20 Fuel Sippers We'd Gladly Drive

David S.
By David S. Wallens
Apr 21, 2008 | Acura, Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Consulier, Dodge, Ford, Honda, Lotus, Mazda, Mini, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Plymouth, Pontiac, Porsche, Saturn, Scion, Subaru, Suzuki, Toyota, Volkswagen | Posted in Shop Work | From the Dec. 2006 issue | Never miss an article

You can’t deny the fact that today’s hybrids get a lot out of a gallon of gasoline. However, these cars are not the most exciting vehicles out there. While the Honda Insight can do a mean burnout thanks to its manual gearbox and near-instant torque delivery, most hybrids are as thrilling to operate as a microwave oven.

Hybrids are just so clinical in a soul-sucking way that car enthusiasts tend to run away screaming. It’s not the destination, they note, it’s the drive getting there that counts.

Before you cut up your license and get a bus pass, we have some good news: What if we told you that there’s a bunch of fuel-efficient vehicles out there that are actually fun to drive? And we’re talking about cars, not Vespas, Segways and BMX bikes.

Sometimes you just need to do a little research. Here are 20 GRM-approved cars that deliver solid fuel economy numbers. All of them offer stellar performance and are good on gas, or they’re extremely efficient yet still fun to drive. Either way, an EPA city rating better than 20 mpg was required to make the cut.

Gas prices may have recently hit some six-month lows, but one hurricane or suicide bomber can change that fact overnight. The world only has so much oil, so let’s try to make it last as long as possible.

Honda CRX HF: 52 city/57 hwy

  • 1986 Honda CRX HF, 4 cyl., 1.5L, five-speed manual
  • Stock performance: C
  • Industry support: A
  • Motorsports potential: C
  • Cool factor: B

This magazine would normally be profiling Honda’s CRX Si, but we wanted to make a point: The combined city and highway fuel economy figure for the latest Toyota Prius beats the 20-year-old CRX HF by only 1 mpg, according to the EPA. It’s a tie in the cleanliness department, as the two cars produce the same annual greenhouse gas emissions. The CRX Si really is the model most of us crave, and it, too, is very good on gas; the 1986 model, for example, was rated at 31 city and 37 highway. (For those of you keeping score, we’d give the CRX Si a B for stock performance and a solid A for motorsports potential.) Honda offered CRX HF and Si models from 1985 through 1991.

Volkswagen Golf (TDI): 42 city/49 hwy

  • 2000 Volkswagen Golf, turbo 4 cyl., 1.9L, five-speed manual—diesel fuel required
  • Stock performance: D
  • Industry support: B
  • Motorsports potential: C
  • Cool factor: B

We admit that a stock turbo diesel Volkswagen isn’t exactly the most thrilling car to drive, but a couple of bolt-ons can quickly change that. Once the computer has been chipped to allow more boost and the suspension tweaked for better track manners, these cars can be excellent, fuel-efficient drivers. On the other hand, the TDI Volkswagens tend to earn very low EPA Air Pollution Scores. Perhaps the cleaner diesel fuels that are around the corner—or a more widespread use of veggie fuels—will provide an ultimate solution.

Honda Civic VX: 48 city/55 hwy

  • 1992 Honda Civic VX, 4 cyl., 1.5L, five-speed manual
  • Stock performance: C
  • Industry support: A
  • Motorsports potential: C
  • Cool factor: C

The CRX may have gone away after the 1991 model year, but those fuel-sipping genes were simply transferred to the Civic platform. The 1992 Civic VX nearly matched the CRX HF’s awesome mileage figures, yet this was a larger car—one that could seat five people, in fact. The VX model was part of the Civic lineup through 1995. The performance-minded Civic Si wasn’t so bad with gas, either, as the 1992 model was rated at 29 city and 36 highway. (Like the CRX Si, we’d also give the Civic Si a B for performance and an A for motorsports potential.)

Scion xA: 32 city/37 hwy

  • 2006 Scion xA, 4 cyl., 1.5L, five-speed manual
  • Stock performance: C
  • Industry support: A
  • Motorsports potential: D
  • Cool factor: B

We call it the box that rocks. Okay, maybe the xB better deserves that title. Still, the xA is practical, spacious and far from gas-guzzling. While it’s a little tall in the saddle for motorsports use, the right springs, wheels and tires can go a long way to changing all that. Conveniently enough, 18-inch wheels as well as TRD lowering springs and uprated shock absorbers are available from any Scion dealer—perfect for those who’d like to roll the cost into a monthly payment.

Suzuki Swift GTi: 29 city/36 hwy

  • 1989 Suzuki Swift GTi, 4 cyl., 1.3L, five-speed manual
  • Stock performance: B
  • Industry support: D
  • Motorsports potential: C
  • Cool factor: C

We’re not talking about the fuel-sipping, three-cylinder Suzuki Swift here, as these numbers were posted by the performance-minded GTi model. While never a huge sales success in the U.S., the Swift GTi was Suzuki’s very capable entry into the hard-fought hot hatch wars of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Dodge/Plymouth Neon: 29 city/38 hwy

  • 1995 Dodge Neon, 4 cyl., 2.0L, five-speed manual
  • Stock performance: B
  • Industry support: B
  • Motorsports potential: B
  • Cool factor: C

During the middle of the 1990s, practically all of the autocross and road race hotshoes were driving a Dodge or Plymouth Neon. Between the race-ready ACR option package, track-side support and factory contingency dollars, the cars were winners on a grand scale. Their fuel economy numbers probably weren’t popular discussion topics, but the Neons were surprisingly good on gas—and we say that in a positive way, as race-ready cars aren’t supposed to turn in such fine numbers.

Mazda MX-3: 29 city/35 hwy

  • 1992 Mazda MX-3, 4 cyl., 1.6L, five-speed manual
  • Stock performance: C
  • Industry support: C
  • Motorsports potential: C
  • Cool factor: B

You could almost say that the Mazda MX-3 was the spiritual successor to Honda’s CRX. Not only did the MX-3 carry the egg-shaped body style through much of the ‘90s, but like the CRX, Mazda’s little compact also managed good gas mileage. The six-cylinder version of the MX-3 wasn’t quite as fuel efficient, but it still posted decent EPA numbers of 23 city and 28 highway.

MINI Cooper: 28 city/37 hwy

  • 2003 MINI Cooper, 4 cyl., 1.6L, five-speed manual—premium fuel required
  • Stock performance: B
  • Industry support: A
  • Motorsports potential: A
  • Cool factor: A

Like the original Mini, the MINI for this millennium is also good on gas. While not the most miserly small car out there—at least the original 25/32 rating improved after that first 2002 model year—the MINI Cooper delivers the styling and personalization usually not found in econoboxes. It’s an upmarket car with a bottom-basement price. Unlike the standard-issue Civic or Corolla, the Cooper can also clean up at any autocross, even on the national level.

Toyota Celica GT: 28 city/34 hwy

  • 2000 Toyota Celica GT, 4 cyl., 1.8L, five-speed manual
  • Stock performance: B
  • Industry support: C
  • Motorsports potential: B
  • Cool factor: B

It might not look like an econobox, but the final incarnation of Toyota’s much-loved Celica posted some very nice EPA numbers when equipped with the 140-horsepower 1ZZ-FED engine. This car is no slouch in the performance department, either. Until enthusiasts discovered the MINI Cooper S, the Celica GT was one of the top cars to have for SCCA’s G Stock autocross class. The more powerful Celica GT-S wasn’t as thrifty as the GT model around town, but its 32 mpg highway rating was close.

Acura RSX: 27 city/34 hwy

  • 2006 Acura RSX, 4 cyl., 2.0L, five-speed manual
  • Stock performance: B
  • Industry support: A
  • Motorsports potential: B
  • Cool factor: B

We’re sad that Acura has dropped its RSX from the lineup, as this was a nicely built, more-or-less upscale sport coupe. The fit and finish of the interior led the class, while the chassis worked well on track, especially once it was slightly lowered and fitted with a bigger rear anti-roll bar. While lacking the edge of the earlier Integras, the RSX was aimed at a slightly more mature owner. The performance-tuned Type-S model wasn’t as thrifty as the base-model car, but its 23 city and 31 highway figures aren’t bad at all.

Saturn SC2: 26 city/36 hwy

  • 1998 Saturn SC2, 4 cyl., 1.9L, five-speed manual
  • Stock performance: B
  • Industry support: C
  • Motorsports potential: C
  • Cool factor: B

Saturn was GM’s answer to the imports, and the two-door coupe was the company’s Integra and Celica fighter. The first-generation Saturn SC2 coupe covered the 1992-‘96 model years, while the longer-wheelbase, second-gen car lasted up through 2002. For gearheads, the 1997 models are particularly appealing, as it’s the only way to get the later chassis with four-wheel-disc brakes and ABS. Saturn’s twin-cam, inline four was also used for their sedans and wagons; while rare, we have always been intrigued by a twin-cam, five-speed Saturn wagon.

Ford Escort ZX2: 26 city/33 hwy

  • 1998 Ford Escort ZX2, 4 cyl., 2.0L, five-speed manual
  • Stock performance: B
  • Industry support: C
  • Motorsports potential: C
  • Cool factor: C

The Escort GT was Ford’s compact performer for the ‘90s, while the Focus has filled that role for this decade. Somehow, the slippery Escort ZX2 kind of got lost in the shuffle, even though it was built for six model years—1998-2003. While based on the Escort chassis, the ZX2 got its own unique body work plus a 130-horsepower version of the company’s Zetec engine. The cars were light on their feet and quite tossable. Thanks to our friend depreciation, the early models can now be found for only two or three grand.

Acura Integra Type R: 25 city/31 hwy

  • 1998 Acura Integra Type R, 4 cyl., 1.8L, five-speed manual—premium fuel recommended
  • Stock performance: A
  • Industry support: A
  • Motorsports potential: A
  • Cool factor: A

It’s pretty impressive that one of the most formidable sport-compacts ever unleashed—that would be the Acura Integra Type R—also posts some quite good EPA numbers. Without the aid of a turbo or supercharger, the Type R produced 195 horsepower from its 1.8-liter engine. It’s also rated at 25 mpg in town and 31 on the highway—same as the standard-issue Integra. Not bad for one of the most race-ready cars sold in the past decade.

Mazda Miata: 25 city/30 hwy

  • 1990 Mazda Miata, 4 cyl., 1.6L, five-speed manual
  • Stock performance: B
  • Industry support: A
  • Motorsports potential: A
  • Cool factor: A

The Mazda Miata didn’t waste much time in becoming a superstar, as it quickly made everyone’s list of favorites soon after its launch for the 1990 season. The Miata wasn’t going to outrun a Ferrari or Corvette, but that wasn’t the point. The Miata was all about delivering smiles per gallon. The car also did well in the mpg department, as those early, 1.6-liter Miatas posted economy car-like EPA figures. It’s funny (or sad, depending on your view) that after a decade and a half of evolution, the new MX-5 goes just as far on a gallon of fuel.

Toyota MR2 Spyder: 26 city/32 hwy

  • 2005 Toyota MR2 Spyder, 4 cyl., 1.8L, five-speed manual
  • Stock performance: B
  • Industry support: B
  • Motorsports potential: B
  • Cool factor: A

Historically, you had to go with an exotic to get a mid-engine layout and topdown styling: Ferrari, Lamborghini or something along those lines. Then the MR2 Spyder came along for the 2000 model year and changed all of that. Priced not too much higher than the average family sedan, the MR2 Spyder added another attribute to the mix: good fuel economy thanks to Toyota’s 1ZZ-FED engine. The MR2 Spyder wasn’t perfect—tragically, it had very little cargo room—but it was one of the few cars to give the Miata a run for the money. Good fuel economy numbers weren’t new to the MR2, however, as the original 1985 model was rated at 27 city and 32 highway.

Lotus Elise and Exige: 24 city/29 hwy

  • 2007 Lotus Elise, 4 cyl., 1.8L, six-speed manual—premium fuel recommended
  • Stock performance: A
  • Industry support: C
  • Motorsports potential: A
  • Cool factor: A

Like too few high-end performance cars, the Lotus Elise and Exige are two world-beaters that don’t have to be constantly tailed by a KC-135 Stratotanker. Once again, a light curb weight does more than just help on-track performance. The Elise checks in at a flyweight 1984 pounds—amazing for a car sold in this day and age—and can rocket to 60 in less than 5 seconds. Its Toyota-sourced engine helps return the impressive 24/29 economy figures. Not bad for a car that can set FTD at almost any autocross in the world.

BMW 318ti: 23 city/31 hwy

  • 1996 BMW 318ti, 4 cyl., 1.9L, five-speed manual—premium fuel recommended
  • Stock performance: C
  • Industry support: A
  • Motorsports potential: B
  • Cool factor: B

If you want to drive a BMW 3 Series while minding your gas consumption, the 318ti may be the one. The 318ti was a truncated version of the 3 Series coupe that featured a very large, practical hatch. When ordered with the Club Sport package, the 318ti even looked a bit like an M3—well, at least from the front. The 318ti was never a huge seller in the U.S., but the car was part of the U.S. model line during the second half of the ‘90s.

Consulier GTP: 21 city/27 hwy

  • 1992 Consulier Industries Consulier GTP, turbo 4 cyl., 2.2L, five-speed manual
  • Stock performance: A
  • Industry support: B
  • Motorsports potential: B
  • Cool factor: A

We’re not going to look you in the eye and proclaim that the Consulier GTP is an economy car, but the figures are pretty darn impressive for a machine that can run down some of the world’s best supercars. Back in the day, Consulier put up a hundred grand to anyone who could out-lap their creation. Challengers included the Ferrari F40, Porsche 911 Turbo and Lamborghini Diablo. They were all sent home empty-handed.

Ford Mustang SVO: 20 city/26 hwy

  • 1986 Ford Mustang SVO, turbo 4 cyl., 2.3L, five-speed manual
  • Stock performance: A
  • Industry support: A
  • Motorsports potential: B
  • Cool factor: A

It took a while, but we did find a pony car that gets at least 20 mpg in town—we just had to think beyond V8 powerplants. During the middle part of the ‘80s, Ford offered buyers a choice when it came to Mustang performance: a turbo four or the traditional V8. The turbocharged Mustang SVO nearly matched the V8’s straight-line performance, but the lighter four-cylinder engine paid nice dividends when it came to handling. Unfortunately, there was a price for this superior performance, tacking on about $4000 to the cost of a V8 Mustang.

Setting Some Benchmarks

Some of the cars we profiled are almost old enough to drink. How do they stack up against today’s offerings? In several cases, not bad at all.

Here are some current EPA numbers. Where possible, we have figures for 2007 model year cars; if that data wasn’t out yet, we went with 2006 specs. Also, if a car had a transmission choice, we went with the manual box. Ranked by their EPA city mileage numbers, here’s a small sampling of what the manufacturers currently offer:

  • Toyota Prius: 60 city/51 hwy
  • Honda Civic Hybrid: 49 city/51 hwy
  • Toyota Camry Hybrid: 40 city/38 hwy
  • Volkswagen Jetta TDI: 36 city/41 hwy
  • Ford Escape Hybrid FWD: 36 city/31 hwy
  • Toyota Yaris: 34 city/40 hwy
  • Nissan Versa: 30 city/34 hwy
  • Honda Accord Hybrid Sedan: 28 city/35 hwy
  • Dodge Caliber SXT: 28 city/32 hwy
  • Chevrolet Aveo: 27 city/37 hwy
  • Ford Focus 3-Door Hatchback: 27 city/37 hwy
  • Audi A3: 23 city/32 hwy
  • Honda Civic Si: 23 city/32 hwy
  • Scion tC: 23 city/30 hwy
  • Chevrolet Cobalt SS Supercharged: 22 city/30 hwy
  • Pontiac Solstice: 20 city/28 hwy
  • Subaru Impreza WRX: 20 city/26 hwy
  • Ford Mustang: 19 city/28 hwy
  • Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution RS: 19 city/25 hwy
  • Nissan 350Z: 19 city/25 hwy
  • Porsche 911 Turbo: 18 city/25 hwy
  • Mazda RX-8: 18 city/24 hwy
  • Chrysler 300C Heritage Edition: 17 city/25 hwy
  • Chevrolet Corvette Z06: 16 city/26 hwy
  • Cadillac CTS-V: 15 city/24 hwy
  • Ford Mustang GT: 15 city/21 hwy
  • Hummer H3: 15 city/20 hwy
  • Dodge Charger SRT8: 14 city/20 hwy
  • Audi RS 4: 14 city/21 hwy
  • Dodge Viper: 12 city/20 hwy
  • Bentley Continental GT: 12 city/19 hwy
  • BMW M6: 12 city/18 hwy
  • Ferrari 612 Scaglietti: 11 city/17 hwy
  • Dodge Ram SRT10: 9 city/15 hwy
  • Lamborghini Murcielago: 9 city/14 hwy
  • Bugatti Veyron: 8 city/15 hwy
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View comments on the GRM forums
JohnnyBquick Reader
12/23/14 10:15 a.m.

Consulier GTP: 21 city/27 hwy

1992 Consulier Industries Consulier GTP, turbo 4 cyl., 2.2L, five-speed manual Stock performance: A Industry support: B Motorsports potential: B Cool factor: A

============= Really? I went across Montana last year with the cruz set at 85 and got 33 mpg in mine. At least this car was included!!!

oldeskewltoy SuperDork
12/23/14 11:49 a.m.

Really?? I'd think the AE86 GTS might have been on this list... I can think of a few cars on this list that are significantly less.......

RATED: 23mpg in town 28 on the highway... but I know a few people who drive them carefully pulling mid, and even upper 30 mpg range

stock performance is a "C+", but all other factors are an "A"

z31maniac UltimaDork
12/23/14 12:17 p.m.

FRsiBee twins could be on the new list.

I think rated 22/30, but in mixed driving I always avg near 29, and regularly pull 34mpg on the highway.

jsquared Reader
12/23/14 1:54 p.m.

I could get just a hair short of 30 mpg highway in my S2000, I probably would have if I had driven slower Day-to-day (mostly city) was ~23-24mpg

mtn UltimaDork
12/23/14 1:59 p.m.
z31maniac wrote: FRsiBee twins could be on the new list. I think rated 22/30, but in mixed driving I always avg near 29, and regularly pull 34mpg on the highway.

34 highway... what speed, and manual or auto?

captdownshift GRM+ Memberand Dork
12/23/14 2:25 p.m.

FX-16, so many smiles per a gallon. Caymans aren't bad either.

Jerry SuperDork
12/23/14 3:02 p.m.

Scion xA took me by surprise. But yes, with some TRD goodness I'll bet it's fun. (Miss my '06 xB still somedays.)

MINIzguy Reader
12/23/14 3:20 p.m.

I test drove a Scion xA and found it soulless. Couldn't get myself to purchase it, even with the thought of getting some aftermarket goodies. I test drove a 318ti afterwards and did end up purchasing that. Way more fun to daily drive and commute in.

itsarebuild GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
12/23/14 3:31 p.m.

My e30 pulls better than 20 mpg and I'm almost always in stop and go city driving. I've definitely recorded 29 on the highway too.

airwerks Reader
12/23/14 4:32 p.m.

I was pleased to find the Swift GT on there.....

old_ Reader
12/23/14 5:01 p.m.

My wife's scion xA was horrible at highway speeds. Slight gusts of wind or passing cars would completely upset the car. It was downright scary sometimes.

Yes it had proper alignment, tire pressure, etc.

Burrito Enthusiast
Burrito Enthusiast HalfDork
12/23/14 5:05 p.m.

I too was pleased to see the Swift GT on the list, but disappointed by the lack of MK1 VWs.

We averaged a little over 34 mpg last summer on a 700+ mile roadtrip consisting mostly of hilly two lane blacktop last summer in my '76 Scirocco. I certainly wasn't driving for mileage for most of it either . That was with a tape measure alignment and the car stuffed to the brim with camping gear.

yupididit GRM+ Memberand Reader
12/23/14 5:28 p.m.

Selling my stock CRX HF was one of my biggest regrets. Ever.

FSP_ZX2 Dork
12/23/14 5:30 p.m.

Made the list. Don't make anywhere close to the listed MPGs. Huh.

Teh E36 M3
Teh E36 M3 SuperDork
12/23/14 5:45 p.m.

I've been impressed with my '15 GTI. 37.2 (computer, but verified with pump #'s) on my last highway trip- about 75 average. EPA 25/34. I freakin' love this car.

EvanR Dork
12/24/14 2:29 a.m.

Scion prices are starting the max depreciation point. an xA can be had in decent nick at $4k. The xB is a bit of a cult classic, and fetches a few bucks more. My 85k-mile example might fetch $6k, on a good day. Might be time to dump it before the value drops, I dunno.

Bobzilla PowerDork
12/24/14 7:27 a.m.

The Forte fits all the requirements now. Averaging 31mpg weekly on my daily slog. Fun to drive. lots of good stuff inside.

Rupert HalfDork
12/24/14 9:58 a.m.

'14 Maxda 3 stick, gets right at 40mpg on a trip with cruise set at 78mph. And runs over 35 mpg around town.

bastomatic SuperDork
12/24/14 12:29 p.m.

I've owned an 87 CRX Si, 92 Civic VX, and Nissan Leaf.

I can tell you, without a doubt, you would NOT gladly drive the Civic VX for any real length of time. The car's only saving grace is its frugality. It was impossible to get less than 50 mpg with it. It was also impossible to smile while behind the wheel.

emsalex New Reader
12/24/14 1:33 p.m.
captdownshift wrote: FX-16, so many smiles per a gallon. Caymans aren't bad either.

The FX-16 is in my top 5 favorite cars I have owned. I would put it ahead of an mr2 of the same vintage. I could haul more and spent less time being sideways when I did not wan't to be.

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