40 MPG Compact vs. Subcompact Mileage Challenge

40mpgcrew
One recent oddity in the increasingly efficiency-obsessed automotive industry is some new compact and subcompact models each get 40 mpg despite being significantly different in terms of size. The question for car shoppers becomes not whether the smaller cars get better mileage in the real world, but can you live with the smaller confines to save money at the dealership — and not just the gas pump.

Currently, there are two clear examples of this trend: Ford’s new Focus compact and Fiesta subcompact and Hyundai’s Elantra compact and Accent subcompact. Ford offers a special option package, called SFE, on the two cars, helping them achieve 40 mpg highway, while the Hyundai models are rated at 40 mpg highway without any additional packages.

We put these four cars through a nearly 300-mile drive to see if size truly matters. We also found out which car was a clear winner at the pump. The larger question — could the smaller cars win us over? — was much harder to answer.

All four are rated almost identically by the EPA:
  • 2012 Ford Focus SFE: 28/40/33 mpg city/highway/combined
  • 2011 Ford Fiesta SFE: 29/40/33 city/highway/combined
  • 2011 Hyundai Elantra: 29/40/33 city/highway/combined
  • 2012 Hyundai Accent: 30/40/33 city/highway/combined

The four test models were sedans, and with the exception of the Elantra (a Limited trim), were similarly equipped. All four had automatic transmissions. Their as-test prices were:

  • 2011 Hyundai Elantra Limited: $22,110 (comparably equipped GLS $19,595)
  • 2012 Ford Focus SE with SFE Package: $19,785
  • 2011 Ford Fiesta SE with SFE Package: $17,245
  • 2012 Hyundai Accent GLS: $16,625

The results proved what we assumed going into the mileage challenge. After nearly 300 miles, the smaller cars got better mileage than their similarly rated larger siblings.

Highmileage

Total

Clearly, the Fiesta won overall, according to the trip computer and at the pump when calculating mileage. The Accent also delivered better mileage than the larger Elantra, but not by as much as the Fiesta versus the Focus.

Our four intrepid drivers had differing opinions on the cars and if the compacts warranted the extra $2,500 or $3,000 it’d cost to upgrade to them from their subcompact siblings.

Fords1

Kelsey Mays, Cars.com Editor

Kelsey began the refrain of cramped confines in the Fiesta. “Both Fords feel narrower inside than the Hyundais. The Fiesta’s seats are too small for taller adults, especially in cushion length.”

The lower-priced Accent didn’t hold up to the Fiesta or Elantra. “Cabin materials are best in the Elantra and the worst in the Accent — big difference there, with dingier window controls, no armrest padding and no telescoping steering wheel.”

Kelsey also found the Ford cars’ transmissions weren’t up to par. “Both Fords ride well, but the transmissions are problematic. It’s worse in the Fiesta, whose tiny engine makes you dig deep for downshifts.”

Gasstation2

Colin Bird, Cars.com Editor

Colin writes for KickingTires and is a current Accent owner of the 2006 vintage.

The Fords won Colin over. “I thought the Fiesta had more personality than the Accent, inside and out. Acceleration was punchy, and I liked the handling of the Accent. Though things are well-thought-out here, I would probably pay the $1,000-plus premium for the more stylish Fiesta.”

But did the subcompacts offer enough to keep him from leaving the segment? “I’m very frugally minded, so the subcompacts are good enough for me. I thought the Fiesta and Accent offered perceptibly the same amount of space, from the driver’s position, as the two larger compact cars.”

Hyundaielantra

Brian Neale, Cars.com Vice President Product, UX

We enlisted the aid of a Cars.com executive to help the editorial team out for this drive. Brian Neale was a journalist in a former life and is an avid motorcyclist. Most importantly, he had seven or so hours to drive 300 miles in the four cars.

Brian had a clear favorite, and unlike Colin, he thought there was enough to warrant moving up in class. “The Elantra out-classed both Fords — especially the Fiesta — by a margin even wider than the MSRPs suggest.”

Brian also preferred the Accent to the Fiesta for its comfort level. “The Accent was my bang-for-the-buck favorite, offering a bigger-car feel than the Fiesta at an impressive MSRP. I’d trade off the gas mileage versus the Fiesta without a second thought.”

He wasn’t down on the Fords entirely though, just the cramped Fiesta. “I’d be happy enough in the Focus, but even the miserly MPG numbers wouldn’t lure me into the Fiesta.”

Focus1

Mike Hanley, Cars.com Editor

Like Brian, Mike was more comfortable in the Hyundais, but the Fords won him over. “The most impressive thing about the Fiesta is how few compromises in refinement and quality it makes compared to the Focus. Both cars offer direct, responsive steering that yields a degree of engagement that's missing from the Hyundais.”

But only one of the subcompacts did enough to stop him from picking the bigger model. “The Focus’ larger size and extra power are compelling, but it’s not enough to make me choose it over the thriftier Fiesta. The Accent hasn't closed the gap between subcompact- and compact-car quality and refinement as much as the Fiesta has. I’d spring for the more expensive Elantra.”

Comments 

Just recently my parents decided to buy me a new car and we went with the 2012 Hyundai Accent actually. I also spent a week with the Hyundai Elantra when I proposed to my girlfriend at the Chicago Auto Show. Around town I have to say I find my MPG is better in the Accent vs the Elantra. With less mass and a lot of hills here the subcompact makes a bit more sense to me. The Ford's may offer a better driving experience but I like how I feel in the cabin of the Accent, material quality may not be phenomenal but honestly you pay for it in the Fiesta. MSRP may be only marginally different but the markups on the Fiesta's take most on lots over 20k

JR

Just wondering why the distance traveled were not the same for all vehicles. They did traverse the same leg didn't they? A 3 mile difference in the odometer reading is a large discrepancy, let alone a 7 7 mile difference. The odometer readings are either understated in the Hyundais or are overstated in the Fords. Either way, the actual miles per gallon is affected and thus render the results invalid.

Amuro Ray

How would you folks rate the cheapest of the pack, Hyundai GLS @ $16.6K (assuming pretty much barebones with auto tranny), vs the 2012 Versa sedan, which, as per Kelsey Mays' reviewed, cost $16.3K fully loaded? IOW, which one with better value?

JM

moving up to the Elantra is definitely a no-brainer. it is without a doubt the best car in its class. the subcompacts may get slightly better mpg, but with such a small difference with numbers that are already very high for gasoline-only vehicles, you probably wouldnt see any difference in the money you spend (other than the actual cost of the vehicle of course). the compacts have more space, are more comfortable, and are more refined, and get nearly the same fuel economy as subcompacts.

Amuro Ray

@ JM,

"moving up to the Elantra is definitely a no-brainer"

Now wait a sec...let's really think 'bou it :)

I would say that moving UP if money is of no concern to the interested buyer. Bear in mind that the Fords here are SFE pkg = higher prices. There are other choices out there, with the lowest being the Versa at a $5K difference ($3K if CVT), which also get pretty decent mileage (Versa has 30/38/33).

Most who buy B or C segments are budget conscious (not necessarily poor though), and we are talking thousand of dollars here too. I would dare to say that, people who shop for these 2 segments have both fuel economy and price in their minds, and quite a # of people won't go for a $20K compact even if it represents the best value...

OTOH, what're available @ the dealers - that's a different story, and most likely contribute to the statistics that majority of vehicles sold in these 2 segments are loaded ones (more profit margin).

JR,
The differing mileages are mainly from folks missing the turn-ins for each leg and having to circle around again. No high speed areas were added or misrepresented. So actually, at those speeds the Fiesta's mileage is even more impressive...but regardless it's a 2% variance which is well within any margin of error for most folks. I don't think it negates the entire day of driving.

AR,
You're making a lot of assumptions. The GLS is the majority of sales for the Elantra. In our current inventory for 2012 Elantras which is only 2392 (popular car) 730 are priced under $20,000 like one comparable to the SFE Focus. 500 more are under $23,000. While 670 are over $23,000.

Now the question you're asking about the $2-$3,000 difference being inconsequential is another matter. For Brian, he'd pay the added money for the larger Hyundai. For Colin he wouldn't for the Ford.

I think that's a pretty interesting result along with the mileage figures.

Based not just solely on best in class MPG, Elantra wins hands down on ride comfort, the interior quality and design, as well as exterior designs. I've got countless of compliments since the day I got the car, and people were wondering what car it was. There was a new Focus in the work parking lot too but nobody seemed to care much about it as it just looks as mundane as any other cars there. Although I must mention one particular comment which stated that the car looks a little "feminine" with too many curvy lines and round edges. I just hope that someday Hyundai would actually come out with factory sports-tuned versions like what the Ford is doing with the ST and RS, since Hyundai is already part of so many high profile endurance races. Or one could simply opt for the upcoming Veloster I guess.

Amuro Ray

@ DT,

Not quite sure what you mean on my assumptions...esp with the inventory that you are citing on the Elantras...
I probably wasn't clear - when I talked 'bou loaded ones, I don't mean "fully-loaded" ones, my intention was on the barebone / lowest price trim level - the one that got advertised with big prints all the time, vs models that have various options in them, which jack up the price by a thousand or 2 (vs the base trim).

So, out of 2392 E, 730 are the barebones, vs 1170, plus 'bou 500 unknown. Let's forget the unknown for now. That figure 730 represents less than 1 entry trim Elantra / dealership (I found an article that stated 800 dealerships with 1000 being the target in 2010).

If you look at the Accent, there's 132 total less than $15000, close to 10 times of that above $16000. This means less than 1 car / dealership on the lowest trim.

On the Fiesta, 103 lowest trim ($10K - $15K), and at least 13 times more for over $15K. 103 out of the >5000 dealers (as per a 2001 article).

How about Focus (Focii)? 1574 below $20K, 5669 above.

Of all the models tested, quoting cars.com inventory, 2012 model, there is less than 1 car / dealership for the low/lowest trim level. Next trim level about/at least $1K more, and availability is better (esp with Fords).

So 1 argument is that dealers stock most popular model, and that being the GLS. OTOH, the "counter" argument of your statement on GLS being the most popular is that, because that's what you can find MOST in the dealerships, and can hardly find the "cheap" ones.

I do admit that B/C segments buyers are budget conscious is a generalized statement, as I haven't looked into if records are available from various statistics companies like JD Power.

Max Reid

We need more such cars.
Ford is launching Focus in Europe with 1 liter V3 Ecoboost engine.

Launch the same model here in USA as well.

Dander

Thanks for doing this comparison. My post in June's review of the Accent questioned the value of the accent in the market when it gets virtually the same mileage as the larger and more comfortable Elantra. This article does a good job of distinguishing each model's strengths and individual characteristics. I think there's room in the market for a much more base level Accent with a smaller engine, better mileage and lower equipment level and sticker price. It's well within Hyundai's power to offer an Accent with a 1.2 litre direct injection gas engine with Air conditioning, manual shift and crank windows for about $11k. That would be a huge seller.

Allistar Evans

these tests are incredibly biased. Four cars but two different car segments. In the tests it shows that some cars were driven morem iles than others. If you want to make a credible experiment, seperate the compact from subcompact and each have their own tests with the equal amount of miles. The intellectual person who at least visits this site occasionally knows that there is only 1 mpg difference in the city between compact and subcompact cars. besides these cars are way too small for me. I need a vehicle to stretch my knees. I will continue to drive my gaz-guzzling 2001 f150 rated at 12-20 mpg and laugh at these people.

Parrots

@Allistar Evans:

A**hole.

d

rented a '12 Focus & can say the tranny wuz horrible! To the point of being annoying. Every time i went 2 let off the brake pedal the car shook quite a bit. Sometimes when i went to brake as well. My '06 Rio doesn't have that problem!

Alfonso Kelly

All four of these cars are great choices. But thinking long term, the Hyundai Elantra and the Ford Focus will be more worth the consumer's time and money and everything else because these two cars yield at least $2000 to $3000 dollars more resale value than their subcompact counterparts in the Hyundai Accent and the Ford Fiesta. That means more trade-in value. All four cars get identical fuel economy, but let's get serious, most consumers will want to upgrade to a midsize sedan or a suv in the future. If you are going to spend $15k to 18k on a fuel efficient car, then make it count.

JJ

I like the concept of the test. Although I would like to see proof of consistency in the driving, as the mileage discrepancy shows, like perhaps some were idling longer, ext...
I also have the distinct impression that the fiesta would have been significantly more broken in, I cant see it rightly being that much better mpg wise.

Card13

@Allistar Evans

Are you serious? The entire point of this test is that the cars are not in the same class. It's to see if there are noticeable sacrifices when moving between the size classes. Shoppers don't go into a dealership saying "I want to look at your subcompact cars". They will usually come in and say something like "I want something under $18,000". The compacts and subcompacts are priced close enough that people WILL cross-shop them. Separating the segments would destroy the purpose of this test.

On the issue of the mileage difference, have you ever done any kind of experiment? A gap of 7 miles is totally acceptable when the total is near 300, and it will not create a relevant variance in the results. To conduct the test with no error would be nearly impossible. They would have to make sure that no car gets caught at a traffic light longer than the others and has to idle more. If you think the slight differences in mileage is significant, you can try to redo the whole test yourself.

jstant01

@Allistar Evans - hope you are in the oil business. Have fun with the gas guzzler.

All of these cars are on my "interest" list to replace my 2005 Pontiac Vibe, if and when it ever dies. I found this comparison very helpful. I also found it interesting that the cars all performed near that 40mpg mark, although I seem to consistently read comments from people saying the "real world" numbers for the Elantra, in particular, are much lower.

Like Colin, I'm frugally minded too. I could care less for the most part about a car's interior. If it has buttons that work and turn signals that don't fall off - good enough for me.

I can't wait until we hopefully start seeing some 50mpg+ plus cars. I have never been able to understand America's love affair with big cars and high horsepower motors - except for people who need to haul a lot of people or haul a lot of stuff. Everyone else should be driving Fiestas and Accents - especially the millions of commuters riding to work by themselves.

Joe

I have a 2011 Elantra Limited and after 7000 miles I am averaging 25 mpg. Is it me or is something wrong with the car?

Fix it again

In my opinion you should be averaging about 32 mpg, Joe. Are all your trips short trips, with lots of stop lights?

rcn

@jstant01 - Finally, someone who thinks like I do! Why perpetuate America's love affair with big cars? I'd drive a compact if it wasn't invisible to vehicles larger than subcompacts. So last week I test drove the new Elantra GT and 2013 Mazda 3i Touring, but they both feel too big for me. This article has inspired me to try the Accent and the Fiesta, and maybe the Focus too. I hope the visibility is better in the smaller cars. Thanks!

don

For Allistar-go ahead and drive your gulper. I'll laugh at you for paying twice as much at the pump as I zip comfortably along in the cruising lane in my 2012 Focus.

For "d," the shuddering is an initial quirk of the dual clutch transmission. It takes about 2,500 to 3,000 miles to electronically adjust to an individual driver's habits. I'm coming up on 8,000 miles--most of the time, I roll out pretty smoothly from a standing start, with a slight shudder (the idea is to simulate the feel of a standard transmission, without having to work a clutch pedal). It needs a little tweaking for sure, but otherwise I'm happy with the car. I wouldn't expect a silky smooth transmission in a 2012 rental Focus. It probably hasn't been driven enough miles as of yet. Hope this helps for your next rental.

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