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How to Choose a Fuel-Efficient New Car

Consumer Reports logo Consumer Reports 7/13/2017
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One would think that if we bought vehicles based on fuel economy, the roads would be filled with economy cars. But it doesn't work that way. After you choose the vehicle types that meet your needs, you narrow down the choices even further. Comparing fuel economy is the quickest way to thin the list.

Fortunately, it isn't difficult to find vehicles that get good gas mileage and still provide the power and space Americans demand. Some of them are hybrids, diesels, and truly viable electric cars. But exotic technology isn't the only news in fuel savings—or even the most important.

Conventional gasoline-powered cars are still highly efficient and are scraping more miles out of every gallon of gas thanks to advances in engine technology, better aerodynamics, and clever computer controls.

You'll find that within most vehicle classes, a majority of models have overall fuel economy pretty close to each other—sometimes just 1 or 2 miles per gallon. In those cases, the economic consequences are pretty slim. But within each class there are always outliers. A fuel-economy difference of 3 to 5 mpg can really add up in savings.

The typical person drives about 12,000 miles each year and pays an average of $2.35 for a gallon of regular gasoline, based on recent prices. If the models you are considering are separated by just 4 mpg, the results can be significant. For example, the Toyota Sienna minivan, which gets 21 mpg overall in our tests, would save about $315 per year in fuel costs alone compared with a 17-mpg Dodge Grand Caravan.

The same applies to midsized sedans. Choosing the 32-mpg Mazda6 over a 24-mpg Ford Fusion 1.5-liter four-cylinder would save about $295 per year. Stepping down one vehicle size could save a lot more. For example, driving a 26-mpg Subaru Forester rather than an 18-mpg Nissan Pathfinder would shave your fuel costs by more than $480 per year.

In the end, that savings could cover a monthly loan payment or two, or a significant portion of your annual insurance costs.

To see the real-world fuel economy of any current vehicle that Consumer Reports has tested, refer to the road-test highlights on the model pages or see our list of the best and worst for fuel economy.

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Hybrids, Diesels, and Electrics

Buyers continue to show an interest in hybrid and electric cars, as well as, to a lesser extent, diesel vehicles, even amid low fuel prices.

Hybrids and diesels usually deliver fuel economy that is among the best in their class. Some models pay for themselves at the pump—and in overall owner costs—during a typical 11-year ownership cycle. But the payoff period is shorter when gas prices are higher.

Overall, these fuel-efficient cars will save you money over time. Our multiple analyses over the past few years continue to show that hybrids and diesels—despite their higher initial cost—almost always pay back your investment at some point. It just depends on how long you hold on to your car.

After five years of ownership, some cars pay back that price difference and some don't. It depends on how much of a premium you have to lay out to get the fuel-saving technology, how much fuel it saves compared with a comparable conventional alternative, how fast the car depreciates, and other factors.

To grossly oversimplify, at current fuel prices the best hybrids and diesels can save you between $300 and $450 per year in fuel costs over similar gas versions.

Hybrid Longevity

Based on data from our Annual Auto Survey, we've found that the Toyota Prius hybrid has outstanding reliability and low ownership costs. But we wanted to know whether the effectiveness of the battery degraded over the long run.

In order to determine if battery degradation had an impact on fuel economy, in 2011 we tested a 2004 Prius with almost 215,000 miles on it, and compared the results with an almost identical 2004 Prius we tested when new. In addition to having the original battery, the car had the original engine and transmission.

The results? Overall fuel economy dropped to 42 mpg for the 215k-mile Prius compared with the 44 mpg we saw back in 2004. Highway mileage dipped to 47.9 mpg from 50.4 back in 2004. City mileage dropped to 32.2 mpg compared with the original car's 35.4 mpg.

If the battery of this 215k-mile car had to be replaced, it would cost $2,200 to $2,600 from a dealer. But there is no need to spend that much. In our searches, we found many low-mile used batteries for sale for around $500.

Diesel Struggles

Diesel passenger cars have faced an uphill struggle in the U.S. Initially, there was the perception that diesels were loud, clattering powerhouses with lousy pickup and an evil, oily smell. But modern technology, including electronic controls, turbocharging, and other developments, have made modern diesels positively peppy and unobtrusive.

In fact, modern diesels are quicker and quieter than their predecessors because of turbocharging; ultra-precise, high-pressure "common rail" fuel injection; and better exhaust-system catalysts. In our recent tests, many new diesel vehicles didn't exhibit the historical diesel trade-offs.

The second part of the diesel struggle was self-inflicted by Volkswagen, the company that strongly promoted diesel as a "clean" alternative to gasoline and hybrids.

Without advanced emissions controls, diesels can emit higher levels of two hard-to-manage pollutants: oxides of nitrogen (NOx), which form smog and contribute to acid rain, and particulates (soot), which have been linked to respiratory problems.

In late September 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board announced that Volkswagen had been cheating on its diesel emissions controls.

VW admitted to circumventing the emissions control system in about 482,000 2.0-liter TDI diesel vehicles sold in the U.S. since 2008. They had nitrogen oxide levels 10 to 40 times higher than the federal standard, according to the EPA. And in November 2015, the EPA notified Volkswagen about violations with its 3.0-liter V6 diesel engine. This involved model years 2009 through 2016, and includes about 85,000 vehicles.

Volkswagen (and its Audi and Porsche brands) subsequently stopped selling diesels. Volkswagen has no plans to sell diesels in the U.S. in the coming years. The company's emissions scandal has given diesels a black mark. Still, General Motors has been moving forward with selling small four-cylinder diesel engines in the Chevrolet Cruze sedan, the Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon pickups, and the Chevrolet Equinox/GMC Terrain small SUVs. And Mazda is on target to sell a diesel version of its CX-5 small SUV in late 2017.

Plug-Ins and Electrics

While hybrids and diesels have proved to travel farther on a gallon of fuel than conventional vehicles, automakers have been working on a variety of alternative technologies, including plug-in hybrids and fully electric vehicles (EVs).  

Although consumers are mostly focused on saving money at the pump, the interest in saving fuel is ultimately part of a larger issue that concerns a finite resource and one whose use contributes to more greenhouse gas emissions.

EVs allow drivers to commute moderate distances using no gasoline and producing no tailpipe emissions. They can be charged by plugging them into a household wall outlet, although recharge time depends on the vehicle and the electrical voltage.

More important, EVs require basic changes in driving habits and often some hefty household electrical work. Outside of the Tesla models and the Chevrolet Bolt—which have a range of 200-plus miles on a single charge—and the upcoming Tesla Model 3, which promises a range of about 200 miles, EVs have a limited driving range. They can take hours to recharge, and cost more to buy than similar conventional cars. Battery-life expectancy and replacement cost remain question marks, and the public charging infrastructure is still limited.

Small EVs include the BMW i3, Chevrolet Bolt, Ford Focus EV, Hyundai Ioniq, Kia Soul, Nissan Leaf, Mercedes-Benz B-Class, Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Smart ForTwo, and Volkswagen eGolf.

The Chevrolet Volt and Toyota Prius Prime plug-in hybrids offer a bridge between fully electric vehicles and hybrids by being able to run only on electricity, and then switching to gas/electric hybrid operation once the battery depletes.

EVs allow drivers to commute moderate distances very affordably, using no gasoline and producing no tailpipe emissions. Electric vehicles can be charged via a household wall outlet, although a dedicated charger is a faster, more efficient charging solution. But electric vehicles have some built-in limitations. These may go away as battery technology and electric-car infrastructure develop, but they're very real today:

  • EVs cost more to buy than equivalent conventional cars.
  • Range is limited, often less than 100 miles per charge, and tends to decrease in cold weather.
  • An EV's large drive battery costs many thousands of dollars, and it's unclear how many years they will last.
  • The large batteries in a dedicated EV can take 4.5 to 9 hours to recharge using a 240-volt circuit and at least 16 hours with a 120-volt circuit. Using household 120-volt current to fully charge a 90kWh Tesla Model S or Model X could take two days.
  • Even EVs with smaller batteries take many hours to fully charge.
  • Installing a heavy-duty 240-volt charger at home can cost as much as a couple of thousand dollars.
  • Public charging stations are still limited in number and location.

"Extended-range vehicle" is a term coined by General Motors to classify the Volt, a pioneering electric car. When the main drive battery is depleted, the gasoline engine acts as a generator to make electricity. In all-electric mode, the Volt can go about 35 miles. When the gas engine kicks in, the range is extended to about 300 miles.

GM says the Volt's all-electric range should be sufficient for more than 75 percent of American commuters to drive gasoline-free to work and back.

The BMW i3 is available as an all-electric and as an extended-range plug-in similar to the Chevrolet Volt. Plug-in hybrids, currently available from Chrysler, Ford, Honda, Hyundai/Kia, Toyota, and most European brands are able to drive solely on battery power for 12 to 23 miles before reverting to their standard hybrid operation. With some, like the Prius Prime, the gas engine may kick in to help out the moment you tromp on the accelerator or get up to highway speeds.

The relatively short electric-driving range of today's plug-in hybrids may be a bit disappointing, especially considering the price premium it takes to buy one. But the energy cost for electric driving is very low—say, 3 or 4 cents per mile. Gasoline operation may cost something like 12 cents per mile. If you drive, say, 15 miles on battery power and another 15 on gas, the cost of those 30 miles is cut by more than a third compared with all-gas.

Why don't plug-in hybrids have a longer range? Largely because a longer range means a larger battery, which is costly and bulky. Even as it is, finding room for such a battery eats up a lot of trunk space. 

Fuel Economy on Window Stickers

The fuel-economy figures printed on a vehicle's window sticker and in automaker advertising and brochures are estimates based on a test created by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For each vehicle, there are two figures:

  • "City" represents urban driving, in which a vehicle is started in the morn­ing and driven in stop-and-go rush-hour traffic.
  • "Highway" represents a mix of rural and interstate highway driving in a warmed-up vehicle, typical of longer trips in free-flowing traffic.

Based on dynamometer testing, these figures provide a way of comparing the gas mileage of different models. All EPA fuel-economy estimates can be accessed at fueleconomy.gov and they are also included on the ConsumerReports.org car model pages.

In Consumer Reports' real-world fuel-economy testing, we've found that EPA estimates have typically been higher than you're likely to get in normal driving. That's why we conduct fuel-economy tests of our own, including separate city and highway driving loops. Vehicle speeds and atmospheric conditions are carefully monitored to ensure consistency. Fuel is measured by splicing a fuel meter into the vehicle's fuel line.

Learn more about how Consumer Reports tests cars.

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