Blogs Car Info Our Show Deals Mechanics Files Vehicle Donation

Small hatchback models with high MPG and AWD?

Hi all!

Currently I’m driving a 2004 Mini Cooper S, but I’m finding that as much as I love the size and handling, it’s just too expensive to maintain and the mileage isn’t all that great. I’m looking to sell it and get a different car, but I don’t know much about them and am having trouble finding the right car for me.

If I were to get my dream car, it’d be a comparably small hatchback, 35+ MPG (a hybrid would be ideal!), but still capable of going on fairly rugged roads for camping and such. I go to Yosemite, Big Sur and various deserts pretty regularly, and while it isn’t any heavy-duty off-roading, it can still be too much for my Mini. I’m also hoping for something that has low repair costs…Mini parts are exorbitantly expensive!

Currently I’ve been looking at the Honda Insight Hybrid, but I’m not convinced it could handle something uphill and unpaved. The Subaru Outback is tempting, but very large and has terrible MPG.

Does anyone happen to have a good recommendation for my needs? I know that good MPG and AWD capabilities are pretty incompatible, but since my knowledge of car models and their capabilities is limited, I thought I’d ask the experts. :slight_smile:

Either the Subaru Impreza or its ‘offroadier’ brother, the XV Crosstrek, would seem to fit the bill. EPA on the Impreza is 27/36 city/highway, although tests don’t seem able to get to 36 highway. But still about the best current AWD out there.

Agree with @texasses
High gas mileage, especially on the highway, and awd capabilities are somewhat contradictory. You need a reasonable amount of ground clearance to take full advantage of awd if you plan to use it for inclement weather and not just for handling. The higher ground clearance raises heck with gas mileage. That’s why the Crosstek is an excellent attempt at both. The regular Impreza is even better but will not perform as well in deep snow

Your requests for both is inherently a matter of compromise. An exception that is not taken full advantage of are some of the newer jeeps that have variable ground clearance. The intent though is more to enhance handling On v. Off road then really contribute to economy. Even if it’s just on dirt road, you are bound to hit something and vehicles like compact SUVs with optional plates underneath are amoung your better choices too along with the Outback then a standard Impreza… Rav , CrV and Forester are examples I would consider too.

If you want a fun drive and low upkeep hatchback, look at the Mazda 3 Skyactive. Really good mileage and bullet-proof performance. Equip it with good winter tires and you don’t need mileage robbing AWD.

The Impreza is not especially fast, if it’s not peppy enough the Forester would be my next pick.

I agree with Doc…A properly equipped FWD compact will go anywhere you are likely to find yourself and will be MUCH cheaper to own and operate…

Consider a Toyota Matrix AWD. It won’t meet your criteria of 35 MPG but with your criteria of AWD there are trade offs.

A the risk of antagonizing a few…
Just a friendly reminder that OP is much less concerned about winter driving then rough road travel. So, before we keep recommending fwd cars with snow tires, we have to keep that in mind. Ground clearance and a more stout undercarriage, neither of which is found on 99% of all fwd cars, IMO is more important… I don’t feel OP even needs snow tires and certainly not fwd and not awd if it isn’t under good clearance. The roads in the places that OP mentioned can be quite variable.

A compact 4cyl pick up with traction control on the rear wheels or in 4 wd would be good, but not economical. Everything that OP wants, is contradictory. Rough roads and hybrid like economy don’t go together. The absolute closest is the Subaru Crosstrek or some compact SUVs. The number of compact fwd cars that can go on rough roads that I’m used to traveling, especially after heavy rains or during mud season…is NONE. They don’t exist. I certainly wouldn’t venture the many miles in the places OP wants to go in a fwd compact…which the mini IS…They will not hold up. If you like to camp and occasional travel on really rough roads to get there, you need to make a decision. If you want hybrid economy, get one then rent a truck for tough traveling.

@texases, I really like the look of the Impreza, and even if it doesn’t hit 36MPG it’s still better than the Mini. It’s the smallest of those Subaru options too, which is pretty nice. I don’t haul enough gear to really need a ton of extra space, and I’ve grown accustomed to having a smaller car! It’s okay if it’s not too peppy. Sharp handling is great fun, but I guess I don’t really need it.

@dagosa, In general I drive just to neighboring cities and also go on camping/outdoorsy trips several times a year, so I was looking for something that could do reasonably well as both a city commuter and for something a little more rugged. I’m cool with compromise, but I suppose if I have to choose, it’d be in favor of MPG and size; since I don’t do alpine climbing or a whole lot of snow sports, I don’t plan on dealing with deep snow or terribly inclement weather too often, and a compact SUV is rather larger than I think I need. The ground clearance info is totally new to me! Thank you for that. Just for the sake of discussion, is it possible to get some kind of optional plate undercarriage protection for smaller cars?

@docnick and @Caddyman, that’s really awesome to hear! I think I’m looking more for something along the lines of an economical FWD that can get me to some of the gnarlier spots I end up if I equip it right. Is it just a matter of tires? That Skyactive is beautiful too, I think I’ll look into that!

@my2cents, thanks for the Matrix tip. It’s on the lower end of the MPG spectrum I’m looking for, but it’s STILL better than my car! A sports car is probably the worst bang for my buck in particular… :stuck_out_tongue:

Thanks everyone for all of the fantastic responses! I really appreciate all of your time and expertise. Given what I’m hearing, perhaps a FWD that I can equip with snow tires would work well for me? Any insights into how FWD hybrids perform on rugged roads?

You really need to decide whether you need to drive off road or if carrying your gear to the camp site is acceptable. I don’t know where you live, but if off road handling is truly important, just forget about the FWD cars altogether and go with an AWD car. AWD is still middle ground compared to 4WD and may work for you. We just don’t (really) know how you plan to use it yet.

@oneirix The Matrix is a hatchback (like in the title of your post) and is available in AWD. The Mazda Miata is a sports car. Perhaps you confused the 2 vehicles. The Matrix should get you into the 30s but I don’t think as high as 35.

It’s really quite simple. You NEED clearance to do the things you want to do. In your own words, the roads you drive are difficult in the mini. The average ground clearance is 5.1 inches for your Mini. A standard Subaru Impreza is 5.7 inches which is the norm for all other fwd compacts as well. I would not recommend cars that are as problematic over rough roads as your Mini. You can’t have it all ? Sorry. And, it would not be worth it to put protection on a compact that wasn’t designed for higher clearance as the protection woud lower your clearance even more. Subaru Crosstrek or small SUV are your options for camping.

Btw, I read you go camping etc. , “pretty regularly.” And, hybrids with their lower still clearance , would perform the worse…You are driving up the wrong road if you feel a compact fwd car with snow tires can handle a rough road as the snow tires won’t be used in the summer and they do not help clearance. But you will find that out if you buy one.

@dagosa, thanks, I was asking because I don’t know this stuff. I’m aware that I “can’t have it all,” I just figured asking a more knowledgeable body of people would give me a greater scope of options for good compromises. I’m thinking that something like an Impreza could work though, because I’m still driving on roads, just unpaved, poorly kept ones. They’re uncomfortable to drive on in the Mini, and a few of them are just too sketchy and I’ve had to turn around, but I’ve had friends do the same roads in an STI so I figured whatever I get next doesn’t have to be MUCH better equipped.

I appreciate your questions. It’s really smart of you to try to get opinions before you invest. I have lived on a rough road for twenty years. We need clearance before anything else. Awd does not give you clearance you need in the Standard Impreza. That’s why compact SUVs and Crosstreks are popular with active life styles. They give you clearance and awd. Clearance makes rough roads more comfortable to drive and with the larger tires, it’s much easier on both passengers and car. But, mileage goes down. We have a RAV and it’s a great compromise as it handles great and is fun to drive. But we live on a rough road. All fwd compacts will struggle in these conditions.

That is really helpful to know, I honestly had never really considered clearance since it always felt like while the roads I can end up on can get nasty, there were bound to be worse. Do Crosstreks tend to get the best MPG for that type of car? I know they have some hybrid-type SUVs these days, but they’re all pretty new and I was hoping for finding something I could just trade in for. Thanks again @dagosa, I really appreciate you trying to puzzle out my contradictory car wants. :slight_smile:

The Crosstrek has the highest gas mileage on any awd car with reasonable clearance. They handle well and Subarus have excellent reliability. I would check the Subaru web site and a few reviews on Utube. At the least, it would be worth a test drive…over a dirt road or two.

Others have already explained the compromises, and I agree the Impreza is your best bet. It’s too bad Suzuki isn’t selling in the US anymore, because what you’ve described is very much like their little SX4. For years it was the smallest, cheapest AWD car sold, and it was quite reliable (per Consumer Reports.) Gone now, along with the rest of Suzuki in the US, though they still sell elsewhere.

The new Buick Encore, coming out soon, if not already, would also be a possibility. It’s a tiny SUV related to the Chevy Sonic and looks interesting and practical. And very unlike a Buick. It’s probably mostly intended for Chinese buyers. Unfortunately, the reliability of the Sonic hasn’t been great, but maybe the Encore will be better.

Also, I keep flashing back to the Renault Encore of the eighties, the hatchback version of the Alliance. My parents had the misfortune of owning an Alliance, the least reliable car I’ve ever known. A shame, as it was cute and had wonderful seats that had an unusual system for adjusting the seat angle. The whole seat rocked back and forth on a rolling base. It was a very comfortable car when it ran.

ford escape hybrid