Green compacts: Non-hybrid small cars that save money
With base non-hybrid models, the technology is traditional, tried, and true, which makes the most of economies of scale. There are no extra motors nor battery stacks to buy, further keeping the price down and completely avoiding the added pollution of electronics manufacturing, shipping, and disposal at the end of its useful life.
We looked at the current crop of compacts to see which offered the most economy for the buck, which was most miserly with fuel, and which was the greenest doing it.*
Isn’t is nice when saving the planet is as easy as saving money?
*Economy and CO2 emissions based on EPA estimates for 2019 sample models; not every trim level will get identical mileage. Cost to drive one year based on 15,000 annual miles with 45 percent highway and 55 percent city driving at current fuel prices.
All-new for 2019, the 2.0-liter in the Kia Forte has the same 147 horsepower and 132 lb-ft of torque as the outgoing model, but economy is improved to 34 mpg in the combined cycle when combined with Kia’s continuously-variable transmission. Efficiencies were boosted using the Atkinson cycle and by cooling the exhaust gasses recirculated through the combustion cycle.
Even though it’s environmentally friendly, the Forte still knows how to party. Infotainment comes courtesy of a standard 8.0-inch touchscreen ready for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Eight-speaker sound can be ordered, powered by 320 watts.
On the safety side, all Forte models now come with forward collision warning with avoidance assist, lane departure warning with lane keeping assist, and driver attention warning.
Starting MSRP: $17,950
Ford announced back in April that it would discontinue all North American cars except the Mustang and Focus hatchback. We could not be more pleased to see that the groundbreaking compact survived the bloodbath; it has the nerdiest of all our engine crushes.
Displacing only one tiny liter, the three-cylinder uses turbocharging and direct injection to pound out 123 horsepower and 125 lb-ft of torque. Fewer cylinders means less friction, lighter weight, and increased economy.
The powertrain is combined with a six-speed automatic, but a six-speed manual is on the spec sheet. Throw in a rewarding chassis, and the Focus 1.0 is a hoot to rev up and drive hard.
Starting MSRP: $15,250
For 2019, the Yaris iA is finally shedding the last of its Scion roots and is now just the Toyota Yaris. It’s still built by Mazda, it’s still far more fun than it should be, and we still recommend it.
All trim levels are equipped with a naturally-aspirated 1.5-liter engine that makes 106 horsepower and 103 lb-ft of torque. While that might not sound like hell’s bellowing fury, the Yaris weighs only slightly more than a wet cat and scoots with aplomb. Best of all, it’s cheap to feed: mileage is EPA-estimated at 35 in the combined cycle.
The Yaris comes standard with Toyota’s safety suite, including a pre-collision system, lane departure alert, automatic high beams, and a system that brakes the vehicle if the accelerator and brake pedals are pressed at the same time.
Hyundai Elantra Eco
Starting MSRP: $20,950
The Hyundai Elantra is one of the most popular value choices in America and, in Eco trim, it’s also one of the greenest.
The 128-horsepower turbo four-cylinder displaces a scant 1.4 liters, but makes the most of it with all 156 lb-ft of torque available from a low 1,400 rpm. A dual-clutch seven speed automatic maximizes efficiency and allows the Eco to hit 40 mpg on the highway.
Forward collision avoidance assist is standard on the Elantra Eco, along with blind spot assist, lane keep assist, rear cross traffic alert, and a driver attention warning.
On the inside, there’s automatic dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth hands-free calling, and a welcome 7-inch high-definition infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Starting MSRP: $19,450
The Civic comes in a flavor for everyone, from efficient family sedan transportation to track day hot hatch barnstormer. A flavor we didn’t consider though, is green.
With the optional 1.5-liter turbo paired with a continuously-variable transmission, the Civic will return a very respectable 36 mpg in the combined cycle, with an eco-friendly 248 grams per mile of carbon emissions. The engine puts out 174 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque, and is a delight from behind the wheel.
Being eco doesn’t have to come at a price, either. The 2019 Civic includes an intuitive and easy to use infotainment system, music streaming, and voice control. Active safety features are also now available at every level
2019 Chevrolet Cruze Diesel
Starting MSRP: $17,995
Chevy’s popular Cruze comes in both practical sedan and sporty hatchback forms. With a redesigned front end, headlamps, rear lighting, and wheels, the model should prove more popular than ever.
The four-cylinder diesel under the hood is paired with a nine-speed automatic, giving the Cruze an astounding 48 mpg on the highway. Horsepower output is 137, and torque is an impressive 20 lb-ft. Carbon emission are a bit on the high side for the segment at 294 grams per mile.
The inside is has a new standard 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system, complete with Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, 4G LTE connectivity, and a built-in Wi-Fi hotspot.
Chevrolet Spark (hatchback)
Starting MSRP: $13,220
At just 143 inches long, the Chevy Spark is sized perfectly for busy city life. The youthful offering looks better than ever thanks to new front-end styling for 2019, and also bears a bit more family resemblance than before.
Chevy’s calls their subcompact a “mini-car,” and with just 27 cubic feet of cargo area with the seats folded, we are inclined to agree. The small size pays ample rewards in the performance department, however. With under 2,300 pounds to thrown around, the 98 horsepower 1.4-liter feels zippy and alive. Fuel economy is good at 29 city/38 highway, and carbon emissions are low.
Toyota Corolla Hatchback
Starting MSRP: $21,090
The all-new Corolla Hatchback replaces the iM for 2019 and is built on a new platform that is wider and stiffer than its predecessor. This allows the suspension to perform better and turns up the dial on driving fun.
The new powertrain is a 2.0-liter four that cranks out 168 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque. It uses every trick in the engineer’s toolbox to return 36 mpg in the combined cycle and be clean doing it.
While a bit spendier than others on this list (and over $2,000 more than the Corolla sedan), the Corolla Hatchback comes standard with a 8.0-inch touchscreen powering Toyota’s Entune connectivity suite, which includes Apple CarPlay compatibility, hands-free phone capability, and voice recognition, and Amazon Alexa. There’s even a CD player should future generations decide that the abandoned format needs reviving.
Starting MSRP: $16,190
The five-door Honda Fit is delightfully cavernous inside thanks to intelligent design and engineering. The fuel tank is pushed forward to create a flat cargo floor, and the 60/40 split rear seats can be folded up to allow large, boxy items to be loaded through the side. Folding the seats forward creates a long flat surface for loading everything else. Total cargo area is 57 cubic feet. For comparison, the Honda HR-V crossover has just 58 cubic feet, and its bigger CR-V sibling 76 (and you could nearly fit a Fit in a CR-V).
Fans of small cars will also find that it’s legitimately fun to drive, especially paired with a six-speed manual in base ES trim. Small size and light weight means nimble handling, and the 130-horsepower 1.5-liter four-cylinder propels the package with aplomb. MIleage is an excellent 36 in the combined cycle.
Combined with ample modern amenities, the Fit is one of our top picks in the city car field.
Mitsubishi Mirage (hatchback)
Starting MSRP: $13,395
The Mitsubishi Mirage has such a low starting price that buyers often wonder if an engine is included. We assure you one is, and it’s a mileage star thanks to its efficient 1.2-liter design. When paired with a five-speed manual, the 78-horsepower three-cylinder will return 39 mpg in the combined cycle. With the optional CVT, combined mileage drops to 37.
For 2019, the Mirage blooms a new standard 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment unit with Bluetooth phone and audio streaming. Steering wheel controls and a rear view camera have been added.
Stepping up to the mid-range SE model even adds a driver’s seat armrest.