Advice: Better Gas Mileage, Used Small, All-Wheel-Drive SUV--UPDATE

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2003 Honda Element DX

2003 Honda Element DX

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UPDATE: Well, we got a note from Denise:

I bought a car today. It's a certified pre-owned 2005 Toyota RAV4, single owner, 41K miles. The only thing I need for it is an iPod adapter!

It's really nice, fabulous condition, and I did fairly well on both the price and trade-in.

What do you think of her choice? Did Denise make the right call, or would you have chosen something different? Let us know in the Comments below.

The EPA gas-mileage ratings for her RAV4, by the way, are 20 mpg city, 24 mpg highway, for a combined 22 mpg.


Another day, another request for car-buying advice. And, again, better gas mileage is at the top of the list.

This time, we're putting it directly out to you: What car(s) would you recommend, based on the information below?

From our friend Denise, formerly of San Francisco, who now lives in Pittsburgh:

I'd love to get some help on what cars I should look at. I'm a bit out of my element (I can't believe I just said that) in needing to have all-wheel-drive for snow.

And the Honda Element gets just [explective deleted] gas mileage (rated at 20 mpg city, 24 mpg highway) and I can't take it any more.

[Denise adds: For the record, the Element never got anywhere near 20 city. It never got better than 15, and more often it was 13. Never got a mile better than 21mpg highway, with the wind at my back.]

So I'm looking for an AWD vehicle that gets relatively good mileage and isn't noisy. I've considered the Ford Focus too, but it's expensive and also it looks like a granny car.

So, exit the Element. We asked our usual spate of questions to help Denise narrow down her choices:

(1) Preference or requirement for sedan / hatchback / station wagon / crossover-SUV?

It doesn't really matter, but some cool factor would be helpful (thus my reticence about the Focus). So probably a crossover.

I looked at your review of the Suzuki SX4 and had some concerns, but I'm open. I'd certainly go drive one if you thought it was worth trying.

When I got here, I almost bought a Kia Soul--it's my favorite for cool factor so far--but I think I'd be sorry not to have AWD. It killed me not to buy that car, seriously killed me: It has glow-in-the-dark seat covers !!

(2) What's "good mileage" to you? (Bear in mind that because MPG is not a linear scale, you save TWICE as much gasoline--and hence $$$--going from 14 to 20 mpg as you do from 25 to 33 mpg, for instance.)

I did not know that! OK, let's see ... how do I really feel about this? In order not to feel humiliated, I think I'd need to get at least 20 mpg city from a standard engine, 30-ish on the highway.

A hybrid would be great too, but I don't think you get enough bang for the buck to pay the premium.

(3) What price range?

Less than $20K if possible, which answers your next question, kinda.

(4) New, used, or indifferent?

I would probably would to go with used for the money I want to spend. But I definitely want low enough miles to still be under factory warranty.

I'm hoping i can sell the Element for $15K or $16K; it's in great shape and it looks like a lot of people around here like them.

(5) Any must-haves? Won't-haves? Brands you like / abhor?

It has to get decent gas mileage, not be noisy inside, have a smooth ride (the Element might as well be a Jeep, at least it rides like one), and I'd like some designer-y-ness (I cannot drive a grandma car).

Oh, and a good stereo with auxiliary jack and/or an iPod hookup.

I can't think of any brands I truly abhor, except HUMMER. And though I'd prefer something that's not too big, the gas mileage is actually more important than the size.

This time, instead of saying what we would recommend for our friend Denise, we figured we'd put it out there to see what you--our valued readers--recommend.

So, tell us in the Comments below what cars you'd suggest for Denise, based on her preferences above.


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Comments (24)
  1. Firstly, despite what she thinks, you don't need to have AWD to live in NJ. I have lived in both Boston, and Utah (both very snowy) without the need for AWD. So I think she should seriously reconsider this requirement.
    However, assuming AWD
    2011 Mini Cooper Countryman All 25/31 MPG
    2011 Subaru Legacy AWD 23/31 MPG.
    If I could talk her out of the AWD, perhaps the Honda CRZ is worth a look at 35/39 MPG.

  2. One more piece of advice (un-requested). People who don't drive in snow tend to think they will have trouble accelerating. While there is some truth to that, decelerating (stopping) is really more of a problem. And for stopping, the AWD does not help you at all.
    The first chance that you get, have someone take you out to a snowy parking lot and practice braking and steering. Actually loose control of the car and then practice bring it back out of the skid. You have to turn the wheel in the opposite direction to what you might expect. Only practice will tune up those skills and it is better to practice in an empty parking lot than on the busy streets.

  3. You don't need AWD for the snow. Any two wheel drive car would do. Just get a set of studless snow tires from December to March. I live in Oregon and drive weekly into the cascades to crosscountry ski. All I have is a Honda Civic hatchback with Bridgestone Blizzaks. Never had to put on chains for 2011. I went skiing probably 20+ times.

  4. has some video tests of all season tires vs. Winter tires. Many different videos to view.

  5. I would echo what other have said... you don't need AWD in the snow. A front-wheel-drive with a good set of winter specific tires (not all season) will work very well.
    I live in Saskatchewan, Canada & drive on snow/ice at least 5 months of the year.

  6. I'm amazed by the number of comments that are avoiding the question and instead are trying to steer the asker away from AWD. While a FWD may work, the person in the article made it clear she's looking for suggestions of AWD vehicles that get better than 24h/20c mileage and have style.
    Add to that, she's also heavily influenced by style. So it's not likely she'll be putting crap rims with snow tires on the car or changing them herself. My guess is style is even more important than the fuel economy is. Or at least that was the vibe I got. And even if she is willing to swap out snow and dry tires, I expect the preference of an AWD over having to swap tires is more inline with what she's looking for. That would've been nice to have stated.

  7. @cgrey8,
    So should we add you to the list of people that have been avoiding the question? I don't see a suggestion from you.
    John C. Briggs

  8. @cgrey8, If she was considering a Ford Focus, then I would think she would be open to something other than AWD. It's just my personal experience that you do not need them for snow. I doubt an AWD with stock tires would perform all that well in snow anyway. And, what AWD vehicles are out there that really do that much better than 20/24mpg?

  9. I can't imagine how she drives to get those numbers on an Element. I have an '03 AWD and regularly get 21-22 combined and about 25 highway (the flat front does it in at speed). It's up to 129K with no problems. Maybe she needs a good mechanic or to modify her driving style.

  10. I also have a 2003 AWD and also get the same milage. I drive the speed limit, have about 80K on the engine. I love this car. Bought it new, and never looked back. Hauled 5 medium dogs from Texas to California, full sized washer&dryer fit in, and I don't worry about "style". that's all BS any way. Rock on Element.

  11. You can add me to that list. I don't have any suggestions since I don't know of any AWD vehicles that get that kind of fuel economy. But I also haven't been researching them either.
    And I agree, I have no doubt that a FWD vehicle can perform just as well as an AWD when driven correctly and with snow tires...possibly even better if the AWD has stock tires. I was only pointing out that the question was being avoided.
    But I also do agree, driving habit could also explain the poor fuel economy performance the questioner is experiencing along with 1/2 dozen other possibilities.
    As for the Focus comment she made, I thought there was an AWD version of the Focus hence her mention of it...but possibly not.
    Carry on.

  12. Last time I looked, Pittsburgh was not in New Jersey ... :)

  13. If you want cool, good looks(IMO) and good mpgs, Wait till the 2012 Hyundai Veloster or Accent hatchback become available, and give them a test drive. And I stand by my snow tire comments from before

  14. Oh, one other thought: The low mileage on the Element *may* have been from where she lived until moving to Pittsburgh: San Francisco. That city's numerous and steep hills will play havoc with gas mileage on any car without a regenerative mechanism, i.e. a non-hybrid. Both the BMW 550i and the Audi AllRoad I drove on my last two trips there got less than 10 mpg in mixed local and freeway use. You get the idea ....

  15. #1 choice the AWD Subaru Impraza/CVT trans for 2012. 35 MPG hiway or if the SUV is absolutly mandatory the Subaru Outback /CVT 2011 or 12 at 29-30 hiway. I own a 2010 Outback and it is great. Both are affordable with full time AWD well proven and not a mickey mouse add on AWD system.

  16. @Voelcker, Ah right, Pittsburgh is not in NJ. Can I apply for partial credit given that I was close?

  17. The 2012 Subaru Impreza seems like an awesome suggestion. I wonder if it will be deemed "cool car" or "granny car?"
    Also, if AWD was not a must, I wonder if the Honda CR-Z is considered a "cool car?"
    Personally, the Kia Soul is not my cup of tea.

  18. @Voelcker, Never mind. I withdraw my partial credit request. Pittsburgh is not even close to NJ. I was thinking Philadelphia. Very sad.

  19. Look at:
    On the whole: If we were going to offer one piece of advice, it would be this: Beware of anyone who tells you you'll never need four- or all-wheel drive, so you may as well just buy a car and be done with it. Whatever the cost of your drive system, all you need to do is use it once to keep you or a loved one from harm, or to get out of a troubling situation, and the added cost of the system will be worth it.

  20. If you live in an area where either an AWD or 4WD system might come in handy each winter season or could save your bacon when you go camping or on vacation, you can see how the extra cost might be justifiable. But even if you consider these systems merely another safety feature on your vehicle (like airbags, ABS, or seatbelts) and you never have to use the technology, it's still nice to know you have it just in case.

  21. Sorry, bad URL! This is right...

  22. Ok, this URL again...

  23. For those who care: 4WD means the presence of a 4-Lo and 4-Hi setting, whereas AWD means no low range setting. In that regards, 4WD vehicles are slightly more capable off road than AWD vehicles. In the snow or on road, it doesn't make too much difference.

  24. That motortrend article includes this line as well.
    "We've seen more four-wheel drives on the side of the road during a snowstorm than just about any other type of vehicle."

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