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Top 10 Most Fuel Efficient Cars – Small & Cheap

By Pat S

plugin carAs turmoil continues to erupt and longstanding regimes are falling in the Middle East and North Africa, the global community is feeling the economic effects of trouble in and around crucial oil-producing nations.

While the unrest may seem distant and foreign, instability abroad quickly affects us at home, especially when it comes to oil prices. Crude oil prices have already soared to over $100 a barrel, causing significant pain at the pump and rising gas prices. Gas prices in some parts of the United States have already reached $4 a gallon, and rates will keep climbing.

It may feel like there’s little you can do to buck the trend. You can’t solve the world’s problems, but you can influence gas prices. One of the most important strengths we have as individuals is our power as consumers. You can be a part of a cultural change and reduce our dependency on oil by adjusting your patterns of consumption. Cut your gas budget by carpooling, driving less, and taking mass public transportation by bus or train.

But habit changes are only half of the equation. Another way to reduce demand for foreign oil and to help lower gas prices is to drive a more fuel-efficient vehicle.

Best Fuel-Efficient Cars

Automobile manufacturers are responding to the rising tide of American demand for more efficient vehicles. That means you have more options than a few years ago, and sticker prices are starting to come down. With so many choices available, you’ll need to review the savings and expenses associated with the most fuel-efficient new cars.

This list uses data from The Daily Green and assumes the nation’s annual driving average of 12,000 miles. For comparison purposes, if you cover 12,000 miles in a vehicle that averages 15 MPG, and a gallon of gas averages $3.50, your approximate operating costs for the year will be around $2,800.

1. Nissan Leaf

  • MSRP: $32,780
  • Estimated annual operating cost: $561 for electric supply (lowest on this list)

nissan leaf

Federal and state subsidies can reduce the cost of this electric vehicle – and many others – to between $25,000 and $20,000, depending on your state of residence. While the operating costs are attractively low, one drawback to this vehicle is its range, which is only 100 miles on a single 30-minute charge. It’s a fine option for commuting around town, or if you own a second vehicle for longer trips.

2. Tesla Roadster

  • MSRP: $109,000 (highest on this list)
  • Estimated annual operating cost: $562

tesla roadster

While the steep price tag is prohibitive for most buyers, if you’re seeking a fuel-efficient sports car, look no further. Although you won’t save on the sticker price, the operating cost of this American-made electric sports car is incredibly low. In fact, it’s the second-lowest on this list – by one dollar.

3. Chevy Volt

  • MSRP: $42,000
  • Estimated annual operating cost: $600–$1,600 (ranging to the highest price on this list)

chevy volt

The Volt is a great practical option, because it combines an electric motor with a traditional fuel-efficient internal combustion engine. Operating on the electric motor only, the Volt gets the equivalent of 93 MPG. On a long road trip or operating with the internal combustion engine, it still gets 37 MPG/highway. Like other fuel efficient vehicles on this list, federal and state subsidies and tax incentives will certainly lower the price considerably.

4. Toyota Prius

  • MSRP: $21,600
  • Estimated annual operating cost: $888

The Prius is one of the most affordable vehicles available, though its yearly operating cost is a little higher than you may find with other options. This eco-friendly hybrid gets an estimated 50 MPG. Unlike some of the other new entrants to the fuel-efficient automobile market, the Prius has a proven record of dependability. And since the model has been around for a few years, you can probably find a used Prius at a dealer near you, which could open your options and save you a bundle on the initial cost.

5. Lexus CT 200h

  • MSRP: $29,000
  • Estimated annual operating cost: $900

lexus ct 200h

Yes, you can get a Lexus for under $30,000, and this hybrid is even predicted to average 42 MPG. If you’re thinking about purchasing an eco-friendly luxury vehicle, this model is the one. The operating costs are the most affordable in the Lexus lineup of vehicles.

6. Honda Civic Hybrid

  • MSRP: $24,000
  • Estimated annual operating cost: $1,100

honda civic hybrid

Another conservative choice when it comes to sticker price, the Honda Civic Hybrid averages 41 MPG. This is a significant improvement over the gas-only Honda Civic sedan, which averages 30 MPG. Honda is consistently rated as one of the top vehicle manufacturers in the world by Consumer Reports, and its vehicles are widely known to be well built, have low maintenance costs, and retain their resale better than most other cars.

7. Fiat 500

  • MSRP: $15,500 (lowest on this list)
  • Operating cost: $1,125

fiat 500

Predicted to be brought to the U.S. marketplace by Chrysler in 2012, the Fiat 500 has been available in Europe for years, and it averages 40 MPG. If this vehicle’s price tag stays where experts expect, it’ll be the least expensive option on this list. But beware, one of the reasons it hasn’t made it here from Europe is its design: It certainly isn’t the sexiest vehicle on the list. But at $15,500 who cares?

8. Honda Insight

  • MSRP: $18,200
  • Estimated annual operating cost: $1,100

honda insight

One of the most affordable vehicles on the list, both in terms of sticker price and operating costs, the Insight gets 41 MPG, just like the Honda Civic Hybrid. With the Fiat 500 not yet available in the U.S., the Insight is the least expensive car on this list that you could buy today. The Honda Insight, like the Civic Hybrid, comes with an affordable sticker price as well as the Honda reputation and resale value retention.

9. Lincoln MKZ Hybrid

  • MSRP: $34,000
  • Estimated annual operating cost: $1,137

lincoln mkz hybrid

The American luxury brand Lincoln has a new hybrid called the MKZ. If you are a stickler for buying American and have deep pockets, this vehicle may be right up your alley. Lincoln really pulled out all the stops on this one, and although it’s not cheap, the comfortable, stylish ride gets 39 MPG and is sure to turn some heads.

10. Mercury Milan Hybrid

  • MSRP: $28,000
  • Estimated annual operating cost: $1,137

mercury milan hybrid

If you still want to buy American but are scared off by the MKZ’s hefty sticker price, the Mercury Milan Hybrid may be for you. Mercury’s popular hybrid model’s numbers are similar to those of the MKZ, with 39 MPG, and its lower sticker price is easier on your budget.

Final Word

Saving on fuel and other annual costs of owning a car is very attractive, of course. As you consider your next move as an American consumer, however, be sure to consider not just the annual operating costs and purchase price, but also whether operating your current vehicle for a few more years and swallowing rising gas costs in the short term might be your smartest financial move.

If your vehicle is in good shape, gets decent mileage, and is paid off, then you don’t need to rush into a new purchase. But if you’re ready for a new car, consider the increasingly affordable costs of fuel-efficient vehicles and the long-term benefits of lowering your annual budget for gas and other operating expenses. Purchasing one of the cars on our list might get you started off on the right foot toward saving a ton of money.

What budget benefits have you seen from your fuel-efficient vehicle? Or what pitfalls have kept you from purchasing one?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Pat S
Pat S is an active duty military officer. On his off time he enjoys working out, reading, writing and spending time with his dog. Pat became interested in personal finance after several costly mistakes early in his military career that could have been avoided by a basic understanding of personal finance.

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  • Kai Kitepowell

    Where are the fuel efficient diesels on the list? A VW Jetta or Golf TDI gets a “real world driving” fuel economy of 50 mpg highway. Perhaps hybrids are more efficient in city driving, but even there, the TDIs get in the mid to upper 30s, and they are certainly a lot more fun to drive. Hybrids and electric cars are a great alternative, but if you enjoy actually driving a car and changing gears manually, there is only one choice if you want the greatest fuel efficiency — TDI.

  • http://compoundingreturns.com Pat S.

    Excellent point Kai. I agree that Turbo-Diesel technology and diesel fuel efficiency is an excellent alternative fuel saving option. Thanks for the additional idea, especially for those with a need for a larger vehicle or truck. Diesel is a great way to save some cash.

  • Norman

    What ever happened to the Saturn? I purchased a new 1995 Saturn S1 with 5speed air, etc and got 41mpg. Back in 1995. No Batteries no hybrid. I miss that car. Never had a problem with emission testing either. Why cant America build a car like that today?

  • Kai Kitepowell

    The Saturn brand was of course phased out by GM, but similar vehicles are still around in Germany under the name Opel, and there are many Opels that get mileage in the 40s. Small cars are much more popular in Germany (and Europe in general) than here, since fuel costs between $7 – 8 per gallon.

    Speaking of measures for fuel efficiency, I would like to see us get away from mpg, and instead go to a measure similar to what is used in Europe, liters per 100 km. Naturally, we could make it gallons / 100 miles, and this quickly converts to $ / mile, a very useful measure when evaluating operating cost of a vehicle. As an example, I can easily see from the spreadsheet I maintain, that operating our diesel wagon costs half as much to run per mile, than our minivan, even though diesel is close to $4.00 / gallon and regular unleaded is a lot less.

  • http://compoundingreturns.com Pat S.

    Good Idea Kai! Talk about making it easy to quantify the cost of a vehicle. Might make people think twice about the big family gas guzzlers, or at least raise awareness at the pump.

  • Ken Hughes

    I don,t know if it,s stupidity or arogance that the best manufacturure is always left out.I have driven and pulled wrenches on N America,s masterpieces since I was a kid.I gave up driving these since I discovered in 1979 approximently ,the diesel.The best is VW–where I believe liberals pushed a plant to move out of Michigan and I could be wrong–produced a car that I got up to 72 Impg. Now they have produced a two seater that give 282 Impg and that is six year old technoligy.Today I believe they are over 300Impg. The TDI I drive today can outperform most v8,s and still give me 60+ Impg.I think most mechanics have never had the chance to learn what a multi-oil engine is. I give hats off to VW for the best clean efficient car of the last# of years. Congradulation Volkswagon! Ken Hughes

  • Kiefer

    I dont really care what anybody says but I still love my 1978 chevy c20 step side pickup truck it will get me through anything and i dont have to worry about any of those damn computers

  • Real World Cynic

    No date on this article… how old is it? Anyway…

    None of these electrics & hybrids are going to perform nearly as well when their mega-expensive-to-replace battery packs are nearing end-of-life & failing.

    Pure electrics, of course, won’t function at all without good batteries. Hybrids will still function but without the hybrid functionality that makes them efficient. A dead battery pack in a hybrid is hundreds of pounds of dead weight to carry around – further hurting efficiency.

    And where’s the Chevy Cruze Eco…? 39mpg city, 60mpg highway without the complexity, cost & multiple extra points of failure of a hybrid?

  • Hola

    Small might describe some of these cars listed, yet besides the fiat, none are cheap.

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