Looking for a safe, ultra-efficient new car? Tom and Ray help John sort through the options.

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Sep 01, 2006

Dear Tom and Ray:

Back in the '80s and '90s, there were some ultra-efficient cars like the Suzuki Swift, Honda CRX and Honda Civic. I owned a VW Rabbit diesel that got 45 miles per gallon with my lead foot. All sold for under $15,000 and had real mileage ratings of 45 mpg or more. Even factoring in inflation, I'm curious why we have to pay an extra $5,000-$10,000 for hybrid technology to get the same mileage that a good old-fashioned, gas-only car was able to achieve 20 years ago. Please tell me why this is so. -- John

TOM: That's a good question, John. There are several answers.

RAY: One is that there's a lot of stuff on cars today that wasn't required or expected on cars 20 years ago. There are anti-lock braking systems, side-curtain air bags, reinforced beams in doors, electric windows, butt warmers, butt coolers and butt jigglers, just to name a few things. So economy cars now weigh a lot more than they did back then, because our expectations for even entry-level cars have increased. As a result, today's economy cars are a lot safer and more comfortable than the tin-can deathtraps you mention.

TOM: Second, cars today are bigger than they were 20 years ago, with more interior room. Look at today's Honda Civic. It's as big as the larger Honda Accord used to be in the '80s. Every time a model is redesigned, it seems, it gains a few inches in each direction (like its owners, I guess), so even our small cars are pretty big these days.

RAY: Finally, and probably most important, we've gone horsepower-crazy. Back in the early '80s, when we temporarily gave a whit about fuel economy, the average car had about 100 horsepower. A small family car like the 1982 Honda Accord had 75 hp. By comparison, a 2007 four-cylinder Accord has 166 hp. A six-cylinder Accord has 244 hp! And that's considered a modest, midsize car today.

TOM: Upward of 200 horsepower is practically expected today. And there are cars with 300 hp, 400 hp and more. In my humble opinion, that's crazy. There's not a car on the road that truly needs more than 200 hp. Most cars would be fine with a lot less.

RAY: So in the past 25 years, instead of taking all of the technological advances we've made and making a 120-hp Accord that gets 60 mpg, we have a 244-hp Accord that gets 30 mpg.

TOM: Why is that? Because of some combination of (A) that's what we want and (B) the carmakers have made us think that's what we need. But we don't. Is it really more important for us to get from zero to 60 mph a few seconds faster than for America to be energy-independent and not have to fight oil wars in the Middle East and pay through the nose for gasoline? Not to me, it isn't.

RAY: Now, $3-a-gallon gasoline might change our opinions of what we need. In fact, it's already changing them. Huge, heavy SUVs with overpowered engines are getting a lot harder to sell.

TOM: An increasing number of carmakers are starting to step in with just the kind of cars you're asking about, John. They're not getting 45 mpg, but they're getting close. And they're a heckuva lot safer and more comfortable than economy cars of 20 years ago.

RAY: For example, here are some cars you can buy today that are cheap (in many cases, $15,000 or less) and meet your criteria:

TOM: The Honda Fit (109 hp, 38 mpg highway), Toyota Yaris (106 hp, 40 mpg highway), Nissan Versa (122 hp, 35 mpg highway), Chevy Aveo (103 hp, 35 mpg highway), Scion xA (103 hp, 38 mpg highway), Hyundai Accent (110 hp, 36 mpg highway) and Kia Rio (110 hp, 36 mpg highway).

RAY: And for a little more money, you can have the larger Ford Focus (130 hp, 37 mpg highway), the Chevy Cobalt (145 hp, 34 mpg highway) or the fun-to-drive BMW Mini Cooper (115 hp, 36 mpg highway).

TOM: But the bottom line is that carmakers listen to only one thing, and it's not annoying automotive columnists like us. They look at their sales numbers. If people are buying 300-hp Hemis, they design and make more cars like that.

RAY: So if we want more choices in high-mileage cars, we have to buy high-mileage cars and let the gas guzzlers sit on the lots longer. So, it's not up to you and me, John; it's up to the people who are putting their money down now and signing on the dotted line. They'll determine the range of options the rest of us have a few years from now.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One