Pontiac has trouble deciding what it wants to be when it grows up.
For decades it had been designated the "excitement" division at General Motors, dedicated to the belief cars are more than just appliances. Pontiac with a capital P for performance.
But performance can be measured in different ways, apparently including high mileage.
So for 2009, Pontiac gets a version of the compact Chevy Cobalt called the G5 to be joined next spring by a four-door hatchback derived from the subcompact Chevy Aveo called the G3.
When G3 arrives, Pontiac will have four vehicles capable of 30-m.p.g. plus on the highway: Vibe at 32, G6 at 33, G3 at 34 and G5 XFE at 37.
Most don't associate high mileage with excitement. Pontiac, however, points out the newfound concern over m.p.g., rather than m.p.h., and how high-mileage offerings pull people into the showroom.
We tested the 2009 G5 in its special XFE edition—for extended fuel economy or extra fuel efficient. To be so, the 2.2-liter, Ecotech 4-cylinder comes with special variable valve timing calibrations to deliver off-the-line spunk and optimum mileage. Low-rolling-resistance, 15-inch radials milk more mileage while a spoiler adds a sporty touch.
The XFE is offered only with 5-speed manual, a slippery smooth unit with no rough edges. Honda long has offered the best manuals in terms of smooth operation and quiet. The XFE's takes it to a level higher.
The G5 powered by the Ecotech is lively though it stops short of lightning since it is designed primarily for mileage. The 2.2-liter, 155-horsepower 4 is rated at 25 m.p.g. city/37 m.p.g. highway, so you get membership in to the 30 m.p.g. club without having to pay hefty dues of the hybrid battery premium.
To maximize mileage, a dash light flashes to signal when to shift, though most motorists have other things to do than look for a reminder.
The G5 is offered only as a two-door coupe, and, as we've noted, there's no automatic for the XFE. The low-slung coupe roofline limits adult headroom in back, where legroom also is tight. The trunk holds lots of gear and looks more spacious than the rear seat.
Econocars typically concentrate on hammer-free ride at the expense of precise handling. G5 follows that formula, though if sentenced to the back seat, you might question how softly the suspension is sprung.
The G5 XFE starts at $16,275 with side-curtain air bags, air conditioning, AM/FM stereo with CD player, power locks/windows/mirrors (not seats) and rear-window defroster. Anti-lock brakes run $400, and stability and traction control aren't available. Power sunroof runs $750.
What price mileage? Without stability control, too much.
Cadillac Escalade hybrid
No fear of confusing the Cadillac Escalade for an econocar. But now that it offers a dual-mode hybrid, it's not exactly a guzzler, either.
Getting 20 m.p.g. city/21 m.p.g. highway is cause for cheer in a full-size SUV. Hybrid power boosts mileage to that from 10/14 with gas only.
We tested the '09 Escalade 2WD hybrid with its 6-liter, 332-h.p. V-8 and nickel-metal-hydride battery pack. Gas engine and battery-pack schematics in the navi screen show what power source is working. The screen creates the temptation to drive with light foot and coast when possible to stay in a blue state—battery—rather than in an orange one—gas.
We kept in battery up to 20 m.p.h. before the gas engine kicked in.
What you save in petroleum, however, those behind lose in patience as you tiptoe down the road. Everyone, it seems, wants to conserve fuel, except those following.
The 6-liter V-8 shuts off when coasting or at a light. It also shuts off 4 cylinders seamlessly when cruising at highway speed. Then a dash gauge shoots from 12 m.p.g. to 37 m.p.g. The longer in 4-cylinder, the higher the reading, up to 50 m.p.g. at times, mind-boggling in an Escalade. But pass, climb or merge and beat a hasty retreat to 10 m.p.g.
Base price: $70,735, hardly an economy model but you can add snazzy power retractable running boards for $1,095.
If you need to haul seven and tow 5,800 pounds, the hybrid system makes the price of gas more tolerable—if those shopping a full-size Cadillac actually cared about the price of gas.
Read Jim Mateja Sunday in Rides. Contact him at email@example.com.