2010 Audi A4 2.0T S-Line
2010 Audi A4 2.0T S-Line. Click image to enlarge

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Article and photos by Chris Chase

Photo Galleries:
2010 Audi A4
2011 Hyundai Sonata

The term “economy car” is most often applied to subcompact and compact models in low-priced segments of the automotive marketplace. It’s synonymous, in some people’s minds, with “penalty box” and even less-complimentary descriptions. And while most of today’s economy cars – including hybrids and clean-diesel powered cars and trucks – are far from being driveable hair-shirts, there are a number of mid-priced and even upscale cars that achieve economy-car fuel consumption figures without compromising on comfort or style, and do so with conventional, gasoline-only drivetrains. Here are my thoughts on some cars that impressed me with their style, performance and efficiency.

In 2010, Audi dropped the 3.2-litre V6 engine from its entry-level A4 line-up, leaving the brand’s turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine as the only power plant, save for the supercharged six-cylinder in the sported-up S4. It was a surprising move for a car that competes in a class where you’ll find just one other four-cylinder engine, in the Acura TSX. With 211 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, its output, on paper, pales when compared to many of the six-cylinder options in the class, but this motor has always punched above its weight in its real-world performance.

2010 Audi A4 2.0T S-Line
2010 Audi A4 2.0T S-Line. Click image to enlarge

More notable, though, is how this motor performs at the pumps: the A4 2.0T quattro with a manual transmission earns Natural Resources Canada fuel consumption ratings of 9.5/6.6 L/100 km (city/highway). In real world driving, an A4 quattro tester with manual transmission I drove averaged 9.6 L/100 km in city driving. This, from a car decked out with Audi’s sporty S-Line package, including 19-inch wheels, a starched-up suspension that sits 20 mm lower than the regular A4, alcantara-covered sport seats with extra lateral support and four-way lumbar adjustment for both the driver and front passenger, upgraded steering wheel and a few other cosmetic extras.

The torque-rich engine – the 258 lb-ft of torque peaks at just 1,500 rpm – makes useful power available from just above idle speed, so the car will pull handily even in sixth gear at highway speeds; the buttery-smooth clutch combines with an easy-shifting transmission that makes the car a joy to drive around the block or on spirited back-road jaunts. Put it all together, and you have a car that is fun-to-drive, comfortable, stylish and efficient for $46,600 before taxes and freight.

2010 Audi A4 2.0T S-Line
2010 Audi A4 2.0T S-Line
2010 Audi A4 2.0T S-Line. Click image to enlarge

For those who want the ultimate in Audi efficiency, then the smaller A3 TDI hatchback is the car of choice. Its 2.0-litre turbodiesel engine makes 140 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque, and earns the A3 fuel consumption ratings of 6.7/4.6 L/100 km (city/highway). The problem with the A3, though, is that in specifying it with the diesel engine, you’re limited to front-wheel drive and an automatic transmission which. The upside is the A3’s lower price; it starts at $35,300. Fit one up in Premium trim and add the S-Line package and Xenon headlights ($2,900 and $900 respectively), and you’ll pay $41,800. That’s less than the A4, but you’re losing out on the quattro all-wheel drive system that, in my opinion, is, at least in part, worth the extra cost.

The BMW 335d is also worth mentioning here, as it uses a 3.0-litre turbocharged six-cylinder diesel engine that makes an impressive 265 horsepower and 425 lb-ft of torque, while achieving Natural Resources Canada fuel consumption estimates of 9.0/5.4 L/100 km (city/highway). With a base MSRP of $49,900, though, this diesel is positioned near the high end of the 3 Series spectrum, and can only be optioned with an automatic transmission.

The 2011 Hyundai Sonata got my attention earlier this year, when I attended a preview drive event promoting its impending release. It’s comfortable, and it certainly looks more distinctive than many other mid-sized family cars. But, like the A4, it comes only with a four-cylinder engine, bucking the industry trend of having an entry-level four-cylinder model and the option of a V6 powerplant.

2010 Audi A4 2.0T S-Line
2010 Audi A4 2.0T S-Line
2010 Audi A4 2.0T S-Line
2010 Audi A4 2.0T S-Line. Click image to enlarge

The Sonata’s engine itself is conventional enough in its specification: 2.4 litres, 198 horsepower, and its fuel consumption ratings of 9.4/5.7 L/100 km (city/highway) with the automatic transmission are in line with its least-thirsty competitors. My tester averaged 9.2 L/100 km in a fairly even split between city and highway driving; that doesn’t sound impressive, but if you allow for the fact that my test car was nowhere near broken in – it had just 235 km on it when I picked it up – then it’s not a bad result at all. James Bergeron tested a Sonata with about 10,000 km on it and averaged 6.0 L/100 km on a highway trip, and 8.4 in his typical suburban drive cycle, and Jil McIntosh drove one to an average of 8.0 L/100 km in similar suburban conditions.

With just under 200 horsepower, the base Sonata is quicker than many of its four-cylinder rivals, but naturally gives up some punch to the V6 cars in its class. However, the newly introduced Sonata 2.0T with a 274-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine offers more horsepower and better fuel economy than its major V6 rivals.

Hyundai’s biggest player at the pumps will be the forthcoming Sonata Hybrid, but, naturally, its extra economy will come with a higher price tag than the conventional version, negating some of the fuel cost savings. Meanwhile, you can buy a Sonata GL automatic for under $25,000, and that price includes heated front seats.

As in the A4’s case, you can save cash by moving down to, say, a less-expensive Elantra, which is also a little more fuel-efficient, but the Sonata’s extra interior space and power are compelling points in favour of the argument that one doesn’t have to sacrifice comfort and refinement in order to own a car that’s efficient to run.

Certainly, neither of these cars top the fuel efficiency charts, but they do prove that you don’t have to pay hybrid or diesel drive-train price premiums to enjoy low fuel consumption, nor do you have to sacrifice fuel efficiency in a car designed to satisfy a driving enthusiast.

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