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Two new small cars that bump past 50 mpg

Fifty miles a gallon. It was an unattainable goal for years, but two new small cars pave the road for many vehicles to hit that magic number.

The 2015 Volkswagen Golf TDI hatchback and 2014 Ford Fiesta SFE hatchback deliver comfort, performance and superb fuel economy. Gone are the days when high mpg was synonymous with expensive hybrid vehicles or the dreaded "econobox."

Both cars over-delivered on their EPA-rated highway fuel economy, easily topping 50 mpg.

The Golf TDI diesel is all new for 2015. The Golf hatchback comes in two- and four-door versions, with a variety of engines. Gas models start at $17,995 for a two-door, but the diesel starts at $21,495 with a five-speed manual transmission.

I tested a midrange TDI SE with a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. It included front and rear parking assist, backup camera, Bluetooth phone and audio compatibility, good voice recognition and touch screen controls.

My test car stickered at $27,290, a bit more than comparable competitors.

The Fiesta has been on the road for several years, but the SFE model is new for 2014. It features a peppy 1.0-liter three-cylinder gasoline engine.

Fiesta prices start at $14,355 for a sedan with the base 1.6L four-cylinder engine, which, surprisingly, is less powerful than the SFE's smaller powerplant. The 1.0-liter engine is only available with a five-speed manual transmission.

My test Fiesta cost $17,960, a competitive price for an enjoyable little car with good looks, Bluetooth compatibility, a USB port and good voice recognition. All prices exclude destination charges.

The Golf TDI and Fiesta SFE compete with high-mpg models such as the Chevrolet Cruze diesel, Toyota Prius and Honda Civic hybrids.

The Fiesta SFE will compete with city cars, including the Chevrolet Spark, Mitsubishi Mirage and Honda Fit.

The Golf TDI and Fiesta SFE both scored 31 mpg in the city, 43 on the highway and 36 in combined driving on the EPA test cycle. The Golf's combined rating beat the Cruze diesel, but trailed the two hybrids.

The Fiesta SFE beat both the Spark and Fit in combined driving, but trailed the Mirage.

I normally rely on EPA fuel economy ratings, because the EPA test is consistent from one car to another. Getting these two highway heroes to test simultaneously was too good to resist. I decided to see what mileage they could deliver in nearly ideal conditions.

I drove each car 120 miles in light traffic on Interstate 75. I set the cruise-control to 65 mph and left it there except for brief corrections for construction or traffic.

The results:

Golf TDI: 54.5 mpg.

Fiesta SFE: 50.7 mpg.

A typical driver should be able to match those figures without resorting to such fuel-sipping tactics as coasting into stoplights.

There's a lot to like about both cars, but also room for improvement.

The 1.0-liter Fiesta would benefit from a six-speed manual or dual-clutch automatic. The extra gear would improve performance and fuel economy. The Fiesta also has some regrettably hard pieces of interior trim, including one near the arm rest in the doors that pressed into my arm uncomfortably.

The TDI's six gears undoubtedly contribute to its higher fuel economy, but the transmission emphasizes fuel economy so much that it spends too much time in high gears, reducing acceleration and creating some noise and vibration. VW did not give the TDI the same independent rear suspension that gasoline Golfs get, substituting a torsion beam arrangement that detracts from ride and handling.

Surprisingly, the Golf has no USB port, making updating its software more difficult than many competitors.

Despite those flaws, the new VW Golf TDI and 1.0-liter Fiesta SFE are impressive achievements: fun, affordable cars that should save plenty at the pump.

Two new small cars that bump past 50 mpg 08/07/14 [Last modified: Thursday, August 7, 2014 11:44pm]

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