This sounds like a simple exercise—head to the EPA’s fuelconomy.gov site, copy, paste, and you have a list of the most fuel-efficient vehicles for sale in America, right? Not so fast.
We decided we needed some ground rules. First, yes, the list is based on the 10 highest EPA-rated highway-mileage figures. Unfiltered, however, the cars on that list are all EVs, and even removing the electrics reveals mostly hybrids and plug-in hybrids, and all of those vehicle types generally cost more and just aren’t fun to drive. So those were out. Being enthusiasts, we instead focused our lens on the most frugal gas- and diesel-burning cars, breaking ties at a given mpg figure by selecting the car we would recommend most highly to our friends and family members, taking into account both driving dynamics and value. So without further ado, here are the 10 most fuel-efficient cars for sale in America today, with a Car and Driver twist.
10) Ford Focus Sedan 2.0L 6AT – 37 mpg
There are a ton of cars rated for 37 mpg highway, but the overall value and general goodness of the fun and affordable Focus make it our pick of this large litter. Unfortunately, to achieve 37 mpg, one must spec the PowerShift dual-clutch automatic transmission, which isn’t among the best of this type of gearbox. Yet all Focuses include as standard the same excellent chassis that helped it garner 10Best Cars awards in 2012 and 2013, and those most interested in this lofty mpg figure—those with long commutes, for example—will find the automatic version acceptable.
BMW 535d xDrive diesel, Chevrolet Sonic sedan/hatchback 1.4L 6AT, Dodge Dart 1.4L 6AT, Ford Fusion 1.5L 6AT/1.6L 6MT, Hyundai Accent 1.6L 6AT/6MT, Hyundai Elantra/Elantra Limited 1.8L, Kia Forte 1.8L 6MT, Kia Rio 1.6L 6MT, Kia Rio Eco 1.6L 6AT, Mazda 3 hatchback 2.5L 6AT, Mazda 6 2.5L 6MT, Mini Cooper coupe 1.6L 6MT, Scion iQ 1.3L CVT, Toyota Corolla 1.8L 6MT, Toyota Corolla 1.8L CVT, Toyota Yaris 1.5L 5MT, Volkswagen Beetle convertible 2.0L TDI 6AT
9) Mazda 6 2.5L 6AT – 38 mpg
That the terrific Mazda 6 is both a 10Best winner and is rated for 38 mpg on the highway is perhaps enough justification to make it our pick among cars with similar mileage. But the 6 is also a driver’s delight, with a firm yet compliant suspension, superlative steering and brakes, and styling that shames pretty much everything in its class.
Audi A6 3.0L TDI Quattro, Audi A7 3.0L TDI Quattro, BMW 535d, Chevrolet Cruze 1.4L 6MT/6AT, Ford Fiesta 1.6L 5MT, Honda Civic 1.8L CVT, Hyundai Accent 1.6L 6MT, Hyundai Elantra 1.8L 6AT, Mazda 3 hatchback 2.5L 6AT, Mercedes-Benz CLA250, Nissan Altima 2.5L CVT, Smart Fortwo coupe/cabriolet 1.0L 5AT, Toyota Corolla 1.8L CVT
8) VW Jetta SportWagen 2.0L TDI Diesel 6AT – 39 mpg
There are few cars that combine a powertrain and body style as deliciously as does the diesel Jetta SportWagen. With engaging driving dynamics and a meaningful 67 cubic feet of cargo room with the rear seats folded, this Jetta offers more sport and utility than any number of so-called sport-utility vehicles. The best news, though, might be that an all-new one is on the way (it will be called the Golf SportWagen), and it promises to be even more efficient.
Chevrolet Cruze Eco 1.4L 6AT, Chevrolet Spark 1.2L 5MT/CVT, Ford Fiesta 1.6L 6AT, Honda Civic 1.8L CVT, Mazda 3 sedan 2.5L 6AT, Nissan Sentra 1.8L CVT, Volkswagen Beetle 2.0L TDI 6AT
7) Mazda 6 2.5L 6MT – 40 mpg
Your eyes don’t deceive you—the 6 indeed appears on our list twice, and we’re pleased that the slick-shifting manual version is the most efficient, clocking in at 40 mpg highway when equipped with the i-ELOOP fuel-saving system, which is part of the GT Technology package. Everything we just said a couple of entries back applies here, of course, and are why it’s our pick here.
Chevrolet Sonic sedan/hatchback 1.4L 6MT, Dodge Dart Aero 1.4L 6AT, Fiat 500 1.4L 5MT, Mazda 3 hatchback 2.0L 6MT/6AT, Mazda 6 2.5L 6AT, Nissan Sentra FE 1.8L CVT, Nissan Versa 1.6L CVT, Toyota Corolla LE Eco 1.8L CVT, Volkswagen Passat 2.0L TDI 6AT
6) Mazda 3 Sedan 2.0L 6AT/6MT – 41 mpg
Take everything we said about its big brother, the Mazda 6, and go right on and apply it to the smaller and equally wonderful 3—including the 10Best accolades. You can think of the 3 as an up-to-date interpretation of the best Alfa Romeos from the 1960s: lightweight and deftly balanced, and with a lithe and responsive chassis. And as for Mazda’s three appearances here, you can credit the company’s Skyactiv engine and vehicle architectures—they’re the main reasons that its cars are both fun and frugal. You can also opt for a more powerful 2.5-liter engine in the 3 without sacrificing much in the way of fuel economy, yet with a bigger increase in performance.
Dodge Dart Aero 1.4L 6MT, Ford Fiesta SFE 1.6L 6AT, Honda Civic HF 1.8L CVT, Volkswagen Beetle/Beetle convertible 2.0L TDI 6MT
5) VW Golf 2.0L TDI Diesel 6AT/6MT – 42 mpg
If it seems as if the fun-yet-practical Golf has been around a long time, well, it has. With roots on these shores going back to the 1977 diesel Rabbit, the Golf TDI proves VW has perfected the art of compression-ignition cars. The 10Best-winning Golf makes a convincing argument for being everything you could want in thrifty hatch—and we love that the involving manual is rated as highly as the automatic on the efficiency meter. Like the Jetta SportWagen, a new one of these will be arriving on our shores soon, too.
Chevrolet Cruze Eco 1.4L 6MT, Mercedes-Benz E250 BlueTec Diesel 4MATIC, Mitsubishi Mirage 1.2L 5MT, Toyota Corolla LE Eco 1.8L CVT, Volkswagen Jetta sedan 2.0L TDI 6AT/6MT, Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen 2.0L TDI 6MT
4) VW Passat 2.0L TDI Diesel 6MT – 43 mpg
Are you starting to see a pattern here? VW owns the U.S. diesel market. In 2013, almost three out of four diesels sold here wore a VW badge, and we imagine the trend will continue with fresh versions of many diesel models on the way, along with a new diesel engine, later in 2014. The Passat TDI, which is slated to receive the new powerplant, offers a heap of torque and a range of around 600 miles between fill-ups. Even better: You can get it with a stick.
BMW 328d xDrive sedan/Sports Wagon
3) Mitsubishi Mirage 1.2L CVT – 44 mpg
The good news? The bite-sized Mirage gets 44 mpg on the highway. The bad news? It’s the only car on our list that gets 44 mpg, so it’s the default choice at this level of efficiency. Our advice? Pick a car that gets 45 mpg or 43 mpg. Or even 10 mpg. Getting 44 mpg just isn’t worth driving one of these.
2) Ford Fiesta SFE 1.0L 5MT – 45 mpg
When it comes to price, cars that return 45 mpg highway represent some extremes. At one end sit two German diesel luxury sleds: the BMW 328d and the Mercedes-Benz E250 BlueTec. But the fuel-frugal Fiesta SFE starts at roughly $17,000, while the Bimmer runs $39,525 and the Benz $52,325. The 328d and E250 are good cars, but what good is saving money on fuel just to blow all of the savings as part of your monthly payment? OK, we get it—sometimes cars are worth taking an mpg hit. Case in point: This Ford’s hot-rod sibling, the 10Best-winning Fiesta ST.
BMW 328d RWD, Mercedes-Benz E250 BlueTec
1) Chevrolet Cruze 2.0L Diesel 6AT – 46 mpg
Perched all alone at the top of our list, the Cruze goes from acceptable economy car to mpg hero once a diesel is under the hood. Thus equipped, you can expect to go 700 miles or more on the highway with prudent driving habits. Try to engage in anything resembling spirited driving, however, and you’ll be thwarted by a recalcitrant transmission and a basic lack of communication between you and the car. Still, unless you go hybrid, plug-in, or EV, you’re not going to top this Chevy for mileage bragging rights.