40 MPG Compact vs. Subcompact Mileage Challenge

One recent oddity in the increasingly efficiency-obsessed automotive industry is some new compact and subcompact models each get 40 mpg despite being significantly different in terms of size. The question for car shoppers becomes not whether the smaller cars get better mileage in the real world, but can you live with the smaller confines to save money at the dealership — and not just the gas pump.

Currently, there are two clear examples of this trend: Ford’s new Focus compact and Fiesta subcompact and Hyundai’s Elantra compact and Accent subcompact. Ford offers a special option package, called SFE, on the two cars, helping them achieve 40 mpg highway, while the Hyundai models are rated at 40 mpg highway without any additional packages.

We put these four cars through a nearly 300-mile drive to see if size truly matters. We also found out which car was a clear winner at the pump. The larger question — could the smaller cars win us over? — was much harder to answer.

All four are rated almost identically by the EPA:
  • 2012 Ford Focus SFE: 28/40/33 mpg city/highway/combined
  • 2011 Ford Fiesta SFE: 29/40/33 city/highway/combined
  • 2011 Hyundai Elantra: 29/40/33 city/highway/combined
  • 2012 Hyundai Accent: 30/40/33 city/highway/combined

The four test models were sedans, and with the exception of the Elantra (a Limited trim), were similarly equipped. All four had automatic transmissions. Their as-test prices were:

  • 2011 Hyundai Elantra Limited: $22,110 (comparably equipped GLS $19,595)
  • 2012 Ford Focus SE with SFE Package: $19,785
  • 2011 Ford Fiesta SE with SFE Package: $17,245
  • 2012 Hyundai Accent GLS: $16,625

The results proved what we assumed going into the mileage challenge. After nearly 300 miles, the smaller cars got better mileage than their similarly rated larger siblings.

Clearly, the Fiesta won overall, according to the trip computer and at the pump when calculating mileage. The Accent also delivered better mileage than the larger Elantra, but not by as much as the Fiesta versus the Focus.

Our four intrepid drivers had differing opinions on the cars and if the compacts warranted the extra $2,500 or $3,000 it’d cost to upgrade to them from their subcompact siblings.

Kelsey Mays, Cars.com Editor

Kelsey began the refrain of cramped confines in the Fiesta. “Both Fords feel narrower inside than the Hyundais. The Fiesta’s seats are too small for taller adults, especially in cushion length.”

The lower-priced Accent didn’t hold up to the Fiesta or Elantra. “Cabin materials are best in the Elantra and the worst in the Accent — big difference there, with dingier window controls, no armrest padding and no telescoping steering wheel.”

Kelsey also found the Ford cars’ transmissions weren’t up to par. “Both Fords ride well, but the transmissions are problematic. It’s worse in the Fiesta, whose tiny engine makes you dig deep for downshifts.”

Colin Bird, Cars.com Editor

Colin writes for KickingTires and is a current Accent owner of the 2006 vintage.

The Fords won Colin over. “I thought the Fiesta had more personality than the Accent, inside and out. Acceleration was punchy, and I liked the handling of the Accent. Though things are well-thought-out here, I would probably pay the $1,000-plus premium for the more stylish Fiesta.”

But did the subcompacts offer enough to keep him from leaving the segment? “I’m very frugally minded, so the subcompacts are good enough for me. I thought the Fiesta and Accent offered perceptibly the same amount of space, from the driver’s position, as the two larger compact cars.”

Brian Neale, Cars.com Vice President Product, UX

We enlisted the aid of a Cars.com executive to help the editorial team out for this drive. Brian Neale was a journalist in a former life and is an avid motorcyclist. Most importantly, he had seven or so hours to drive 300 miles in the four cars.

Brian had a clear favorite, and unlike Colin, he thought there was enough to warrant moving up in class. “The Elantra out-classed both Fords — especially the Fiesta — by a margin even wider than the MSRPs suggest.”

Brian also preferred the Accent to the Fiesta for its comfort level. “The Accent was my bang-for-the-buck favorite, offering a bigger-car feel than the Fiesta at an impressive MSRP. I’d trade off the gas mileage versus the Fiesta without a second thought.”

He wasn’t down on the Fords entirely though, just the cramped Fiesta. “I’d be happy enough in the Focus, but even the miserly MPG numbers wouldn’t lure me into the Fiesta.”

Mike Hanley, Cars.com Editor

Like Brian, Mike was more comfortable in the Hyundais, but the Fords won him over. “The most impressive thing about the Fiesta is how few compromises in refinement and quality it makes compared to the Focus. Both cars offer direct, responsive steering that yields a degree of engagement that's missing from the Hyundais.”

But only one of the subcompacts did enough to stop him from picking the bigger model. “The Focus’ larger size and extra power are compelling, but it’s not enough to make me choose it over the thriftier Fiesta. The Accent hasn't closed the gap between subcompact- and compact-car quality and refinement as much as the Fiesta has. I’d spring for the more expensive Elantra.”

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