Among America’s 10 most fuel-efficient cars, you might expect only late-model examples, but two on the EPA’s official list – and up to five unofficially – are dated from the mid-1980s and early ’90s and ranked alongside the Toyota Prius PHEV, Chevy Volt, and BMW i3 REx.

One of the EPA-acknowledged cars is actually a hybrid, the 53-mpg original 2000 Honda Insight, which was developed at the end of the last millennium, and the other is the non-hybrid 48-mpg 1986 Chevrolet Sprint ER (pictured).

The Sprint ER – as true also of early 1990s 47-mpg non-hybrid, non-turbo Geo Metros which would have ranked 11th officially – was derived from the humble Suzuki Cultus developed in the 1980s.

Official top-10 most efficient non-EVs. Source: EPA.

Official top-10 most efficient non-EVs. Source: EPA.

The official U.S. EPA fuel economy ratings do see mostly newer model cars in the top spots.

However, the EPA also lets drivers volunteer their own mileage based on their real-world usage. For what it’s worth, that list includes the 2004-2006 Honda Insight, 1990-1991 Honda CRX HF, 1990-1994 Geo Metro XFI, and 1999 Chevy Metro.

These are known to be efficient cars rated to 40-plus mpg by the EPA, so even if plus-or-minus inaccuracies exist, they are noteworthy.

And in any case, factoring subjective and official results, this is what we have for the most fuel efficient vehicles – including plug-in hybrids, but excluding all-electric vehicles.

Virtues of the Econobox

Today a major following is also fomenting around the hoped-for three-wheeled $6,800 Elio trike/car, but perhaps if a time machine existed, some of that start-up’s fans would defect to options from the past?

Of course at the end of the 1980s through the ‘90s new car prices were far cheaper, as was gasoline, but the basic-set-of-wheels Geos and Chevrolets were priced in the same neighborhood, more or less, though granted, a dollar was worth more back then.

The unofficial list. Source: EPA.

The unofficial list. The 47-mpg Geo would have ranked 11th officially. Source: EPA.

Common to the original Honda Insight, Chevy Sprint, and GEO Metros is a 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine.

Honda paired its gas engine with an electric motor for a more elegant solution, and the Suzuki-based badge-engineered Chevy/Geo varieties were naturally aspirated. The CRX HF used a naturally aspirated 1.5-liter four.


Today Ford’s 1.0-liter EcoBoost turbo three-cylinder is among the most fuel efficient of modern engines.

The EPA has changed the formula for how it derives city, highway, and combined mileage, and originally the Sprint ER was rated at 55 city, 60 highway, 57 combined. The numbers we list here are all corrected for today’s EPA tests.

Progress At a Price

Aside from suffering under the weight of inflation, in defense of newer cars, they are much nicer.

Structural enhancements, safety engineering, infotainment, other technological innovations, and creature comforts have added curb weight, which partially explains why some new whiz-bang hybrids’ mpg is only so much better.

They offer a host of features you’d not get on a stripped econobox and some consumers accustomed to the new would be loath to go backwards to hand-crank windows, maybe one airbag, basic AM/FM radio, and other characteristics of older tech.

The prospects of an inexpensive, U.S.-made peoples' car for this millennium has people clamoring for a torpedo on three wheels, the Elio.

The prospects of an inexpensive, U.S.-made peoples’ car for this millennium has people clamoring for a torpedo on three wheels, the Elio.

Change, for better or worse, has given us the mixed bag we call the present.

Today the average new car price is hovering just over $32,000. In 1990 it was estimated at $16,000, and by 1991, it was $21,100 according to

According to AAA, regular gasoline costs $3.52 per gallon today. In 1990 it was $1.34, and by 1999 it was $1.22 – and the market for fuel sippers was not what it is now.

But what we have today are more highly engineered examples of mature technologies, and new twists – hybridization – on the internal combustion engine vehicle. Meanwhile, automakers face still-tightening regulations pushing for more efficient cars.

Today’s absolute most efficient cars are actually all-electric, and there weren’t any of these offered by mainstream makers in the 1990s except the limited-market GM EV1 which famously came and went.


Today’s plug-in hybrids also offer part-time electric usage, which improves mpg averages, albeit electricity costs ought to also be factored.

Undoubtedly more qualifiers could have been stated about past and present car choices in this brief consciousness-raising session of an article. And whether we are better off today or not is beyond its scope.

But considering that at least two and arguably several of the 10 most fuel-efficient cars are models harkening back to technologies from the early ‘90s if not also ‘80s, perhaps it’s an indicator that more progress is yet needed?