As U.S. consumers find themselves getting used to higher prices at the pump, automakers are seeing a shift in which vehicles are driven off the lot most frequently. Small cars like the Honda Civic and Ford Focus have even been predicted to unseat long-time reigning champions like the Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion if gas prices remain high. With this trend in mind, we rated the eight most popular small cars on the market today: Ford Focus, Chevy Cruze, Hyundai Elantra, Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra, Toyota Corolla, Mazda 3 and Volkswagen Jetta.
All-new for 2012, the Ford Focus is the highest scoring small car analyzed, earning an eRating of 149. The Focus benefits from a new 2.0 liter direct injection four cylinder engine mated to an also new six speed “PowerShift” automatic transmission. This pairing increases fuel economy by ten percent over last year’s model while also boosting engine output by 20 horsepower.
The Focus also boasts improved handling thanks to a torque vectoring system that helps balance torque between the front wheels during tight turns and an electric power-assisted steering system that adjusts steering response to match vehicle speed. Drivers will also enjoy quiet commutes provided by the special acoustical layer added to the windshield which reduces wind and road noise at highway speeds.
The Chevy Cruze and Hyundai Elantra tie for second place with eRatings of 133 (note – the Elantra now earns an eRating of 130 after mileage estimates were corrected by the EPA). The Cruze is equipped with Chevy’s fuel-sipping 1.8 liter EcoTec engine and, like the Focus, long highway trips are made more pleasant from an enhanced acoustical package standard across all trim levels. Equally important, occupant safety is increased by a standard ten air bags, a collapsible pedal assembly, and three-point safety belts in all seating locations.
The Elantra, 2012 North American Car of the Year, utilizes an all-new 1.8 liter four cylinder engine mated to a new, lighter six speed automatic and is available as a partial zero emissions vehicle (PZEV) in select markets. The PZEV designated Elantra earns a very impressive eRating of 186* through a 90 percent reduction in tailpipe emissions over standard engines. The Elantra is also equipped with the “ActiveEco System”, detailed previously in our small crossovers article, and a lighter high-strength steel body, helping to keep the engine operating efficiently and vehicle mass down.
The Civic, Sentra, Corolla and Mazda 3 hold strong in the middle of the pack with eRatings of 131, 123, 123 and 119 respectively. The Volkswagen Jetta pulls up the rear with an eRating of 113, which is partly explained by the Jetta’s larger interior volume and 104.4 inch wheelbase, which provide occupants with greater roominess than most of the other cars analyzed.
The Jetta, however, also offers a diesel engine option. This boosts the eRating up to 125 and averages a notable 42 mpg on the highway. The specialized, high-efficiency versions offered for several vehicles in this segment, such as Mazada’s SkyActiv, Honda’s HF, Ford’s SFE, and Chevy’s Eco trims are covered here.
As sales of small cars continue to grow, both consumers and the planet will benefit from the impressive fuel efficiency and environmental performance they offer.
|Make and Model||$MSRP||Specs||City/Hwy/Comb|
|Ford Focus||18,090||2.0 L 160 hp 4 cyl., 6-speed auto||28 / 38 / 31||149|
|Chevy Cruze||18,590||1.8 L 138 hp 4 cyl., 6-speed auto||22 / 35 / 27||133|
|Honda Civic||17,545||1.8 L 140 hp 4 cyl., 5-speed auto||28 / 39 / 32||131|
|Hyundai Elantra||18,370||1.8 L 148 hp 4 cyl., 6-speed auto||28 / 38 / 32*||130*|
|Nissan Sentra||18,390||2.0 L 140 hp 4 cyl., CVT||27 / 34 / 30||123|
|Toyota Corolla||17,720||1.8 L 148 hp 4 cyl., 4-speed auto||23 / 34 / 29||123|
|Mazda 3||18,940||2.0 L 148 hp 4 cyl., 5-speed auto||24 / 33 / 27||119|
|Volkswagen Jetta||18,515||2.0 L 115 hp 4 cyl., 6-speed auto||23 / 29 / 25||113|
*Mileage and eRating reflect corrected EPA mileage estimates.