Mileage Challenge 7.2: The Results

Gas, diesel or hybrid? That’s the question we set out to answer in our latest mileage challenge of small, sporty cars.

There’s the hybrid Honda CR-Z, the diesel Volkswagen Golf TDI and the conventionally powered Mini Cooper. Combined EPA fuel-economy ratings for all three cars fall within 2 mpg of each other, but each car takes unique fuel. The Cooper sips premium gas, and the CR-Z takes the cheap stuff; the Golf TDI needs diesel.

Each car’s trip computer offered a gas-mileage readout, which we reset to begin each of the three legs on our 330-mile daylong route. The winner came down to the car that had the lowest fuel costs over a 15,000-mile year of driving, given our observed mileage.

The scrutiny, it turned out, made little difference. Each hatchback handily beat its combined city/highway EPA fuel-economy rating, but the Golf TDI ran away with the gas mileage and remained victorious even after we accounted for the high cost of diesel.

Check out the results below.


We would have entered the fuel totals into the chart above, but the results were bewildering enough to warrant discounting them. At day’s end, the Cooper took 9.68 gallons of premium fuel; the Golf TDI took 7.87 gallons of diesel. Those worked out respectively to 34.1 and 42.4 mpg. That’s spot-on with what the TDI’s computer said, and within a reasonable margin for the Cooper.

The CR-Z, however, took just 6.97 gallons of gas. That works out to 46.9 mpg, or 24 percent higher than the trip computer’s mileage readout. We cried foul: Those numbers fall way too far outside a conceivable range. We filled each car with fuel to begin and end the day to a visible level below the filler neck (we did this strictly for accuracy; don’t do this at home), but we’ve seen wonky pump readouts before. Fill-up calculations tend to be reliable over time, but as we’ve reported, shorter mileage evaluations put more emphasis on trip-computer readouts. (Still, at least one government study has questioned the reliability of the readouts.)

Thus, we went with the trip computers, and the TDI won the day. This is Volkswagen’s second strong showing; in another daylong drive, a 2009 Jetta TDI came less than 1 mpg short of a Toyota Prius, despite the Prius’ 17-mpg higher overall EPA rating. Had we found a CR-Z with its optional continuously variable automatic transmission, things might be different. It’s EPA-rated 3 mpg higher than the six-speed manual, but the stick-shift is what Honda had on hand. (A Golf TDI with the standard six-speed manual, on the other hand, may not have changed the results; like the TDI automatic, it has a combined 34 mpg EPA rating.)

The cost of diesel fuel kept Volkswagen from knocking this competition out of the park. Diesel prices currently run about even with premium unleaded; it’s a big shift from a year ago when diesel was about the price of midgrade. (Calculated then, the TDI would have been ahead of the runner-up CR-Z by $63, not $29.) Still, all three did fairly well: A four-cylinder Honda Accord, by comparison, would cost $1,572 in projected annual fuel costs.

The price difference to fuel these three cars came to less than $200 a year. Over the course of five years that would mean you’re paying a premium of $1,000 just in fuel costs to own a Mini Cooper over a VW Golf TDI. There’s one other thing to consider: how they drive. With costs this close, the driving and livability of the three is of utmost importance. We’ll delve into that tomorrow, but for now check out the faceoff of the three cars. 

Details on the routes are below. It’s worth noting that if heavy urban traffic were all you drove in, the CR-Z would be your best bet. The first 35 miles of Leg 1 took us the length of Chicago’s surface streets, which is the sort of grueling urban route reminiscent of our second mileage challenge. Averaging just 18 mph, the Cooper registered 28.3 mpg, while the Golf TDI got 30.5 mpg. The CR-Z topped the group with 32.7 mpg.

More on the routes:

Leg 1: 84° F, sunny
Traffic: Medium (5/10)
Average distance: 109 miles
Average speed: 30 mph

Leg 2: 88° F, sunny
Traffic: Light (2/10)
Average distance: 110 miles
Average speed: 58 mph

Leg 3: 91° F, sunny
Traffic: Heavy (7/10)
Average distance: 111 miles
Average speed: 33 mph
Source: The Weather Channel



Knew that TDI would win. When it's rated for 41 or so MPG in the Jetta and people claim they get 50-55 mpg on trips, you know it's a great engine!

Amuro Ray

Hey hey...I cry foul too with the CR-Z "penalty." Maybe there's an error with the trip computer, and it indeed did 47 mpg as per gas tank reading.

Just kidding here. Boy, these #'s sure are impressive. I do suspect that the CR-Z and even the Mini will win the ownership cost down the road, given that it's tough to find and expansive to find a place/to maintain a diesel engine on a car.

2 additional observations here too:
(1) Up until 2 years ago, I was so PRO-manual. But ur results said it all - auto tranny (esp CVT) is the way to go nowadays, especially if fuel efficiency is your #1 priority. There's just no way for us to determine when to shift to get the best mpg :( Look @ how the manual tranny got penalized in Leg 1 & 3?
(2) There are plenty of fuel efficient (30+ mpg) and affordable, under $25K starting price vehicle, available for the US public, yet only 2 make it to 10 best selling list :( I really don't know when/what cause the change from "we love planet Earth" in pre-school/kindergarten to "we love big cars/SUV/PU" happen once we become adult...the cholesterol in burger place?


Not a fair comparison

Hybrid power-train is much superior in stop&run city driving condition, in which diesel drive-train fares very miserable

Amuro Ray


Just take this as JFF (just for fun). This comparison is by no mean (from my view) fair since powertrains are diff, vehicle selection for the hybrid is not optimal (why not pick a Prius?), etc. But heck, it's fun.


BTW, Honda Fit with it's observed average of > 35 mpg wouldn't be out of this league. And based on the purchase price it might end on top after 5-8 years of use.

The point was to compare different powertrain types in similarly priced, fun to drive small cars.
They're not supposed to be the same!

We did a comparison with the Fit

It didn't do as well as the Scion xD or Ford Fiesta. Different route and weather than this challenge though so final MPGs can't really be compared.


Motortrend compared MAzda2, Fiesta and Fit, the results in economy where:

that's kind of strange. Isn't that totally the opposite of their EPA ratings? Fiesta being best and I think Mazda2 being worst?


Sorry. Correction.
Car and Driver did that.

Yes, strange but this is what they got - Fiesta was worst

That's why it's always good to have more than one publication for car buying advice I guess ;)


@ A.R.

What I realy mean: often the time we are told what great mpg Diesel engine can achieve. Yes, Diesel's mpg is very impressive in ideal driving conditions, but those people always either unintentionally or intentionally miss the stop&run city drive situation in which diesel engine is as poor as gas engines and far inferior to Hybrid.


Hard to believe the Honda got better mpg than the diesel, but facts are facts.
CR-Z would be my choice for an urban pocket rocket. Nice job Honda!

C.R. Zazzy!

if you like the CR-Z, you'll love CR-Zazzy...


I certainly hope that part 2 or 3 of this comparison includes the as tested MSRP's for the vehicles. Then we'll see, strictly from an economic viewpoint, how long it will take to recoup the up front cost of the diesel compared to the other two.

Amuro Ray

Let's categorize this as an apple and orange comparison.

An apple will still have more IRON than 3 oranges combined, but does it mean that apple is more "healthy" than orange?

"But that's not a comparison at all!"

...Precisely ;)


As I said before, I could have done the stint with less than 6 gallons of diesel on my manual TDI. It is just matter of knowing how to drive.

The last hybrid vs Diesel challenge we did was our most popular to date. People cross shop on price and mileage and would consider all three if they were shopping for one of them. People compare on many factors, not just one, especially fuel type. It's not like a Golf TDI shopper is going to look at an Audi Q7 TDI because they both run on diesel.

Amuro Ray

Dave T,,

Well, like I said, not serious ;)

U may have misunderstood me here. All I'm saying is - in response to some of the posts like qdp's ones - that this comparison is NOT about which technology (hybrid, diesel, pure-ICE) champs the mileage war, but more like a, "I've this model which uses hybrid tech, and this with diesel, and..."

That's my understanding of this comparison. I mean, u can't take this as a serious comparison of different fuel saving technologies, since, seriously now, CR-Z (manual) maybe fun to drive, it's definitely NOT the best in hybrid fuel efficiency compare to either the CR-Z(auto)/Insight or Prius. Same token for using a manual tranny CR-Z which, as u've noted, a lower mpg than auto tranny (but due to availability). Although TDI has same mpg rating for both trannies, manual has a heck lot more varying factors 'coz u r the one who controls when to shift.

That is why I said that this is an apple and orange comparison. Selection of not the best fuel saving models of the hybrid technology vs the best in diesel, and selection of manual tranny on a hybrid instead of an auto in the hybrid.

OK now I see what you're saying. yes, it would be great if every manufacturer supplied every transmission variant in their test fleets, but they generally provide ones that journalists and/or consumers will be most interested in. A manual TDI would have been nice to have.

Highland Tim

Thanks for the comparison. I’ve not seen any of your work before, nor any of the intriguing commenters. Quite a group.
Being an owner of a 2003 Civic hybrid, my first comment is that I would have rather calculated mileage based on volume at fillup rather than the trip computers. How closely did each of the odometers reflect the actual route distance? In our experience, the trip computer is almost always overly optimistic, and can be greatly influenced by other variables, especially on a 90 degree day.
As far as the CVT versus manual comparison, I don’t think anyone (or Honda or Toyota at least) have the CVT / automatic algorithm well developed for a wide range of geography. Our CVT takes A LOT of learning/practice to drive economically, whether in the city, on the highway, or in the mountains (Colorado Rockies). Several friends with Prii (Priuses?) concur. Even my local Honda rep couldn’t give me a saleable description of why they would have paddle shifters in the CR-Z with CVT! (I have only driven the six-sped so far, their CVT wasn’t available at the time. I think I know why the engineers did it, but the dealer doesn’t know how to communicate it. I’ll find out when I drive the CVT.)
Secondly, we all understand that there are a lot of other variables that may have influenced these results. Just wondering what the rules were in regard to air-conditioner use?
I am Honda biased, but do still find the Volkswagens appealing. I think Honda did a great job of hitting a nice definition in the CR-Z. Since Honda doesn’t believe that the US consumer can understand the diesel value (low-end torque vs. horsepower) and have ceased development of their turbo diesel for US, the CR-Z is an admirable reaction. I wish they would just recognize how successful the TDI is!


@ Zack. Did you even read the results? Obviously not, if you had, then you would know that the Honda did not get better MPG's than the diesel.

In Fact, the Honda lost in every aspect of this challenge except City Mileage, in wich case the Honda only beat the TDI by 1 MPG.

The Diesel is the best buy hands down, fuel economy, styling, and performance.


The "wonky pump readout" hypothesis on the CR-Z mileage is strange to me. I've not lived in Illinois, but all of the states that I've lived in certify that a pump's readout represents the actual amount delivered to the customer, so I would be far more likely to trust that than the mileage calculator or even the odometer in a car.

On an anecdotal note, using the pump for volume and the trip meter for miles, my 2010 Sportwagen TDI (auto transmission) averages 34.5 city (mostly surface streets in Phoenix, AZ) and 47.1 highway (Calculated on two round trips from Phoenix to San Diego, which includes climbing the Coastal Range just East of SD.

Adrian Saldivar

Great for GTI

After all the best Engineering over all the earth developed and designed by the best German Engineers ..One week ago (a) "friend" told me that he had just bought a COOPER hot chilli or some model like that , he was presuming about the speed and I told him GTI is faster , and he did tell me GTI is SH/%%& , just like that , and he was so erronous because he told me COOPER does 0 to 100 in México KM/h in 7 sec. and the one that my brother bought did 6.4 even the adds of VW said that , the one of the nurse with the guy that was the driver , I do not even want to speak to this Donkey , he is not just insolent but very ignorant , VW is the leading brand for this new Century .

Congratulations .

POINTER driver


This is a good challenge, because it gives the 3 best optsional economy saving engine types. Diesel, Hybrid, and w/e the honda is, lol. I pick TDI GOLF, overall. I was looking to buy the 2011 Jetta but i think this changed my mind. Previously owning a 02 Jetta GLS, 04 GTI 1.8T and now a MK5 Rabbit 09. You can see my prefrance car maker, vw inda house. I'm people, and it's what i want.


Just a note on the Honda mpg figure.

The figure of 37.7 mpg using a US Gallon (3.785 litres per US Gallon) works out to 45.28 mpg using an Imperial (UK) Gallon (4.54 litres per Imperial Gallon).

Based on the on board computer figure of 46.9 mpg I would say that the on board computer is using an Imperial Gallon for the mpg calculation instead of a US Gallon.


One thing completely missing from this discussion is that the timing belt and water pump in the TDI will have to be replaced at 80,000 miles as part of scheduled maintenance - a $1,000 unavoidable repair. That's the way it is on my '05 TDI unless VW improved the engine design. If you don't do it and the belt breaks the engine will destroy itself! If you drive 15,000 miles a year plan that repair work in 5.3 years. Prorating the $1000 over 5 years adds $200 to the annual fuel cost in the table above. The VW TDI now becomes the most expensive annually as well as being the most expensive base MSRP! You'll also have to change the fuel filter annually - more cost and hassle. Buy it for the fun to drive, but not because it will save you time or money! None of these cars are especially 'economical'. It's foolish to spend $25k to justify saving $200/year on fuel economy.

you guys should read some comparisons in . they were honest and trustworthy than this one :)


I've got a Mini Cooper Clubman. Applying some simple hypermiling techniques, I'm averaging 44 mpg on a 60 mile round trip commute. I look damn good doing it to boot!

Fix it again

You look good headed to the shop too. Mini is one of the worst for reliability. Wise up and get a hybrid, man.


That long of a trip with conditions that warm, and I'm guessing no speeds above 70, the CR-Z could easily get 45mpg+ and sub-40mpg would be much more of a surprise.

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