12 Born-In-The-U.S.A. Fuel Sippers

August 6, 2009

Want American-made and fuel-efficient? A small car, too? You don't have many choices.

Shoppers are valuing fuel efficiency more than before, especially now that they might be able to take advantage of a $4,500 Cash-for-Clunkers incentive. While there are plenty of stars-and-stripes-waving larger vehicles, the list of smaller, frugal American-made cars is very limited.

And at a time when you're likely wondering how you can do your part to support the economy—whether locally or nationally—chances are the dealership salesperson will be of little help to some nagging shopping questions like "Where is this car built?"

Luckily, you'll find answers to those questions—along with the origin of the engine and transmission—on the window sticker. But beware, there are plenty of surprises.

The 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid is one car we would have loved to put on the list; it's one of our highest-scoring cars, at an 8.8 overall, and its fuel economy is an impressive 41 mpg city, 36 highway. To the point of this list, the Fusion Hybrid is assembled in Mexico. But buying one isn't entirely unpatriotic; even if you won't support your local economy by buying a Fusion, you do support a U.S.-based company and its national impact.

Then there are other U.S.-brand, foreign-made vehicles that we didn't feel the least bit bad not including on our list; for example, the Chevrolet Aveo is made in South Korea, using mostly foreign parts as well, and it's never been competitive against rival models like the 2009 Honda Fit or Nissan Versa.

In response to multiple car shoppers who asked for recent advice about which small, high-mileage vehicles are American-built—and with surprises like those we've mentioned in mind—TheCarConnection.com has put together this list. The simple requirements? A compact vehicle with 25-mpg EPA Combined figure and final assembly in the U.S.  Several mid-size sedans, including the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, and new 2010 Subaru Legacy also achieve that figure, and we intend to cover them in a follow-up feature.

Those requirements narrowed the list down to just 12 compact contenders. To keep you from having to wade through lots of cars and window stickers, and save you from a lot of blank stares from salesman, here are TheCarConnection.com's Born-In-The-U.S.A. Fuel Sippers:

The trip from Detroit to Washington DC is expected to take Alan Mulally about nine hours

The trip from Detroit to Washington DC is expected to take Alan Mulally about nine hours

Ford Escape Hybrid

EPA combined fuel economy: 32
Assembly: Kansas City, MO; UAW
Overall Rating: 7.4
Bottom Line: "Though it looks decidedly old-school, the Ford Escape is a solid and stylish five-passenger, compact SUV that has been kept up-to-date."

The Escape Hybrid has become an iconic vehicle in patriotic, petro-independence circles; politicians love it because it's a high-mpg SUV that looks all-American yet not too huge or over-the-top. A full hybrid system allows electric-only operation at low speed and an astounding City fuel economy figure of 34 mpg for front-wheel-drive versions.

2009 Mercury Mariner Hybrid

2009 Mercury Mariner Hybrid

Mercury Mariner Hybrid

EPA combined fuel economy: 32
Assembly: Kansas City, MO; UAW
Overall Rating: 7.4
Bottom Line: "The 2009 Mercury Mariner is an attractive and capable compact SUV, now with vastly improved performance."

Virtually identical to the Ford Escape Hybrid, the Mariner Hybrid has a sleeker 'waterfall' grille design, along with satin-finish trims inside. Between the two, it's all up to those small aesthetic details, but TheCarConnection.com's editors point out that you might also find a more satisfying, attentive dealership experience at Lincoln-Mercury stores.

2009 Chevrolet Cobalt

2009 Chevrolet Cobalt

Chevrolet Cobalt XFE

EPA combined fuel economy: 30
Assembly: Lordstown, OH; UAW
Overall Rating: 6.8
Bottom Line: "The price is right for the 2009 Chevrolet Cobalt, yet most of its competitors offer a better overall value."

The Cobalt is a rental-car favorite, and it's easy to see why. It's quite roomy, has a comfortable ride, is reasonably reliable, and starts at a sticker price of less than $16,000. GM managed to raise fuel economy to 25 mpg city, 37 highway for 2009 as well—first through a special XFE model. But TheCarConnection.com points out that the Cobalt's interior feels drab and its driving experience is unremarkable, and Consumer Reports has reported that the Cobalt has one of the lowest rates of satisfaction of any small car. Chevy's future in this segment looks brighter after 2010; the Cobalt is set to be replaced by an all-new 2011 Chevrolet Cruze that will still be built in Ohio.

2009 Pontiac G5

2009 Pontiac G5

Pontiac G5 XFE

EPA combined fuel economy: 30
Assembly: Lordstown, OH; UAW
Overall Rating: 6.6
Bottom Line: "The 2009 Pontiac G5 looks good from a distance and is cheap and frugal, but it lacks nearly all the other elements of a practical or enjoyable car."

The 2009 Pontiac G5 is nearly identical mechanically to the Chevy Cobalt, yet its appeal is much more limited. That's because it's only offered as a two-door coupe, and there's no higher-performance version to match the sporty Cobalt SS. The G5 might have sportier front-end styling compared to the Cobalt, but past that there's not a lot to get excited about—other than the XFE model and its highway fuel economy of up to 37 mpg.

2009 Toyota Corolla

2009 Toyota Corolla

Toyota Corolla

EPA combined fuel economy: 30
Assembly: Fremont, CA; UAW
Overall Rating: 7.8
Bottom Line: "The 2009 Toyota Corolla has a split personality: the utilitarian base car and the slightly edgy, expensive Corolla XRS."

For decades, the Corolla has been known for its low price, low running costs, and focus on reliable transportation without a lot of frills. The Corolla was redesigned for 2009; it's become quieter and more comfortable, but commuters who only want the basics can still get a base $16k Toyota Corolla with roll-down windows, no A/C, and a five-speed manual gearbox that brings ratings of 26 mpg city, 35 highway. For now, the Corolla is U.S.-built—UAW-built, for that matter—by the joint GM-Toyota NUMMI plant in California.

2009 Honda Civic

2009 Honda Civic

Honda Civic

EPA combined fuel economy: 29
Assembly: Greensburg, IN
Overall Rating: 8.6
Bottom Line: "The 2009 Honda Civic lineup rates well for safety, handling, and overall frugality, though those who plan to carry cargo or frequent backseat passengers should look elsewhere."

The 2009 Honda Civic is one of TheCarConnection.com's top-rated small cars; there's a lot to love in the Civic, from its more premium look and feel, energetic engines, and excellent manual transmissions, plus very respectable fuel economy (up to 25 mpg city, 36 highway). Then there's this Honda's long-earned reputation for reliability, longevity, and resale value. And for those who do mind, this is the only vehicle on this list that's not put together by UAW workers. Dedicated made-in-the-U.S.A. buyers who are also drawn to the 2009 Honda Civic Hybrid might be disappointed to learn that it's built only in Japan.

2009 Ford Focus

2009 Ford Focus

Ford Focus

EPA combined fuel economy: 28
Assembly: Wayne, MI; UAW
Overall Rating: 7.0
Bottom Line: "The 2009 Ford Focus is a solid choice if you're looking for a roomy car that rides well, with a base price that starts around $15,000."

Provided you focus on the conciliatory "It's what's inside that counts," the 2009 Ford Focus is a really good small car, with a quiet, refined, attractive interior, complemented with pace-setting features like Ford's Sync voice-command interface, a nice ride, and up to 35 mpg on the highway. The trouble comes when sizing it up from the outside. The proportions aren't endearing, especially for the coupe, but just eliminating the cheesy, embarrassing plasti-chrome side gills that appeared on the 2008 Focus definitely helps give it a smoother, more distinguished look for '09.

2009 Pontiac Vibe

2009 Pontiac Vibe

Pontiac Vibe

EPA combined fuel economy: 28
Assembly: Fremont, CA; UAW
Overall Rating: 8.0
Bottom Line: "The small-hatchback competition is growing, but with a new look, upgraded powertrains, and bolstered safety features, the new 2009 Pontiac Vibe should be a top choice."

The Pontiac Vibe is one of our favorite tall hatchbacks—or wagons, or crossovers, depending on how you see it. To longtime import buyers, it brings the best of both worlds, with Toyota's small-car reputation and a design shared with the Toyota Matrix, mated to sharper Pontiac styling and a better-done interior. Plus, it's made in California, by UAW labor. The 2009 Pontiac Vibe is at the end of the road; it's getting phased out along with the Pontiac brand, so get one now.

2009 Dodge Caliber

2009 Dodge Caliber

Dodge Caliber

EPA combined fuel economy: 27 (1.8)
Assembly: Belvidere, IL; UAW
Overall Rating: 7.0
Bottom Line: "The Caliber has a very practical layout and truly innovative features to get excited about, but it's lacking in driving enjoyment or refinement—even compared to its low-priced competition."

The 2009 Dodge Caliber might look good on screen, or even at a few paces back, but it somehow fails to have much allure up close. That's a shame, as the Caliber has a lot going for it, with a very roomy interior, folding back-seat cargo versatility, and innovative features—like tailgate speakers and a cooler box—that you won't find in other small cars. Once you get behind the wheel it's hard not to be disappointed though with the cheap, plasticky interior, buzzy engine, and abnormally sluggish CVT. Anyway, to be the most patriotic (and fuel-efficient), you'll want the manual transmission; the CVT is sourced from Mexico.

2009 Jeep Patriot

2009 Jeep Patriot

Jeep Patriot

EPA combined fuel economy: 25
Assembly: Belvidere, IL
Overall Rating: 7.4
Bottom Line: "The 2009 Jeep Patriot offers a safe, city-friendly package for a bargain price; if the most off-roading you'll be doing is to the weekend campsite, it's a good frugal choice."

Don't let the Jeep name scare you; the often-overlooked Patriot is based on the Caliber, reasonably good on gas, and all car underneath. And its shape allows an incredibly roomy interior. With the available Freedom Drive II system the Patriot has a low range and actually gets enough toughness for conquering muddy inclines or deep snow, or even for occasional boulder-crawling. Now that Subaru has upsized its Forester, the Patriot really is in a class of its own and the best of Chrysler's Belvidere trio.

2009 Jeep Compass Sport

2009 Jeep Compass Sport

Jeep Compass

EPA combined fuel economy: 25
Assembly: Belvidere, IL
Overall Rating: 6.6
Bottom Line: "The Jeep Compass steers the brand toward a new on-road audience but falls short, pleasing neither off-roaders nor drivers who never hit the trails."

As the Bottom Line above hints, TheCarConnection.com's editors aren't Compass fans and can't see much of a point to the vehicle. Trademark Jeep grille aside, its styling is somewhat anonymous; squint and you'll see a less attractive version of the Caliber, or a more compromised alternative to the Patriot. The 2009 Jeep Compass' performance is unremarkable, like the Caliber, and the interior feels cheap. Fuel economy figures are good but not great—23 mpg city, 28 highway at the best, with the 2.4-liter four-cylinder and five-speed manual gearbox.

2009 Tesla Roadster

2009 Tesla Roadster

Tesla Roadster

EPA combined fuel economy: Over 100 mpg, gasoline-equivalent
Assembly: Menlo Park, CA
Overall Rating: 7.4
Bottom Line: "The 2009 Tesla Roadster delivers jaw-dropping green performance and handling in a classic open two-seater, but the aggressive driving it encourages may cut range to less than 200 miles."

Chances are you've heard of the Tesla Roadster, but you probably didn't think of it as a fuel-efficient American car. It's complicated; Tesla's complete running chassis is assembled in England, and other significant parts are sourced from overseas, but final assembly is in Silicon Valley. In a drive of the $109,000 Roadster, TheCarConnection.com criticized its primitive amenities and lack of storage space in the cockpit but found its handling excellent and its smooth rush of power intoxicating. And the idea of having a 200-mile range between charges, combined with the acceleration of an exotic, somehow feels very patriotic.

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