Even if you can't confine your lifestyle to a small sedan, you shouldn't have to spend your entire paycheck at the gas station. With this in mind, we've compiled a list of the 10 most fuel-efficient pickups, SUVs and vans on the road based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency miles per gallon ratings for city and highway travel. We considered only those vehicles that you can fill up at a regular gas station, so there are no electric or natural gas vehicles on this list. Several vehicles 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 and two-wheel drive and for pickups, a regular cab/standard bed configuration. There are no minivans on our list, but GM's triplets, the Chevrolet Venture, Oldsmobile Silhouette and Pontiac Montana, would have finished 11th with their 19/26 EPA rating. And since the Buick Rendezvous and Pontiac Aztek crossovers are based on this family and use the same powertrain, their fuel economy numbers are the same. Note that these vehicles only come with a 3.4-liter V6, whereas all of the mileage estimates on our list are for vehicles with four-cylinder engines.
1. Toyota RAV4, 25/31
The RAV4 may not be fast, but it is efficient so much so that its gas mileage rating nearly equals that of a four-cylinder Camry. Plus, the RAV gives you the elevated stance of an SUV and a convenient cargo bay, yet it handles as well as many cars. Aided by variable valve timing (Toyota's VVT-i), the mini-ute's 2.0-liter inline four makes 148 horsepower and 142 pound-feet of torque; for best performance and economy, we recommend that you stick with the five-speed manual transmission and front-wheel drive (provided you have no plans for off-roading or charging through heavy snow). A four-speed automatic is available, of course, and RAV4s so equipped have a 24/31 rating. The four-wheel-drive system weighs down the mini-ute, resulting in a 22/27 rating with the manual gearbox and 23/27 with the automatic, as well as decidedly unhurried acceleration. The RAV doesn't come with much standard equipment, and desirable features like ABS, air conditioning, remote keyless entry, a power sunroof and alloy wheels are optional. A "quick order" option package bundles power windows and door locks with air conditioning, cruise control and a six-speaker sound system with both cassette and CD players. Many of these features can also be purchased a la carte, though the package is a must if you want a CD player. Upgrade to the "L" package and you get these goodies plus heated exterior mirrors, floor mats, dark-tinted glass, foglights and special exterior trim. The "L" package is also your ticket to leather upholstery. A limited-slip differential is a stand-alone option on 4WD versions. Inside, the RAV4 has a classy ensemble and ample storage you can even remove the second-row seats entirely to create 68.3 cubic feet of cargo space. Want the SUV lifestyle without the SUV hassles? Take a good look at the RAV4.
2. Suzuki Vitara Two-Door Soft Top, 25/28
Suzuki's Vitara mini-ute is from the old school of SUVs while pavement-oriented vehicles like the RAV4 employ a unibody design, the Vitara is body-on-frame and available with a low-range transfer case, and is, therefore, a natural off-roader. Chevrolet rebadges the Vitara (and the V6-equipped Grand Vitara) as the Tracker, but the engine choices are slightly different we'll address them in the section below. The Vitara is available in two body styles, a two-door convertible (with a soft top) and a four-door hardtop, in two- or four-wheel drive. The base engine for the convertible is a 1.6-liter inline four that develops 97 horsepower and 103 lb-ft of torque. This powerplant is the reason for the Vitara's 25/28 rating when equipped with a manual transmission and 2WD, and adding an automatic transmission or 4WD doesn't affect gas mileage very much. However, unless you're going to use the Vitara to run errands in the city (preferably near sea level), you'll probably want to skip over this weakling and opt for the 2.0-liter inline four (standard in the four-door hardtop). The 2.0-liter isn't especially swift, either, but its 127 horsepower and 134 lb-ft of torque are definitely an improvement. This engine actually gets slightly better mileage with an automatic (23/25) than with a manual (22/25). Here again, the extra weight of the 4WD system has a negligible effect on fuel economy. Base Vitaras (JS and JX) don't come with much standard equipment, except for a CD player, but the upper trim levels (JLS and JLX) include air conditioning with a micron air filter and power windows, door locks and mirrors. ABS isn't available at all unless you step up to the Grand Vitara. Even though it's one of the few SUVs available as a convertible, the Vitara is overshadowed by newer mini-utes with modern engineering. Advantages? Low base price. Good fuel economy.
If you want a Chevrolet Tracker: The Tracker is the corporate twin of the Vitara/Grand Vitara it's available in both body styles but only with the 2.0-liter inline four and the Grand Vitara's 2.5-liter V6. Oddly, the Tracker gets better fuel economy than the Vitara when equipped with the 2.0-liter; it's rated for 23 mpg in the city and 26 on the highway. You may find the Tracker to be a more livable alternative to the Vitara, even though it's more expensive, because of the greater availability of features. The base 2WD convertible comes with air conditioning and a CD player, and it can be optioned with ABS and power windows, door locks and mirrors.
The popularity of mini-utes continues to flourish, and by the time Ford and Mazda had their twins ready for market in 2001, several other manufacturers already had their own strong sellers in this segment. But none had yet offered a mini SUV with a 200-horsepower V6. And indeed the Escape/Tribute's 3.0-liter V6 and its 201 horsepower and 196 lb-ft of torque is strong and appealing to buyers but fuel economy is nothing astounding. In FWD/2WD models, it's rated at 19/24 with the standard four-speed automatic transmission and in 4x4s, it's rated at 18/23. For those who require amazing gas mileage, a 2.0-liter inline four is available (with a manual gearbox only) in two- and four-wheel-drive models. This is the same Zetec engine used in the Ford Focus, and it makes 127 horsepower and 135 lb-ft of torque in this application. If you opt for 4WD, its EPA rating declines to 22/25. Of course, the Escape and Tribute are larger and heavier than any member of the Focus family, such that the Zetec really doesn't provide enough power to move these SUVs. Should you desire a four-cylinder sport-ute, you would probably be better served by the Toyota RAV4, Subaru Forester or Honda CR-V, all of which have a more favorable power-to-weight ratio. If you've decided to take on the challenges of four-cylinder Escape/Tribute ownership, we can tell you that they do come with a generous list of standard equipment, including air conditioning, a CD player and power windows, door locks and mirrors.
Like the Escape and Tribute, the S-10 and the Sonoma are corporate twins. They are mechanically identical in every way; they differ only in the packaging of standard features and options. In order to take advantage of the 22/28 rating, you will need to purchase a 2WD regular or extended cab equipped with the base 2.2-liter inline four and a manual transmission. Power isn't the greatest, as this engine pumps out just 120 horsepower and 140 lb-ft of twist. If you pair it with an automatic, the mpg rating is reduced to 19/25 and your S-10/Sonoma is sure to feel slow. Optional for all 2WD models and standard in 4WD pickups is GM's 4.3-liter Vortec V6. This powerplant makes 180 horsepower and 245 lb-ft of torque in 2WD models and 190 horses and 250 lb-ft in 4WD models either way, your pickup will feel more enthusiastic, but of course, it won't be as fuel-efficient. The V6 is rated at just 16/22 with a manual and 17/22 with an automatic in 2WD models and 15/18 in 4WD models. Antilock brakes and air conditioning are standard on even the most basic pickups, and the option lists are extensive at the higher trim levels. In spite of the myriad of available configurations, these compact pickups are aged and have difficulty keeping up with newer, more refined offerings from Dodge, Toyota and Ford. Fortunately, an entirely new batch of GM's compact pickups (engineered by Isuzu) will arrive for the 2003 model year. Until then, these pickups will appeal to buyers looking for a good deal and good fuel economy.
5. Subaru Forester, 22/27
Though it provides the SUV styling and AWD that buyers crave, the Forester mini-ute is actually a tall station wagon built on a platform comprised of previous-generation Legacy and Impreza parts. As such, the Forester rides and handles like a car and gets excellent gas mileage. It's considerably more powerful than the top four vehicles on this list remember that we're dealing with base versions of the Escape/Tribute and S-10/Sonoma. Every Forester comes with a 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine that produces 165 horsepower and 166 lb-ft of torque. Both a five-speed manual and a four-speed automatic transmission are available EPA ratings are 21/28 and 22/27 respectively. These mpg numbers are identical to those of the Legacy sedan and wagon (same engine, same AWD system). Besides providing a slight mpg advantage during city driving, the Forester's automatic transmission performs its task with savvy: It knows when to hold a gear in order to optimize engine braking on hilly descents or prevent hunting between gears when going uphill. The Forester comes in two trim levels, base L and uplevel S; the S can also be purchased with a Premium package. L models come with ABS, air conditioning, a cassette stereo and power windows, door locks and mirrors. The S model adds 16-inch alloy wheels, rear disc brakes, a six-disc CD changer, heated seats and a leather wrap for the steering wheel, gearshift handle and parking brake handle. Should you require additional luxury, the Premium package piles on a huge power moonroof, side airbags, gold wheel accents and a monotone color scheme. Those who want leather upholstery will need to purchase an S model with the Premium goodies and an automatic transmission. Need a safe, reliable, fuel-efficient family vehicle to get you through the winter? Try the Forester.
Toyota Highlander, 22/27
Like the Forester, the Highlander is a tall station wagon that should appeal to those who seek the SUV image and functionality without the hassles associated with truck ownership. Of course, the Toyota comes in a larger package than the Subaru it's the twin of the Lexus RX 300, but it's slightly longer, taller and wider. The Highlander is available with front-wheel drive or four-wheel drive and with a 2.4-liter inline four or 3.0-liter V6 engine; a four-speed automatic transmission comes with all models. You'll have to stick with front-wheel drive and the four-cylinder (155 horsepower and 163 lb-ft of torque) to achieve the 22/27 rating. Opting for 4WD drops the EPA estimate to 19/24 and you'll burden the engine with 230 pounds of extra weight to propel. Look at it this way, a front-drive Highlander, especially when optioned with Toyota's Vehicle Skid Control (stability control plus traction control), will be able to deal with a winter of rain and light snow. If you decide that you definitely require 4WD, consider spending a little more on the V6 and its 220 horsepower and 222 lb-ft of twist you don't lose much in the way of fuel economy (18/22), and your Highlander will be more enjoyable to drive. Front-wheel-drive models have a 19/23 rating when equipped with the V6. All Highlanders come with four-wheel disc brakes, ABS, emergency brake assist, a six-speaker stereo with CD player and power windows, door locks and mirrors. Side airbags and a power driver seat are optional. Although four-cylinder Highlanders are certainly hospitable, those seeking optional luxuries like leather and a JBL premium audio system will have to step up to the V6 models. The Highlander isn't a flashy SUV, but it's likely to be a vehicle that will meet your family's needs for years to come.
6. Hyundai Santa Fe, 21/28
The Santa Fe is another mini-ute that attempts to satisfy Americans' desire for SUV styling and rough-weather capability while providing car-like handling. Like the RAV4, Escape/Tribute and Forester, the Hyundai is designed for pavement duty and perhaps an occasional gravel road. If fuel economy is your primary concern, select the base model, which comes only with front-wheel-drive and a 2.4-liter inline four good for 149 horsepower and 156 lb-ft of torque, and keep the standard manual transmission. Opting for the Shiftronic automanual decreases the mileage estimate slightly 20 mpg in the city, 27 mpg on the highway. Every other Santa Fe comes with a 2.7-liter V6 good for 181 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque and the automanual transmission. You can have it with either front-wheel-drive or AWD; gas mileage ratings are 19/26 and 19/23 respectively. Regardless of your powertrain choice, these vehicles tend not to feel overly quick, as each weighs about 3,500 pounds. Standard features in the four-cylinder models include air conditioning, power windows and door locks, a stereo with a CD player and front disc/rear drum brakes; items like ABS, cruise control, power mirrors and keyless entry can be purchased in an option package. The V6 models are available with a wider array of desirable features, including rear disc brakes, traction control, a power driver seat and foglights. What may sell you on the Santa Fe besides fuel economy and packaging is Hyundai's generous warranty program: Every Santa Fe comes with 5-year/60,000-mile basic coverage, 10-year/100,000 drivetrain coverage and a 5-year/unlimited miles roadside assistance plan.
The Ranger and the B-Series compact pickups are mechanically identical in every way aesthetic differences aside, the best way to decide between them is to compare the packaging of standard features and options. Also, note that Mazda offers a slightly more generous warranty plan for the B-Series 3-year/50,000-mile basic, drivetrain and roadside assistance coverage as opposed to Ford's 3-year/36,000-mile coverage. If fuel economy is the priority, you'll want to select a regular or extended cab Ranger or the regular cab Mazda B2300 with the 2.3-liter inline four, which makes 135 horsepower and 153 lb-ft of torque. You can pair this engine with a manual or five-speed automatic, though the automatic drops the EPA rating to 20/24. Four-wheel drive is not available with the 2.3-liter, but a truck so equipped will capably perform light-duty towing and hauling tasks. A 3.0-liter V6 good for 150 horsepower and 185 lb-ft of twist comes standard in 4x4 models (optional for some 4x2 models) depending on the drivetrain, it has a 19/22 or 18/21 EPA rating with a manual and a 16/21 rating with an automatic. Some extended cab models can be optioned with the Explorer's 4.0-liter V6, which makes 207 horsepower and 238 lb-ft of torque in this application gas mileage isn't a strongpoint, though (16/19 with a manual, 17/21 or 15/19 with an automatic again depending on whether you have two- or four-wheel drive). Base four-cylinder regular cabs and Ranger extended cabs are outfitted sparingly as work trucks, but they do come with ABS and a stereo; conveniences like air conditioning and cruise control are optional. Stepping up to the next trim level (XLT for the Ford, SE for the Mazda) adds air conditioning and cloth upholstery (all extended cabs come with cloth to begin with) to the standard features list. As you would expect, there are considerably more features at your disposal if you select one of the V6 powerplants. But if you want to keep your costs low, the 2.3-liter four-cylinder isn't a bad way to go.
Honda CR-V, 22/26
Like the Forester and the RAV4, the Honda CR-V is an inviting choice for the fuel-conscious SUV shopper, simply because you don't have buy a stripped model with an overworked engine to get great fuel economy. And for 2002, Honda's completely redesigned mini-ute makes more power than ever before with slightly improved fuel economy. A 2.4-liter inline four with i-VTEC, the latest version of the company's variable valve timing system, powers every CR-V. This engine makes 160 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque. This isn't as much power as the V6-equipped Ford Escapes and Mazda Tributes make, but those vehicles can't compete with the Honda's gas mileage 22/26 with an automatic and 22/25 with a manual transmission. The CR-V is available with either 2WD (that is, front-wheel-drive) or the Real Time 4WD system, which preserves fuel economy by routing power only to the front wheels in normal driving conditions (and redistributing torque to the rears when slippage is detected). Front-drive CR-Vs are only available with an automatic transmission, while 4WD models can be had with either a manual or an automatic. With the move to the new Global Compact Platform (shared with the Civic and the Acura RSX), the CR-V has been fitted with more compact suspension components, which allow for an expansive cabin by mini-ute standards. Three trim levels are available: 2WD LX, 4WD LX and 4WD EX. All models come with air conditioning with micron air filtration, a CD player, rear seat heater ducts and power windows, door locks and mirrors. In addition, the more upscale EX includes ABS, side airbags, an upgraded audio system with a CD changer, keyless remote entry and a power moonroof. Side airbags are optional for LX models. Yes, the CR-V is definitely worth a test drive if you're shopping for a reliable, fuel-efficient all-weather vehicle.
8. Nissan Frontier, 22/25
Like the aforementioned Ranger/B-Series pickups, the four-cylinder Frontier could be right for you if you're looking for a compact pickup for light hauling tasks. Nissan will not sell a regular cab version in 2002, so the base 2.4-liter inline four will only be available in 2WD King Cabs (extended cabs, that is) in Standard and XE trim. This powerplant makes 143 horsepower and 154 lb-ft of torque and can be paired with a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission (the latter reduces the EPA rating to 20/23). More power is available, but it comes at the expense of gas mileage: King Cabs and Crew Cabs can be purchased with a 3.3-liter V6 good for 170 horsepower and 200 lb-ft of torque or a supercharged version that churns out 210 horses and 231 lb-ft of twist. Depending on whether you select 2WD or 4WD, the naturally aspirated V6 is rated at 16/19 or 16/18 with a manual and 16/20 or 15/19 with an automatic. Pickups equipped with the supercharged V6 have a 15/18 rating regardless of the drivetrain configuration. The standard features list for four-cylinder King Cabs includes front disc/rear drum brakes, rear-wheel ABS, cloth front seats and folding vinyl jump seats; conveniences like air conditioning and a stereo head unit are optional. Those who want cruise control, keyless entry, alloy wheels or a CD changer should choose the XE (over the Standard model), as it has a longer options list. If you seek further luxury perhaps leather upholstery or a premium audio system any number of V6-equipped King or Crew Cab models could satisfy. Want a trusty, basic pickup? Stick with the four-cylinder King Cabs.
Toyota Tacoma, 22/25
Along with its competitors, Toyota offers a four-cylinder engine for 2WD regular and extended-cab (Xtracab, that is) Tacomas. This 2.4-liter inline four makes 142 horsepower and 160 lb-ft of torque and can be purchased with a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission (the autobox reduces the mpg rating to 21/23). As with the other four-cylinder compact pickups, these Tacomas are best suited for light-duty use. For those who have larger hauling tasks or desire heightened performance or four-wheel drive, Toyota offers a couple of V6 powerplants. The smaller of the two is a 2.7-liter V6 that puts out 150 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque fuel ratings are 19/22 for a 2WD automatic (a 2WD manual is not available) and 19/21 for a 4WD manual or automatic. You can also select a 3.4-liter V6 good for 190 horsepower and 220 lb-ft. When equipped with this engine, two-wheel-drive Tacomas are rated at 18/22 with a manual and 17/20 with an autobox, while four-wheel-drive Tacomas get a 17/20 rating with a manual and 17/19 with an automatic. Four-cylinder regular and extended cabs have a short list of standard equipment to keep the base price low, but they can be optioned with staples like air conditioning, ABS, cruise control and power windows and door locks. More interesting features can be had as you move up the lineup to V6-equipped extended and crew cabs, but if you simply need a small, reliable work truck, try out the base models.
9. Chrysler PT Cruiser, 20/26
Although the PT Cruiser is classified as an SUV by the EPA (thereby helping DaimlerChrysler's CAFE number, particularly with thirsty Grand Cherokees and Durangos in the lineup), it looks and drives like a car. And obviously, it's fuel-efficient enough to make this list with more advanced engine technology, it might have finished even higher. The PT's 2.4-liter inline four develops 150 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque, and you can buy it with a five-speed manual or the more popular four-speed automatic (which lowers fuel economy slightly to 20/25). Even when equipped with a manual gearbox, the PT doesn't feel fast, but performance is adequate for normal driving (a more powerful "GT Cruiser" will eventually arrive to appease the enthusiast crowd anyway). Base Cruisers come with air conditioning, a cassette stereo with six speakers and power windows. The Touring Edition adds rear headrests, a cargo net, digital thermometer/compass, foglights, deep tint glass, keyless entry/security system, power locks and mirrors, 16-inch alloy wheels and a touring suspension. And the Limited Edition includes leather/suede seats (with power height adjustment for the driver), side airbags, power moonroof, cruise control and chrome wheels. ABS is optional throughout the lineup, and Base and Touring Cruisers can be optioned with the side airbags and the moonroof. Besides its crowd-pleasing styling and standard equipment list, the PT offers incredibly roomy accommodations for five. It's a good choice for your test-drive list if you're looking for a family vehicle priced around $20,000 (whenever popular demand dies down somewhat, that is).
10. Dodge Dakota, 20/25
Good fuel economy is not something one normally associates with Dodge trucks we tend to think of low-end torque instead but the availability of a 2.5-liter inline four in 2WD regular and club cab models allowed the midsize Dakota pickup to make this list. This smallest powerplant makes 120 horsepower and 145 lb-ft of torque and is available with a manual transmission only. In fairness, though, the Dakota will probably not be an enjoyable vehicle to own with this engine this four-cylinder makes less power than those of the other compact pickups (except the Chevrolet S-10/GMC Sonoma) and the Dakota is larger and heavier than all of them. Realizing this, Dodge has made its 3.9-liter V6 optional even at the base level. This V6 makes 175 horsepower and 225 lb-ft of torque, but its EPA ratings won't appeal to anyone who's worried about fuel consumption. In 2WD trucks, this engine is rated at 16/22 with a manual and 16/20 with an automatic; in 4WD trucks, it gets 15/20 with a manual and 14/18 with an autobox. There are also V8 engine choices a 4.7-liter good for 230 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque and a 5.9-liter that pounds out 245 horsepower and 335 lb-ft. As you would expect, fuel economy for both V8s hovers in the teens. Are we suggesting that the Dakota is a bad truck? Far from it. A Dakota Quad Cab equipped with the 4.7-liter V8 won our 2001 Compact Crew Cab Comparison Test, having easily performed every task that a compact pickup owner might require of it. But it certainly did gulp down fuel. Four-cylinder Dakotas don't come with a lot of standard equipment besides rear-wheel ABS and a cassette stereo, but a considerable list of options is available while you're looking them over, decide whether you want a capable pickup or a fuel miser. If it's the former, check the box for the 3.9-liter V6. If it's the latter, proceed to one of the other vehicles on this list.