NEW YORK (MainStreet) – If fuel efficiency standards in this country are going to hit hit 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, it's going to take help from every corner of the automotive market.
While it's great that Tesla's making a car that will sell for roughly $27,500 after incentives, that's not happening until 2016 at the earliest. Meanwhile it still leaves out a whole lot of vehicle categories chosen by folks who don't fit into one of Tesla's three preassigned vehicle categories. The Environmental Protection Agency notes that cars and light trucks built during the 2013 model year got an average 24.1 miles to the gallon, and it's largely because fuel-efficient technology is taking its time getting into other vehicle types.
That leaves the current crop of vehicles about halfway to the benchmark that the EPA and Department of Transportation set back in 2012. Tesla isn't the only one falling short in the race to higher fuel efficiency, though. The Chevrolet Bolt that General Motors announced at the Detroit Auto Show claims it will offer 200 miles of electric range for $30,000 after incentives, but doesn't do much to address the sluggish mileage of vehicles such as the Chevrolet Silverado or Cadillac CTS.
Meanwhile, the Bolt's range is far better than any non-Tesla vehicle, while its price for that amount of range is still nonexistent. Toyota's Rav 4 EV crossover has roughly half the Bolt's range, but comes with a nearly $50,000 price tag. As gas prices keep climbing above this year's sub-$2 low, the importance of fuel efficiency across all categories only increases.
"In almost every segment with critical volume, an electric vehicle or plug-in hybrid is almost a necessity for an [automaker] at this point if they want to be at the top of their respective segment for fuel efficiency," says Akshay Anand, analyst for vehicle pricing at analysis site Kelley Blue Book. "We've seen a seismic shift in the industry, where companies who used to see electrification as a secondary interest are now wholly invested in alternative fuel technologies, and the trend will continue from here."
With help from the EPA's FuelEconomy.gov site, we compiled a list of the most fuel-efficient vehicles across a broad spectrum of categories. To make sure we were on the right track, however, we enlisted the aid of automotive pricing and analysis site Edmunds.com and its automotive editor Mike Takahashi. With their help, we narrowed the nation's most fuel-efficient vehicles by category to the following:
Two-seater: 2015 Smart Fortwo Electric Drive Convertible/Coupe
Starting price: $12,490 with incentives
Miles per gallon equivalent: 122 city, 93 highway, 107 combined
Electric charge range: 68 miles
The knock on this little urban two-seater is that, despite its diminutive size, its combustion-engine version didn't offer a whole lot of efficiency for the money. Available with a power convertible top or as a coupe with a panoramic roof, the electric Smart is stocked with power heated exterior mirrors, rain and light sensors, a radio app and automatic temperature control. That said, it can still take up to four and a half hours to charge from zero, which makes next year's improved model an option worth considering.
“With a new Smart on the way, the outgoing model should be approached with some caution,” Takahashi says. “The lack of overall refinement, its 68-mile maximum range and long charge times are certainly turnoffs.”
Minicompact: 2015 Fiat 500e
Starting price: $24,050 with incentives
Miles per gallon: 122 city, 108 highway, 116 combined
Electric charge range: 87 miles
See the Fiat's 111 horsepower? That's almost double what most of the other pint-sized EVs further down this list are are putting out.
Drivers also still get the handling and fun colors of the standard cinquecento. This one just happens to come with an electronic push-button shifter, TomTom navigation with voice-activated commands, a Fiat mobile app with with telematics and assistance, Blue&Me hands-free communication, seven airbags, rear parking assist, heated seats and mirrors, stability control and SiriusXM satellite radio. Pedestrian alert, hill assist and a four-year warranty on all electric parts are just a bonus. But Edmunds notes that it only managed 109 miles in the city, and that cargo and rear passenger space gets squeezed by the battery. Oh, and its availability is somewhat limited.
“Fiat 500e — great if you live in California or Oregon, which are the only states where the 500e is sold,” Takahashi says. “If you do, the 500e is one of the more entertaining EVs to drive and the 87-mile range can easily be surpassed if you avoid highways.”
Subcompact: 2015 BMW i3
Starting price: $42,400
Miles per gallon equivalent: 137 city, 111 highway, 124 combined
Electric charge range: 81 miles
It's incredibly efficient even without an available, on-board gas generator that doubles the vehicle's 81-mile range — which we have to note is still well below the Tesla's 270 miles. Made with lightweight aluminum and carbon fiber, the i3 is far lighter than most other EVs and requires a smaller battery, consuming less energy. Thus, its 124 miles-per-gallon equivalent is actually far more efficient than the Model S' 100 mpge, even if the latter has greater range. The crew at Edmunds managed to get 96 miles worth of range out of the standard battery and 150 with the extender.
The i3 also packs 170 horsepower of performance and tons of interior space in an electric ride rivaled in speed by only the Tesla Model S. There is room for four full-size adults to fit comfortably, while the fold-flat makes the i3 surprisingly practical. With lots of luxury amenities that BMW customers have come to expect, the i3 beats the Model S in one big area: price. That $42,000 still isn't cheap, but it has some upside.
“The i3 has been getting favorable reviews from all of our editors,” Takahashi says. “With a roomy cabin, surprisingly strong performance and a stylish interior, it's not your typical EV.”
Compact: 2015 Volkswagen e-Golf
Starting price: $27,945 after incentives
Miles per gallon equivalent: 126 city, 105 highway, 115.5 combined
Electric charge range: 83 miles
We absolutely love it when an automaker simply makes an electric version of an existing vehicle without stripping out that vehicle's soul.The Golf hatchback was a great choice for a Volkswagen e-makeover. Its standard features including an electrically heated windshield, full LED headlights with LED Daytime Running Lights, rearview camera, Media Device Interface with iPod cable, navigation system with 5.8" touchscreen with proximity sensors and voice control, Volkswagen Car-Net connected car features with e-Golf functions, keyless access with push-button start and heated front seats that just blend in seamlessly. The 115-horsepower engine may seem a little pokey for those used to a little more high-octane German engineering, but a four-hour “slow” charge and a 30-minute direct-current quick charge more than make up for the lack of muscle.
“As stated in our A rating, the VW eGolf is 'Our new favorite compact electric vehicle,” Takahashi says. “There are very few downsides to this car, with one of them being availability — only participating dealers in select states have them. In terms of performance, comfort, interior and value, it got A grades across the board.”
Midsize: 2015 Nissan LEAF
Starting price: $21,510 with incentives
Miles per gallon: 126 city, 101 highway, 114 combined
Electric charge range: 84 miles
Though it's hard to believe the LEAF has been around since 2010, the roughly $6,000 price drop for 2013 indicated Nissan is well aware that the lack of a supercharger dates this vehicle a bit. For folks lacking a long commute and living along electric corridors with loads of access to chargers, however, it's a dream.
A bevy of audio, navigation and app support features – including maps of nearby charging station — are now fairly standard among the competition. The LEAF is just as silent, though, and is still one of the best EV options available for the money. That said, only the EPA considers this a “midsize.”
“The Leaf is more of a four-door hatchback than a midsize vehicle,” Takahashi says. “It gets high marks for its spacious and quiet cabin, plentiful features and affordability, but drivers should be aware it is rather slow. If you're seeking fuel efficiency in a real midsize vehicle, check out the hybrid variants of the Ford Fusion and Honda Accord, which all received our A ratings.”
Large: 2015 Tesla Model S AWD
Starting price: $78,570 with incentives
Miles per gallon: 106 city, 95 highway, 100 combined
Electric charge range: 270 miles
There isn't a whole lot of downside to the Tesla other than price. The 376-horsepower motor, 5.2-second zero-to-60 and 155 mph top speed all add up to more performance than any other electric vehicle can manage. Meanwhile, while not as efficient as some other EVs, that 270-mile range, supercharger and eight-year, unlimited mile warranty are unmatched. Granted, it took Tesla a while to get its charger-oriented navigation down, but when you're going to offer self-driving “autopilot” by the end of the year, that's a minor quibble.
“You can easily dismiss the electric equation with the Tesla because it defies the convention we associate with EVs,” Takahashi says. “The Model S in P85 form is blindingly quick and features a premium interior with technology that signals 'the future is here.' Among luxury sedans, it should be on your short list whether or not you're looking for an electric car.”
Small station wagon: 2015 Kia Soul EV
Starting price: $26,200 with incentives
Miles per gallon: 120 city, 92 highway, 105 combined
Electric charge range: 93 miles
The box on wheels once sold with the help of dancing hamsters and LMFAO songs got an electric upgrade and, for perhaps the first time in Kia history, there are waiting lists for its products. The touchscreen infotainment system and its charge status updates, charging station navigation, climate control and sound system with beat-sensing mood lighting are all secondary concerns — as is the boasted top speed of 149 miles per hour.
It doesn't have the broad color palate, mix-and-match accent plates and sunroof upgrades of the standard model, but it still has the Soul's versatile 60/40 rear seating and 23.7 cubic feet of cargo space (49.5 with the rear seats down) that make it an ideal electric surf shack, bike shuttle or city shopping companion. The 10-year, 100,000-mile Kia warranted doesn't hurt, either.
“Buoyed by a well-executed and spacious interior and strong value, the Kia Soul EV managed to earn an Edmunds A rating,” Takahashi says. Unfortunately, it's another EV with limited availability and wind noise can be excessive on the highway. But its generous range and warranty are also a big plus.
Midsize wagon: 2015 Toyota Prius V
Starting price: $26,675
Miles per gallon: 44 city, 40 highway, 42 combined
The wagon-like Prius V's combined 42 miles per gallon lags behind the 50 of the original Prius, but it's still impressive for a hybrid. Also, the V's 67.3 cubic feet of cargo space with the seats down is considerably larger than the original-recipe Prius' 39.6 cubic feet and is closer to that of compact SUVs such as Toyota's RAV4.
Even if you go with the base model, features including a touchscreen audio and information system, a backup camera and Smart Key come standard. There are available tech upgrades including SiriusXM satellite radio, navigation and the Entune app suite — as well as an optional panoramic moonroof — but the surprising room and fuel-sipping mileage sell a road trip in the Prius V on their own.
“For those who may have considered a standard Prius but needed more interior space, the Prius V addresses that issue,” Takahashi says. “Drawbacks should be easy to overlook [but] include slow acceleration and an abundance of hard plastics inside.”
Small SUV: 2015 Lexus NX 300h
Starting price: $39,720
Miles per gallon: 35 city, 31 highway, 33 combined
A luxurious hybrid version of the Toyota RAV4 should be an upper-middle-class family's dream, right? Almost 18 cubic feet of cargo space, 36 inches of legroom in the back, a smartphone charger, LED lighting, a remote touchpad to control your information and entertainment options? That's luxury, but that doesn't absolve the NX 300h of its faults — which a competitor could easily exploit if there was any real competition in this hybrid category.
“There aren't many hybrids to compete against the NX, but you should still be aware that we weren't fans of the uneven braking feel or the stiffer-than-normal ride quality,” Takahashi says. “We had stronger negative reactions to Lexus' remote touch infotainment controller."
"Outside of those issues, it gets high marks for rear seat space, quality interior elements and a wealth of high-tech features,” he says.
Standard SUV: 2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
Starting price: $47,750
Miles per gallon: 27 city, 28 highway, 27.5 combined
This Camry-based crossover helped kill the lumbering conventional SUV when it was introduced little more than a decade ago and continues to trim the fat, especially in hybrid form. That mileage complements such features as a panoramic moonroof, power liftgate, three-zone climate control and backup camera without sacrificing the Highlander's 94 cubic feet of storage space or three rows of seating.
“If people-hauling and hybrid efficiency are priorities, the Highland Hybrid is the top choice, at least until the upcoming Volvo XC90 T8 hits dealerships,” Takahashi says. “The Highlander Hybrid manages to exceed expectations when it comes to interior quality, its smooth ride quality and surefooted handling.”
Minivan: 2015 Mazda5
Starting price: $21,240
Miles per gallon: 21 city/28 highway
Sometimes buyers want a minivan, but just don't need all the room it provides. The Mazda5 has had their back for years by cramming all of a minivan's features into a a small package with the handling of a car. The Mazda5 still has three rows, but room for only six — the third row shades toward the small side. The middle row, meanwhile, consists of two captain's chairs with a pop-up table and storage space that goes between them. That said, the Mazda5 also trims out a lot of the more superfluous minivan perks. Its four-cylinder engine manages only 157 horsepower, but gives it incredible gas mileage. The interior doesn't have 100-plus cubic feet of cargo space, but the 44 cubic feet it does provide when the rear seat is folded down is still fairly formidable.
“As a smaller version of the typical minivan, the Mazda5 can only seat six and even then, taller passengers may feel cramped,” Takahashi says. “To its credit, it is easier to park and handling response is better than average, but its advantage in terms of fuel economy is rather slim. It also doesn't offer some common conveniences, and the engine struggles when fully loaded. Family-minded shoppers should also be wary of its disappointing crash test scores.”
Pickup: Ford F-150 with EcoBoost V6
Starting price: $25,410
Miles per gallon: 19 city/26 highway, 22.5 combined
We initially didn't have the F-150 in this slot, and the EPA still doesn't. But Edmunds and Takahashi pointed out that the F-150's turbocharged EcoBoost 2.7-liter V6 and new aluminum body manage 22 miles per gallons compared with our first-place Ram 1500's 21. That also comes with an increase in performance, as the Ford reached 60 mph almost two seconds quicker than its Ram rival. While Takahashi notes that the Ram gets high marks for its “interior refinement and ride quality,” the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. still edged it to add another prize to its vast trophy case.
— Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore., for MainStreet
To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/notteham.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.