30 mpg: Ten fun cars that won't break the bank at the pump

by Andrew Ganz
30 mpg: Ten fun cars that won't break the bank at the pump - image 1

Gas prices got you down? Buy one of these. Save money. Drive happy.

High gas prices used to be a summer staple, but the powers that be seem to be pretty content with something north of $3.50 per gallon at the pump.

Since we don't think we're ever going to see truly "cheap" gas again, we figure it's high time to trade in that gas guzzler on something a little sportier. For the first time ever, we've been able to find 10 fun-to-drive cars that all net at least 30 mpg on the highway.

Each of these offers truly impressive thrills for enthusiasts. Our list was a little longer until we started throwing out cars like the Kia Optima Turbo and the Buick Regal Turbo. Sure, they might pack decent power, but they're just not the kind of cars that will draw attention at your neighborhood car show. They're fun on a different kind of scale. Instead, we chose to concentrate on cars that will truly delight enthusiasts.

Our criteria was simple: Each car had to net at least 30 mpg on the highway and each has to be genuinely fun to drive. We didn't necessarily pick the most eco-friendly model in each lineup - we picked the ones we'd most want to enjoy on a closed course or on a winding country road.

In no particular order, here's our list:

Ford Mustang (automatic) 19/31 mpg. Mustang has the right looks and an able chassis, even if its suspension is a little low tech and its eco-tuned automatic a little wonky. But its strong 3.7-liter V6 puts out a solid 305 horsepower - that's a few ponies more than the V8-powered Mustang GT did just five years ago! Opt for the stick shift and the EPA says you'll average 29 mpg.

Best for: Reconnecting with the pony car era. This ain't the secretary's ride it once was.

Mazda2 (manual) 27/33 mpg. What's an economy car doing on this list? And isn't the Mazda2 about the least-efficient subcompact on the market? Sure, the '2 might not be the fuel miser its compact proportions and low-digit spec sheet would suggest, but we love it for its playful handling and taut suspension. It sets the bar high for subcompacts since it takes to heart Mazda's doctrine of shaving weight wherever possible by checking in at a mere 2,300 lbs. That's a featherweight these days!

Best for: Urban commuting. Every road is a video game slalom course when you're in a Mazda2.

MINI John Cooper Works (manual) 25/33 mpg. You can have lots of fun with a standard MINI Cooper, but we like it a lot more when there are additional words tacked onto its name! The John Cooper Works package isn't cheap, but it brings with it a finely tuned suspension, Brembo brakes and a 208-pony turbocharged 1.6-liter engine. It is possibly the most complete and entertaining small car ever built and we love that it pays homage to a motorsports legend.

Best for: When you've outgrown the Mazda2. Sure, you can buy two Mazdas for this price... but the JCW feels worth every penny!

Audi TT coupe quattro (manual) 22/31 mpg. Audi has pared down its TT lineup in this market, but we still think the entry-level model hits an awfully nice sweet spot between value, performance and style. It features VW/Audi's ubiquitous 2.0-liter turbo engine (which you'll see a few more times in this list) and a clean look that you won't see on every corner.

Best for: Cougars on the prowl. The TT is a sexy machine with a name to match. Yeah, we went there.

Chevrolet Camaro (automatic) 19/30 mpg. Camaro is still the "thing of the moment" in the ponycar arena, even if its weird proportions and portly curb weight mean that the Mustang is the better driver. But Camaro is full-flavored and it offers a step-above level of refinement and quality throughout compared to the aging 'stang. Plus, it cranks out just a few more horsepower for extra bragging rights. Like the Mustang, Camaro won't hit 30 mpg with its six-speed row-it-yerself unit.

Best for: Joe Cool. Camaro is just retro enough to be pretty slick for anyone over 5'4 (that high beltline makes it a tough cruiser for the shorter crowd).

Fiat 500 (manual) 30/38 mpg. Fiat's back, but this time the little Italian runabout is made in a Chrysler plant in Mexico. What a world we live in. Truth be told, 500 isn't nearly as entertaining as the MINI, but it's smaller and cheaper. Its cheeky looks and zippy small car handling make it a stand-out choice in the subcompact segment.

Best for: Euro-flavor seekers. The 500 oozes Euro style, even if it was built down in Toluca.

Audi A5 coupe quattro (manual) 21/31 mpg. Audi reinvigorated a tired premium coupe market when it unveiled its drop-dead gorgeous A5 coupe a few years ago. With a driver-oriented version of Audi's typically flawless interior design and a willing and able all-wheel-drive chassis, the A5 checks all the boxes on our shopping list.

Best for: TT too small? Step up to the A5, which offers room for four humans.

Honda CR-Z (manual) 31/37 mpg. A hybrid? What? CR-Z is the industry's first sport-oriented hybrid, and while it's certainly no out-of-the-park home run, it is a highly-focused sporty runabout worthy of commendation. Think of it this way: The Honda Insight went to the gym for a few years (possibly the same European gym that toned the Dodge Durango - this place sounds interesting). It came back toned and tuned, if still pretty nerdy.

Best for: Nerdy enthusiasts. Keep your SCCA membership card tucked into your short sleeve dress shirt pocket next to a couple of pens and a calculator? This one's for you.

Volkswagen GTI (manual) 21/31 mpg. More than 30 years on, GTI still shines with one of the best combinations of enthusiast likability and practicality. The three-door is the icon, but we'd go with the roomier five-door and we'd skip the leather for the still-cool plaid cloth. Toss a roof rack on the top and you have a car for every possible need this side of rock crawling (that's what the mountain bike is for, right?).

Best for: Active types. There's not a better do-everything gas sipper on the market than the GTI.

Scion tC (manual) 23/31 mpg. History lesson: The first Scion tC sucked. Now that we've had that refresher, let's talk about the new tC. Sure, it looks the same, but it has a cool driver-centric interior and an impresive able chassis that's more fun than anything Toyota has produced since the last MR2 bit the dust. Celica, your heir has finally arrived. Now, let's just keep our fingers crossed that the buyer demographic no longer only includes strippers and weirdos.

Best for: Those who can think outside the box. The first tC was a sour apple, but this one pushes all the right buttons.

In another five years, will we be back here to suggest a similar group of 40 mpg cars that won't bore enthusiasts? Tell us what you think.

Photos by Chris Doane, Mark Elias, Andrew Ganz and courtesy Audi.

30 mpg: Ten fun cars that won't break the bank at the pump - image 2 30 mpg: Ten fun cars that won't break the bank at the pump - image 3 30 mpg: Ten fun cars that won't break the bank at the pump - image 4 30 mpg: Ten fun cars that won't break the bank at the pump - image 5 30 mpg: Ten fun cars that won't break the bank at the pump - image 6 30 mpg: Ten fun cars that won't break the bank at the pump - image 7 30 mpg: Ten fun cars that won't break the bank at the pump - image 8 30 mpg: Ten fun cars that won't break the bank at the pump - image 9 30 mpg: Ten fun cars that won't break the bank at the pump - image 10