2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco, New York City, March 2011
A couple years ago, the EPA announced the first changes in its Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards in more than a decade.
Automakers were asked to increase the fuel efficiency of their fleets by almost 8 miles per gallon between 2012 and 2016. Many inside and outside the auto industry questioned whether it could be done.
Since then, carmakers have moved aggressively to increase the fuel economy of their wares, and the results are impressive. In 2009, there was only one car that could achieve 40 miles per gallon on the highway that wasn't a diesel or hybrid : the 2009 Smart ForTwo minicar.
Now there are 10 gasoline-powered passenger cars that hit that mark or higher. People who pushed the car industry to increase fuel economy may look at this list and say “See, that wasn't so difficult.”
But it's hard to know right now if this sudden surge in fuel economy is something the industry can sustain.
In any case, it's a boon for customers. For anyone trading in a car rated at 30 mpg on the highway for of these, it will be like getting 100 free miles out of every 10-gallon fill-up.
Meanwhile, here's a rundown (in alphabetic order) of these new fuel-economy achievers, and the technological innovations that enable their high gas mileage.
2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco
The Eco is one of the largest and heaviest cars in this group. But, at 42 mpg on the highway, also the most efficient. Key to fuel economy in most Cruzes is a very small displacement 1.4-liter engine paired with a turbocharger that provides extra oomph when needed.
To push the Eco version over the 40-mpg mark, Chevy took 125 pounds of weight off the car, lowered the suspension, added low rolling resistance tires, and installed shutters to close off the lower grille opening at high speeds.
Manual transmissions have traditionally been more miserly than automatics, and the Eco only tops 40 mpg highway if you specify the six-speed manual gearbox. The six-speed automatic gets only 37 mpg highway.
2012 Chevrolet Sonic
Although the 2012 Sonic has yet to be released, Chevy's team of auto-show product specialists are telling onlookers that at least one version of the Sonic will obtain 40 MPG.
This makes sense, as the Sonic incorporates engines and transmissions similar to the base Cruze, but in a lighter body.
Since a regular Cruze can obtain 36 mpg highway, it shouldn't be too hard to eke out another 4 miles from each gallon used in the Sonic.
2011 Ford Fiesta
2011 Ford Fiesta SFE
The Ford Fiesta was the first five passenger gas-only car to top 40 mpg after the EPA adjusted its fuel economy ratings downward in 2008.
The Fiesta's high-tech ace-in-the-hole is a dual-clutch six-speed automatic transmission that is more efficient than the manual.
The regular Fiesta automatic can obtain 38 mpg on the highway; to reach the magic 40-mpg mark, the SFE model adds various aerodynamic tweaks and low rolling resistance tires.
2012 Ford Focus SFE
Getting a compact-sized car up to 40 mpg is a little more difficult than with a subcompact like the Fiesta.
The 2012 Focus starts out with the same dual-clutch transmission as the Fiesta, and adds an engine with direct fuel injection. That brings it to 38 mpg highway.
To boost the SFE model to 40 mpg, Ford adds grille shutters similar to the ones on the Cruze, plus aerodynamic disc-style wheel covers (with low rolling resistance tires) and a large spoiler.
2012 Honda Civic HF
Throughout its history, the Honda Civic has often been at or near the top of fuel economy lists.
However, in recent years it's only been a little better than average for its class.Not so for the new 2012 model.
The new HF trim fills a niche between regular Civics and the Hybrid, delivering 41 mpg on the highway. It builds on the 39-mpg standard Civic by adding the wheels and tires of the previous Civic Hybrid and other aerodynamic enhancements.
2012 Hyundai Accent
Expected to return an even 40 mpg on the highway, the new subcompact 2012 Accent is the first subcompact to include direct injection.
Combine that with a six-speed automatic or manual transmission, and 40 mpg isn't too difficult in a car this size.
But it seems a lot less impressive when compared to the next car on this list.
2011 Hyundai Elantra
Larger and more powerful than the Accent, the compact 2011 Elantra achieves the same highway fuel economy.
Even more impressive, it does so without direct injection or any other whiz-bang technology.
The secret is likely its low weight. Starting at around 2700 pounds, it's barely heavier than some subcompacts. Its longer silhouette also allows for better aerodynamics, meaning less fuel used to push through air turbulence.
2012 Kia Rio
The 2012 Rio subcompact utilizes direct injection, just like the related Hyundai Accent.
But it will be the first non-hybrid volume car in the U.S. to offer a "start-stop" system that turns off the engine when the car comes to a stop (turning it back on again automatically when the driver applies the accelerator).
This could dramatically benefit city fuel economy. However, these benefits usually deliver only one or two tenths of a MPG on EPA test cycles.
When equipped with the new “SkyActiv” drivetrain, the 2012 Mazda3 sedan will reach 40 MPG on the highway, according to the manufacturer.
The SkyActiv suite of technologies includes direct injection and a high compression ratio for the engine, plus an aggressive torque converter lockup for the six-speed automatic.
2011 smart ForTwo
With only about 1800 pounds to carry around, a three-cylinder engine, and a unique automated manual transmission, one would think the Smart would set fuel economy records.
But despite its 41-mpg highway rating, it's within a couple of MPG of most of the cars in this group.
Unable to use MPG as a competitive advantage, Smart only moved about 5000 cars in 2010.