A new wave of stylish gas-sipping small cars is set to steal the green spotlight in 2014. Loaded with accessories and rated up to 40 miles per gallon and beyond, these mighty fuel misers rival — even surpass — many hybrids. And with sticker prices that often start well below $20,000, plus cool, European-influenced designs, it's little wonder compacts are such hot commodities.
Gas prices are still trending in the $4-a-gallon range, so drivers need to stretch a full tank farther than ever. We're talking hybrid-style efficiency without the added sticker price of often $2,000 or more. That means more money for customization and long road trips.
But saving cash isn't the only consideration. Popular beauties such as the Ford Fiesta and Fiat 500 have proven that Americans can indeed (finally) embrace small cars.
"Compacts are more than just transportation now — they're making emotional connections to American drivers," said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting at market analysis firm LMC Automotive. "We're going to see more of the same in the future."
Let's look at five of the hottest — and greenest — gas-sippers on the market.
Chevrolet Cruze Eco
A classy midsize sedan that belies its price point with fuel efficiency surpassing that of most compacts and even hybrids, the Cruze Eco is a high-tech marvel. The car gets up to 42 mpg on the highway from a 1.4-liter Ecotec turbocharged engine, six-speed manual transmission and innovative features that streamline its aerodynamic profile. The latest GM active-shutter technology closes grille vents at higher speeds to cut down wind resistance, and lightweight 17-inch alloy wheels help lighten its load. Even better, the Eco is based on the higher Cruze trim level, has more extras than a base model and is the only car in its class with 10 standard airbags.
Dodge Dart Aero
A retro blast from the past in a distinctly modern package, the new Dart Aero — a top-five finalist for the 2013 Green Car of the Year Award — is an aggressive, sports-minded looker with Italian breeding and a Yankee pedigree, inspired by the Alfa Romeo Giulietta and packing a 1.4-liter Fiat MultiAir turbo engine that gets up to 41 mpg. The compact four-door Dart gets high marks for handling, responsiveness and control, offering high-tech extras like the 8.4-inch Uconnect touch screen. And it begs for customization, with myriad personalization options and a palette of bold, flashy color schemes.
Tiny in stature but big on Italian verve, the new Fiat 500 received some aerodynamic and powertrain tweaks to boost the manual-tranny model up to the magic 40-mpg mark — perfect for sporty hands-on maneuvering. And why not opt for the cloth-top 500 Cabrio for windswept coastal drives? The sport-tuned 500 Abarth, with its turbocharged 160-horsepower engine, gets a still-impressive 34 mpg. It's hard to resist the available Beats by Dre audio and leather seating. There's nearly 10 cubic feet of cargo space in the back — perfect for an overnight bag and magnum of Prosecco.
The flashy little Ford Fiesta was a pioneer in changing the perception of subcompacts from bland to cool when it arrived from Europe in 2011, rocking a globally inspired vibe and sport-tuned handling to go with 40 mpg fuel efficiency. All that and a 1.6-liter inline-4 engine rated at 120 horsepower. Fun to drive and personalize, the Fiesta built a huge cult following overseas that translated well to U.S. consumers, offering a wide range of accessories and tuning options: An optional Synch system operates zillions of smartphone apps, and Ford Custom Graphics by Original Wraps let drivers choose from more than 20 body graphics or racing stripes.
European élan meets eco-conscious economy in the new Mazda3. Start with the SkyActiv technology that stretches fuel efficiency to — you guessed it — 40 mpg. Actually, the Mazda3 compact ride comes as a sedan or four-door hatchback, the latter getting a still-impressive 38 mpg. Both styles offer the SkyActiv 2-liter direct-injection four-cylinder engine rated at 155 horsepower. And the automatic version has an auto-manual override for a sportier feel to go with impressive handling and performance.
"SkyActiv technology embodies Mazda's philosophy of engineering only vehicles that are fun to drive, satisfying to own and environmentally responsible," said Jim O'Sullivan, president and CEO of Mazda North American Operations.