Higher-Mileage Trims on the Rise

Fusionss Call them super-saver cars. More than ever, automakers are offering specially branded, fuel-efficient trim levels, but buyers should beware: Those models may compromise performance, have fewer features or require spending a little more to get those mpg savings. In addition, they may be harder to find than their best-selling siblings.

Take, for example, the 2010 Ford Fusion. Its impressive 23/34 mpg city/highway EPA rating only applies to the automatic base model, the Fusion S. The midlevel SE and better-equipped SEL are rated at a lower 22/31 mpg with the same four-cylinder engine and automatic transmissions.

Why the difference in mileage? Ford spokesman Alan Hall said the Fusion S saves gas by using lower-resistance tires and specific transmission calibrations, and by being lighter because there’s less equipment in that trim.

It’s certainly not the only example. Honda’s Odyssey minivan gets an extra 1-2 mpg with cylinder deactivation, but it’s a feature offered only on more expensive trims. Chevrolet boasts a 33-mpg Malibu, but to get that you’ll have to pony up for the six-speed automatic transmission.

Some brands even roll these alterations into high-efficiency trim levels. Last year, Ford marketed an SFE, or Superior Fuel Economy, version of its two-wheel-drive F-150 pickup. With specific axle-ratio tuning and low-resistance tires, it’s rated at 21 mpg on the highway. GM offers XFE — or eXtra Fuel Economy — versions of several models that have similar modifications to squeeze out a few extra mpg.

“It’s something that’s relatively easier to do,” independent auto analyst Erich Merkle said. “From a marketing perspective, why not? Put a different rear [axle], different tires, tweak the aerodynamics a bit,” he said. “You promote it as its own model series. So it’s not real costly to do it. It’s pretty reasonable, from an economic perspective — certainly less costly than hybrids.”

It’s not a new trick -- Honda marketed high-efficiency trims for the Civic through several generations -- but it’s on the upswing. For car shoppers, however, it can prove onerous, with ads touting high mpg ratings for cars that in reality can be difficult to come by. Case in point: Within 100 miles of our Chicago offices, just 10 of the 250-plus 2010 Fusions listed for sale on Cars.com were the Fusion S whose 34 mpg rating is much touted by Ford. Of the 1,188 new Chevy Cobalts for sale within 50 miles of our offices, only a dozen carried the 37-mpg XFE designation.

“The higher-contented model is generally the higher [buyer] mix,” Hall said. “But, you know, once again there is a market for an entry-level car.”

Why don’t automakers institute those mileage changes across an entire model line? Because efficiency requires tradeoffs. More-efficient drivetrain tuning, from transmission gearing to final drive ratios, can take a toll on acceleration. Also, high-efficiency trims often exclude weight-adding options, like four-wheel drive.

 James Smith, president of the Society of Automotive Engineers and an engineering professor at the University of West Virginia, explained.

“There’s this tradeoff going on,” he said. “If someone wants a vehicle that’s peppy, and this vehicle is not peppy enough, they’re not going to buy it. These manufacturers are trying to build vehicles that have a broad-spectrum appeal.”

“Every time they make a change, some of which are strictly cosmetic, you got to go back and tweak all the stuff,” Smith said. “It’s not trivial. It’s expensive; it takes time. And the question is, what’s the vehicle used for?”

Merkle acknowledged similar drawbacks, but said he expects fewer trim-specific tweaks and more model-wide ones – for example, all four-cylinder Fusions getting 34 mpg — as government-mandated Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards push automakers to raise mileage across entire lineups. His concern, he said, is that when that happens buyers won’t have a choice between higher-mileage or better-performing trims. In short, CAFE may sacrifice the broad appeal that Smith discussed.

“There are some limitations” with high-mileage trims, Merkle said. “It’s not necessarily that you can have your cake and eat it too. You have to select one or the other. My concern is that with CAFE, the consumer may not necessarily have that choice.”

By Kelsey Mays | June 24, 2009 | Comments (24)

Comments 

Derrick G

The thing with lower rolling resistance tires is that they typically also have less traction. That often degrades handling and braking, so manufacturers are loathe to make them widespread in the trimlines that most people buy and therefore get tested by Consumer Reports or are in press fleets for publications that don't buy their own cars.

As far as the lower weight on the Fusion, note that the EPA uses something called an Inertia Weight Class that affects fuel economy testing. It's likely that the Fusion S is just making it into a lower class than higher line models, so Ford can request a seperate test as long as most cars in that trim would weigh the same. That'd be one reason a lot of options wouldn't be offered. I'm guessing that's why you can't get a sunroof in a Kia Forte with the Fuel Economy package, too.

J

See, that's how the D3 does their business.

Broq

^^^
What are you talking about? Once again, some genius reads (kinda) an article on here and singles out detroit to me a bad guy. forget that Honda was mentioned numerous times in the article. At least the fusion that gets those ratings is the cheapest trim and an automatic since most people can't (inexplicably) or don't want to drive a stick, which is how some other car get their highest mileage. Besides, IF Dereck is correct and the "S" can only come a certain way and they all weigh the same, why not capitalize. All automakers should do that. I think we all know that a base model stripper is going to get better mileage than a loaded up top end car- even with the same engine.

Broq

H

That's how everyone does business. Even the Prius EPA rating was achieved with the smallest wheel/tire combo available. Higher level Prius were not rated separately even though their larger wheel/tire combos result in lower fuel economy.

max

One of the BIG problems with the D3 is that it's virtually impossible to find a base model in stock (as the article points out about the Fusion S)

Just over a year ago I was lucky to be able to buy a Focus S (with Auto and ABS), saving exactly $1000 over an SE. I have not seen any in stock since. Same savings goes with Fusion.

If I check local stock for Toyota, Honda and Nissan, I can always find base models in stock. If I were to buy a midsize or compact today, I'd save a lot of money buying a Camry or Altima, and possibly Accord, for the simple reason that there are no Fusion S models available in my area (Long Island, NY). Even the in stock SE models have options, increasing the price more.

The same holds true for Focus vs Corolla, etc. I can get the base model of the Japanese brand easily, but no focus S.

The D3 seem to ignore the buyers who are looking for a simple, basic car. I assume they think that some salesman will work wonders on such a buyer and talk him into bells and whistles that he does not want. Either that, or they simply don't care about such buyers.

Max,

I've searched local dealers before and have found it both ways (i.e., some will have lots of base models in stock; others will have very few). That just seems to me like the dealers order the ones that sell well, based on their own experience. This holds true even more regionally, since different categories of drivers have different needs/wants.

In addition, I think that nowadays most buyers tend to skip the cheaper base models and either go for a well-optioned, reliable used model rather than the $15,000 that still has no power amenities. Some might see it as no point in buying a new car that has less features than a similarly or lower priced used vehicle from 5+ years back.

broq

^^^
That is not the automakers, the dealers order the cars a certain way i most cases.


broq

Broq,

That's exactly what I said.

"That just seems to me like the dealers order the ones that sell well, based on their own experience."

Original sheth

max:

I dont agree with your assessment. Nissan had a base model altima with a stick and no AC for about $18k several years back. How many of those do you think were on dealer lots? Toyota, NIssan and Honda offer manuals on their midsize sedans and yet I guarantee you most dealers stock few of those cars with manual. There used to be a camry CE model that only came with a stick and cost less than $20k. I never saw them on the road. 75% of the Camrys I see are LE models. SE is the next most popular based on my observations.

broq

sorry billy, we must have been typing at the same time, that was geared to max. :)

broq

Max

Guys: I guess I was not clear. I'm not saying that most people want the base model. I'm saying that it's impossible to find it in stock at D3 dealers, whereas it's pretty easy to find the base model available at Japanese and Korean brand dealers.

I'm also not talking about options in base models, like auto or A/C, but rather the availability of the base model itself.

You can confirm this yourself right here at cars.com. Search for Corolla base, then Focus S, then Elantra. Do the same thing with Camry base and Fusion SE and Altima or Accord. I'd tell you to do the same thing with Chevy, but their level distinctions, like LT, 1-LT, LS, are confusing.

The dealers WILL order more profitable cars. However, there does not seem to be any "encouragement" from the D3 makers about ordering base models. Whether the Japanese makers "encourage" dealers to stock base models in unknown but you can always find them.

D3 makers suffer from poor buyer perception of their brands. They should not further discourage sales by chasing buyers of base model cars to the Japanese brand dealers where such buyers can end up buying that Japanese brand for less money than the available American ones with unwanted bells and whistles.

Ziggy

You might see more base models (with auto) from some automakers because some offer more ammenities on their base models than others.

Original sheth

Max:

not everything is a D3 conspiracy. You probably also endorse the idea that detroit "forced" Americans to buy SUVs. Dealers order what they think people will buy. Dealers have to finance their inventory so they dont want models that will sit for 6 months. This is why you will not find many Camry or Accord manual models. This is why MAzda dropped the manual option from the 6 when it was redesigned. If you find lots of base models at import dealers its because thats what people are looking for. When you consider foreign brands often charge more and deal less I'm not surprised that dealers have to stock lots of low end models. The manufacturers cannot force dealers to order anything.

Ziggy

I have always received better deals on foreign brands than on domestics. Base models from most foreign automakers give you most of the ammenities that you need at a lower price. Maybe that's why they sell them.

Dave Wuss

Ziggy,
You are right on the money. Toss in better reliability and higher resale value and buying something like a Honda instead of a Chevy becomes a no-brainer. These high mileage packages are just a gimmick as very few people buy a car solely based on the gas mileage and at the end of the day a mile or two won't make a difference.

Original sheth

Ziggy:

As usual you are incorrect. Its exactly the opposite. foreign brands are FAMOUS for incorporating content (XM, bluetooth, uplevel sound systems, moonroofs, etc.) into pricey packages that are often not even available on the lower trim levels. I challenge you to name two examples of comparably priced vehicles (one import one domestic) where the domestic vehicle contains less equipment.

Dave:

Your logic is off target. Fuel efficiency is more important to buyers now that it was 5 or 10 years ago. Thats why most car ads you see mention mileage. Why in the world would you say people don't rank efficiency near the top of their list of criteria in this day and age? One of the main reasons the press tells us Japanese cars are superior is due to better mileage.

Resale value? I read that a Camry is projected to hold 2% more of its value vs a Malibu according to ALG. Thats hardly signficant. The gap between the Accord and Camry was much larger than the gap between Camry and Malibu. Look at used car prices yourself and check out how small the gap is today. Import brands have embraced fleet sales and discounts and over production and resale prices have fallen as a result.

Dave Wuss

*YAWN* It's funny watching the bottom scrapers grasping at straws trying to compare government motors with Toyota, Honda, and Ford. Americans have spoken Loud and Clear - government motors makes junk.

ziggy

OS -

Again you misread what I said. I did say ammenities that people want didn't I. Maybe you want "XM, bluetooth, uplevel sound systems, moonroofs, etc". I never said anything about domestics offering less equipment. I don't know where you got that at. If you want an example of a base vehicle at a good price - Honda Civic DX with air - $17,000. Nissan Sentra 2.0 almost the same features at $17,400. Then look at a base model Cobalt - $15,000 but without air and power windows. To get that you have to move up a trim level or two.

Dave,

Since you come off as such an pro-import and thus all-around knowledgeable car guy, riddle me this: If "these high mileage packages are just a gimmick as very few people buy a car solely based on the gas mileage", what's the Prius for?

cody

i see quite a few cobalt xfe's down here in texas. not too many other compacts with manual transmissions though (that's what i prefer). honestly, if you're willing to wait, the dealer can get you whatever you want.

Original sheth

Dave:

Your rebuttals are sad. YOu never explain your positions, you just offer insults.

Ziggy:

Let me be clear as day: generally speaking you get more equipment for your money with domestic brands. Period. BTW, AC is standard on the Cobalt LS sedan for $16,380.

Ziggy

To get the same features on the Cobalt as the two vehicles I mentioned you have to go up two trim levels to the LT1 and pay over $18,000 End of discussion.

Original sheth

Sorry to disappoint but the 1LT costs about $17,200, not over $18000 as you stated. In addition, you initially stated AC was not included in base cobalt but that is not true. The LS model has AC for $16,400 according to chevy's site. Not quite end of discussion.

Ziggy

Sorry but the LS is not the BASE Model according to MSN auto - 2009 model. The 17,200 price you quote is without auto transmission. Yes END OF DISCUSSION.

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