Snow day


I’m writing this as they’re toppling Saddam Hussein statues in Baghdad. Maybe now that we’ve seen the vulnerability of Middle Eastern oil supplies to war and other disruptions, people will finally start paying attention to fuel economy. On the other hand, if the free world is suddenly awash in Iraqi oil, it may continue to ignore the issue.

If your car’s gas mileage does concern you, take a look at the federal government’s fuel-economy ratings at There are obviously other environmental considerations in choosing a new car — weight, emissions, how it was built — but fuel economy is probably the most important.

The king and queen of fuel-efficient minivans are the Chrysler Voyager and Dodge Caravan (21 mpg city/27 mpg highway). Annual fuel cost is around $1,011. The Ford Focus wagon (27/36) is a great mid-sized choice, with just $751 in annual fuel costs. The Mini Cooper (28/37, with $771 in annual fuel costs) is a stylish option among mini-compacts.

For most Americans, there’s no better buy than the Honda Accord (26/34), which is not only the most reliable car on the market but also a real emissions champ. If you really, really want an SUV, there’s always the car-based Toyota RAV4, which gets an excellent 31 mpg on the highway (25 in town).

The small Volvo S40 (22/30, $990 in annual fuel costs) is under test this week, and it’s a contender in the small sedan segment. It would get even better mileage if it weren’t, like most Volvos, a trifle overweight. The benefit to the consumer is in safety: The S40 is very rigid, with excellent accident survival. Also watching over occupants are whiplash protection and side-impact bags.

A new S40 is on the way, built on the same P1 platform as the Ford Focus and the Mazda 3. The current "compact luxury" S40 first appeared in Europe in 1995 and in the U.S. in 2001. A true internationalist, it never sees Sweden. The S40 is built in Belgium through a partnership with Japan’s Mitsubishi.

Sales are declining (down 27 percent from 2000 to 2001), as the S40 no longer looks like the new kid on the block. It may be aging, but the S40 has a very modern engine, an all-aluminum four with four valves per cylinder, a twin-scroll supercharger and continuously variable valve timing.

I gave my S40 a real workout, driving it the length of the Garden State Parkway during the recent blizzard. It ended up with a snow beard on its grille, and I ended up grateful because it never put a wheel wrong. While other cars were slipping off the road and bumping into each other, the S40 hewed to a straight line. I found this refreshing after recent bad experiences with "performance" cars that can’t handle snow.

The S40 is a sober vehicle for non-flashy buyers. Fit and finish are excellent, and there are such useful amenities as heated seats (part of the worthwhile cold-weather package that includes dynamic stability assistance) and an effective automatic climate control (with a quiet fan). Rear-seat passengers need more leg room. The stereo system is very European, meaning hard to use.

During the snowstorm, I was glad I had the S40. It’s not quite as fuel-efficient as the Accord, but it’s definitely built by a company that understands old man winter. Prices start at $23,900.