In exhange for driving a tin box, I want great gas mileage

By John Toth / Editor and Publisher

The compact car was displayed in the middle of the mall in a neighboring county, and I stopped to look at it, as I always do. If they go to the effort of putting a car inside the mall, I’m going to take some time to examine it.

I’d like to get into one of these cars and drive it around the mall just for kicks. I’d park it in front of the store, shop some, and then drive to the next store. Then drive to the movies on the other side.

But they have them locked up, so, I just look at them and read the sticker on the window.

They were Fiats, a small car re-introduced in 2009 after leaving the U.S. market in 1983.

I don’t have anything against small cars, except that they are not as safe as larger cars. I drove a Fiat in Europe a few years ago, and it was really nice to sit in one of my larger cars again after returning home.

It was a stick shift, which I liked to drive when I was younger. Now, I prefer not to do the work that a machine, in this case the automatic transmission, can do for me. But it was less expensive to rent a stick shift, so that’s what I got.

A couple of weeks of shifting gears manually was not such a big deal, after I got used to it. I hadn’t driven a stick for 17 years prior. Driving a stick is like riding a bicycle. You only have to learn it once.

The Fiats at the mall were about the same size as what I rented. That’s why I started reading the car’s specs.

One model was EPA rated at 28 MPG city, 35 MPG highway. That seemed a little on the low side, I told my wife, who was standing somewhat patiently next to me and didn’t really care much about the cars or the sticker information. The other model was rated at 27/33.

I figured out the highway mileage on my Impala one year as we drove to Wichita Falls, where my son was stationed in the Air Force while completing technical school. Mind you, this is not an EPA rating, but actual real world calculation. The EPA ratings tend to be under different conditions and inflated.

Straight highway, I got 34 MPG, and combined, in the high 20s in the Impala. That’s not bad for a fairly big car with a 6-cylinder engine.

Now, if I can get the same MPG from my Impala, why would I buy a tiny car with a lot less room and power? Fiats are nice, but they are really designed for Europeans, who drive stripped-down cars that get better mileage than the ones they export to the U.S.

The automatic transmission, A/C, power windows and seats, and whatever other extras we like in our cars, drag the MPG down.

I don’t know what my rented Fiat’s MPG was, but it seemed a lot lighter than an ordinary small car here. One time I looked at the front fender too long and put a dent in it.

No I didn’t. That was a joke. But it felt like being in a tin can. Gas in Europe is sold in liters, so I constantly had to convert to gallons to see what I was paying. After a while I stopped and just accepted the fact that I was getting ripped off. After that trip, I stopped complaining about the price of gas here.

One time, I squeezed 5 family members into that rented Fiat, and drove it down a cobblestone street. I drove very slowly.

If I am going to drive a matchbox-sized car, I want more than 33 MPG on the highway. The Mercedes Smart Car is EPA rated at 45. That’s a little better.

But the Ford Focus is rated at 40. I rented one of those in Colorado, and was impressed by the room inside and its power. It’s a nice small car, with four doors and a trunk. The Smart Car has only two seats and a very tiny trunk area.

An acquaintance who bought the Smart Car told me that it really gets only around 38 MPG on the highway. But, he bought one with all the extras.

So forget the EPA numbers. If you don’t have a little computer gadget that flashes the instant and average MPG at you, here is how you can figure it out.

Fill up the car with gas, and write down the mileage. Use up most of the gas in the tank, then fill it up again. Write down the ending mileage and the number of gallons you bought on the second fill up.

Subtract the beginning mileage from the ending mileage, and divide the sum by the gallons. For example, if you drove the car 200 miles, and put 10 gallons of gas in it on the second fill up, you are getting 20 MPG.

Math lesson over. If you want to play a prank on someone who is doing this, in the middle of his fill-ups, sneak a couple of gallons of gas into the tank and watch his eyes light up when he crunches the numbers.

So, if the Smart Car only gets 38 highway miles per gallon and I am getting 34 in the Impala, why would I want to drive a car that is a lot smaller? I can’t see myself driving a Smart Car to Wichita Falls. I have these visions that halfway there, it would just melt into the road.

The Smart Car is well-built, but it is not smart. It can’t even drive itself. Those cars are a few years off.
I almost bought one for my daughter, because at the outset, she had trouble parallel parking. In a smart car, you don’t have to worry about that. Just get out and push it into the space.

I did like those Fiats in the mall. I just wanted to pick them up and hug them. You little cars are so cute.