DRIVE TIME


It's All About MPG

Mark Solheim

A look at the rise of subcompact vehicles.



As gasoline prices climbed precipitously to $4 a gallon over the summer, sales of subcompacts soared. But sales of the Honda Fit have been running roughly 50% higher than those of the Chevrolet Aveo, Nissan Versa and Toyota Yaris. Why does the Fit fit consumer tastes better, given that all subcompacts get at least 30 miles per gallon on the highway and cost well under $20,000?

It's a superior car. The Fit is more refined, has more standard features, and handles and performs well. Even older, more affluent car buyers looking for a fuel miser for their commute have joined the traditional Gen Y market to push Fit sales higher.

More new subcompact models will travel U.S. roads within a year, including the Nissan Cube, the Ford Fiesta/Mazda2 and a Chrysler car that's being developed with Chinese automaker Chery.

To increase sales to baby-boomers (and boost profits), carmakers are turning econoboxes into premium small cars -- à la the Fit -- with better craftsmanship and more infotainment technology. They're also improving the fuel economy of vehicles of all sizes by using new technology and old-fashioned physics.

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A better Fit. The redesigned 2009 Fit is a paradigm for the premium subcompact. The base version with a manual transmission starts at $15,220. It's slightly long-er than the 2008 model, with a Prius-like raked windshield that gives the cockpit more space. It has six airbags and a new 1.5-liter engine with a little bit more torque (for zippier acceleration).

For $19,430, you can get a Sport model with a voice-controlled navigation system. Stability control, which helps prevent skidding, is standard on this high-end Sport version but, unfortunately, is not available on any other model. New for 2009 is a fuel-consumption gauge (in a test drive, I did even better than the EPA rating of 35 mpg highway for the manual-transmission version).

Less fuelish. Not all the fuel-economy action is in subcompacts. For the 2009 model year, carmakers are upping production of midsize sedans with four-cylinder engines and producing fewer gas-sucking engines. GM added a hybrid powertrain to its massive Cadillac Escalade SUV, and Chrysler is selling hybrid versions of its Aspen and Dodge Durango large SUVs.

And automakers have a few more tricks up their sleeves to increase fuel economy. In the near term, they're eking out better mileage by using more-aerodynamic designs, aluminum and other lighter-than-steel materials to reduce weight, plus tires with less rolling resistance and engine tweaks that favor conservation over performance.

Longer term, expect more vehicles with direct fuel injection (for better-controlled combustion); brake energy regeneration (already used in hybrids) to recharge the battery when braking or coasting; turbocharging to boost power in smaller engines; and stop-start technology to turn off the engine at stoplights.

Honda is introducing a new small hybrid next April that will go head-to-head with the Toyota Prius. Within two years, plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles should be in showrooms.

All this fuel-saving technology is a good thing. But you can give yourself an instant fuel-economy boost without buying a new car: Stop stomping on the accelerator and brake pedal and slow down on the highway. If you need a constant reminder to do this, there's Nissan's gimmicky Eco pedal, which pushes back against your foot if you press on the accelerator hard enough to hurt fuel economy.

A green light on the dash tells you when you're safely in the "eco zone"; the light turns amber when you're wasting fuel. It's estimated that the pedal can reduce fuel consumption by 5% to 10%. And if you don't like the Eco pedal? Simply turn it off.




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