By Jim Motavalli
2:20 PM EDT, September 26, 2012
Fuel economy rules. All the automakers are scrambling to meet the 2025 Corporate Average Fuel Economy fleet average of 54.5 mpg. I know that seems like a long way off, but it's not for automakers who typically plan new models five years out.
The Environmental Protection Agency has spoken, and the new Dodge Dart Aero with the 1.4-liter four-cylinder intercooled turbocharged engine and a six-speed manual will deliver 41 mpg on the highway (32 combined). That's stellar, considering it's not a tiny car, and some skeptics didn't believe it last year when the company said 40 mpg was possible.
That's the basic formula for fuel economy: A small-displacement four, often turbo or supercharged, coupled to a six-speed manual. The same car with a six-speed automatic drops to 40 mpg on the highway.
My test car, with 37 mpg on the highway, is a 2013 Chevrolet Sonic, with a drivetrain very similar to the Dart. It's a 1.4-liter Ecotec turbo, connected to a six-speed automatic. It's in your driveway as equipped for $20,675.
The Sonic makes a comfortable package, though perhaps not ideal for a family of five. The front compartment offers comfy seats and good legroom. The dash is nicely laid out, but the tachometer sure takes up a lot of room. I'm not convinced that it's time to abandon the CD player just yet, but my Sonic provided a nice lidded bin to keep your iPod or phone in while plugged into the car.
The Sonic's back seat is more cramped than my approximately equal-sized 2007 Honda Fit, but headroom is excellent in what is a very tall car. The storage space under a big hatch is adequate, though again not as infinitely adjustable as the Fit. The two cars offer virtually the same fuel economy.
The best thing about the Sonic is its very good handling, maneuverability and ride. I still don't understand quite what people see in SUVs, however refined they might have become. Two weeks ago I tested a Ford Explorer, a model which starts at $28,870. For that you get more highway oomph, a roomier back seat, better rear storage, and a vehicle that's tight in parking lots.
The standard engine in the Explorer is a relatively thirsty 3.5-liter V-6. You get 290 horsepower, but only 19 mpg combined with four-wheel-drive. A better option is the two-liter EcoBoost four, with 240 horsepower and 23 mpg combined (28 on the highway). But then you knew I'd say that, didn't you? In 2012, 40 mpg is the new 30 mpg.
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