Shopping For a Fuel-Efficient Car


  • Toyota Prius

    Toyota Prius

    Waiting lists for the second-generation Toyota Prius are pages long at some dealerships. But if you know how to shop, you could get one next week. | March 18, 2010

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When you shop for your next car, one of your top questions should be, "What kind of fuel economy does it get?" Gas prices are rising and many experts feel they will continue the upward trend indefinitely. Be prepared by making fuel economy your top priority.

Of course you will want to get a car that meets your other needs. Still, you might be surprised at how many different models are available that will provide good fuel economy and a long list of attractive features.

Selecting a Fuel-Efficient Car
One of your first stops should be to visit Fueleconomy.gov, where you can quickly see the mileage and emissions ratings of all the cars currently for sale. Edmunds.com also carries the EPA mileage figures on the "Features and Specs" page of each vehicle.

Another good starting point is two lists provided by Edmunds.com: Top 10 Most Fuel-Efficient Sedans of 2010 and Top 10 Most Fuel-Efficient SUVs and Crossovers of 2010. The 2011 versions of these cars get mileage that's equal to — if not better than — their 2010 counterparts. If one of these vehicles doesn't catch your eye, consider the following general rules when searching for a car that delivers good fuel economy.

Four-Cylinder vs. V6 and V8: In most cases, the smaller the engine, the better the fuel economy. This means that instead of buying a car with a V6 or V8 engine, consider getting the four-cylinder engine for that car. The initial purchase price will be lower and you will save money on gas. Many four-cylinder engines, particularly those that are turbocharged, are surprisingly energetic and can provide plenty of power for merging and passing.

Standard vs. Automatic Transmission: When it comes to smaller, compact-size cars, a manual transmission comes standard; getting an automatic transmission sometimes adds about $800-$1,000 to the purchase price. Meanwhile, a manual-shift typically achieves slightly better gas mileage and also allows you to drive in a more fuel-efficient way. If you don't live in the city and don't get stuck in traffic a lot, this is a money-saving alternative for you. For more information on manual transmission cars, see this article. You might also consider the new breed of automated manual transmissions, which combine the fuel efficiency of a manual with the ease of a traditional automatic, though with a slight loss in the refinement that a traditional automatic offers. If an automatic is what you need, consider one that offers a broad spread of gear ratios; six-speed automatics are relatively common now and eight-speed automatics are offered on some luxury models.

Hybrids: Many different hybrid vehicles are on the market now. In some hybrids (the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius), the gas mileage was top of the class. Hybrid SUVs (the Ford Escape and the Lexus RX 450h, for example) provide respectable fuel economy but have put an added emphasis on performance. See our Hybrid and Electric Center.

Diesels: In the past, diesels have had a bad rap because they were thought to be slow, smelly and noisy. Recently, technology has improved and you can barely tell you are driving a diesel. Furthermore, the fuel economy provided by diesels rivals some hybrid cars. Currently a few automakers are offering models with a diesel engine. Look for more diesels to arrive soon. See our Diesel Center.

Electric Cars: While there are only a handful of real-world electric cars (such as the 2011 Nissan Leaf) and plug-in hybrids (such as the 2011 Chevrolet Volt) currently on the market, expect to see more soon. Almost every manufacturer has an electric car in the works and stands ready to put it into production if the electric-car trend takes hold.

Natural Gas Cars: A very small number of cars running on natural gas are available for purchase, including the Honda Civic GX. The biggest drawback is obtaining the natural gas to power these vehicles. Fuel is available mainly in urban areas through utility companies and other privately owned facilities.

How To Shop for a Fuel-Efficient Car
If you decide to buy a hybrid or electric car, and gas prices are rising, you will find that you are trying to buy a popular car and are competing against other buyers. It's not unusual to pay more than the sticker price when hybrid or electric vehicles are first introduced. Here are some guidelines to help you through the buying process.

1. Plan ahead. If you hear of a hybrid or electric car that will soon be introduced, order your car through a dealership. You will likely be placed on a waiting list of cars to be built. In most cases you will have to make a deposit and pay the full MSRP price of the car. However, this is better than waiting until later and possibly paying dealer markup.

2. Get on a list even if it is long. If you don't hear about a fuel-efficient car until it is already in the marketplace, you can still get on a waiting list. Often, people decide they don't want to buy a car after they order it. Dealers then call the next person on the waiting list. Whoever answers the phone and gets to the dealership with the money gets the car.

3. Take a good look at the price. Edmunds.com tracks the point at which cars are selling and posts a True Market Value® (TMV) price. In some cases, TMV is actually above MSRP or "sticker price." However, when hybrids and other fuel-efficient cars are in great demand you are likely to find a wide range in the pricing at the dealers you contact.

4. Consider alternatives to hybrids. While hybrids steal the headlines, there are many other fuel-efficient cars for sale. Consider one of the other vehicles listed above, such as a diesel, natural-gas or a four-cylinder conventional-fuel car. These will not be selling for inflated prices. You will save on the purchase and save gas at the same time.

5. Shop a wide area. Don't believe the urban legends you hear about $5,000-over-sticker prices. People love to swap stories without even testing the market. Using the Internet lets you easily gauge market prices; try Edmunds' dealer locator. Keep in mind that the popularity of cars is very regional. A car that might have waiting lists in Los Angeles could be sitting on a lot in Louisville.

6. Don't be afraid to test the price. If you absolutely have to have a car and you are willing to pay more than sticker price, don't assume you have to accept the first price named by the salesman. A car salesman might tell you, "These cars are going for $5,000 over sticker." In actuality, they might take $2,000 over or less.

7. Let the market cool off. Why pay an exorbitant amount for a hybrid to "save money on gas"? If you pay too much, it will take years to recoup the savings. If it's a hybrid model that has just launched, give the market six months to cool off and try again.

8. Test-drive your salesman. You should feel comfortable with your salesperson and have confidence in his or her abilities. Don't commit to a sale until you feel sure you are dealing with someone you trust. The right salesperson can provide valuable guidance and make the whole experience a pleasure.

9. Finalize before you travel. If you make a deal on a car over the phone, but have to fly to a distant city to pick it up, make sure you have the final price in writing. If incentives are figured into the price, be sure to include them and get an out-the-door price. You can ask to have the final contract prepared and faxed to you for review so there are no last-minute questions.

10. Shop the used market. Fuel-efficient cars aren't a new thing. You can find bargain-basement prices on thrifty cars made years ago and pocket an additional savings. And if you have to have a hybrid, you might even find one of those in the classifieds or on a used-car Web site.

Getting the right fuel-efficient car is a matter of watching the market closely, being realistic about your needs and then finding a good salesperson. Using Edmunds.com's tools will help you navigate safely through this exciting — but sometimes overwhelming — process.

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