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Monday, December 8, 2008

10 of the Most Fuel-Efficient Cars in the United States

by Alyssa Danigelis

The Tesla Roadster is everything that, until now, an electric vehicle never was: fast and sexy with outrageous range.

You don't have to be Leo DiCaprio to own one of the most fuel-efficient vehicles available, although it certainly helps if you want someone hot to ride shotgun. The stodgy auto industry, spurred by high gas prices and consumer demand, is coming around with more hybrid vehicles, smaller models and alternative energy options. Still, "fuel efficiency" stateside is an oxymoron akin to "congressional ethics" and "doing nothing."

The miles-per-gallon standard for cars in the United States is stuck at 27.5, compared to 43 in Europe and 46 in Japan. And those standards will be laughable in a few years time. Case in point: A British Volkswagen concept car gets 235 miles to the gallon. But that one won't be available for a couple more years.

"Given everything that's coming soon, if you can afford to wait, wait," says Chelsea Sexton, electric vehicle advocate and executive director of Plug In America. (And while you're waiting check out these 100 tips to save on fuel costs with your current vehicle.)

A plug-in hybrid charges for a few hours from a regular plug, runs solely on electricity for 40 miles or so and then kicks into gas-battery mode after that. Sexton says the full electric charge will cost about 50 cents a day. General Motors is readying both the Saturn Vue and Chevy Volt plug-in hybrids for consumers, while Daimler is working on plug-in Mercedes and Smart cars.

Or, for about $10,000, EPA-certified Hymotion will convert your gas-electric hybrid car into a plug-in. But if you're looking to buy now, here are some of the most fuel-efficient passenger vehicles on the road in the United States:

10. Toyota Yaris
At 32 miles-per-gallon combined city and highway, this is one of three all-gasoline-powered contenders that made our list. The non-hybrid sedan is on par with some of the green SUVs on this list, but it boasts the weirdest name, apparently being a combination of the Greek goddess of grace "Charis" and the German "ya.' Hmm. While there are some better-named and better-performing subcompact cars than the Yaris, they'll cost more to fill up.

9. Hybrid SUV Tie: the Ford Escape, Mercury Mariner and Mazda Tribute
Last year Paris Hilton said she wanted a hybrid Hummer and GM responded, "A vehicle like that does not exist." Undeterred, Hilton ended up with a shiny new GMC Yukon hybrid that gets around 21 miles per gallon. All three of these hybrid SUVs do much better, getting 32 combined city and highway miles per gallon.

8. MINI Cooper
The MINI is to this list's collection of vehicles what the iPod is to MP3 players. It comes in a sharp palate of colors, including "British racing green," "oxygen blue," and, of course "mellow yellow." A stylish product of the 1960s, the vehicle has evolved since its Austin Powers beginnings. At a combined 32 MPG for the 2008 six-speed manual transmission model, this little number might get some Yanks to say, "Yeah baby!"

7. Toyota Camry Hybrid
Besides being voted the best new family car last year in its price range by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada, HybridCars.com called the Camry Hybrid, "relatively attractive and altogether predictable." And predictable is good, especially when you can predict that the 2009 automatic model will get 34 combined city and highway miles per gallon.

6. Nissan Altima Hybrid
A New York Times reviewer described it thus: "The Altima Hybrid fit me like a pair of Tony Lama Black Label boots, which is to say something akin to house slippers." Since this hybrid is currently available only in a handful of states on either side of the country, it's probably harder to get than some Tony Lamas. At a combined MPG of 34, let's hope Nissan ups production.

5. Smart ForTwo
Available for a few years now in Europe, these itty-bitty cars went on sale in America earlier this year. Here, Smart Cars went from being looked down upon (from Humvee heights) to being looked at in curious awe. Chances are yours isn't going to get stolen because everyone in the neighborhood will be staring at it. Ideal for gridlocked city-dwellers and cash-strapped college students, this pint-sized vehicle starts around $12,000. It has a combined 36 MPG rating for 2008 models.

4. Honda Civic Hybrid
The non-hybrid version of the Civic replaced quite a few Yuppie-driven Volvos, so it's no surprise that the hybrid comes in high on the list. With 42 combined city and highway miles per gallon and a $23,000-range price tag, it regularly tops "small affordable car" lists.

3. Toyota Prius
It's sort of strange to see the Prius in the third slot, but this is perhaps the best known hybrid, as in "Prius Progressives." But it's not just the tree-huggers going for this popular ride, former CIA chief James Woolsey told Motor Trend, "I have a bumper sticker on the back of my Prius that reads, 'Bin Laden hates this car.'" As he would: The 2008 hybrid gets 46 combined city and highway miles per gallon and costs around $24,000. Congrats Toyota -- you dominated this list. Now please hurry up and produce an amazing plug-in hybrid.

2. Honda FCX Clarity
Just last month, Japan's third biggest automaker announced it was ready to lease a few dozen units of its latest hydrogen-electric vehicle. The company claims that the car is two times more energy efficient than a gas-electric hybrid. With a combined city and highway estimate of 72 miles per gallon, it sounds pretty tantalizing. But adoption of these cars will depend on overcoming several obstacles, among them development costs and infrastructure -- hydrogen-electric cars require hydrogen fueling stations and so far these are few and far between. If you're ready to go down that road, though, you can lease one for around $600 per month.

1. Tesla Roadster
If money is no object, Tesla's electric Roadster is one sexy and efficient car. The sports car goes zero to 60 miles-per-hour in under four seconds, but costs nearly $100,000. Cha-ching! However, the 2007 model has an EPA rating of 135 miles per gallon equivalent and the 2008s in production are rated 256 MPG. That's some serious gas savings.

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