Financial Resource Center


Save Money at the Pump: Smaller Engines With Higher MPG

by Jerry Edgerton / July 25th, 2011

When it comes to gas-saving high mileage, electric cars and hybrids generate all the buzz. But they're not the only cars that can help you bypass the gas pump more often. Auto companies are boosting miles per gallon (mpg) with smaller, but still powerful, gasoline engines. And check out the cost: If you need better gas mileage but can't afford a pricey hybrid, the new cars with smaller, high-mpg gasoline engines often are less expensive as well. Largely because of high purchase prices, forecasters at J.D. Power and Associates, Westlake Village, Calif., expect the combination of hybrids and plug-in electrics to account for less than 10% of car sales by 2016, when federal regulations require each auto company to meet an average 35.5 mpg for all its cars. Diesel cars, like hybrids, boast high mileage but are more expensive than the same cars with gas engines. Gasoline engines with high-tech improvements will remain dominant this decade for a simple reason: They are the best way to deliver low-cost higher mileage. In a recent survey, Kelley Blue Book says 84% of shoppers polled on its website reported that gas prices affected their vehicle choice. But to meet federal standards, auto makers must build cars that consumers can afford and will buy. To boost gas mileage while maintaining performance, auto companies are using a variety of technologies to update their gasoline engines:
  • Turbocharging lets a four-cylinder engine power a car like a V-6 does, but only when needed. When you hit the accelerator, the turbocharger forces more air into the cylinders, boosting power.
  • Gasoline direct injection controls the timing and amount of fuel injected into the cylinders, facilitating gains in both power and mileage.
  • Variable valve timing aids getting air in and exhaust gases out of the engine at all driving speeds.
  • The idle stop feature shuts off the engine if you stop for a traffic light, then restarts it when you push the accelerator. This technology has been common in hybrids but is now expanding to gas-only cars like the subcompact 2012 Kia Rio.
"None of these technologies are new," says Michael Omotoso, chief power train forecaster for J.D. Power. "We are just seeing them used more often in more different vehicles." Omotoso points out that the Hyundai Sonata now offers only four-cylinder engines, eliminating the V-6 option that has been common for midsize sedans. And starting with its 2013 model, just shown at the New York International Auto Show, Chevrolet Malibu also will adopt that four-only strategy. The smaller engines, lighter in weight, also save costs because they take fewer raw materials. In some cases, that savings is passed on to the car buyer. Here is a closer look at a selection of small and midsize models that can save you money at the gas pump:

Small cars

Chevrolet Cruze: After years of offering tepid small-car entries, General Motors has a sales hit with its 2011 Cruze. Using direct injection, the four-cylinder, 138-horsepower, turbocharged engine on the LT version is rated at 24 mpg in city driving, 36 mpg highway. The Cruze Eco model, with additional technology like aerodynamic shutters that close down at highway speeds to reduce wind resistance, is rated at 28 mpg city, 42 highway—a highway rating that Chevrolet touts as the highest for an all-gas car. Both models have a base list price of $18,425. Like several of its competitors, the Cruze now offers comfort and convenience options rarely seen before in U.S. small cars. Ford Fiesta: The 2011 Fiesta seems to be backing up Ford's hopes that new styling and comfort imported from Europe will generate small-car sales here. Reviewers surveyed by U.S. News & World Report rank it the No. 1 affordable small car. Its 116-horsepower, four-cylinder engine, benefiting from technologies like variable valve timing, hits the magic 40-mpg rating for the highway (29 city) when equipped with the super fuel economy (SFE) package. Other models are rated at 29 city, 38 highway. The subcompact Fiesta is smaller than the Cruze and also starts at a lower price. Base prices run from $13,320 to $17,120 before any options are added. Honda Civic: Long among the best-selling small cars, the redesigned 2012 Civic, already on sale, has boosted its gas mileage with technology like variable valve timing. Its 140-horsepower, four-cylinder engine is rated at 29 mpg city, 41 highway in the HF (for high fuel economy) version with a list price of $19,455. That's value for high mileage compared with the gas-electric hybrid Civic, with a price of $24,050 and an EPA mileage rating of 44 mpg city, 44 highway.

Midsize cars

Hyundai Sonata: A hit with both reviewers and car buyers, the 2011 Sonata led the way toward eliminating V-6 engine options for midsize sedans. Its four-cylinder, 190-horsepower engine, with direct injection and variable valve timing, is rated at 22 mpg in city driving, 35 highway, among the best in this class. The GLS model with automatic transmission starts at a list price of $20,395. In the turbocharged version of the Sonata—competitive in acceleration with V-6 sedans—you pay for the power at a list price of $24,145 and a mileage rating of 22 mpg city, 34 highway. But you'll pay even more for top mileage with the hybrid Sonata (35 mpg city, 40 highway) at $25,795. Honda Accord: Honda has kept the V-6 option for its popular midsize sedan, but it isn't worth the extra cost. With variable valve timing, Honda has improved mileage for its four-cylinder engine in the 2011 model by 2 mpg to 23 in city driving and by 3 mpg to 34 on the highway. Reviewers praised the 2.4-liter, 177-horsepower engine as willing to run when you pushed the pedal down. The V-6 engine in the Accord is rated at 20 mpg city, 30 highway. This is where your savings come in. The four-cylinder SE version with automatic transmission lists for $23,730. The EX automatic version—the lowest-priced model with an available V-6—lists for $27,080. That gives you a savings of $3,350. And the difference in gas mileage would save about $275 a year if you put 15,000 miles a year on your Accord at recent gas prices. With prices at the pump likely to stay high for the foreseeable future, saving money with smaller, higher mileage engines makes good sense. Jerry Edgerton writes the Cars and Money blog for CBS He is a former automotive writer for Money Magazine and the author of "Car Shopping Made Easy."
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