Impressive fuel mileage no longer comes at the price of speed, style or comfort. Thanks to new technologies (and greatly developed older ones), you can enjoy the savings and the clear conscience that comes from driving one of the vehicles with the best mileage, all without feeling punished for your choice.
Making a simple list of the most efficient cars on the US market is easy. The equivalent MPG of all-electric cars like the Nissan Leaf or Chevy Spark EV put them well over 100 miles per gallon. These cars are affordable enough to be almost common on our roads, and for many, they’re just what the doctor ordered.
But not everyone wants or can use one of these small, all-electric commuter cars. Instead, let’s look at three high-efficiency choices, each in different market segments. No matter what type of vehicle you choose to drive, there’s a way to be thrifty.
Most Efficient SUV/CUV
The Toyota RAV4 has been a longtime favorite in standard 4-cylinder gas-powered form. A perfect combination of space and style combined in a just-right size has made it a hit year after year through four product generations. The current RAV4 joins Toyota’s other hybrids in offering a drivetrain combining gas and electric power. This takes the RAV4 to a different level.
The RAV4 Hybrid features a 2.5-liter four-cylinder gas engine able to seamlessly combine its power with an electric motor for a total of 194 horsepower. A separate electric motor sends power to the rear wheels only when necessary, which constitutes what Toyota calls their AWD-i system. Like other hybrids, the RAV4 uses regenerative braking to charge the battery on deceleration. The benefit of the AWD-i system comes in extra energy recapture from four wheels instead of just two, as is the case in the Prius.
The result is a spacious-though-compact SUV with enough clearance and traction for inclement weather and mild off-road excursions. It’s rated at 31 MPG on the highway and 36 in the city, which is enough to make it the most efficient SUV on the U.S. market, not to mention most fuel-thrifty AWD vehicle available.
Need more convincing? The hybrid package adds a mere $700 over the price of a gas-only RAV4 XLE. It’s not too hard to imagine recovering that expense over the life of the vehicle, depending on gas prices in the future and how many miles it’s driven.
Most Efficient Pickup
The most popular vehicles in America aren’t cars, and haven’t been for years. In 2015, manufacturers sold over two million pickups. Traditionally, this popular segment hasn’t been known for great fuel efficiency. Following the EPA’s announcement in 2009 that it would soon extend its Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard to cover pickups, automakers decided to get serious about miles per gallon.
One result of this newfound concern for MPG’s is the new Chevy Colorado available with a 2.8-liter turbodiesel. Built in Thailand, the four-cylinder diesel manages to produce 369 pound-feet of torque. This rivals the twisting force of some gas-powered V8’s. However, the Colorado diesel’s mileage is considerably higher than any full-size V8 pickup. The EPA rates the oil-burner at 25 miles per gallon on the combined cycle.
Another point in its favor: Colorado is a “real” pickup with the reassurance of body-on-frame construction and a payload of nearly 1500 pounds. It was designed with heavy loads and rough use in mind. Rear leaf springs and considerable weight mean drivers aren’t going to confuse the Colorado with a sport sedan on a curvy backroad, but if a truck is what you need, the Colorado can deliver the goods while keeping fuel bills low.
The downside is purchase cost. The Duramax diesel package costs an extra $3905 and is only available on crew-cabs with the relatively fancy LT trim level or better. That almost-four-grand boost would pay for a lot of extra gas for the less-efficient V6 model.
Most Efficient Overall
For the hardcore MPG fanatic, or those who insist on a vehicle with the absolute smallest carbon footprint, only an all-electric vehicle will do. Not too long ago, drivers wanting an all-electric car could only mourn GM’s failed EV1 experiment, or rework their lifestyles around the limitations of a slow and flimsy “neighborhood” electric vehicle. Today, we have great choices in the all-electric segment, with more appearing all the time.
The BMW i3 embodies the traditional BMW values of innovation and driving excitement in an electric car. The i3’s 170 horsepower electric motor powers it from 0-60 in under seven seconds. It cruises comfortably at 80 mph. Thanks to a low center of gravity afforded by locating the heavy batteries at the bottom of the chassis, handling is impressive. The interior features all the expected modern amenities. In other words: This is not your grandpa’s golf cart.
The mileage is an extraordinary 134 equivalent MPG (on models without the available range extender). This makes the i3 the MPGe champ among all electric cars currently sold in the US.
An interesting feature of the i3 comes in the available range extender. Without it, the i3’s range is limited to a maximum of 81 miles on a full charge. The 2-cylinder gas-powered extender increases range to 150 miles. The advantage of the range extender is decreased “range anxiety.” The disadvantage is extra weight, lower mileage, and higher cost.
Speaking of cost: The i3 starts at $43,395, without the range extender. The extender and options can drive the price up to the low-$50,000 range. Federal tax credits can reduce that price by $10,000 or so. Still, BMW is offering a beautifully functional, fast, sporty car that costs customers between 30 and 40 thousand dollars, and has a maximum range of 150 with the optional extender. With the i3, maximum efficiency comes without major sacrifices to driving satisfaction, but that doesn’t mean it’s free.
No matter what kind of vehicle you find most befits your lifestyle, there are fuel-efficient choices available. It can pay great dividends to weigh the costs and benefits of each choice. Gasoline is inexpensive now, but probably won’t be forever. A wise choice taking into account the price of extra efficiency can keep you happy in the long run.