There was a time when small European cars like the original Fiat 500, Volkswagen Beetle and Mini represented the very epitome of cheap, stylish, practical motoring. 

So much so that all three original cars have inspired contemporary retro-styled rides meant to evoke the memories of days gone by.

But which of today’s modern takes on those eternal classics gets the best gas mileage? The 2012 Fiat 500, 2012 Volkswagen Beetle, or 2012 Mini Cooper?

2012 Fiat 500

The original Fiat 500 -- produced between 1957 and 1975 -- was so-called because of its tiny two-cylinder, 0.5-liter engine. 

But while its 2012 descendant is styled on the original tiny city car, the much-heavier, larger 2012 Fiat 500 is powered by a 1.4-liter, four-cylinder engine. 

With a gas mileage of 30 mpg city, 38 mpg highway and 33 mpg combined, the 2012 Fiat 500 with manual 5-speed gearbox isn’t quite as frugal as the 50+ mpg its ancestor.

Adding the six-speed automatic gearbox drops fuel economy to a combined 30 mpg, making it less of an obvious choice in the fuel economy rankings. 

But despite its rather poor 3-star overall crash-test rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Fiat 500 models made after July 2011 (which have improved crash-test protection) received an Insurance Institute of Safety (IIHS) Top Safety Pick.

2012 Volkswagen Beetle

2012 Volkswagen Beetle, Bear Mountain, NY, May 2012

2012 Volkswagen Beetle, Bear Mountain, NY, May 2012

Produced for an astounding 65 years, the original Volkswagen Beetle (Type 1 to its friends) was designed to be an affordable, no-nonsense car. 

Originally powered by an air-cooled 1.0-liter flat four, the engine was later increased to 1.3 liters in size, and then to 1.5 liters, giving fuel economy figures somewhere between 20 mpg and 36 mpg depending on the engine ignition system used.

Designed to evoke the same fond memories of the original Beetle, the current 2012 Beetle is offered with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo engine or a 2.5-liter 5-cylinder engine, along with a choice of manual or automatic gearboxes. 

For 2013, Volkswagen has added a 2.0-liter TDI, which gives the best gas mileage of the Beetle range at 28 mpg city, 41 mpg highway and 32 mpg combined.

The 2013 Beetle has been awarded a four-star overall rating from the NHSTA, but only an overall Good rating from the IIHS.

2012 Mini Cooper

The original Morris Mini-Minor was a revolution in automotive design, combining transverse engine, front-wheel drive, hydroelastic suspension and space for four adults in a space just 120 inches long. 

By the time it gained the Cooper variant in 1961, the tiny Mini had increased its engine size to 1.0 and 1.1-liters, producing an impressive 55 brake horsepower but returning energy economies of around 36 mpg combined. 

2007 Mini Cooper Mk II official release

2007 Mini Cooper Mk II official release

The 2012 Mini Cooper is so much bigger than the original that it is possible to fit a cardboard replica of a 1961 mini inside it, but it retains some of the original Cooper’s stylish charm. 

With a much-larger 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine, the most economical 2012 Mini Cooper is the 6-speed manual, which gets 29 mpg city, 37 mpg highway and 32 mpg combined. 

However, it’s worth noting that the six-speed automatic isn’t far behind, with 28 mpg city, 36 mpg highway and 31 mpg combined.

When it comes to safety, the Mini Cooper has similar airbag protection to its competitors, but since the new NHSTA safety tests came into force in 2010, the Mini Cooper hasn’t been fully tested. However, the IIHS has awarded it an overall Good rating for all tests. 

Fiat 500 wins, but only just

If you’re looking for a retro-styled high-mpg car, the 2012 Fiat 500 wins on gas mileage alone. 

However, you’ll need to be happy driving stick to get that 33mpg combined. If you prefer automatic, the more-expensive 2012 Mini Cooper could be your car.

If you had to choose from these retro-styled compacts, which would you choose, and why? 

Let us know in the Comments below.


Follow GreenCarReports on Facebook and Twitter.