If you’re on a mission to cut the impact you have on the planet and drive a car, choosing fuel efficient cars is one of the most important things you can do to shrink your carbon footprint, especially if you drive a lot.
In fact, driving accounts for about a quarter of most Americans’ carbon emissions. Being a savvy driver can mean a lot less climate pollution.
Updated April 23, 2019
Why would you pay more to pollute??
Of course, I assume you’re already doing all you can to drive as little as possible, right? If you can walk, bike, or take public transit, that’s your best bet. But some of us need cars, and the options for low- or even NO-carbon driving are better than ever.
The great news is that none of us need to be spewing huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere to get around anymore!
The latest crop of electric cars and plug-in hybrids offers far more options, including several with pricing that makes them more affordable than their conventional counterparts. Tax incentives bring down the price of these fuel-efficient cars significantly, and then there’s all the savings on gas.
We want to replace an 18-year old car that is literally falling apart, and I am beyond excited that I can be zipping around town in a car running on our home solar power!
How cool is that????
Working close to home in a walkable community, we drive a lot less than average, but how nice it would be to know when we do drive that we’re adding zero CO2 to the atmosphere. Our home and ecological landscaping are carbon-neutral, and now our car travel can be as well!
But even if carbon pollution isn’t your primary concern, there are also compelling financial reasons to get fuel efficient cars.
While a non-plug-in vehicle may get in the neighborhood of 30mpg, you can run an electric vehicle on charge — ideally from solar power — for over 200 miles!
Just to be clear, I’m an eco-fanatic, not a car reviewer, so this post is intended as an overview of the benefits of electric vehicles and the current state of the plug-in hybrid and electric car market. I will mention what I gleaned in my own shopping research, but this is not an exhaustive look at specific cars. You’ll want to read professional reviews of the fuel efficient cars you’re considering and drive them for yourself.
I just want more people to know there are excellent and affordable options out there besides those so last century combustion engines. If we plan to leave a livable world for our kids, more people need to make the switch to the most fuel efficient cars. And fast.
I may receive commissions from purchases made through links in this article at no additional cost to you. Read full disclosure. (I have no affiliate relationship with any car maker or dealer.)
How to Choose Fuel Efficient Cars
Choosing fuel-efficient cars can be confusing! Do I get a conventional car, a hybrid, a plug-in hybrid, an all-electric vehicle, or what? To sort this out, let’s start with some basic terminology.
Most cars use combustion engines, meaning they burn gas. While fuel efficiency on some of these vehicles can be pretty good, they generally can’t touch what you’ll find in cars relying at least in part on electricity. So many cars on the road now get less than 30 miles per gallon, and more fuel efficient cars can do so much better for the planet and your bank account.
And many fuel efficient cars cost less than their conventional counterparts when you take into account rebates and savings on fuel. Another example of how most people are paying to waste and pollute — it makes no sense!
Your next step up is a hybrid, the technology behind most of the Priuses you see on the road. These cars use electric batteries to increase efficiency and can get over 50 mpg. While pretty good compared to most vehicles, other options allow you to do SO much better!
Plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) are another step up in fuel efficiency. Plug-in hybrids run on battery charge for the first 20-50 miles or so, after which they switch over to gas. If you mostly do short trips, you can run on electricity most of the time, and be secure in the knowledge that there’s gas in the tank if you want to go further than your next charging option.
Many have far longer ranges than conventional vehicles, going over 550 miles before needing more fuel. Of course, if you go further than the battery range, you’ll be burning gas just like any other car, and the fuel efficiency using gas in plug-in hybrids isn’t stellar, though generally better than average.
Electric cars (EVs) are the most fuel efficient, running entirely on electricity, which is increasingly provided by wind and solar, making it the greenest car option out there.
Electric cars have come a long way in how far they can go on a single charge. Some new models can travel over 200 miles before needing to recharge, so the “range anxiety” associated with all-electric vehicles is a thing of the past. You charge up at home or at work and you’re good to go.
Electric cars are no longer tiny, either. There are some pretty roomy options out there, and even a plug-in hybrid minivan for larger families.
As more of us get electric cars, the number of public charging stations will increase, so concerns about range will lessen further. Here’s a handy app for finding places to plug in while you’re out and about.
Benefits of all-electric cars:
- No pollution! Anyone concerned about health should be concerned about air quality, and cars are a major source of air pollution. (Of course, if your electricity comes from coal, there’s some pollution involved, but it’s still less than with a conventional car. Consider purchasing green power or joining a community solar garden.)
- You never need to visit a gas station. Who likes pumping gas?
- Waaay less maintenance. Electric motors last a long time without the routine maintenance of conventional engines. You’ll still get your tires rotated and wiper blades changed, but the motor requires almost no maintenance for years on end.
- Money savings. Depending on how much you spend on gas each year, the savings can be significant. If you’re driving the average of 13,000 miles in a car that gets 30 miles per gallon and paying somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 per gallon, that’s over $1200 per year in gas. Yes, in an electric car you’ll pay for electricity, but the EPA estimates the average savings to be about half. It varies somewhat state to state; this calculator can give you a more exact number. Multiply by 10 years, and you’ve saved upwards of $6,000 on fuel in addition to reduced maintenance costs.
Before assuming you need the gas backup, take careful stock of your driving habits. If you’re really mostly running to the grocery store or chauferring kids to after-school activities, you may find you’re mostly making trips of under 6 miles, like most American drivers.
You could go either way here, making sure to keep charge on your plug-in hybrid so you never need to switch to gas, or go a long time between charges with an electric car. The electric car may be the smarter option, with more attractive rebates and greater efficiency.
I had assumed we’d get a plug-in hybrid for those times we wanted to travel further than an electric car range of 150-200 miles, but the longest trips we tend to make are to the nearest urban center, about 90 miles round trip, and that not terribly often.
We’re not road-trippers, so the times we’d want to go further than that would be so few (or possibly non-existent) over the next decade that it would be a pretty foolish way to make a purchasing decision. We could use our 6-year-old Prius hybrid (not plug-in, alas) for those occasions.
Considerations with Charging an Electric Car
Charging stations in parking garages and at workplaces are becoming more common, so if you have access to one of these, your charging will be mostly taken care of. Likewise, if you live where you have ready access to an outlet, charging your car when it’s parked at home will have you pretty well covered.
If you live in an apartment, your options for charging may be more limited, so be sure to check before you buy.
A standard outlet adds 2-5 miles of range per hour of charging time. Public charging stations may have more rapid recharging, and you can also upgrade your home charging station to charge more quickly. A level 2 charger (240V) adds 10-60 miles of range per hour charged. They cost around $700-1200 including installation, but there may be local incentives to defray the cost. (Here are some options you can get from Amazon.)
If you plan to go all-electric, you’ll probably want to get a level 2 charger or you’ll have to leave your car plugged in a very long time to fully charge the battery. If, like us, you don’t have a garage, you should check about the feasability of installing a level 2 charger outdoors. Some chargers are designed for outdoor use.
Bringing Down the Price of Fuel Efficient Cars
Now let’s talk costs and rebates. I’m assuming as a reader of a blog focused on practicality, you’re more interested in the budget-friendly options over the luxury vehicles. I’m going to limit most of the choices to cars in the $25,000-$35,000 range, with a few exceptions, like the Pacifica minivan for those of you looking for larger but still more fuel efficient cars. You can see a more complete list of what’s available in the luxury market using the link to the federal rebate list below.
Remember if you’re still considering a conventional car: The sticker price doesn’t take into account either the federal tax credit (details below) or the cost savings in fuel and maintenance over the life of the car. Be sure to subtract those as you consider your options.
So while a comparable conventional car may have a sticker price of $8000 less, you’ll actually pay a lot more for it over the life of the car. In many cases the rebate alone will make the electric car cheaper.
Federal rebates for fuel efficient cars:
Depending on the car and its eco-specs, the federal government will offer up to a $7500 tax credit. Like other incentive programs, it will phase out over time, so earlier adopters will save most. Here’s the list of cars eligible for rebates and how much each model can qualify for.
The most fuel efficient cars will qualify for the upper amount. Almost all the EVs will qualify for a $7500 rebate, while the PHEVs mostly qualify for around $4000 in rebates. A few exceptions: the Chevy Volt, Hyundai Sonata, Honda Clarity, and the Pacifica minivan are PHEVs that qualify for the maximum rebate amount of $7500.
To claim your rebate, you submit the required paperwork at tax time and get the amount you qualified for off your tax bill. If your taxes aren’t as high as the credit, the amount rolls over to the following year. We’ve gotten tax credits for our solar and geothermal systems, and the paperwork isn’t a big deal.
There may also be state and local incentives for fuel efficient cars. You can check here.
You might also look into late-model used EVs and PHEVs, though there are some drawbacks to consider, especially as the technology has advanced so much in the last couple years. This buying guide from Consumer Reports offers some useful insight.
Now, on to the most fuel efficient cars!
It’s pretty confusing sorting through all the reviews out there, so I’m going to try to boil things down for you to give you a broad overview. When you’ve decided on a few, check out the professional reviews at Edmunds or Consumer Reports.
Here are the top contenders for the lower end of the price range, together with their mpgs (or equivalents in electric engines, called MPGe), electric range and rebates.
Volvo, Mercedes, Porche, and a few other companies also make PHEVs and EVs if you’re looking for a luxury car. You’ll have to weigh your own priorities and test drive some cars to see what you’re most comfortable with.
I’ll be test driving the Bolt, Volt, Prius Prime, Leaf, Ford Focus, Ford Energi, Kia Niro and Tesla Model 3 in the coming weeks and will add my experience to the post. If I lived where the Hyundai Ioniq is sold, I would definitely be checking that out as well.
If you take an EV or PHEV for a spin, please leave a comment!
Fuel Efficient Cars: All Electric Vehicles (EVs)
- Hyundai Ioniq — $25,000 (range 124 miles, $7500 rebate) At present, the Ioniq EV is currently only available in CA.
- Smart for Two — $24,000 (range 58 miles, $7500 rebate). May work for you if a tiny car is what you’re after.
- Ford Focus EV — $29,000 (range 115 miles, $7500 rebate)
- Nissan Leaf — $30,000 (range 151 miles, $7500 rebate)
- Nissan Leaf E+ — $36, 500 (range 226 miles, $7500 rebate)
- Fiat-e — $33,000 (range 111 miles, $7500 rebate)
- VW e-Golf — $33,500 (range 125 miles, $7500 rebate) Available only in CA, CT, ME, MD, MA, NJ, NY, OR, RI, VT, DC. However, when you Google “buy vw e-golf” plus your state, you may well find some for sale at local dealerships like I did.
- Kia Soul — $34,000 (range 124 miles, $7500 rebate)
- Kia Niro — $37,500 (range 239 miles, $7500 rebate)
- Hyundai Kona — $37, 500 (range 251 miles, $7500 rebate)
- Chevy Bolt — $37,500 (range 238 miles, $7500 rebate* note this will be phasing out soon as they’re getting close to reaching their cap)
I need to explain a little about the Tesla Model 3, a very intriguing option with a base price listed at $35,000. However, when I called the nearest dealership I learned that until early next year, I can only buy the premium model ($49,000!), which in addition to interior upgrades includes a longer-range battery (331 miles rather than the standard 220 miles, which is still pretty darn good).
If you can have one built and delivered by the end of this year, the Tesla Model 3 qualifies for the $7500 rebate. After Jan 1, 2019, the rebate drops by half to $3750. In June 2019 it halves again to $1875. But waiting till spring also means you can get the $35,000 version, a savings of $14,000, though you lose $3750 in federal rebate.
They all come with rear-wheel drive standard; ordering all-wheel drive is an extra $6000. The salesperson assured me that the weight of an electric vehicle (comparable to a Jeep Cherokee, he said) meant that rear-wheel drive would still perform really well in snow, an important consideration in these parts!
Fuel Efficient Cars: Plug-in Hybrids (PHEVs)
Plug-in hybrids have a few more metrics to consider. You should think hard about how you plan to use the car, so you can decide whether to prioritize how long the all-electric range is, what the total range is, and what kind of mileage it gets running on all gas. You’ll see there’s a lot of variety in the list below.
If you’re hoping to mainly do shortish trips and run on electricity, the longer electric ranges of the Volt and the Clarity might make them good choices. If you’ll mostly do trips of just a few miles and keep the battery topped up, the lower-priced options may work for you. But if you plan to do longer-range trips that will require gas, look at the gas mpg. The Prius Prime and Kia Niro outstrip the other options by a lot, and are on the low end of pricing. The Ioniq would also be worth looking at if you live a state where it’s sold.
- Hyundai Ioniq — $25,000 (all-electric range 29 miles, total range 550; 119 MPGe, 46 mpg when all gas; $4500 rebate) The Ioniq hybrid is currently only available in CA, OR, VT, NY, ME, CT, RI, MA, NJ, MD.
- Toyota Prius Prime — $27,000 (all-electric range 25 miles; total range 640; MPGe 133; 54 mpg when all gas; $4500 rebate)
- Ford Energi — $27,000 (all-electric range 25 miles; total range 610; MPGe 95; 39mpg gas; $4500 rebate) Here’s a lukewarm review from US News & World Report.
- Kia Niro — $28,000 (all-electric range 26 miles; total range 560; MPGe 105; 54 mpg gas; $4500 rebate)
- Honda Clarity — $34,000 (all-electric range 47 miles; total range 340; MPGe 110; 42 mpg gas; $7500 rebate). Kelley’s Blue Book named the Clarity a best buy. This comparison to the Volt from GreenCarReports makes an interesting case for the Volt based on how it uses the battery and drives, though the interior of the Clarity is roomier.
- Chevy Volt — $38,500 (all-electric range 53 miles, total range 420, MPGe 106; 42 mpg gas; $7500 rebate)
- Hyundai Sonata $38,000 (all-electric range 27 miles, total range 590; MPGe 99; 39 mpg gas; $7500 rebate)
- Kia Optima — $35,000 (all-electric range 29 miles; total range 610; MPGe 103; 40 mpg gas; $4500 rebate)
- Ford Fusion Energi — $34,000 (all-electric range 25 miles, total range 610; MPGe 97; 42 mpg gas; $4500 rebate)
- Chrysler Pacifica minivan — $40,000 (all-electric range 30 miles, total range 570 ; MPGe 80; 28 mpg gas; $7500 rebate)
Fuel Efficient Cars In a Nutshell
Got all that? 😉
We’ve got two kiddos, so we won’t be looking at the more compact options. We also drive far less than most people, haven’t felt the need for a minivan, and don’t do car vacations. We’re also not car aficionados, and don’t care much about bells and whistles. We’re looking at fuel economy and practicality first and foremost. Your lifestyle and preferences will certainly affect what makes your shortlist.
But here’s my upshot after spending countless hours reading reviews and taking notes on numbers.
First of all, I don’t know why anyone would choose a conventional engine over a plug-in hybrid. When you take the rebate into account, they don’t cost any more, and you can go far longer without refueling in a plug-in hybrid.
If you’re not ready to try all-electric, at least look carefully at the PHEV options. You may be able to do a lot of your trips with electricity only, and you’ll cut the eco-impact of your driving considerably. You’ll save money also.
These are the PHEVs I would consider based on price and MPGe:
- Hyundai Ioniq (if you live where you can get one)
- Toyota Prius Prime
- Kia Niro
- Honda Clarity
- Chevy Volt (costs more upfront, but rebate brings it to level of other options; also has highest all-electric range)
These are the electric cars I would recommend looking into:
- Ionique (CA only)
- Nissan Leaf, the new E+ for its longer range and diminished range anxiety might be worth the extra $
- Ford Focus
- Chevy Bolt
- Tesla Model 3
If you need some help choosing, check out Sierra Club’s helpful e-vehicle selector.
We’re still trying to decide between the Leaf, the Niro, the Kona and the Bolt. The Bolt is a tough one to test drive in our area, where they leave the lot as fast they come in. Also, Kia has is bringing out a Niro EV this year with a 240 mile range, priced about $6000 higher, more in line with the Chevy Bolt.
How about you? Are there reasons to add other models to this list?
Is it greener to keep driving an old car or replace it with a more efficient one?
This is an issue of weighing where the ecological impact of the car comes in. While there is some impact in the making of a car, most of the environmental damage we chalk up to cars happens during its lifecycle, while you drive it. So replacing a car getting 25 miles per gallon with an electric or plug-in hybrid is a great improvement from an environmental standpoint, especially if you drive a lot. (Here’s a more detailed explanation of why it may be more eco-friendly to buy a new car.)
Also, it’s worth noting that manufacturing batteries for electric cars has a sizeable carbon footprint, especially if the electricity used comes from highly-polluting coal. I’ll be asking where the batteries were made as I shop — if they come from France or Sweden, the footprint should be significantly smaller. More on this complex issue to come.
No matter what you’re driving, these common-sense practices will help your ride be more fuel efficient
- Drive 60 mph rather than 75 (20% more efficient)
- Reduce the number of starts and stops (up to 30 percent gain in effeciency)
- Keep tires properly inflated (3% increase in efficiency)
- Keep your car tuned (4% increase in efficiency)
- Lose the roof rack when it’s not needed (save 5%)
- Get junk out of the trunk (every 100 pounds reduces efficiency by 1-2%)
If you’ve bought an electric car or plug-in hybrid, please leave a comment to let us all know what you chose and how you like it!
Pin to save this info on fuel efficient cars for later!
Photo credits: Joenomias, MikesPhotos, Franckin Japan, Photoman, paulbr75