Compacts Better Than Subcompacts For High Gas Mileage?

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2013 Ford Focus

2013 Ford Focus

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It's fairly easy to point at trucks and supercars as the biggest gas-guzzlers on the market, but for the average person on the street it's a lot harder to identify the cars with better gas mileage.

The casual observer might assume that Smart ForTwos or Scion iQs are among the most parsimonious vehicles you can buy--after all, they weigh very little and use tiny engines.

As we're aware though, that isn't necessarily the case. Sure, each is economical, but you can buy cars two or three classes above that are equally fuel-sipping.

Stark examples of this "smaller isn't always better" trend can be found in the compact and subcompact segments.

Bigger - Not better, but equal...

Take the Ford Fiesta and Ford Focus SFE-package models, for instance. The Focus is the larger car, with more equipment, greater interior volume and better performance from its 2.0-liter engine.

And yet, despite the Fiesta being smaller, lighter and using a smaller engine, their EPA fuel economy figures are nearly identical--40 mpg highway and 33 mpg combined. The Fiesta is a mere 1 mpg better in city driving, at 29 mpg.

The same is true when comparing hybrids like the Toyota Prius and Prius C. Each shares a 50 mpg combined rating, while there's only a few mpg difference in city and highway driving--the Prius C better at the former, the Prius at the latter. And for interior volume, the Prius is actually a mid-size car.

Of course, the larger cars in each instance are the more expensive to buy, and in that respect it's great for buyers with less cash to spend that they can buy a car with impressive efficiency without spending extra money.

2012 Toyota Prius C

2012 Toyota Prius C

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Value for money

But there is a sense that with the larger vehicles, you're getting better value for money--more space, more equipment and generally, better performance. They may often have larger engines, but particularly in highway driving those larger engines don't need to work as hard.

That's why cars like the aforementioned Smart aren't as frugal as you may expect--its tiny engine has to work overtime to match the pace of larger cars on the freeway, and it's fighting against barn-door aerodynamics as it does so. That's partly why it only gets 38 mpg highway--lower than several subcompacts and compacts.

Which should you buy?

As ever, it's not quite as simple as saying "bigger is better". The car you choose will inevitably depend on the sort of driving you do. If you rarely embark upon highway journeys, then the lightweight car with the smaller engine may return better gas mileage.

And if your budget simply doesn't stretch to a car in the next class up, then the fact it may get equal gas mileage is fairly irrelevant--unless you buy used, of course.

But next time you're in the market for a new vehicle, it may be worth checking out cars in the next class up, just in case you can get the same gas mileage from a bigger car. We're unlikely to see an "upsizing" trend any time soon, but for some buyers, that larger vehicle may actually make sense.


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Comments (6)
  1. If anyone ever purchased a Smart or a Prius C for primarily highway driving - They're doing it wrong. Those cars are for urban traffic and tiny parking spaces - not doing 75 on the Interstate.

  2. I totally disagree. I own both an IQ and a Prius and while the Prius is slightly more economical overall than the IQ it cannot compete in around town convenience. On the other hand the IQ is just as capable as the Prius in travelling long distances at speeds of seventy or eighty quietly and stably. The upshot of this is the IQ is the better all rounder when only two people need transport. I have also used a Smart as a second car before opting for the IQ which provides for a third adult if required and more comfort.

  3. Interesting angle. I think something people don't realize is sometimes a less powerful engine can be detrimental if it needs to work too hard to propel the car. Sometimes you're better off with a more powerful engine that doesn't need to work as hard. As far as comparing a Prius to a Scion or Smart car that's apples to oranges. You need to compare 2 ICE vehicles, not a hybrid and an ICE.

  4. If you notice my remark was in response to Brian Parker's comment that small cars should only be bought or used for city driving and easy parking. In use I have found they are also quite capable out on the road making them viable in both cases where as the larger car only excels out of town. If the small IQ is so deficient why does it almost match the figures of the expectedly more efficient hybrid? If it were compared to a conventional ICE non hybrid it would fair even better.Its all down to optimising the whole package to give best results and this is not always accomplished.

  5. Your article brings up many good points; thanks!

    The manufacturers fight fiercely for the compact and standard segments, driving so much improvement in aero and propulsion. The pricing of the subcompact class is such that that the propulsion improvements are just too expensive (for now). Aero (key to hwy mileage) will always be a disadvatage, as you point out.

    When we see AFFORDABLE tehnologies that permit 75kW 750-800cc twins (same specific energy as the 2L EcoBoost TODAY, btw)w/electrically-boosted turbo, start/stop, and the same level of attention to efficiency in accessories as the larger cars, then we'll see little non-hybrid cars w/ >50-55mpg (

  6. God, I am clumsy tonight!! Apologies to all. I MEANT to add under 4.4 l/100km in respect to non-Yank readers. Also that we should start seeing all this in the subcompacts by '15.

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