We've compiled a list of the 10 most fuel-efficient cars on the road based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) miles per gallon ratings for city and highway travel.* We considered only those cars that you can fill up at a regular gas station, so there are no electric or natural gas vehicles on this list (though the three VWs on the list do require diesel). Several economy sedans at the bottom of the list had similar mpg ratings, so we used the EPA's method for determining combined fuel economy -- 55 percent of city mpg rating plus 45 percent of highway mpg rating -- to arrive at a final hierarchy.** The fuel efficiency rating for each vehicle below is expressed in mpg as a city/highway ratio. Unless otherwise specified, all ratings apply to base models equipped with a manual transmission.
1. Honda Insight, 61/68
With its lightweight, aerodynamic aluminum body and Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) powertrain, the two-passenger Insight is the most fuel-efficient vehicle on the road -- by a wide margin over its hybrid competitor, the Toyota Prius (of course, the Prius has seating for five). The heart of the system is a 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine coupled with an electric motor that assists the gasoline engine under acceleration. Regenerative braking via the ABS-assisted disc/drum brakes keeps the electric battery pack juiced, so that the Insight never needs to be "plugged in." The package also features an idle-stop feature, which shuts off the engine when the car comes to a complete stop and the driver places the shift lever in neutral and releases the clutch pedal -- this prevents the car from wasting precious fuel. Should you opt for Honda's continuously variable transmission (CVT) in lieu of the standard five-speed manual, the idle-stop feature kicks in when the Insight is coasting or braking. With the electric motor engaged, the Insight produces 73 horsepower and 91 pound-feet of torque -- this doesn't sound like much, but the car's light curb weight of 1,847 pounds provides for relatively swift acceleration. Passing power, particularly in hilly areas, is limited, however, and hard acceleration will quickly deplete the battery pack -- by itself, the gas engine produces 67 horsepower and 66 lb-ft of torque. The CVT decreases output slightly and reduces fuel economy to a still respectable 57 mpg in the city and 56 on the highway -- and in some states like California, CVT-equipped Insights are certified as SULEVs (super ultra low emissions vehicle), rather than ULEVs and are thus eligible for special high-occupancy vehicle lane privileges (sometimes referred to as "carpool lanes"). Every Insight has a comfortable, futuristic cabin that matches its space-age sheetmetal and comes fully equipped -- the only factory option is an automatic climate control system, though your dealer will be happy to add extras like extra speakers and a CD changer. Actual gas mileage is highly dependent on your driving habits, but even urban dwellers will enjoy the Insight, whether they can match the EPA ratings or not.
2. Toyota Prius, 52/45
If the Insight is the "driver's hybrid" with its racy sheetmetal, manual transmission and amazing fuel economy, the Prius is the "family hybrid" with its five-passenger seating and standard continuously variable transmission (CVT). Although the Insight beat the Prius to the American market, the Toyota has actually been on sale in Japan since 1997. Toyota used this time to gauge consumer interest and improve the car's power and emissions equipment to accommodate the demands of driving in the U.S. An all-aluminum 1.5-liter gasoline engine with Toyota's VVT-i (variable valve timing) makes 70 horsepower and 82 lb-ft of torque. The CVT distributes power to the front wheels. The electric drive motor is worth another 44 peak horsepower, bringing the maximum potential horsepower output to 114. The Prius operates on either electricity or gasoline alone, or a combination of both. Depending on speed and load, the ratio of power provided by each system is constantly adjusted by electronics to keep the vehicle in its most efficient operating mode. At low speeds and under light throttle applications, the Prius relies completely on the electric motor for acceleration -- this is why the car's city mpg rating is higher than its highway rating. Like the Insight, the Toyota's hybrid battery pack is self-sustaining and never needs to be externally recharged. But the Prius can't accelerate as quickly as the Insight -- it weighs almost 900 pounds more than the Honda and will likely be carrying more passengers. But if you're going to buy one to drive mainly around town, this should prove to be only a small disadvantage. Inside, the Prius is slightly larger than a Corolla. A center-mounted instrument panel challenges the standard rules of ergonomics, but most drivers will adjust. Each Prius comes fully loaded with a generous warranty that includes three years of complimentary scheduled maintenance. And starting in 2002, buyers will be able to option their cars with a navigation system, cruise control, side airbags and daytime running lights. Yes, the Insight may be the right hybrid for you, but the Prius may be the right one for your family.
These three Volkswagen models -- the Golf, Jetta sedan and New Beetle -- have identical EPA mpg ratings, because they all have the same engine, a 1.9-liter turbodiesel inline four. This engine makes only 90 horsepower, but it also pumps out 155 lb-ft of torque at a very low 1,900 rpm. The result is that these cars get around with surprising ease and still post the best fuel economy numbers on the road, short of a gas-electric hybrid. Should you desire an automatic with your turbodiesel, the rating drops to 34/45 (which is still good enough for fifth place on this list). While the Jetta is Volkswagen's perennial sales leader, all three cars are built on the same platform and embody VW's "Drivers Wanted" ad campaign: They handle crisply, brake effectively, and overall, they're a lot of fun to drive. Some drivers will find the suspension too soft, so a sport suspension option is available for the Golf and Jetta (but you'll have to step up to the gas-powered 1.8T powerplant and its 25/31 mpg rating). The Golf and the Jetta are available in two trim levels with the TDI engine -- GL and GLS; you can only buy the New Beetle in GLS form. GL cars are the value models -- there are no factory options other than emissions equipment (though your dealer can install a CD player or changer). Standard GL features include four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, alarm system with keyless entry, eight-speaker sound system and power windows, door locks and mirrors. At the GLS level, you're eligible for premium goodies, including a premium Monsoon sound system, leather upholstery and the luxury package (sunroof and alloy wheels). And if you're a Golf buyer, note that the GL is a three-door hatchback, while the GLS is a five-door hatchback. Although their styling and features set them apart, the VWs aren't the most inexpensive economy cars -- perhaps the frugal turbodiesel powerplant will help you justify a purchase.
4. Honda Civic HX Coupe, 36/44
The HX is the fuel economy leader among all of Honda's gas-powered Civic coupes. It has a 1.7-liter four-cylinder engine like the others, but a frugal version of Honda's variable valve timing, VTEC-E, increases economy. Even so, the HX Coupe's engine develops 117 horsepower and 111 lb-ft of torque compared with the standard 1.7-liter's 115 horses and 110 lb-ft in the DX and LX models (their EPA rating is 32/39 with a manual). Meanwhile, the top-of-the-line EX coupes and sedans have a more indulgent version of VTEC, which helps them to 127 horsepower, 114 lb-ft of twist and a 32/37 rating with a manual. You can see that all Civics deliver excellent gas mileage, though for the moment, the HX is tops -- but its price isn't: It slots neatly between the DX and the LX Coupes. And if a manual transmission isn't for you, you can have an HX with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) -- this reduces fuel economy slightly (35/40). But you can't have the HX as a sedan, and the packaging isn't the greatest. The DX, LX and EX can all be equipped with side airbags in either coupe or sedan form, but the HX isn't eligible for these (and without the bags, the Civic's "Excellent" side-impact crash test scores become merely "Average" and "Good"). And annoyingly, only the EX and the natural gas GX can have ABS. On the road, the Civic provides a smooth ride and handles competently. Inside, the Coupe is comfortable with seating for five and user-friendly controls. Why would you buy an HX over the other more fuel-efficient cars on this list? It costs less, and it still offers Honda reliability. Alternatively, if you can wait until the spring of 2002, Honda will introduce a Civic model equipped with the Insight's hybrid technology.
5. Toyota Echo, 34/41
The Echo is Toyota's entry in the economy subcompact segment -- it competes against cars like the Kia Rio and Hyundai Accent (as well as their larger siblings, the Sephia and the Elantra). But the Toyota also tends to be more expensive than its competitors -- its low base price disappears once you start adding on options to make the car livable. On this list, though, the Echo is the clear winner of the subcompact class, even if you require an automatic transmission (32/38). Under the hood of each Echo is a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing (VVT-i) that makes 108 horsepower and 105 lb-ft of torque. If you spend most of your time crawling through a crowded city, the Echo is ideal -- besides its spunk, it has competent brakes, it's easy to park, and it provides a comfortable ride at low speeds. However, the Echo's soft suspension, short wheelbase, tall stance and skinny 14-inch tires make it difficult to manage at highway speeds, especially on windy days. The interior is roomy and has plenty of storage, though you'll have to get used to a center-mounted speedometer and the absence of a tach. The Echo is available with either two or four doors. Both models come with a four-speaker stereo, but power steering, air conditioning, power locks, a rear defroster, ABS and a CD player are all extras. In exchange, of course, the Echo will probably last forever and provide excellent gas mileage. Sounds great, but in this price range, we would rather have something larger, like a gently used Civic, Protegé or Sentra.
Close behind the Echo in the gas mileage race is Toyota's larger economy offering, the venerable Toyota Corolla. As for the Prizm, it's just a re-skinned Corolla. Both are equipped with an energetic, smooth-revving, 1.8-liter four-cylinder aluminum engine that develops 125 horsepower and 125 lb-ft of torque. As with the other Honda and Toyota engines on this list, this powerplant uses variable valve timing -- in this case, Toyota's VVT-i -- to provide greater engine performance, better fuel economy and reduced pollution over a wide rev range. When equipped with the standard five-speed manual transmission, the Corolla and Prizm pull strongly. Of course, many people would rather have an automatic transmission, and if fuel economy is your primary concern, you'll want to skip the base Corolla CE, as it's only available with an archaic three-speed automatic. Without a fourth overdrive gear, the car's highway mileage plummets (29/33). The other Corolla models, S and LE, can be fitted with a four-speed autobox, which gives the car a more promising 30/39 rating. The Prizm comes in two trim levels, base and LSi, and you can buy the three-speed or four-speed automatic for either one. Both cars provide a smooth, quiet ride, and in spite of their sparse, outdated cabins, can be optioned with modern amenities like side airbags, and if you're a Prizm buyer, an integrated child safety seat in the rear. ABS is optional for all models, except the Corolla CE. These cars are built extremely well and will likely last longer than you care to drive them. And Toyota has lowered the cost of options for all Corollas to keep buyers interested until a redesigned version arrives (the current generation was introduced in 1998). We will certainly concede that the Corolla and Prizm are solid economy sedans, but newer models from Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Mazda and Nissan offer a superior driving experience, more comfortable cabins and better value for the buyer. And on this list the best choice is Honda's Civic.
7. Mitsubishi Lancer, 29/41
The 2002 Lancer is Mitsubishi's replacement for the Mirage, which has always been known as the Lancer outside the U.S. The Lancer is offered as a sedan in three well-equipped trim levels: ES, LS and O-Z Rally edition. All come with a 2.0-liter inline four with 120 horsepower and 130 lb-ft of torque; this powerplant has been tuned to provide useful low- and mid-range power (helpful for urban driving). While the engine's output should be enough for most people, more power would certainly be desirable, especially in the sport-oriented O-Z Rally model, given the arrival of the SVT Focus, the Civic Si and the Sentra SE-R. The ES and O-Z Rally can be equipped with either a manual or an automatic transmission with driver-adaptive technology, while the LS only comes with the autobox and its 27/39 EPA rating. The Lancer's tight structure makes it a good handler on curvy roads, and hopefully, should result in good crash test scores (not a strong point for the Mirage). Classy styling inside and out imparts a more upscale feel than the Lancer's price would seem to merit. Standard ES features include air conditioning, 100-watt stereo with a CD player and power windows, door locks and mirrors. LS models come with 15-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, keyless entry and a split-folding rear seat with a center armrest. The O-Z Rally edition is the most sporting of the trio, with 15-inch O-Z wheels, tasteful ground effects and white-faced gauges. Currently, ABS and side airbags are only available to Lancer LS buyers, but Mitsubishi has indicated that this may change. The Lancer isn't the most powerful economy sedan on the market, but it handles well, looks good and is fuel-efficient.
8. Saturn S-Series, 29/40
Saturn's line of small cars has gained quite a following over the last decade, and indeed the S-Series cars have their merits. They deliver excellent gas mileage, they're reliable, and they're sold by dealerships that emphasize the ownership experience in addition to the taking-your-money experience. In order to keep its customer base happy and growing, however, Saturn needs to improve the S-Series. Realizing this, the company will introduce an all-new S-Series fleet for the 2003 model year. Until then, our major complaints about the current generation involve the cars' cheap, poorly assembled interiors and their short standard equipment lists (such that you may be forced into pricey uplevel models). The real packaging problem has to do with engine choices. If you're an SL or SL1 sedan buyer or an SC1 coupe buyer, your only engine choice is a 100-horsepower 1.9-liter four-cylinder. Of course, this engine is the reason the S-Series finished eighth on this list. Although we would discourage you from pairing it with an automatic, a car so equipped still has a respectable 27/37 EPA rating. The 124-horsepower, twin-cam version of the 1.9-liter powerplant is only available to SL2, SC2 and SW2 wagon buyers. This engine has a 27/38 rating with a manual gearbox and a 25/35 rating with an automatic. Coupes and sedans are available with either engine, but the wagon comes only with the twin-cam version. ABS with traction control and head-curtain airbags are optional throughout the model line. If you're interested in joining the Saturn family, we would urge you to wait until the redesigned S-Series cars arrive. And if you can't wait, consider some of the competitors on this list, such as the Honda Civic or the Ford Focus.
9. Ford Focus, 28/36
The popular, well-mannered Focus performs well at the pump, too, especially if you can make do with the base engine. The Focus is now available as a sedan, wagon, three-door hatchback or five-door hatchback. The most fuel-efficient powertrain is a 2.0-liter, 110-horsepower engine paired with a five-speed manual transmission -- it's standard in LX and SE sedans. Optional for the SE sedan and standard in the ZTS sedan and all wagons and hatchbacks is the 130-horsepower Zetec powerplant. Both engines provide adequate power, though the Zetec engine is the clear choice for enthusiasts. Either powerplant can be paired with a manual or automatic transmission. The base engine has a 25/33 mpg rating with the automatic, while the Zetec gets 25/34 with a manual and 25/31 with an automatic. Enthusiasts and commuters alike will enjoy the ride quality and handling ability of these cars. Body roll is noticeable while cornering, but the Focus stays planted and inspires confidence. The steering system is surprisingly quick, fluid and responsive. The airy interiors attempt to accommodate humans of all sizes, though admittedly, not everyone will be happy with the driving position. Interior ergonomics are excellent -- controls are large, and the stereo is located at the top of the center stack for ease of adjustment while driving. And what a competent stock stereo system it is -- you won't find this in a Civic. Cool options like a telescoping steering wheel and the AdvanceTrac stability control system are available, as well. We definitely recommend that you check out the Focus if you're shopping in the economy segment. A three-door SVT Focus hatchback will arrive this year, though you should probably look no further than the Zetec if fuel economy is your priority.
9. Hyundai Accent, 28/36
As Hyundai's subcompact offering, the Accent is a peer of the Toyota Echo. It's available in three trim levels -- base L and midlevel GS are hatchbacks, and uplevel GL is a sedan. The fuel economy leader is the 92-horsepower 1.5-liter SOHC four-cylinder engine that comes standard in the L hatchback. GS and GL models are equipped with a more powerful 1.6-liter DOHC four-cylinder engine that makes 105 horsepower and 106 lb-ft of torque. This powerplant is rated 27/37 with a manual transmission and 25/35 with an automatic. While the Accent isn't rewarding to drive, it provides acceptable levels of power and handling for basic commuting. However, if you push the car at all, its weak tires quickly give up, and its suspension allows plenty of body lean. The tires are the main detractor from the Accent's handling, and they compromise braking performance, as well. Standard equipment for the L hatchback includes a cassette player, rear defroster, trip odometer and power steering. GS and GL models get upgraded carpeting, a digital clock, a tachometer, lumbar support for the driver, a 60/40 folding rear seat, a passenger visor vanity mirror and tinted glass. Upgraded trims also open the door to the few factory options that are available, such as power front windows, power mirrors, air conditioning and a CD player. You'll note that ABS and cruise control are not on the option list.
10. Mazda Protegé, 29/34
The Protegé is one of our favorite economy sedans -- it handles well, it's comfortable, it's attractive, it's reliable -- and yes, it's fuel-efficient. Mazda's economy offering is available in four trim levels: DX, LX, ES and MP3. For maximum fuel economy, you should stick with the DX or the LX, both of which use a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 105 horsepower and 107 lb-ft of torque. This engine gets a 26/33 rating with an automatic transmission. Power from the 1.6-liter is tolerable, but buyers looking for more acceleration (who can part with a few mpg) should opt for the new 2.0-liter engine and its 130 horsepower and 135 lb-ft of twist. It's optional for the LX and standard in the ES (it also comes in the wagon variant, the Protegé5). Paired with a manual transmission, the 2.0-liter powerplant has a 25/31 rating; opting for an autobox results in a negligible decline to 25/30. As for the top-line MP3, its 2.0-liter mill makes 140 horsepower and 142 pound-feet of torque due to an update in the powertrain control module (PCM) that includes recalibrated ignition timing. Also helping in the power-producing area are a revised intake manifold and a Racing Beat after-cat exhaust system. Since it's performance-oriented, the MP3 only comes with a manual gearbox, which allows for an EPA rating of 25/31. On the road, the Protegé is a bit louder than expected, but it does provide an excellent drive. With its first-rate steering system and taut, well-damped suspension, the Protegé is the "driver's car" of economy sedans. Although it can get uncomfortably pricey in the upper trim levels, we would still encourage those who need a small, capable commuter car that gets excellent gas mileage to look closely at the Protegé.
* 2001 is the last model year for the Suzuki Swift, but if you can still pick one up, this car is very frugal with fuel. When equipped with a five-speed manual, the Swift delivers 36/42 mpg. No U.S. successor has been named for the Swift. The Mitsubishi Mirage also sips fuel -- the Mirage DE coupe delivers 32/39; all other Mirages get 28/36. The completely new 2002 Lancer will replace the Mirage sedan, while the Mirage coupe will live on into 2002 with only minor changes.
** Other fuel-efficient cars that didn't quite make the list include the Suzuki Esteem (28/35) and the Nissan Sentra (27/35).