Price as Tested: $33,000 (est)
PM-Tested Fuel Economy (city/hwy): 35.7/42
Few vehicles combine sporty handling, luxurious amenities and exemplary fuel efficiency in one package, but the A3 TDI does just that — and does so with a satisfying rush of torque. The U.S.-spec A3 TDI uses the same 140-hp, 2.0-liter diesel that has made the VW Jetta TDI such a blockbuster hit for Volkswagen. The motor is paired to Audi's brilliant six-speed Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG), which performs brisk shifts. Slide behind the wheel and it's clear this is a hip German sport wagon. The seats are comfortable and supportive, the materials are all soft to the touch, and the dimpled-rim steering wheel feels as good as the ones in Audi's top sport sedans.
In the city loop of PM's driving test, the A3 couldn't quite match the hybrids or the Smart in fuel efficiency. But on the open road it returned 42 mpg — only a few ticks behind the Prius. And that's the beauty of this Audi: It makes precious few compromises. You can have exemplary fuel efficiency wrapped in a fun-to-drive package. At around $33,000, this A3 TDI is a bargain.
Price as Tested: $23,810
PM-Tested Fuel Economy (city/hwy): 45.3/43.3
The Insight has returned as a true Toyota Prius competitor. The aerodynamic four-door hatchback mirrors the profile of the Prius, a shape that proudly says "dedicated hybrid." Yet the Insight's price undercuts the Toyota's. One reason is Honda's much simpler hybrid system: A 13-hp electric motor is sandwiched between the 1.3-liter engine and the CVT. Unlike the Toyota or Ford hybrid systems, however, the Honda does not allow prolonged electric-only operation, because the little electric motor just doesn't have enough juice. The Insight switches to electric-only power when cruising at low speeds. In that case, the VTEC system idles the valves, so the engine still spins, but it doesn't consume any fuel. Yet the gas engine must start at stoplights to power the air conditioning. So if you select Eco mode, you have to forgo a/c when stopped.
We ran in this mode during our testing, and though the cabin did get hot, we were able to generate a solid 45.3 mpg in the city. The Insight rides a bit rougher than the Prius, and doesn't feel quite as polished or upscale. As a featherweight, it does struggle to maintain a consistent heading on freeways with high crosswinds. Around town, the Insight feels sporty and light on its feet as it jousts through traffic. There's an honest simplicity to the Honda. Like a Civic from the 1980s, the Insight feels tight, as though it would run reliably for decades.
Price as Tested: $31,940
PM-Tested Fuel Economy (city/hwy): 38.4/38
As much as we appreciate the high-mileage chops of traditional dedicated hybrids, the Fusion proves that fuel efficiency doesn't necessarily require unconventional wrapping. In fact, the Fusion looks and drives more like a regular midsize sedan than a hybrid. The Ford rides smoothly, absorbing big potholes like a luxury sedan. It's quiet, too, and in the city achieved with 38.4 mpg — excellent for a sedan weighing nearly 2 tons.
The powertrain is refined, several notches above the Fusion's price class. In fact, the transitions from EV mode to gas power are all but imperceptible. On the highway, the Fusion remained rock steady and tracked straight — no matter how severely the wind blew. But when the road began to bend, the Fusion wasn't a lot of fun. It had lazy responses and more body roll than the others. The Fusion rides and handles like the big sedan it is. Still, it's the first American hybrid that puts up serious mileage numbers. In fact, it delivered better highway fuel economy than the Smart. This is one clever fuel miser that doesn't have to shout about its eco credentials.
Price as Tested: $15,205
PM-Tested Fuel Economy (city/hwy): 39/36.3
On paper, a car like the Smart makes sense for city commuters since it's about half the length of a large sedan. You practically look forward to parking in tight spots. And from behind the wheel it doesn't feel as small as its exterior dimensions suggest. You could almost wear a 10-gallon hat in there.
But the Smart has quite a few shortcomings. The doors and hatch are light and tinny. And over rough pavement, the Smart is loud and rather crude. The minuscule, rear-mounted, 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine drives the rear wheels and produces an odd squatting of the suspension as you floor the throttle. It's paired to a lethargic automated manual that requires long pauses to perform shifts. Freeway driving isn't the Fortwo's forte. At speed, the wake of an 18-wheeler easily jostles the tall and narrow body. And it requires constant correction to keep on course. At the dragstrip, the Smart is certainly slow.
On our city drive, it had just enough power to keep up and delivered a solid 39 mpg. Yet, the Smart drew admiring glances. It's so cute and lovable you can't help but smile. Perhaps a case can be made for the Smart as a city-only car. But if your travels involve speeds higher than 55 mph, there are smarter choices.
Price as Tested: $33,500 (after $7500 federal EV subsidy)
PM-Tested Fuel Economy (city/hwy): 37.5/38.2
It's an EV early adopter's worst nightmare: running out of juice, miles from the nearest charging station. With the Volt, Chevrolet is intent on squelching those fears. When its 16-kilowatt-hour battery pack becomes depleted, the car automatically switches to a gas engine — a transition that is remarkably smooth (it's nearly impossible to discern on the road). And while the Volt may not be as fun to drive in the conventional sense as, say, a Corvette, there's still a sense of occasion behind the wheel. It is smoother and quieter than a Cadillac, plus in-dash screens add the gee-whiz element of revealing the car's inner workings. For a plug-in series hybrid, there's a lot of hardware — a gas engine, a large battery and electric motors — and clever ideas under the hood, pushing the price to $41,000 ($33,500 after the federal subsidy), a princely sum for a small car. But the Volt is more than the sum of its cutting-edge parts: It's a dramatic reinvention of the great American car, without sacrificing the great American road trip.
Price as Tested: $25,280 (after $7500 federal EV subsidy)
PM-tested EV range: 82 miles
It's not the first pure EV, but the Leaf is hitting the mainstream like none of its predecessors. At $32,780 ($25,280 after the federal rebate), the Leaf costs the same as an average car and offers a 100-mile range — enough to cover the needs of the vast majority of commuters and errand runners. More than 13,000 U.S. buyers have already plunked down $99 deposits, and Nissan hopes to soon move 150,000 units a year worldwide. The car is eerily quiet to drive. "The vehicle is equipped with a sound generator just so people can hear it coming," says Paul Hawson, product planner for the Leaf. But the real triumph lies in its family-car practicality and normalcy. And since electricity is cheaper than gas, the Leaf delivers lower operating costs. A rational EV that doesn't drive like a science project? About time.
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