10 Fuel Efficient Cars You'll Love to Drive

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My Favorite Fuel-Efficient Cars

2012 Fiat 500 Abarth front view
Photo © Aaron Gold

My philosophy about fuel-efficient cars is that one shouldn't give up an enjoyable drive just to save fuel. That's why this isn't just a by-the-numbers list of cars with the best fuel economy (which you'll find here). Instead, I've put together a list of cars that I think are the most enjoyable of the misery. Here they are, in alphabetical order.

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BMW 528i

2012 BMW 528i front view
BMW 528i. Photo © Aaron Gold

23 MPG city/34 MPG highway/27 MPG combined

This is the car that gets my Inner Cheapskate all hot and bothered: A big, sporty luxury yacht that gets the same fuel economy as a four-cylinder Honda Accord. The 528i's secret is its new engine, a wee little 2-liter four cylinders with direct fuel injection and a turbocharger, which together boost output to 240 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque -- same hp and more lb-ft than the 3-liter six-cylinder engine in last year's 528i. Acceleration is perfectly adequate; in fact, aside from the engine sound -- a muted buzz that seems out of place in a luxury car --, you'll never miss those extra two cylinders. The 528i has an Eco Pro driving mode, along with an auto-stop system that shuts the engine off at stoplights. The auto-stop system isn't quite ready for prime time, but the Eco Pro helps keep the boost down and gas mileage up -- I used it to help me average 26.3 MPG during test week, an incredible figure for a car like the 5-series.

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Chevrolet Sonic Turbo

2012 Chevrolet Sonic front-right view
Chevrolet Sonic Turbo. Photo © Aaron Gold

29 MPG city/40 MPG highway/33 MPG (manual)
27 MPG city/37/ MPG highway/31 MPG (automatic)

If you don't think there's much fun to be had in the 40 MPG club, I suggest you test drive the Chevy Sonic Turbo. I've come to think of this car as the poor man's Volkswagen GTI -- it has the style and it certainly has the spunk. For maximum fun and frugality, skip the base model's 1.8-liter engine and go for the 138 hp 1.4-liter turbo. It isn't exactly a HEMI V8, but it certainly tries its best, with the 6-speed manual transmission offering the most action and the best fuel economy. I was amazed at the gas mileage -- even after a week of going hard on the turbo boost, including a thorough flogging on the About.com Top Secret Curvy Test Road, I averaged 36 MPG. Now, this is the way to save fuel!

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Fiat 500 Abarth

2012 Fiat 500 Abarth rear view
Fiat 500 Abarth. Photo © Aaron Gold

28 MPG city/34/ MPG highway/31 MPG combined

As far as I know, fuel economy wasn't one of the Fiat 500 Abarth's design goals, but it's a fortuitous side effect of the 500's small size. Fiat added a turbocharger and a pair of intercoolers to the 500's 1.4-liter engine, and the innovative MultiAir system -- which allows more precise valve control than other variable valve timing systems -- gives the engine a broad, flat power curve that belies its tiny size. One thing the Fiat doesn't have is a muffler, so it gets a loud trumpeting exhaust note that is an integral part of the Abarth experience. The 500 Abarth's stiffened suspension provides excellent handling without the harsh ride of its chief competitor, the MINI Cooper S, and there's even a bit of tail-waggle under heavy braking that adds an element of danger. Oh, and did I mention that it gets really good gas mileage?

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Ford Fiesta SFE

2011 Ford Fiesta front view
Ford Fiesta. Photo © Aaron Gold

29 MPG city/40 MPG highway/33 MPG combined (automatic)

There are a lot of things I love about the Ford Fiesta: It's small, it's inexpensive, it's got tons of personality, and it's exceptionally fuel-efficient -- along with the Chevy Sonic Turbo, it's the most enjoyable drive in the 40 MPG club, and unlike the Sonic turbo, it achieves its 40 MPG rating with an automatic transmission. Said transmission is a 6-speed twin clutch design of the type developed for sports cars, which also happens to return great gas mileage. The Fiesta is huge fun on a curvy road, but I found it just as likely to make me smile on a quick run to the grocery story. Okay, here's the fine print: In order to get that 40 MPG rating, you have to buy the SE model and add the $695 Super Fuel Economy package -- but not-SFE Fiestas are still rated for 29 MPG city/38 highway with a manual and 29/39 with an automatic, and they're all enjoyable to drive.

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Honda Civic Natural Gas

2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas front view
Honda Civic Natural Gas. Photo © Honda

27 MPG city/38 MPG highway/31 MPG combined

Driving a Civic Natural Gas is one of my favorite ways to save gasoline because it doesn't use any gasoline at all. The Civic Natural Gas runs on compressed natural gas (CNG), which is cheap, plentiful, and safer than gasoline. It burns cleanly and doesn't require a heavy hybrid system or complicated emissions equipment. Honda redesigned the CNG-fueled Civic for 2012; it's now available in all 50 states and can be had with a navigation system with CNG stations programmed in. Its range is less than gasoline cars, but I had no problem making a 900 mile round trip between Los Angeles and San Jose in the old version (which was called the Civic GX). The Civic Natural Gas reduces air pollution, reduces our dependence on oil, and slashes your fuel costs. Besides, how many vehicles put you in the position of looking down on Prius drivers as petroleum-swilling, pollution-spewing troglodytes?

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Honda CR-Z

2011 Honda CR-Z front view
2011 Honda CR-Z. Photo © Honda

31 MPG city/37 MPG highway/34 MPG combined (manual)
35 MPG city/39 MPG highway/37 MPG combined (automatic)

I have, to be honest -- it took me a while to warm up to the CR-Z, especially since I own a CRX, which is the CR-Z's spiritual predecessor. But the more seat time I had, the more I enjoyed this car. Power is modest, but the CR-Z has a neutrally-balanced chassis that will actually rotate (oversteer) if you lift off the throttle in a fast corner, and the multi-mode hybrid system does a reasonable imitation of the sporty CRX Si in Sports mode and of the gutless-but-efficient CRX HF in Econ mode. And like the original, it's easy to park and has a ton of cargo room. There are downsides; acceleration is lukewarm at best and the manual transmission, which ups the fun factor by several points, drops fuel economy by a similar amount. On balance, though, the CR-Z is a neat little ride... even if it's something of an acquired taste.

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Hyundai Elantra

2011 Hyundai Elantra
Hyundai Elantra. Photo © Aaron Gold

29 MPG city/40 MPG highway/33 MPG combined (auto/manual)

There are a lot of reasons I like the Hyundai Elantra: It's great looking, it's got a beautiful interior, and it drives like a much more expensive car. (That said, with Elantra prices starting well under $16k, most cars are more expensive cars.) Hard to believe from Hyundai's humble roots, but the Elantra really is one of the best compact sedans on the market -- and its excellent fuel economy is just icing on the cake. I've heard from owners who have had trouble reaching 40 MPG on the highway, but I found that if I set the cruise control at or just above the speed limit, I could easily nurse the Elantra into the low 40s. This car really is the complete package.

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Kia Optima

2011 Kia Optima front-left view
Kia Optima. Photo © Kia

24 MPG city/35 MPG highway/28 MPG combined (2.4 automatics)
22 MPG city/34 MPG highway/26 MPG combined (2.0 turbo)

If I was going to buy a mid-size sedan, I'm pretty sure it would be a Kia Optima. I love the style, I love the space, I love the features and I love the pricing. The Optima does everything we expect from a mid-size sedan, and does it with a lot of panache -- and then there's the excellent fuel economy, which I see as an added bonus. In fact, I'd be tempted to give up a couple of MPG and get the 200 hp turbocharged version, which adds a lot of power but only uses a little more gas.-p>

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Mazda3 SkyActiv

2012 Mazda3 hatchback front view
Mazda3 SKyActiv. Photo © Aaron Gold

27 MPG city/39 MPG highway/31 MPG combined (manual)
28 MPG city/40 MPG highway/33 MPG combined (automatic)

I had mixed feelings about the updated 2012 Mazda3: I was pleased that they added the new 40 MPG SkyActiv engine, but I was disappointed that they cheapened the interior. After all, the pseudo-luxury feel of the 2010-2011 Mazda3 was one of my favorite things about the car. But then I got the updated Three out on a curvy road, and all was forgiven because it's still fantastic to drive -- an absolute, utter delight. Despite the litany of things I can complain about -- the low-cost dash, the small back seat, the fact that the SkyActiv engine is an extra-cost option -- as long as the Mazda3 drives like it do, it'll always be one of my favorites.

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Toyota Prius v

2012 Toyota Prius V front view
Toyota Prius v. Photo © Toyota

44 MPG city/40 MPG highway/42 MPG combined

I almost feel a little guilty putting the Prius v on this list. After all, I'm a car guy, and the Prius pretty much goes against everything car guys stand for... but, dammit, this thing is really neat -- a car that truly offers the space of an SUV and gets forty-plus MPG. That's not maybe 40 MPG on a level highway with the cruise control set at the speed limit, mind you; that's forty-plus easy in mixed driving. (I got over 46.) And the worse the traffic gets, the better the Prius v's gas mileage gets. Yes, it may be a little lacking in passion around the curves, but achieving such insanely good gas mileage out of such a big, commodious car is its own kind of enjoyment. I'm a fan!

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