larger Models Boost Their Mileage

The New York show has a full menu of small, high-MPG cars, but not everyone will be considering them. A recent Consumer Reports Survey showed that only about 25% of respondents planned to buy a smaller vehicle next time. "Car buyers often need a certain amount of size to haul people or cargo, " says Joseph Kyriakoza, a Detroit-based industry analyst for media and marketing company Jumpstart Automotive Group. "They will stick with those models, but they also expect good gas mileage."

With that principle in mind, redesigns from Chevrolet's midsize Malibu and Ford's large-car Taurus boosted their mileage:

Chevrolet Malibu: The Malibu has been a steady seller for General Motors, but has looked a little tired recently when compared with competitors like the Ford Fusion and Hyundai Sonata. Now Chevrolet is showing the 2013 redesigned Malibu (at left). The sleeker, updated version will offer only four-cylinder engines (no V-6 option) and improved aerodynamic styling. The changes are bound to improve mileage, but Chevrolet hasn't yet given overall MPG estimates -- except to say that a special Malibu Eco with an auxiliary electric motor will get 26 mpg in the city and 38 on the highway. The new Malibu will be on sale in the fall of 2012; no price data is available yet, but current Malibu models run from $21,975 to $27,015.

Ford Taurus: Since Ford's 2010 transformation of Taurus -- from a mid-size family car to a large near-luxury model -- it has had remarkable success attracting trade-ins from Asian and European luxury brands. (See Ford Taurus: Luxury Car? Better Believe It.) But Ford has already redesigned Taurus; the 2013 model (at right) was on display at the New York show. One version with the so-called Ecoboost V-6 engine is predicted to get 31 mpg on the highway, a high number for this class. Ford also has redesigned the sporty performance model, the SHO. With a more powerful V-6 engine, the SHO will get about 25 mpg on the highway, Ford said. The new model won't be one sale until late 2012, with pricing information to come later. (the 2011 Limited model starts at $32,030 and the SHO at $38,020. )

Photos by Jerry Edgerton and 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.