Mileage Challenge 3.3: Driving Impressions

By Kelsey Mays  on November 12, 2008

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This week, we reported the results of our latest mileage challenge, a 300-mile highway trip in four high-mileage commuter cars. Our convoy averaged a respectable 33.8 mpg. The Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic achieved the highest numbers, with the Pontiac G5 and Ford Focus coming in a few ticks worse. Three editors and an editor in chief logged considerable time in each, and we cobbled together some impressions and off-the-cuff rankings for the group.

Read on for our thoughts.

“Take the money you save on gas with the Civic and put it toward a speeding ticket fund. This car has the throttle progression of a Nintendo racer: Touch the gas pedal, and off you go. It’s relatively quiet at highway speeds, too, and for responsive passing on the highway, the five-speed auto beats the snot out of the Corolla’s four-speed. Add it all up, and you’ll be loping along at 80 thinking you’re doing 65.

“Not that the Corolla is a dog; it’s reasonably powered and the quietest of the group. Big points for the cloth seats in our XLE tester. In my book, they beat out the others, including the leather ones in the Focus and the Civic, for long-haul comfort. Toyota’s optional JBL stereo had the richest sound quality, too. The G5’s upgraded Pioneer system blats out Toto — er, Nirvana — as loud as any, but it has to contend with significant wind noise, and its auxiliary-input MP3 jack is prone to static. Pontiac’s contender feels the least refined overall, though I found its seats improbably comfortable. It also performs ably: The stick rows with surefooted aptitude, and the torquey four-cylinder summons highway speeds quickly, if loudly. The Focus, in turn, feels the most underpowered, and its stick shift is a tall, mushy affair.”
— Kelsey Mays, editor

“I drove this same Focus a few months back and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I can’t say the same this time. Driving it back-to-back with the Civic exposed lots of little ways in which the Ford just falls short, from the driving experience to the user experience operating the stereo and climate systems. I’d still recommend the Focus, probably even over the Corolla, but the quiet, quick, comfortable Civic is head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd here.

“And yes, there’s a reason there’s no mention of the G5 in that paragraph. Its Spartan interior and clumsy, awkward-to-use gearshift really bugged. Whatever Kelsey says about the seats, I felt like I was sitting on a stack of bricks, and whoever designed the cabin of that coupe clearly has a deep hatred of both ergonomics and good sense.”
— Beth Palmer, copy editor

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“First off, I’m all about a sporty package with a nimble and responsive driving experience. The Honda Civic walks away from the competition based on those merits, but in my opinion it isn’t necessarily a flawless highway cruiser, displaying noticeable wind and road noise at speed. I was most comfortable in the Toyota Corolla during our highway excursion. Despite its lack of performance prowess, styling creativity or any sign of a personality (unlike the Civic), the Corolla had extremely supportive cloth seats (my favorite of the bunch), a quiet and smooth ride, and the best-sounding stereo, an optional JBL system.

Prior to the mileage drive, I rocked the Ford Focus for the weekend and actually enjoyed driving around town with the manual transmission, although I don’t think I’d be as entertained by the automatic Focus. The Focus was pleasant during long distances, helped by Ford’s voice-activated Sync system, but the engine seemed over-revved, as the tachometer was pegged at 3,000 rpm at 70 mph, which potentially hurt fuel economy. Looking back, the Pontiac G5 didn’t offer any stand-out driving experience or fuel economy compared to the others, and I’ll leave it at that.”
— Joe Bruzek, assistant editor

“There’s little left to say that the others haven’t said. For me, the Corolla was more peppy than earlier versions I’ve driven, and that was a nice surprise. In addition, it was quiet and comfortable, and as someone who commuted 90 miles a day for 11 years, the Corolla was definitely a car I’d consider up to the task. I too enjoyed the stick-shift Focus, as well as the solid feel of the car. The Civic was a stealth speeder, although it was pretty loud in the cockpit. Finally, the G5 felt flimsy, was totally at the mercy of the prevailing winds (meaning that it got pushed all over the interstate when a stiff breeze blew up) and the shifter was an exercise in annoyance.”
— Patrick Olsen, editor in chief

Finally, each editor’s best-to-worst rankings:

Passing Power
Kelsey: Civic, G5, Corolla, Focus
Beth: Civic, G5, Focus, Corolla
Joe: Civic, Focus, G5, Corolla
Patrick: Civic, Focus, G5, Corolla

Ride Comfort
Kelsey: Corolla, Civic, Focus, G5
Beth: Civic, Corolla, Focus, G5
Joe: Corolla, Civic, Focus, G5
Patrick: Corolla, Civic, Focus, G5

Seating Comfort
Kelsey: Corolla, G5, Civic, Focus
Beth: Corolla, Civic, Focus, G5
Joe: Corolla, Civic, Focus, G5
Patrick: Corolla, Focus, Civic, G5

Brakes & Steering

Kelsey: Civic, Focus, G5, Corolla
Beth: Civic, Focus, Corolla, G5
Joe: Civic, Focus, G5, Corolla
Patrick: Corolla, Civic, Focus, G5

Features aside, feels least like a proverbial ”econobox”
Kelsey: Civic, Corolla, Focus, G5
Beth: Civic, Focus, Corolla, G5
Joe: Civic, Corolla, Focus, G5
Patrick: Corolla, Civic, Focus, G5

Tomorrow we'll tackle the cost per mpg of each of our contenders.

Toyota Pontiac Honda Ford Toyota Corolla Mileage Challenge Mileage Challenge 3


Senior Consumer Affairs Editor Kelsey Mays likes quality, reliability, safety and practicality. But he also likes a fair price.  Email Kelsey