As gas prices fluctuate between $3 and $4, car buyers continue to seek relief at the pump by focusing on cars with high fuel-efficiency. But unlike in recent years, in which hybrids were considered the best bets for consumers wanting high fuel economy, auto observers are now saying gas-powered vehicles may now be the biggest bang for the buck.
Across the board, car companies are making their high-mpg gas cars faster and more powerful, which makes them more attractive than their counterparts from a few years ago.
"As more and more standard-fuel vehicles are coming out at 40 mpg ratings, it's harder for people to rationalize paying the premium for alternative-fuel vehicles," says Camryn Craig, a research analyst with Kelley Blue Book.
If a buyer springs for a high-mpg gas car, savings in fuel costs can be substantial. At current gas prices, a vehicle getting 30 mpg will save its owner $838 at the gas pump per year and $4,190 over five years, when comparing to a car that gets 20 mpg and if the gas price is $3.35, according to the Department of Energy.
But not all fuel-efficient cars are created equal when it comes to making up for their higher sticker prices, according to a recent TrueCar.com study commissioned by The New York Times. Only two hybrids in the study, the Lincoln MKZ the Toyota Prius, made up for extra costs in a short time (1.2 years and 1.8 years, respectively.) Other hybrids took up to a decade or more to make up the cost, with the Chevrolet Volt taking as much as 27 years.
Gas-only winners identified by TrueCar.com included the Mazda3 Touring with SkyActiv, whose owners would see immediate savings, and the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic with EcoTec Turbo, which pays for itself in 2.9 years.
Experts suggest considering nonstandard options that will save fuel as well. Ford is about to introduce a Stop-Start option for its 2013 Fusion, which for $295, improves fuel economy up to 10% by switching off the gas engine in heavy traffic or at stoplights and restarts when the brake is released. Ford will include its EcoBoost engine in its cars for around $1,000 to $2,000. The company says the EcoBoost gives vehicles 20% improved fuel efficiency.
"It's an incredibly popular option," says Alan Baum, a longtime auto industry observer and founder of Baum and Associates.
It's the Little Things
Shoppers should not only consider a car's mpg, but also smaller features that can increase fuel savings. The way we drive, such as how we accelerate, affects how much fuel our cars use. New models are coming out with gauges showing how efficiently the vehicle is being driven, with the hope that it will educate drivers on maximizing fuel economy.
"No one really recognizes how much of a difference your driving can make on efficiency," says Joe Wiesenfelder, an executive editor at Cars.com.
The 2012 Honda Civic has taken a page from the company's hybrids and displays bars next to its speedometer that change from blue to green depending on how efficiently the car is being handled. A number of manufacturers are also introducing economy modes to their gasoline-powered cars. When activated, these modes do things such as limit how fast the vehicle can accelerate (thus saving fuel) and display its fuel efficiency in real time.
Building a Better High-mpg Car
Vehicles are able to get more miles per gallon in part because of the materials they are now being made of. Companies are making vehicles lighter, turning to high-strength steel, aluminum and carbon fiber composites -- materials that weigh less but are strong enough to perform well in crash tests. Cars 10% lighter can boost fuel economy 6% to 8%, according to the Department of Energy.
Automakers are also making cars more aerodynamic and are investing in turbochargers, which are low-weight options for making an engine operate more efficiently and produce more power.
This emphasis on speed and power for high-mpg vehicles is a big shift from 10 years ago, when high-mpg cars relied on cheaper materials and weaker engines. Today, one can generally expect them to perform as well as their standard mpg counterparts.
"In many cases, there's no difference in how they perform," says Wiesenfelder. "It's not like the days when you were buying the smaller, weaker engine."
Industry experts say buyers can now get nearly any type of vehicle they'd like without compromising on fuel efficiency. In 2012, there were nearly 300 models that got at least 30 highway mpg, up from just 69 in 2006, according to the Alliance of Automobile Manufactures.
"The consumer has more choice. You don't have to change in terms of the nature of the vehicle you want," says Baum. "If you want a midsize car, you can find a midsize car (that gets high-mpg). It's the same with pickup trucks."
That even goes for luxury models. Car companies are also coming out with high-performance hybrids, such as the 2012 Infiniti M35h. Earlier this year, Motor Trend reported that the M35h went from zero mph to 60 mph in 5.1 seconds, all while getting an Environmental Protection Agency-estimated 30 highway miles per gallon. The 2012 BMW ActiveHybrid roars along with 440 horsepower while still managing to get 24 highway mpg.
How to Choose
It might sound counterintuitive, but just because gas prices are high doesn't mean it's the right time to trade in that SUV for a high-mpg vehicle, Wiesenfelder says. When fuel costs are high, the demand and price for efficient vehicles goes up. Conversely, demand for gas-guzzling SUVs goes down, and their trade-in values fall.
"It's a romantic notion to drop your SUV for a Prius, but you've got to do the math," says Wiesenfelder.
While it may be painful to pay an extra $60 at the gas pump, that might not be bad when compared to paying off a new vehicle, he says. Wait until the price points are right.
The Department of Energy has a tool for finding fuel-efficient vehicles, and sites such as ConsumerReports.org and Cars.com also have rankings of their favorites. Also, keep an eye on tax incentives that can make buying an electric vehicle more affordable, experts advise. The federal government offers a tax credit of up to $7,500, depending on the vehicle.
"If you do the research, you will find the price and technology and the vehicle that suits your needs," says Baum.