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Car Corner
Gas Prices... What to do?

October 1, 2005
By Scott Lewis

I have written about gas mileage before. I even tested my car with different driving techniques and different qualities of gas... all in the interest of determining the best combination for gas mileage.

Gas prices are a lot higher now than they were around 2001. So what can YOU & I do right now to fight high gas prices? Let's find out.

20 MPG

At the end of all my own real world testing I was stuck with a car that will only get 19-21 mpg. That's the downside of owning the third fastest car made in America back in 1993 (BTW, in case you were wondering, the two fastest cars that year were the Viper and the Corvette). Many people tell me that's not bad. Mostly this is from guys that drive trucks. Go figure. But they are right, for the level of performance available my mileage is respectable. In fact, it puts most SUVs to shame.

Let's take a quick look around my garage. When I had my 67 Camaro RS Convertible it got about 19 mpg. Performance was nowhere near my 93 Z28, but it was still V-8 performance for those that have only driven economy cars and V-6 cars that are not performance cars. If you drive a mini van, or some Taurus with a V-6 you would feel a performance increase in that old Camaro.

My wife's Porsche 911 gets about 20 mpg. I have not checked it accurately, but from quick fill-ups at the pump it is in the ball park. My wife's Acura MDX gets 18.1 mpg overall... as we know by the on-board computer.

Notice a trend. All just at or below 20 mpg... for cars spanning over 30 years. Where is all the technology that brings better gas mileage? It's no where. When 4 cylinder cars barely touch 30 mpg I find that appalling. My 1989 Honda CRX Si was rated at 28 city/33 highway. I would regularly get 30mpg in that car. I maxed it out on one tank of gas during a cross country trip when I got 38.5 mpg through Tennessee.

Small cars have been getting 30 to 40 mpg for years. Why aren't we further along. Where are the cars (besides hybrids and diesels) that get over 40, or even 50 mpg. Politics, plain and simple. The auto manufactures would rather spend millions lobbying the government to keep CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards relatively low levels. If the government simply raised the CAFE standards 1/2 mpg per year, then every new generation of a car would get better mileage than the car it replaces.

What to do?

There is one thing I plan to do in the coming months that will increase my gas mileage by 2 mpg. What is this fantastic trick? Can you do it? Well, let me answer the last question first... No, you can't. What am I going to do? I plan on replacing the aftermarket wheels on my Camaro with the originals the next time my tires need replacing.

Back in 2001 I bought new wheels and tires. I changed the tire size from 245/45-16 to 275/40-17. The extra footprint (just over an inch at each tire) gave a more secure grip of the road during hard cornering. However, it had a negative impact on my gas mileage. I would get 23 mpg on trips to the Dallas area before the wheel and tire upgrade. With the larger tires, and their increased rolling resistance, my mileage never topped 21 mpg.

The last time I had to buy tires (back in late 2003 with 44,000 miles on them) the tire shop discovered I had two bent rims. Since the rims are not manufactured anymore there was little point in replacing them. The wheels were still capable of being balanced, so we did just that and put them on the rear of the car for the least impact to driving.

I currently have 41,000 miles on this set of tires. I expect to replace them soon. When that happens I am planning to haul my original wheels with me and have the 245 tires put back on the car.

Two things will happen. 1) I should gain back the 2 mpg I lost with the larger tires. 2) I should be able to slide the rear out again. I remember when I would need to make a tight u-turn I could stab the gas and get the tail to slide so I would not have to make a three point turn. I can't do this with the extra traction of the larger tires.

What can YOU do?

You can't very well go putting smaller tires on your car. That would be dangerous. So what can YOU do. You can do the same thing I am going to do with my next car purchase. Stop buying gas sucking cars, SUVs and trucks.

I still don't get the SUV thing. SUVs handle worse than cars, and few of them have more seating capacity than cars. If it doesn't have a third row of seating why bother. I rarely see an SUV loaded with enough stuff to justify its size. As far as sheer people or stuff hauling is concerned a mini van or a station wagon will out perform an SUV any day of the week... and get better gas mileage doing it.

If gas prices don't come back down to something reasonable (for the U.S that it) I am going to bite the bullet and get an economical car. Granted, I am in my 40's now, and would like a nice car for a commuter. I would consider a diesel, such as a VW Golf or Beetle. But I want real luxury. Where can I get a real luxury car that gets over 30 mpg.

Mini Cooper! The Mini Cooper is rated at 28/36 by the EPA, while the Mini Cooper S has 25/32 for an EPA mileage figure. I don't know if it is worth getting 4 mpg better to get the standard model with only 115 hp. I think going from 36 to 32 mpg is a reasonable trade-off for the extra 53 ponies under the hood. I will need to test drive both models back to back to determine how much power I need vs. how much power I want. BMW claims a 0-60 time for the Mini Cooper of 8.5 seconds. That's exactly the figure I recall from road tests of my 89 CRX Si. Imagine... its only 16 years later and we have two cars close in size, weight, horsepower, performance and mileage. That's progress!

However, the Mini Cooper IS a luxury car, albeit a small one. Certainly a more luxurious car than my CRX Si was, more than my 93 Camaro Z28 is, and more than any new Toyota Corolla. Kia, Hyundai, etc.

What's Available Now (or in the very near future)

In past articles I have looked at new cars. I won't bore you with the details, you can check the archives for that. Below I want to list all the cars that have one of three factors going for them. They have reasonable amounts of luxury, performance, or style. Style of course being very subjective, particularly in the case of the Scion xB. All the cars get at least 27 mpg on the highway.

I am actually looking at getting a car that gets at least 30 mpg, but I listed a few cars that are close for a couple of reasons. The Mustang, for instance, is listed with a V-6 that gets 28 mpg on the highway. Since I have already been considering the Mustang in GT trim, I thought it deserved a shot here. With 210 horsepower the current V-6 powered Mustang is only 5 ponies down from the "then new" 1994 Mustang GT which had 215 hp. That means the V-6 should get performance comparable to a 94 Mustang GT. Good enough? We'll see. 

The loser from below, at 27 mpg, it the PT Cruiser convertible in GT trim. I actually wanted to list the PT Cruiser in Touring trim with its 180 hp turbocharged engine. However, the Touring model seems to come with an automatic transmission only. I definitely want a manual transmission so I listed both the standard 150 hp model, and the gas sucking 220 hp GT. Both are with a manual transmission. The reason for listing the PT Cruiser in the first place is that my youngest son really likes them. I could see driving the car for the next 8 - 10 years and giving it to him when he starts college.

I did not get exact information below for the Honda Civic. Honda is getting ready to bring out a new Civic and Civic Si for the 2006 model year. They don't list the specifications for these on their web site yet. I used some information I found in Car and Driver's preview of the car in their October 2005 issue. I was a little disappointed with the Civic Si's highway figure of 29 mpg. Granted, the 2006 Civic Si will have almost twice the horsepower of that old 89 CRX Si (197 vs. 108). But why not get better gas mileage. The standard Civic is supposed to get a 140 hp motor rated at 30/40 mpg (still an estimate). Now we're talking.

The Cars

Here's the list in a nice chart with all the important specifications I thought necessary to make an informed decision. First are cars that get at least 30 mpg on EPA's highway system. Below are some cars that I would still find interesting, but fall just a tad short of the 30 mpg mark. I have supplied 0-60 times from any place I could get an accurate source. If a source was not available I guessed based on the power to weight ratio compared to cars that had actual numbers and similar power.

Finally... range. I drive about 80 miles a day. That's 400 miles a week. I am very tired of gassing up every three days of driving. It sucks. I want a car that will be able to go an entire week without filling up. the ranges below are assuming I get exactly the highway mileage the car is rated for. Since that is not likely I would like to get a car with at least a range of 450 miles, just to be safe.

Car Engine Power Weight (Ratio) Mileage Gas Tank/Range 0-60 (Source)
Mitsubishi Eclipse 2.4 L, 4 cyl.  162 3307 (20.4) 23/30 17.7/531 >9.0
Acura RSX  2.0 L, 4 Cyl. 155 2734 (17.6) 27/34 13.2/449 ~8.2
Acura RSX Type-S 2.0 L, 4 Cyl. 210 2848 (13.6) 23/31 13.2/409 6.2 (C&D)
Honda Civic  1.8 L, 4 cyl. 140 ~2600 (18.6) 30/40* 13.2/528 ~8.5
Honda Accord 2.4 L, 4 cyl. 166 3097 (18.7) 26/34 17.1/581 8.9 (C&D est.)
Honda Accord V-6 3.0 L, 6 cyl. 244 3303 (13.8) 21/30 17.1/513 5.9 (C&D)
Toyota Solora 2.4 L, 4 cyl. 157 3175 (20.2) 24/33 18.5/610 >9.0
Mini Cooper 1.6 L, 4 cyl.  115 2524 (21.9) 28/36 N/A 8.5 (BMW)
Mini Cooper S 1.6 L, 4 cyl. 168 2678 (15.9) 25/32 N/A 6.8 (BMW)
Scion xB 1.5 L, 4 cyl. 103 2415 (23.4) 30/33 11.9/393 9.6 (Automobile)
VW Beetle 2.0 L, 4 cyl. 115 2743 (23.9) 24/31 15.0/465 >10
VW Beetle Turbo 1.8 L, 4 cyl. 150 2940 (19.6) 25/30 15.0/450 7.3 (C&D)
VW Beetle Diesel 1.9 L, 4 cyl. 100 2989 (29.9) 38/46 15.0/690 >12
Mazda MX-5 (Miata) 2.0 L, 4 cyl. 170 2482 (14.6) 25/30 12.7/381 6.5 (C&D)
Mustang V-6 4.0 L, 6 cyl. 210 3345 (15.9) 19/28 16.0/448 7.7 (Automobile)
Honda Civic Si 2.0 L, 4 cyl. 197 ~2700 (13.7) 20/29* 13.2/383 ~6.5
Toyota Solora 3.3 L, 6 cyl. 225 3241 (14.4) 21/29 18.5/537 ~7.0
Scion tC 2.4 L, 4 cyl. 160 2905 (18.2) 22/29 14.5/421 7.4 (C&D)
VW Beetle (New) 2.5 L, 5 cyl. 150 2820 (18.8) N/A 15.0 ~8.0
PT Cruiser Conv. 2.4 L, 4 cyl. 150 3236 (18.0) 22/29 15.0/435 ~8.5
PT Cruiser Conv. GT 2.4 L, 4 cyl. 220 3485 (15.8) 21/27 15.0/405 7.0 (C&D)
Pontiac Solstice 2.4 L, 4 cyl. 177 2860 (16.2) 20/28 13.8/386 7.2 (C&D)

How much performance is enough?

That's a very good question. When I started reading car magazines in the early 80s, anything that took longer than 10 second to reach the "standard of measure" 60 mile mark was slow. Though many cars did just that. Something in the 9 second range was not bad, and in the 8 second range was quick. Remember, the Mustang was just bringing back the 5.0 V-8 and Nissan just introduced the 280 ZX Turbo... which could not spin its tires without power braking the automatic. When I bought my 1989 CRX Si in late 88 it was relatively quick in the mid 8 second range. This was no longer quick by all cars. Mustangs were in the 200+ horsepower range again, and they were well in the 7 second range, with the 6 second range coming on soon.

When I bought my 93 Camaro Z28 it was significantly faster than its predecessor running the sprint to 60 in the mid 5 second range. Now we're talking quick. I would say that my car is now in the low to mid 6 second range, as much the transmission's fault as anything else.

Today, the Mustang in in the low 5 second range. However, if mileage is a concern and you want a sporty car, you have to decide how much performance is enough. From the chart of actual and estimated performance above, it is clear that most of today's cars are much faster than most cars were in the early eighties. Of the 14 cars that get at least 30 mpg, 4 of them will pull your tush to 60 mph in less than 7 seconds. Certainly that should be fast enough for an economical car, if not an actual economy car.

I was pleased with the performance of my CRX Si when it was new. I did have to rev the engine a bit to enjoy that power, but it was part of the car's charm. I test drove a Mini Cooper S and the same feeling was there. It was quick if you revved it, but sluggish if you didn't. I could only put up with that kind of power delivery with a manual transmission. Of cars that I have driven enough recently to tell, I think I can live with a car that performs in the 8 second range again. My wife's Acura MDX was road tested by Motor Trend with a 0-60 time of 8.5 seconds. Probably a close tie to my old CRX Si. Her parent's Avalon was also road tested to an almost identical 8.4 seconds. I was impressed with the amount of power the Avalon has.

Unless there is some huge mileage advantage I will stick to cars that are in the 8 second bracket or better. I could not find a road test of the Honda Accord with a 4 cylinder engine, but it has almost the same power to weight ratio as the MDX (The MDX being about 18.1). Car and Driver estimated it would run to 60 in 8.9 seconds. That seems about right, but might have been with an automatic. A manual might get it to tie the MDX.

How Much Can You Save With A Diesel

I listed a VW Beetle with a diesel. It is the clear mileage champ on the list, but it costs a pretty penny to get the diesel. The diesel version costs $1,210 more than a gasoline Beetle. Is it worth it in the long run? I wanted to figure out exactly how many miles it would take to recover the additional cost of buying a diesel from Volkswagen. I came up with this formula that you can use anytime you need to calculate how many miles it takes to recover from the initial investment for getting better gas mileage. I assumed $2.50 for a gallon of gas in this experiment... diesel or gasoline. Here is the formula:

Miles Needed = Cost Difference / ( (Price / Mileage) - (Price / Mileage) )

If we plug in the specs for the regular and diesel VW we get this:

Miles Needed = $1210.00 / ( (2.50 / 31) - (2.50 / 46) )
Miles Needed = 46007


That's not bad. With the driving I am doing now I would be ahead of the game in about two years. This is looking a lot more attractive than it did when I was comparing the Civic hybrid to the gasoline Civic when gas prices were $1.39 back in 2002. Let's try the Civic Hybrid comparison now that we have an accurate formula and significantly high gas prices. I logged onto Honda's web site and did a "comparison" between the Hybrid Civic and the highest level Civic I could find. Honda's site displayed a "Comparably Equipped Price" of $20,450 for the Hybrid and $18,510 for a Civic Sedan EX SE 5-Spd MT. O.K. We have numbers, let's start crunching:

Miles Needed = $1940.00 / ( (2.50 / 37) - (2.50 / 51) )
Miles Needed = 104301


Well, it's still more than 100,000 miles to recover the cost of getting a hybrid. Knowing there could be an expensive battery replacement after 100,000 miles I would think more than twice about getting a hybrid to actually try and save money. Get it to be kinder to the environment, but not for actual money out of pocket savings. VW's diesel is a good deal, even when you do all the right math.

I wish Mini would sell its diesel version here. I know they offer it in Europe. It's a shame that more diesels aren't sold here. If gas prices stay above $3/gallon, you can expect diesel engines in cars to increase quite a bit, but don't hold your breath. I expect gas prices to stabilize in the $2.50 - $2.75 range.

What Would I really Consider

I listed twenty two models above, though only 13 different cars. The difference is made up for in the engine/trim options within those 13 cars. Which ones would I really consider. Let's take that in reverse order, which would I NOT consider. Clearly there are no Kia and Hyndai models here. I would not be looking to buy a cheap car, just an economical car at the pumps. I would love a luxury car that got great gas mileage, even at the cost of some performance. Let's start eliminating some cars.

The Mitsubishi Eclipse just doesn't do it for me. I like the looks... a lot, but don't trust the company yet. The car is two heavy, and barely makes the grade in the mileage department. I have not seen a road test of the 4 cylinder car, but going buy the fact that every horsepower needs to haul around over 20 pounds this car will not even feel quick.

The Toyota Solara with the 4 cylinder sounds very promising, but I feel it will also suffer too much in the performance department just to get its incredible 600+ mile range.

The Solstice is just slightly below the mileage threshold, and I have not committed to getting a two seater yet. But I really like it. The Miate (uh, I mean MX-5) has fairly impressive performance for its 30 mpg capability. However, we'll just have to wait and see if a two seater is truly going to be possible for me in the next year or so.

I test drove an RSX Type-S back when we bought my wife's MDX. I also drove the 3.2 CL Type-S. I loved the CL. It's a shame Acura doesn't make it anymore. It could top this list if it hit the 30 mpg mark. I have driven an RSX as a loaner car a few times when we were having service done on the MDX. I would need the Type-S for its upscale interior. I find the materials in the standard RSX a little too cheap feeling. Granted, I would have to get used to a seriously high winding engine. I am not sure I am ready for that at this time. Also the RSX is a bit cramped inside for my tastes. I expect that Acura will come out with a replacement for the RSX based on the new 2006 Civic. Maybe I should re-evaluate the smallest Acura when that happens. The RSX Type-S is in the running, but it could easily fall off the radar screen if a new model were to become a blimp on the outer edges of that screen.

The Scion tC is decent looking, but not cool enough for me. Also, I doubt its ability to provide the level of luxury I want. I really like the xB, but feel it will ultimately be too slow. I would like to test drive the xB to see how it drives before taking it out of the running. If they put the 160 hp engine from the tC into the xB I would move it to the top of the list. Again, luxury will be an issue. How much stuff can the dealers put in it to make it luxurious.

The only reason to consider the PT Cruiser is to get it as a convertible, and because my youngest son really likes them. I would be able to pass it onto him when he comes of driving age. The PT Cruiser convertible has the most back seat room of any convertible, at least I read that once. I would try to get the middle 180 hp turbo engine matched up to a manual transmission. We're just under the 30 mpg mark, so we have to think hard on this one. This better be one quiet highway cruiser with the top up.

The New Beetle is on this list 4 times, and that does not even consider a convertible. I looked into the regular model (115 hp), the Turbo model (150 hp) and the diesel (100 hp). There was a new 5 cylinder showing in some places on VW's web site. It had 150 hp like the turbo. Clearly a test drive is in order. As our math above shows a VW Beetle with the diesel is the mileage champ, and has an amazing range per tank of gas. I love that. But I don't know if it would be too slow. My estimate above may be right or not. Diesels tend to have a lot more torque that horsepower (which is why it's so popular with trucks that do a lot of towing). Maybe it won't be as slow as I predict. I really would have to do a test drive. I find it interesting that VW does not sell a diesel VW Beetle in convertible form. I like the Beetle, but find it lacking in sporty character. It is cute, of course. I think this would take a major back seat to the Mini, unless the Mini's ride was so much stiffer that I didn't like it on the highway. However, the Bettle's 46 mpg in diesel mode makes me think I could have a cute car that is very friendly at the pumps. I want to test drive one to see how slow it is. I'll keep you post on this one.

That leaves three cars left. The Civic is all new for 2006. It has a strong possibility. I like the new look, but will need to see how it stacks up when some road tests come out. The Civic Si falls just under the 30 mpg mark, but should be a fast pocket rocket. However, Car and Driver hinted at a 30 city/40 highway mileage rating for the standard Civic with 140 hp. That might be the car to get for the best mileage with a reasonably quick car. Will leather be an available option on the Civic line? That will be an important option for me.

I really like the Accord Coupe. In V-6 trim with leather interior it is as close to getting the discontinued 3.2 CL, and it hits the magic 30 mpg mark. Cleary a 4 cylinder Accord could be a real mileage champ. Its power to weight ratio suggests it will be significantly quicker that the two cars that have a further range. While doing the research for this article the Accord's 581 mile range blew me away (until I saw the Solara and diesel Beetle). I would love a test drive. I got crazy and priced an Accord EX with leather and only three option on Honda's web site. It came in at $25,009. $28,159 is the list price for an Accord EX V-6 6MT with the same three options. However, I am confused by these prices. In the specifications it shows the XM Satellite Radio listed as "with Leather" under the EX column, and "Standard" in the EX V-6 6MT column. When I did the "Build & Price" I was told the XM Satellite Radio would cost $702 and $744 for the EX with Leather and the EX V-6 6MT, respectively. At over $700 I just assume ditch it and get the price down. Both come with a 6 CD In-Dash CD Changer, which should be good enough.

That leaves the Mini Cooper. This car has been on my radar for some time. I already test drove one, but did not get enough time in it. Since I was not ready to buy I didn't want to bother the dealer too much. However, as I get closer to making a buying decision I want some serious time in three models. The Mini Cooper, the Mini Cooper S and any Mini convertible. I want to know if the 53 horsepower is worth the extra money up front while also paying more for it at the pump with every fill up. I also want to see how nice a convertible this car makes. I am most concerned with comfort and quiet on the highway with the top UP. Top down is no big deal. It's when the top is up that I want a quiet interior that is comfortable for my long drive to work.

Conclusion

There are a few cars I didn't list above... assuming luxury becomes more important, and I don't mind spending more for luxury. Acura's TSX gets 31 mpg with a 200 hp engine for about $28,500. Audi's new A4 2.0 T is very nice and gets 34 mpg with a torquey turbo motor that the aftermarket will be all over. For $32K (optioned to my liking) its seems like a decent compromise between performance and economy in a luxury car. Of course, BMW's states its 325i goes to 60 in 6.7 seconds and gets 30 mpg, while the 330i drops the 0-60 run to 6.1 seconds (I have seen road tests beating BMW's claim) and still gets the same 30 mpg. BMW has the advantage of driving the right set of wheels... the rears. Price goes up for either the 325i or the 330i at $36,045 and $41,045 optioned, respectively. Lexus does not have full specs out yet for its IS 250, which might compete well here in the entry level luxury department.

Three cars stand out to me. The Accord V-6 coupe is the only car here that breaks into the 5 second range, and it does so while pulling down 30 mpg on the highway. I bet it "feels" faster than my Camaro. It may or may not be faster (I bet it is real close), but it will feel faster by virtue its "newness." My Camaro is getting long in the tooth with over 145,000 miles showing on the clock. The second is the Mini Cooper. I can't help but liking them. Finally, the Solstice looks awesome. But will it still pull my heart strings two years from now. It's easy to be influenced by passion when a car is brand new to the market. Will it have lasting appeal.

If gas prices don't get down under $2.50 a gallon I will seriously consider an economical car... with luxury.

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