Bigger and Better: Combining Cargo Capacity and Fuel Economy
Every driver has a different set of expectations and needs for his or her primary vehicle. What meets my needs might not work for you at all, and your ideal car might be the last one I’d ever consider buying for myself. No wonder arguments about cars often get out of hand.
CarGurus user reviews provide a good idea of whether and how well a particular car met the needs of one driver, and based on car reviews received from our users over the course of the last year, it looks like most drivers are pleased with their cars. Our user reviews invite submitters to score a car from 1 to 5 points in a number of different categories, and with more than 10,000 reviews received from April 2013 through April 2014, three categories received average scores of 4.5—Reliability, Style and Overall—and Front Seat, Handling, Power and Price each earned averages of more than 4.
The two categories that received the lowest average scores were Cargo Space at 3.9 and Fuel Economy at 3.7. These qualities generally have had to be traded off in vehicles, since increasing size reduces fuel economy with all other things being equal. But cars get better with every passing year, and these days it’s possible to find vehicles with plenty of room as well as reasonable gas mileage. So here’s a look at our top 10 2014 vehicles for cargo capacity and mileage across a number of segments.
Many drivers don’t like minivans, but if you need to haul a lot of people and their toys, a minivan could be just the thing. Because minivans tend to be big and boxy, they generally offer abundant cargo room, but until relatively recently, owners paid a price at the pump. Happily, automakers have managed to improve minivan mileage, and current versions get a lot more miles out of a tank of gas than their forbears. Here are two minivans we’d consider that offer a good mix of capacity and mileage.
Honda’s 2014 Odyssey earned a glowing Test Drive Review, with perfect-10 scores for Technology and Safety and 9s for Performance and Safety. (Our Test Drive Reviews come from professional auto writers and include scores like our user reviews, but the pros use a 10-point scale.) The Odyssey has competed for years with the Toyota Sienna, and while the 2014 version has slightly less cargo space than the Sienna (38.4 cubic feet, compared to the Sienna’s 39.1), it also offers a combined mileage rating of 23.05, which beats the Sienna’s 21.15 by a hair under 9%. The new Odyssey also includes a feature that garners lots of favorable attention in reviews: a vacuum that’s built into the back with a hose long enough to reach the front seat. We do have to share one negative on the 2014 Odyssey, which came to us via a user review: User TallFamily says a 6-foot, 4-inch driver couldn’t comfortably fit behind the driver’s seat.
Ford’s Transit Connect minivan, available in Wagon and Cargo versions, outperforms the Odyssey in both capacity and mileage. The Transit began as a commercial vehicle, so kids probably won’t enjoy riding in it to the degree they would a family-oriented minivan with dual DVD screens for the back seat, but wagon versions with the long wheelbase offer seating for 7 with 50 cubic feet of room and a combined rating of 23.6 mpg. That mileage difference is small, but the Transit Connect has almost a third more space inside. The Transit is a much newer model, so hasn’t proven its reliability or value retention as well as the Odyssey, but it also has a smaller footprint than the Odyssey, which makes it easier to deal with in crowded quarters. Better yet, the Transit Connect is significantly cheaper than the Odyssey. User reviews note that past versions had some transmission issues, but the 2014 version of the Transit Connect has a new, more up-to-date transmission that should perform better.
Station wagons seem to get harder to find each year. The name of the category alone conjures images of big, unattractive road hogs like the Griswold’s “family truckster” from the National Lampoon “Vacation” movies, but happily there are a number of newer wagons that look lots less awful. They also provide considerably more cargo space than a sedan, and thanks to alternative powertrains, we’ve found two examples that also offer strong mileage figures.
We don’t think Toyota’s Prius V looks awful, but many don’t appreciate its looks. It does offer a fantastic combination of space and efficiency, though, with 34.3 cubic feet of cargo room and a combined mileage estimate of 42.2 mpg. Taking more than 10 seconds to reach 60 mph won’t impress any driver focused on speed, but the Prius V offers plenty of creature comforts, and a user review of the 2013 edition notes that the submitter manages to exceed EPA mileage estimates both in the city and on the highway as well as that the infotainment system is easy to learn and works well. (Note that the Prius V will get redesigned for 2015, and Toyota apparently plans to use a new powertrain it hopes will achieve 55 mpg combined!)
Hybrids have an advantage when it comes to mileage, but their sophisticated powertrains do cost more than gas-only systems, and they usually don’t provide much in the way of driving excitement. Volkswagen’s Jetta Sportwagen TDI isn’t as efficient as a Prius, but it does offer strong efficiency and considerably more power and driving excitement. Providing 32.8 cubic feet of stowage space with the back seats up, this wagon gets an EPA combined mileage estimate of 33.5 mpg with the automatic and slightly higher with a manual. Its diesel powertrain is typical in that it provides considerably more low-end torque than a gas engine, meaning the Jetta Sportwagen TDI should get off the line quickly, and drivers will no doubt enjoy its tight handling.
Hatchbacks, or sportbacks, as some Europeans prefer to call them, have generally not sold well in the U.S. We find this confusing, since hatchbacks generally offer more room for people and gear than a sedan as well as significantly better mileage and a more carlike, comfortable driving experience than a minivan or SUV. This segment has been getting more interesting lately, with help from a number of trendy models like the MINI Cooper, FIAT 500 and Audi’s award-winning A3.
Mazda’s latest edition of its 3, which got nominated for World Car of the Year, adds a number of improvements to an established performer in the hatchback and sedan segments. The hatchback version of the Mazda3 has sold well and earned strong reviews for years, but the 2014 version improves both cargo capacity and fuel mileage to earn a spot on this list. Now offering 20.2 cubic feet of space and a combined mileage estimate of 34.5 mpg, the new Mazda3 looks better than ever and in the words of our reviewer, it “demonstrates astonishing dynamic confidence.” He drove the sedan and wasn’t able to achieve the estimated mileage, but that was probably because he had so much fun driving the Mazda3 hard. A user review of the new Mazda3 also calls it a blast to drive, though it also notes the car costs a bit much for a compact.
Nissan’s brand-new Versa Note offers a cheaper alternative to the Mazda3 with slightly better mileage and cargo space. The Versa Note offers 21.4 cubic feet of cargo space and has EPA estimated mileage of 35.05 mpg combined. Our reviewer didn’t love the steering and had to work the gas pedal hard to deal with hills and getting up to speed on the highway. But with even the top-end trim available at under $19,000, the Versa Note is extraordinarily efficient from a cost perspective. And it does offer one unique safety feature we’d like to see in more cars: When you fill an underinflated tire, the horn sounds once proper pressure has been reached.
Vehicles in the SUV and Crossover categories have a wider range of both space and mileage than any of the segments we’ve discussed so far. Sure, the Chevrolet Tahoe has a hair over 60 cubic feet of space, but with a 26-gallon tank and a combined mileage rating of less than 18 mpg, you’ll be acutely reminded of its inefficiency every time you refill it. Because we’re looking for fuel-efficient vehicles, we’re generally going to be talking about 5-seat vehicles, although we did manage to find a 7-seater with enough mileage to make our list. Of course, since all of the vehicles we’ll look at are available with or without 4WD, we’ll need to look at two mileage estimates, rather than one.
We’ll start with the 2014 Lexus RX 450h, which has a very impressive EPA estimate of 30.2 mpg with front-wheel drive (FWD) and 29.1 with all-wheel drive (AWD). FWD versions can tow up to 3,500 pounds, but towing capacity with AWD drops to 1,245 pounds. This Lexus has 40 cubic feet of cargo volume and seats only 5, but with the back seats folded, it can fit 80.3 cubic feet. Being both a Lexus and a hybrid, the RX 450h won’t come cheap, but it does offer luxurious appointments, though many of those come in packages that will boost the price substantially.
Nissan’s Rogue can be had for much less than the Lexus, and while it doesn’t quite match the RX 450h’s mileage figures, it does seat 7 and provides 39.2 cubic feet of space. The Rogue is rated to get 29.15 mpg with FWD and 28.15 with AWD, and both versions can tow up to 1,000 pounds. The Rogue got redesigned for 2014, and while our reviewer doesn’t love the new version’s looks, he does appreciate its extensive list of safety options available at reasonable prices. And a user responded to our Test Drive Review just below it, saying he likes the new version’s looks and the vehicle overall. Since the 2014 Rogue is a new design, we can’t predict reliability very well, but this is an incredibly important car for Nissan, and Nissans generally retain their value well.
The Mazda CX-5 is also relatively new, but the 2014 version offers a larger engine in higher trims in response to user feedback saying the crossover needed more power. Versions with the 2-liter 4-cylinder get 28.7 mpg with FWD and 27.7 with AWD. Versions with the new 2.5-liter and FWD are rated at 28.15 mpg, and AWD versions at 26.7. The CX-5 isn’t as big as the Rogue and seats 5, with 34.1 feet of cargo room and a towing capacity of 2,000 pounds. Three users have posted reviews of the CX-5, and all of them like the way it drives and looks, though one is unhappy with his purchase, because he’s getting a lot of road noise from the rear.
The last vehicle on our list, the Toyota RAV4, is another 5-seater. Rated at 27.15 mpg with FWD and 25.17 with AWD, this “Recreational Availability Vehicle” offers 38.4 cubic feet of room that grows to 74.3 with the back seats down. All versions can tow up to 1,500 pounds. A relatively new 6-speed transmission arrived in 2013 to improve mileage and perceived power, and it offers three selectable modes—Eco, Normal and Sport—that can shift the vehicle from sluggish but efficient to perky but thirsty. Some folks miss the V6 engine upgrade that was available through 2012, but that engine’s mileage wasn’t impressive.
What vehicle offers your ideal combination of cargo space and fuel efficiency?