Volkswagen Jetta TDI
Price as Tested: $24,965
PM-Tested Fuel Economy (city/hwy): 30/42
Volkswagen's turbodiesels remain boutique items here in America. With the new Jetta, however, that boutique is looking like a Walmart. The Americanized Jetta is bigger and roomier than the previous model, and a simpler beam axle has replaced the independent rear suspension. That change won't affect most buyers. However, each one will notice how the new Jetta's interior feels cheaper and seems more antiseptic than we're used to in VWs, a consequence of the gas-powered Jetta's $15,995 starting price. The diesel version has copious amounts of satisfying low-end torque. But as much as we love diesels, the Jetta is not far enough ahead to make it the obvious choice. Besides the $4000-plus premium for the TDI, diesel is about 30 cents per gallon more expensive than gas, and it's still a chore finding filling stations that stock the fuel.
Audi A3 TDI
Price as Tested: $33,000 (est)
PM-Tested Fuel Economy (city/hwy): 35.7/42
Few vehicles combine sporty handling, luxurious amenities and exemplary fuel efficiency in one package, but the A3 TDI does just that—and does so with a satisfying rush of torque. The U.S.-spec A3 TDI uses the same 140-hp, 2.0-liter diesel that has made the VW Jetta TDI such a blockbuster hit for Volkswagen. The motor is paired to Audi's brilliant six-speed Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG), which performs brisk shifts. Slide behind the wheel and it's clear this is a hip German sport wagon. The seats are comfortable and supportive, the materials are all soft to the touch, and the dimpled-rim steering wheel feels as good as the ones in Audi's top sport sedans.
In the city loop of PM's driving test, the A3 couldn't quite match the hybrids or the Smart in fuel efficiency. But on the open road it returned 42 mpg—only a few ticks behind the Prius. And that's the beauty of this Audi: It makes precious few compromises. You can have exemplary fuel efficiency wrapped in a fun-to-drive package. At around $33,000, this A3 TDI is a bargain.
Price as Tested: $23,810
PM-Tested Fuel Economy (city/hwy): 45.3/43.3
The Insight has returned as a true Toyota Prius competitor. The aerodynamic four-door hatchback mirrors the profile of the Prius, a shape that proudly says "dedicated hybrid." Yet the Insight's price undercuts the Toyota's. One reason is Honda's much simpler hybrid system: A 13-hp electric motor is sandwiched between the 1.3-liter engine and the CVT. Unlike the Toyota or Ford hybrid systems, however, the Honda does not allow prolonged electric-only operation, because the little electric motor just doesn't have enough juice. The Insight switches to electric-only power when cruising at low speeds. In that case, the VTEC system idles the valves, so the engine still spins, but it doesn't consume any fuel. Yet the gas engine must start at stoplights to power the air conditioning. So if you select Eco mode, you have to forgo a/c when stopped.
We ran in this mode during our testing, and though the cabin did get hot, we were able to generate a solid 45.3 mpg in the city. The Insight rides a bit rougher than the Prius, and doesn't feel quite as polished or upscale. As a featherweight, it does struggle to maintain a consistent heading on freeways with high crosswinds. Around town, the Insight feels sporty and light on its feet as it jousts through traffic. There's an honest simplicity to the Honda. Like a Civic from the 1980s, the Insight feels tight, as though it would run reliably for decades.
Ford Fusion Hybrid
Price as Tested: $31,940
PM-Tested Fuel Economy (city/hwy): 38.4/38
As much as we appreciate the high-mileage chops of traditional dedicated hybrids, the Fusion proves that fuel efficiency doesn't necessarily require unconventional wrapping. In fact, the Fusion looks and drives more like a regular midsize sedan than a hybrid. The Ford rides smoothly, absorbing big potholes like a luxury sedan. It's quiet, too, and in the city achieved with 38.4 mpg—excellent for a sedan weighing nearly 2 tons.
The powertrain is refined, several notches above the Fusion's price class. In fact, the transitions from EV mode to gas power are all but imperceptible. On the highway, the Fusion remained rock steady and tracked straight—no matter how severely the wind blew. But when the road began to bend, the Fusion wasn't a lot of fun. It had lazy responses and more body roll than the others. The Fusion rides and handles like the big sedan it is. Still, it's the first American hybrid that puts up serious mileage numbers. In fact, it delivered better highway fuel economy than the Smart. This is one clever fuel miser that doesn't have to shout about its eco credentials.