Under 20/Over 35 Shootout: Mileage Challenge

The mileage challenge started in downtown Chicago.

After a 161-mile route that started in downtown Chicago and weaved its way through the city's western suburbs, Honda's new 2012 Civic easily beat its competition with a trip computer average of 36.8 mpg. The runner-up 2011 Hyundai Elantra GLS had the highest EPA-estimated mileage ratings, but it came up short in our testing with 34.5 mpg. The 2012 Ford Focus SE earned 33.5 mpg, while the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT wasn't far behind with 33.2 mpg. The Kia Forte EX brought up the rear with 30.6 mpg.

In the fight for fuel economy, automakers have added six-speed automatics (replacing four or five-speed transmissions) in all the small cars we tested, except the Civic. If our mileage challenge results point to anything, it's that the redesigned 2012 Civic LX is at no disadvantage with "only" five gears in its automatic transmission.

Transmission gear count is one way numbers can be misleading because more does not always mean better when comparing competing models. The number of gears has the potential to help gas mileage, but many variables affect fuel economy. The 2011 Forte we tested gains a six-speed automatic transmission over the 2010's four-speed auto with increases of 1 mpg in city ratings and 2 mpg for highway ratings. It wasn't enough to trump the Civic, however.

Traffic varied from light to heavy as the route wound from urban to expressway driving.

Route and Methodology

We started our 161-mile route leaving downtown Chicago at a snail's pace in heavy traffic. As we made our way to the western suburbs, speeds picked up to a steady 35-45 mph, and the last legs of the route had us driving on the expressway at sustained speeds of up to 75 mph.

Like our previous mileage challenges, drivers switched cars at the beginning of each leg, so all cars were subject to each driver's style. Trip mileage computers were used for results instead of gas-pump fill-up calculations because they have many variables, including individual pump calibrations that can affect results. It's worth noting our own fill-up calculations were no more than 0.4 mpg different than the trip computers on the Civic, Cruze and Focus; the Elantra and Kia had lower results with our fill-up calculations.

Cars with Eco Mode, like the Civic, had the feature turned off during the driving route.

CarEPA mileage
(city/highway and combined mpg)
Trip computer mpg
2012 Honda Civic LX 28/39 (32)
2011 Hyundai Elantra GLS 29/40 (33)
2012 Ford Focus SE 28/38 (31) 33.5
2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT 24/36 (28) 33.2
2011 Kia Forte EX 26/36 (29) 30.6

The Other Guys

For the ultimate fuel-conscious commuter, higher-mileage trim levels are available on four of the models we tested. The Cruze's Eco trim features 42 mpg highway ratings for the same starting price as the 1LT we tested, though with a manual transmission; Eco models with automatics get lower fuel-economy ratings. The Focus' Super Fuel Economy Package is $495 on SE trims and bumps ratings of automatic models to 40 mpg highway.  Kia's Fuel Economy Package is $600 on EX models and pushes ratings to 27/37 mpg. The Civic's high-efficiency HF trim is rated at 41 mpg highway and starts at $19,455, which costs more than the LX model we tested.

© Cars.com 06/9/2011