Flash drives

If the $4-a-gallon gas prices have got you down, it might be time to switch to an eco-friendly car. We test drove three.

Ben Garrido test drives a VW Golf.

Ben Garrido test drives a VW Golf.

Photo by AMY BECK

Just 10 years ago, women with $300 shoes and tiny, annoying dogs flooded dealerships in order to buy Cadillac and Lexus SUVs that functioned no better than their subprime mortgages. Men with tribal tattoos threw money at Dodge, Ford and Chevrolet because they wanted to commute from suburbia to Sparks in the largest truck available. Fashion crushed function under boot, gasoline cost near nothing and profit-taking trumped design innovation.

2012 is much better for car buying. Behold three affordable paths to comfortable, handsome transport. All achieve at least 40 highway mpg. All are practical enough to serve a family. One is even fun to drive.

Hyundai Accent

Base price $12,545; Price as tested $16,100; EPA MPG 30 city/40 highway; 138 hp

Cars must go, stop and turn. They should carry you and your passengers in comfort. In all of these core competencies, the Accent performs admirably. It is remarkably spacious. Two generously proportioned gentlemen could share the back seat in complete serenity. Indeed, the Accent’s large dimensions allowed me to remain blissfully unaware of the salesman’s preference in antiperspirant. Lots of room in the front as well—my partner in testing, Gina Akao, could flop great distances to and fro whenever I drove vigorously.

All the controls fall naturally to hand, everything seems well-built, and it’s the easiest to drive in our test. The six-speed automatic transmission slushes smoothly and responds to manual inputs within half a second or so. It has the best, most natural-to-use brakes. The Accent has bold new styling, all swoops and curves and adventurous detailing. The Accent also undercuts the next cheapest car in this test by almost ten grand, so it’s excellent value.

But all is not joy and sunshine. Our test car came with special low rolling resistance, 14 inch tires. These nasty, rock hard things are supposed to save gasoline, and I’m sure they do. But, for that extra .2 mpg, the driver suffers a cacophony of road noise—concrete in G-minor, allegro of expansion joint. Thank god, there’s a good sound system to drown it out. These tires also make the act of cornering so squishy and imprecise it feels like driving in a pit of soggy bread. That’s a shame because the chassis seems capable. Add in our test car’s sexy, Italian Racing Brown bodywork and automatic gearbox, and the Accent does an excellent job inspiring narcolepsy in all who drive it.

Bad luck really, because with Hyundai’s optional 16-inch tires—I recommend anything to avoid those hateful low friction 14-inchers—and the $900 cheaper manual transmission—an automatic transmission sucks the joy from any small car—I suspect the Accent would make an entertaining little runabout.

Toyota Prius C

Base price $18,950; Price as tested $25,700; EPA MPG 53 city/46 highway; 99 hp

Neither Gina nor I have ever driven any car as weird as the Prius C. It might not even be a car, more like a spaceship.

Photo By

First the good news. The Prius C looks aggressive and high tech, especially in orange. From the front, it has a scrunched nose and angry frown, like somebody just stole its lunch money. The spaceship almost crouches on its front wheels. Saving the environment evidently involves a lot of pent up angst, and I like that.

Upon entering, the exterior’s vitriol melts away into a Prada-meets-the-Borg orgy of tech modernism. The instrument cluster is a flatscreen display. To the right, another computer screen does many things, some of which neither of us could understand. Below this resides yet another computer screen where the driver may link to satellite radio, stock quotes, MP3 players, smart phones, Pandora and the launching system for Russia’s nuclear arsenal. You may not, however, link to your favorite FM radio stations without an hour’s searching.

All these computers mount to an angular dash covered in some material I’ve never encountered before. It’s pleasant to touch and looks nice—hundreds of perforations, lines and textures. The spaceship uses nothing so vulgar as a key, and so the owner is likely to leave the door-opening computer chip inside the car at least daily.

Select drive and there’s more good news. The Prius C rides very smoothly. As long as we proceed very, very conservatively, it is a wonderful thing to be a passenger in, though also the most cramped car we sampled.

If you wish to actually drive the Prius C, however, there’s a lot of bad news. The steering is bad. The car sort of goes where you point, but the effort required to turn the wheel varies almost at random.

Throttle response is even worse. Sometimes pressing on the gas makes a lot of noise with no progress. Sometimes it accelerates in silence. Sometimes the spaceship makes a lot of very unpleasant noise and then wheezes down the road. Just for variety, it also moves silently away without the driver touching anything. These shenanigans caused a minimum of three lurches per stop light.

Even those ills pale in comparison to the brakes. Press on the pedal with moderate force, and at first nothing happens. Wait a second longer, and suddenly the brakes bite with savage force. Then, at about 10 mph, the car reverts to glide mode. You must initially mash the brake pedal, ease up and then mash it again to stop smoothly.

I drove it briefly in a sporting manner. This caused Gina to call out in terror. I, too, feared for my life and not because it’s fast. The other two would blow it into the weeds. Our heavily optioned Prius C is also most expensive of the three. Rebates? Child, please.

Think of it as the bizzaro-Hyundai. Where the Accent blandly goes about its business, doing everything with great competence but no exuberance, the Prius endlessly entertains. It’s one of the most exciting cars I’ve driven, in no small part because it’s scary. It’s also hugely flawed. Gina sums it up best: “I like it and it’s very exciting, but that’s because I never know what it’s going to do next.”

Volkswagen Golf TDI

Base price $24,235; Price as tested $25,200; EPA MPG 30 city/42 highway; 140 hp

This is the best car we tried by miles. If the Hyundai is boring, practical transport and the Prius C a dimwitted spaceship with a good sense of humor, then the Golf is Joe Montana, a top athlete settling into respectable middle age.

Photo By

It’s faster than the Accent and so much faster than the Prius, it feels like stepping into a fighter jet after years of riding an asthmatic donkey. The 2.0 liter turbo diesel engine makes almost twice the torque of the other two and allows the driver to shoot out of corners at near sportscar pace. With sharp, precise steering and an adjustable chassis, the Golf is an absolute pleasure to punt down a twisting road. Want to drive cleanly? No problem. Want to make the back tires slide a little? Certainly, sir. Want to throw it around like a pissed off 13 year-old handling dirty laundry? It lives to serve.

The interior is even better. Gina, running her hands over the dash, headliner and seats, kept saying, “Ooh, that’s nice.” All the switches feel like they’ve been cut from solid blocks of aluminum. Turn signal indicators make satisfying, muted “clunk” sounds when you push them. The six-speed manual gear box snicks between ratios quickly and effortlessly, like an expensive knife through sashimi. The entire interior feels grown up, classy and confident. It’s also dead quiet and ultra smooth—85 mph in fourth gear without noticing you’ve been speeding smooth. It rides perhaps a touch harder than the spaceship but never jars. In terms of refinement, it almost feels unfair to compare it with the other two.

There are some minor annoyances. Putting on the seatbelt requires dislocating one’s shoulder. There’s lots of old-school turbo lag. The brake pedal has an inch of dead squish before biting down—it’s difficult to heel-and-toe. Any time you stall the car, you must turn the ignition all the way off, all the way back on and wait for a split second to restart the engine. I discovered this in the middle of an intersection, which was very exciting. Finally, it feels expensive largely because it is expensive.

Life’s a gas

These cars represent three different approaches to eco-friendly personal transportation. The conventional gasoline-powered Hyundai gives up very little efficiency to its hybrid and diesel competitors. It’s the most practical, the best value and effectively half the price of the others. It also has the best warranty. You cannot buy any new hybrid or diesel for similar money. Hyundai offers two other gasoline models, the sporty Veloster and the more powerful Elantra, that achieve an EPA-rated 40 mpg for under $20,000. Ford, Chevrolet, Nissan, Kia, Honda and Mazda can make similar boasts. The Prius C is odd and, during our test drive, managed only 41 mpg. It is the least competent, but also the most intriguing in a science fiction sort of way. The diesel Golf is simply wonderful. If you can stomach the high price of admission, you will soon discover why diesel is so popular in Europe and Asia.

Wanna help the environment? Mothball your truck.

The 15 mpg improvement you get going from a 10 mpg truck to a 25 mpg car does far more to help the environment, and your pocketbook, than the 15 mpg improvement you get going from a conventional, 25 mpg car to a 40 mpg fuel miser. The reason has to do with consumption rates.

Let’s start with your giant, 10 mpg truck. Assume you drive 100 miles on your commute and therefore consume 10 gallons of fuel per day. At $4 per gallon that’s $40 in fuel to complete your trip. Assume you trade that truck for a powerful sports car like a Chevrolet Corvette. The Corvette gets about 25 mpg. For that same 100 mile commute you are now consuming only four gallons and $16 dollars of gasoline, saving six gallons and $24 compared to the truck. Next you trade your Corvette for an Accent, Prius C (remember, we observed 41 mpg on our Prius’ trip computer) or Golf TDI. At 40 mpg, your commute consumes 2.5 gallons and $10. Compared to the Corvette, hardly an ecomobile, you have saved only 1.5 gallons and $6. Going from the Prius’ observed 41 mpg economy to its claimed 53 mpg means even less; .6 gallons and $2.40 savings over that same 100-mile commute.

High mpg is thus a case of diminishing returns. You do far more good getting rid of horrible gas guzzlers—almost any full size truck or truck based SUV—than by upgrading from a normal car to an ultra efficient fuel sipper.

About the testers

Ben Garrido is 27 years old. In addition to writing for the Reno News & Review, he enjoys motorsports. He’s built and raced competition cars since the age of 15. He prefers cars that rattle teeth, cause herniated spinal disks, and make small children weep piteously into their mothers’ arms.

Gina Akao is 30 years old. She is a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Reno and expert in institutional analysis. She enjoys quiet Italian dinners, classical music concerts and Christian art. She prefers serene, well-mannered cars that exude classiness but retain a touch of girly cuteness.

Both drove each car in this test and drew similar conclusions.