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The New Math: Equating Car Size vs. $4/Gallon Gas

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author photo by Autotrader February 2011

With gas on track to cost $4/gallon (as it already is in some parts of the country) during this year’s vacation season, fuel efficiency is once again on the radar of the nation’s motorists. It has become, as Ford’s Fiesta marketing team (with one of its models offering 40 mpg) has suggested, “a pretty big deal.”

It isn’t just Ford, of course, beating its corporate chest. Chevy introduced a 40 mile-per-gallon variant of its Cruze, and Hyundai’s Elantra achieves 40 mpg right out of the box, with no need to check a super fuel-efficient option package. But in an economic climate where most are trying to squeeze as much bang from the buck as possible, it’s worth asking the question: Just how big a deal is 40 miles-per-gallon? And what, when pulling the trigger on one of the super-efficient models, does it mean in real, day-in, day-out savings?

For our purposes, we’ll keep the math simple, comparing the EPA highway rating between Ford’s 40 mile-per-gallon Fiesta and Nissan’s 2.5 liter Altima which achieves 32 Highway with a (standard) CVT automatic. That said, the Fiesta gets by with 1.6 liters of four-cylinder power delivering 120 horsepower and 112 lb-ft of torque, while the more expansive Altima (about 20% more interior volume as measured by the EPA) delivers 175 horsepower and 180 lb-ft of torque from its 2.5 liters four.

In 10,000 miles of highway driving a year, the Fiesta will consume about 20 gallons of gas a month. If we use $4/gallon, that driving frequency comes to a monthly expenditure of just over $80. The Nissan, in contrast, will consume about 26 gallons a month covering the same distance, for a cost of slightly more than $100. In short, the Fiesta saves you $5/week when comparing the highway efficiency of a compact against that of a midsize sedan. Of course, if you drive twice as many miles – 20,000 annually – the Fiesta, Cruze or Elantra will save twice as much, but neither figure - $20/month in savings versus $40/month in savings – will demonstrably alter a family budget.

We like the smaller, more nimble footprint of cars like the Fiesta. But if you’re transporting yourself, family, friends or just stuff, the aggressively hyped EPA number shouldn’t supersede your real world transportation needs. Drive a Fiesta, Versa or Cruze, but don’t rule out the Fusion, Altima or Malibu. In this economy ‘midsize’ – and not ‘economy’ – may be your best value.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
The New Math: Equating Car Size vs. $4/Gallon Gas - Autotrader