Daily-Driver Challenge: Hybrids, Diesels...and a Smart ForTwo

Dailydriver

Pump prices have settled under $3 a gallon, but consumer surveys report that gas mileage has something of a permanent roost among car shoppers’ priorities. Want truly sky-high gas mileage — something like 40 mpg or 50 mpg? Better sidle up to a hybrid or a diesel, which is a cleaner choice these days than you might think. If you still want a conventional gasoline car, the market has a few pint-sized offerings, too. Decisions, decisions.

We joined our friends at MotorWeek for a three-day drive through Maryland in all three varieties. We drove three hybrids, the Ford Fusion Hybrid, Honda Insight and Toyota Prius; two diesels, the Volkswagen Jetta TDI and the Audi A3 TDI for the European market — an American version will go on sale later this year; and today’s most fuel-efficient non-hybrid car by EPA standards, the Smart ForTwo. Our goal: Decide which fuel-sipper suits everyday drivers the best. Check out our video for results, and read our impressions below. You can also see what the MotorWeek crew thinks of these same cars this weekend on your local PBS station.

We ranked the cars across seven categories: price, fuel costs, interior quality, cargo space, driving comfort, ride quality and driving fun. Given our goal — to see which car was the best daily driver — we awarded double points in the last three categories. The best possible score is 100 points.

Sixth place, 25 points: 2009 Smart ForTwo. The ForTwo was the least-expensive car in the test, but the car’s penchant for premium fuel dragged its 33/41 mpg city/highway EPA rating to the bottom in overall fuel costs. A brittle ride, rock-hard brake pedal and hesitant (OK, pretty wretched) transmission didn’t help. The ForTwo ranks last in a Detroit Lions sort of way. This season could be different — for Detroit, probably not Smart.

Fifth place, 56 points: 2010 Honda Insight. With good marks for its low price and fuel costs, the Insight scored more than double the ForTwo’s points. Unfortunately, that couldn’t get it past fifth place. Why? Blame the car’s low-rent feel, something that crept up in cabin materials, road noise and an easily perturbed ride. The Insight is reasonably fun to drive, but at the end of the day, it’s an economically priced hybrid. In too many instances it feels that way.

Fourth place, 60 points: 2010 Toyota Prius. We found the Prius less engaging to drive than the Insight, but it felt like a more substantial car, with the sort of ride quality and interior detailing Honda couldn’t muster. Best-in-class gas mileage helped, but our goal was to find the car that best suited everyday driving, and Prius never made any of us want to go for a spin. By the second day, Toyota’s mission became all too clear: Whenever the two must collide, fuel efficiency trumps fun.

Third place, 65 points: 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid. That the Fusion Hybrid was the highest-ranking hybrid may land us a few pitchforks from hybrid fans. But Ford has a good thing going here: The Fusion Hybrid very nearly aped the driving experience of a regular family sedan. We found the seats quite comfortable, and power and handling were impressive. Unfortunately, interior quality couldn’t match the Europeans, and the firm ride had us wondering exactly what sort of family Ford was targeting.

Second place, 68 points: 2010 Audi A3 TDI. Neither of our diesels — the A3 TDI and Jetta TDI — could match the hybrids’ low-fuel costs, though our calculated fuel-cost difference between the third-best Fusion Hybrid and either diesel was less than $200 annually. The A3 impressed us with plenty of low-end diesel acceleration, a well-appointed cabin and the group’s most refined ride quality; were it a little less expensive, it might have knocked the Jetta off.

First place, 84 points: 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI. Actually, the A3 never stood a chance — the Jetta TDI ran away with this. An affordable price and sound cabin quality helped, but the Jetta nailed the categories we deemed most important. The seats were supportive, and the trunk swallowed our stuff. VW managed to marry driving fun and burly diesel grunt with decent ride quality in a way that made us wonder why other automakers still can’t. The Jetta TDI is rated at 30/41 mpg — low for this group — but it’s silly-fun to drive and eminently livable in the daily commute. Add everything up, and the little Vee-Dub emerged a big winner.

By Kelsey Mays | September 8, 2009 | Comments (15)

Comments 

Ken L.

Funny how every car was mentioned in the video, except the Honda Insight. I guess nobody noticed?

cody

thanks for the comparison. diesels seem to always do pretty well in these types of comparisons. unfortunately, they are still having to overcome so old stereotypes that are no longer true, as well as the endless hybrid hype.

Hybrit

Motor Week has been hyping diesels on previous programs so this ranking is no surprise. A friend of mine bought a Jetta TDI - the check engine light went on so many times he bought his own code reader because taking it to the dealer was running him broke. The August Popular Mechanics documents the failure of the magazine's long-term Jetta diesel, which required the replacement of the entire fuel system, including the gas tank. In many areas diesel fuel is hard to find and it costs about 15 percent more than gasoline. Combining the higher fuel prices with the higher upfront price and ongoing maintenance costs and it's hard to believe the VW/Audi twins could be on anyone's favorite list. The Prius gets 66 percent better mileage than the TDIs in the city using cheaper, more available fuel - that's why it's selling at a 10 to 1 clip compared to the smaller, cramped Jetta TDI. The Prius also ranks much higher in reliability - in the real world that buyers live in, these rankings would be much different.

Hybrit,
Nationally for the past 6 months or so Diesel has been nearly identical to regular gasoline while returning nearly 30% better fuel economy.

VW does not have a great reliability track record but it's not like every car breaks down.

JohnQPublic

Considering that the Prius is FAR SIMPLER mechanically than a Jetta TDI, it is not surprising that the Prius is a FAR MORE RELIABLE car.

I'll take the Prius over the Jetta TDI any day of the week. My wallet thanks me. ;-)

UK Diesel Driver

@Hybrit:

Dude, stop being bitter about things non-hybrid. The prius is narrower than a jetta by nearly 2 inches; fact...

Another reason diesel is used in the haulage industry is not just for its greater mileage, but also for its greater reliability. I have had my old Toyota 1.4l engine replaced after 1.5 years but never had any issues with my Ford/Peugeot diesel engines and I drive them hard (redlining, 100mph+ cruising) 30.000 miles a year.

@JohnQPublic: Dude, you are so right. Obviously it is mechanically simpler to make a hybrid with some start/stop program, batteries, electrical engines and the likes then it is to make a hyper complicated, nasa-like diesel engine. What are these diesel people thinking? Obviously a hybrid is, like, so much easier to engineer!

Bottom line:
-Diesel is more frugal on motorways
-Hybrid is more frugal in cities
-If you hardly do any mileage buy yourself a normal petrol car

Fear of the unknown is not a good thing. If you would not have ventured into the unknown in the last 400 years you would all be living in NY and requiring a hybrid ;)

Vik

Hybrit- diesel has been 25 cents/gal cheaper than 87 octane for a while now here in Southern California. It is normal for the price to cycle in summer/winter and the new low sulfur diesel formulation produced a temporary spike earlier this year and last year. As for reliability, using VW/Audi and a sample size of 1 to gauge reliability isn't the best way to make your point. If other manufacturers would bring over their diesels, things would be very different. However, stereotypes persist.

Hybrit

Dave, thanks for your comments, but looking at the national average price is just part of the story. Vik is right - diesel is substantially cheaper than gasoline on the west coast and in the mountain region, while in my area diesel is 30 cents more per gallon (nationally, the average price works out to be 3 percent more expensive for diesel). So all of us are correct, depending on the region you're looking at. UK, JohnQ is correct - hybrids rank at the top for reliability, according to Consumer Reports and other sources.

If you're so hooked on Diesel, then why not combine Diesel with hybrid? You'd only be looking at about a $5,000 premium for a Prius-sized vehicle. Hybrids work best where most people drive, i.e. stop and go traffic in the city. Diesels work best in long-haul, constant-speed situations, or when you need to tow a boat. Something along those lines.

The fact that Hybrids are ranked higher in reliability than diesels has more to do with who is selling hybrids in America vs. who is selling Diesels. VW/Audi are not exactly benchmarks for reliability while Toyota and Honda are THE benchmarks for reliability. Also, concerning engineering: Hybrid engineering is fairly straightforward. The challenge of combining the output from two engines is a known and solvable problem.

On the other hand, the solution for satisfying Diesel emission regulations was not readily known for at least half a decade, if not longer. And the solutions are hacks, at best: urea for BMW and Mercedes Benz and a particulate trap for VW/Audi fail to address the root cause, only the symptoms.

* Got a dealer story? Tell us at http://www.cardealerhorrorstories.com *

I traded in a 20-year old Ford Crown Victoria for a 2009 Jetta TDI.

I test drove a Prius, Mercury Milan Hybrid, Toyota Corolla and chose the Jetta on price, fuel efficiency, and because it was the most fun to drive. I wanted the Mercury Milan Hybrid but was unwilling to pay the premium for this great car.

I did a lot of research and read many comments on VW reliability problems but I owned a 1972 VW Super Beetle for 12 years and never experienced reliability problems. I did my own maintenance (oil, plugs, valve adjustments) and the result was 25/33 mpg city/highway. I put over 200,000 miles on that car before I sold it for half the price I paid.

Thirty years later, I see new cars advertised on TV that get 22 mpg and 32 mpg. This is an embarrassing comment on a society that prides itself on engineering prowess. The exception of course are the hybrids and diesel cars. It is surprising that by now we don't have production cars that get over 50 mpg in the city on gas or diesel.

I look forward to the day when I can buy a fuel efficient car that drives like a Ford Crown Victoria because it was the most comfortable car I ever owned and at 24/32 mpg city/highway, it was an affordable car until Ford stopped making spare parts that were more reliable than the after market parts. The Mercury Milan Hybrid comes the closest to comfort but it is a bit pricey for my budget.

H

Are you telling us that you averaged 24/32 mpg city/highway in a 1989 Crown Vic? If so, I find that very hard to believe, as a previous owner of that vintage myself. I hope you enjoy the TDI. It's a nice car.

JohnQPublic

uK Diesel Driver:

You are wrong. the Prius IS simpler than a Jetta TDI mechanically.

I bet you didn't bother to learn that the Prius transmission has all of 22 moving parts, no clutch, no torque converter, vs. the Jetta TDI's 100+ parts transmission + DSG clutch system.

I bet you didn't bother to learn that the Prius has no timing belt, no starter, no alternator, no solenoid to wear out and need replacement,.

I bet you didn't bother to learn that the TDI's turbocharger adds much more complexity to the engine than the Prius's atkinson engine.

Bottom line, the Prius IS more reliable than the TDI and requires LESS maintenance. Just ask any of the cabbies in New York City who drives a Prius or a Ford Escape Hybrid (which by the way also uses the same type of hybrid system as the Prius) with 200,000 miles on the odometer how much they spent to maintain the car.

Bob Wilson

A fine review but one thing stood out, ". . . Prius never made any of us want to go for a spin. . . . " A Prius owner, we have his and hers, I never have to worry about the cost of "go for a spin." In fact, the operational costs are so low that 'going places' is not limited by 'what will it cost.'

Our cars are a means to an end, getting from Point A to Point B without digging too much into the wallet. I have no problem with folks who enjoy throwing the cars around traffic although I'd prefer to see them do it on a track. Mostly I want to get there and eat a quality meal or stay in quality hotel.

Bob Wilson

james souder

any of you crying hybrid driver whi think hybrids are far more reliable than a diesel vw are far from right , my 97 jetta tdi , has close to 200,000 miles on it has had very low operating costs, and get s better than 45 mpg daily commuting in the real world , and has been as dependable as my other diesels which are pushing close to 300,000 , and yes they may require timing belts ,and a few other items , but my car sure hasnt needed a couple of thousand dollar battery pack either , and im sure it will keep on running this way for another 200,000 plus more miles like they have vw may have some issues , but there diesel devotees , are there for a reason , the cars are great to drive , and cheaper than they should be and will run a lot longer than just about anything else on the road ,and to those who cry about fuel system problems , maybe you should watch where you are buying your fuel ,the cheapest place may not be in the long run , and the cars will only run as well as they are taken care of

Hybrid cars is future of automotive industries. Because it's have many advantage like hybrid provided better mileage & reduce emission of gas.

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