NEW YORK (Consumer Reports) -- The price of gasoline seems as unpredictable as the weather. It goes up, it goes down, and it often changes with the seasons. Just as rain can boost umbrella sales, gas price spikes can drive many consumers to look for models that can stretch a gallon further than their old ride. And the number many car shoppers are shooting for these days is 40, as in 40 mpg on the highway.
We tested three cars that carry this claim: the Chevrolet Cruze Eco, Ford Focus SE SFE, and Honda Civic HF. We also set out to see how much more fuel efficient these specialized small cars were compared with their standard trim lines. These economy-minded models cost between $500 and $800 more than the basic models, so we wanted to know what kind of return you'd get for the extra cash. Are they worth the money? We put them all through our extensive fuel economy tests to find out.
Automakers need high mpg models to help them meet their corporate average fuel economy (CAFE). Currently, vehicles from each automaker must average 27.3 mpg to avoid hefty fines, but that requirement is scheduled to rise to 35.5 mpg by 2016. Clearly, the pressure is on not only from the government, but also pump-weary consumers.
Comparing these high-efficiency models to the standard versions produced mixed results.
•The Focus SFE added a 3-mpg bump in overall and city fuel economy, to 31 and 21, respectively. The highway mileage in our tests stayed the same at 43 mpg.
•The Civic HF saw a 3-mpg gain in overall fuel economy over our previously tested and similarly equipped Civic LX, to 33 mpg. City and highway mileage improved to 21 and 49 mpg, respectively. The Civic was our highway fuel economy champ of this group.
•The Cruze Eco didn't increase overall fuel economy by much over the LS and LT versions we also tested. The Eco only added 1 mpg overall. It gained 1 mpg in the city and 4 mpg on the highway, for an unremarkable 27 mpg overall.
Cost-wise, assuming $4.00 gallon for fuel, the Cruze Eco saves only $20 per year; the Focus SFE and Civic HF save $145 and $135, respectively. And you'd need to own them between three and 38 years, depending on the model, for the fuel savings to offset the higher price.
But you don't have to spend extra on special models to get good fuel economy. For example, the larger Hyundai Sonata family sedan equals the price of our tested Cruze Eco and gets the same 27 mpg overall. And the Mazda3 i SkyActiv and Toyota Corolla cost less and get 32 mpg overall.
Read our complete road tests for more detailed information.
Watch a video about high MPG car models here.