Top 10 Tips for Buying a Fuel-Efficient Car

For many years, new car buyers considered cupholders more important than fuel economy. Forking over $4 for every gallon of gas has shifted those priorities. The auto industry has responded by offering a growing number of fuel-efficient models—not just hybrids. Auto engineers are getting more and more sophisticated; that said, buying a fuel-efficient car doesn’t have to be rocket science—if you follow these common-sense shopping tips.

1. Analyze Your Needs

Before you get your mind set on any particular make or model, it’s important to take a step back and consider why you drive. Are you looking for a car primarily to commute to and from work? Or is it a second car for quick errands around town? How many passengers do you usually carry? Shopping for a car that meets—but does not exceed—those real needs is an essential first step toward fuel efficiency.

2. Choose a Right-Sized Vehicle

After an honest self-assessment of how you’ll use your car or truck, it’s time to think about the vehicle size (commonly referred to as “segment”): SUV, Minivan, Pickup Truck, Crossover/Wagon, Midsize Sedan, Compact, or Subcompact. Why is choosing a segment important? Because when it comes to fuel efficiency, size matters. Bigger vehicles weigh more than smaller ones—and vehicle weight is the single biggest determinant for fuel efficiency. A heavier vehicle needs more power, and thus uses more fuel to accelerate. You’ll be way ahead of the fuel economy game if you “right-size” your vehicle.

3. Choose a Right-Sized Engine

You might imagine yourself as Jeff Gordon or Danica Patrick on your morning commute, but the amount of horsepower required for your daily needs is well below racetrack standards. In almost all cases, a smaller engine will result in greater fuel economy. Giving up a few horsepower can mean serious gains in fuel efficiency. The key stats are the number of cylinders and the amount of engine displacement. For maximum fuel efficiency, select a four-cylinder vehicle over a six-cylinder, or six cylinders rather than eight. With engine displacement, as with golf, low scores win.

4. Research the MPG of Specific Models

With a short list of a few models in hand, you can boil down your research to one statistic: the window-sticker MPG rating supplied by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Be aware that EPA numbers are likely to be higher than your real-world mileage. Nonetheless, those numbers are very useful as points of comparison. As you walk through the showroom, take note of the MPG ratings of the various vehicles on your shopping list.

5. Consider a Hybrid

When gas-electric hybrids were first introduced to the American market, they were viewed as science projects. No longer. In 2007, more than 350,000 shoppers bought a Toyota Prius, Honda Civic Hybrid, Ford Escape Hybrid or one of about a dozen available hybrids. The growing popularity of hybrids is directly related to the technology’s ability to save fuel. In any segment—from compacts to SUVs—hybrids are at the top of the list for fuel efficiency. You’re likely to pay a little bit more for the hybrid system; however, many consumer information organizations, including Consumer Reports, report payback periods on the premium of less than five years for the most efficient hybrids.