Part of the scoring in our big 10-car $27,000 Midsize Sedan Challenge comes from observed mileage over a drive route that consisted of close to 180 miles of both city and highway driving in and around Baltimore. The winner, the Nissan Altima, reported 32.4 mpg.
We made no effort to mirror the EPA test cycle, but more highway driving should benefit all the cars, and it didn’t do so, at least not equally. One sedan hit its EPA-estimated combined mpg figure exactly, two fell short and seven exceeded their ratings.
It bears noting that two of the most efficient vehicles, the Nissan and the Subaru Legacy 2.5i Premium (30.8 mpg), employ continuously variable automatic transmissions, which use a pair of pulleys and a belt to deliver a broad range of gear ratios, without the gears or associated stepped feel of conventional automatics. The goal behind this design is higher mileage.
So are CVTs the answer? Not necessarily. The Honda has one, and its 30.2 mpg fell short of the other two CVTs and its EPA-estimated 31 combined mpg. This happened despite the Accord’s higher city and combined estimates and a weight advantage of more than 100 pounds versus the all-wheel-drive-equipped Subaru.
The Chevrolet has decent power, but its six-speed doesn’t give it up willingly and it lacks a Sport mode. The Chrysler also has power, but its nine-speed automatic is fraught with erratic behavior, gear hunting and hesitation. The turbocharged 1.5-liter Fusion was broadly reported as the underpowered car of the group, something we used to associate with high mileage. In this case, the pokiest was also the least efficient: 28 mpg reported.
For what it’s worth, CVTs aren’t without their downsides. The judges hammered the Altima for its droning engine and occasional unresponsiveness. Would we trade 1 or 2 mpg for better performance? We probably would. The Honda and Subaru CVTs delivered their high mileage without overly irritating the judges.
Editor’s note: The Chrysler 200’s fuel-economy numbers were updated in the graphic on Nov. 17 to 23/36/28 mpg city/highway/combined.