Gas won't be cheap forever.
In 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation set a fleet-wide fuel-efficiency standard of 54.5 miles per gallon for new U.S. vehicles starting in 2025. Suddenly, automakers could make pickup trucks stop guzzling gas, build fuel-efficent sports cars and rival Tesla's (TSLA) electric range. President Trump's administration has done little so far to prevent the EPA from meeting that goal.
The vehicle market hasn't been so kind. The average fuel economy (window-sticker value) of new vehicles sold in 2016 was 25.2 mpg, according to the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. That's less than halfway to that 2025 goal, but it beats the roughly 19 miles per gallon that the Department of Transportation measured for all U.S. vehicles in 1995. It's also nearly double the average mileage of the light-duty vehicles on U.S. roads in 1980. It's also down from 25.4 in 2014 ad 25.3 in 2015.
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When that fuel standard was put into place, gas prices were $4 per gallon nationwide. Now, according to AAA, they're little more than $2.36. That's given the nation an appetite for gas-guzzling automobiles. Automakers sold more than 6.7 million sport utility vehicles and crossovers last year. While just 1.8 million of those were the gas-swilling truck-based SUVs that rose to prominence in the '90s and early 2000s, more efficient car-based crossovers saw sales grow twice the rate of standard SUVs year-over-year.While both standard SUVs and crossovers combined still fell short of the number of cars sold during the same span (7 million), sales of cars of every size were down 8.1% since 2015. Meanwhile, even minivan sales are up 8% within the last year. That hasn't stopped automakers from releasing new electric vehicles, hybrids and plug-in hybrids to drag down that average fuel intake.
With help from Kelley Blue Book, we found the 12 most fuel-efficient vehicles that less than $45,000 can buy. In an SUV country, these vehicles are more than pulling their weight:
Starting price: $26,890
Miles per gallon: 39 city, 46 highway, 42 combined
We know: you don't want to hear about sedans. Nobody wants to hear about sedans. Never mind that this one gets incredible mileage, has a standard rear camera and keeps its safety features standard across all trims. A comfortable, quiet ride that shares mileage and features with its cousin, the Hyundai Sonata, the Optima hybrid isn't going to turn any heads, but it can turn you into somewhat of a stranger at your local gas station.
Starting price: $29,990
Miles per gallon: 34 city, 30 highway, 32 combined
A longtime favorite of the grocery getting and soccer shuttling classes, the Toyota (TM) RAV4 finally got a facelift to make it look less like its competitors. That exterior should be the least of a driver's concerns, though.
There are 38 cubic feet of cargo space - 73 with the rear seats folded flat - that's now accessible through a power liftgate that replaces the RAV4's longtime, swingout side-hinged cargo door. Heated, front seats, LED headlights, back-up camera, blind-spot warning system, dual-zone climate control, power moonroof, Apple Siri Eyes Free and reclining rear seats make an already popular crossover an even more formidable opponent. That hybrid engine in this popular crossover doesn't hurt, either.
Starting price: $28,750
Miles per gallon: 49 city, 43 highway, 46 combined
There are a whole lot of toys in this unassuming package. General Motors made a big point of overhauling the Malibu in 2013 by packing its base model with an AM-FM stereo with iPod/USB and auxiliary input jacks, Bluetooth with hands-free streaming of audio from compatible devices, OnStar and Sirius-XM Satellite Radio. Everything above that base model also received a large touch-screen display using GM's (GM) Chevrolet's MyLink information and entertainment system, Pandora Internet Radio playback and Sirius-XM Travel Link navigation.
That hybrid mileage is 14 miles per gallon better than the base model, which makes the facelift the Malibu received for 2016 seem nominal by comparison.
Starting price: $27,675
Miles per gallon: 42 city, 38 highway, 40 combined
We don't hear enough about this hybrid version of the best-selling car in the U.S., but we put some of the blame for that on Toyota -- which would rather promote the more-efficient Prius.
Sure, this version is $4,000 more than the base Camry. But the Camry Hybrid makes the less-expensive model's city mileage (just 25 mpg) look outright wasteful. Meanwhile, it manages combined mileage that's 13 mpg better than its counterpart.
Each has the same passenger and cargo space, but the hybrid throws in a noise-reducing front windshield, dual-zone automatic climate control, Smart Key entry, pushbutton starter and computerized instrumentation. Tweaking popular midsize vehicles for efficiency isn't a new concept, but automakers are starting to realize that every a partially electric car may be worth more investment than vehicles powered by yet another fossil fuel.
Starting price: $34,095
Miles per gallon equivalent: 106 combined
Electric charge range: 53 miles
It's not only a more efficient plug-in hybrid in this year's incarnation, it's about $10,000 less expensive than its predecessors.
The original Volt was just a bit oversold. Its all-electric range was a scant 35 miles and its gas mileage wasn't all that much to write home about. However, its silent interior became the foundation for its 2016 redesign that adds more battery capacity, subtracts weight and goes a lot farther without gas. Not only is the sleeker body a welcome improvement, but the dual 8-inch LED color displays, Chevrolet MyLink apps system (with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto) all make the Volt feel less stuffy. Oh, and the 42.5 mpg from the gas motor and 53 miles of electric range don't hurt, either.
Starting price: $37,900
Miles per gallon equivalent: 83 combined
Electric charge range: 16 miles
Yes, a whole lot of other Audis have the same features, including Audi Connect capability. However, none of them are available at this price, which is still cheap for an Audi, or with this plug-in's mileage and features.
For one, the Audi energy program offers a home charger (which charges this vehicle in 2 hours and 15 minutes) and available solar panel installation at your house. For another, this plug-in still manages 240 horsepower from its 1.4-liter engine. Meanwhile, you still get blinding Xenon headlights with LED trim, dual-zone climate control, a panoramic sunroof, leather seats, HD Radio, SiriusXM satellite radio, Bluetooth, rearview camera and rain-sensing wipers and light-sensing headlights.
You also get the option of choosing Audi Connect, which can turn your car into a wireless hotspot, and driver safety features including blind-spot assist, lane assist and adaptive cruise control. It's a bargain among luxury models, but this plug-in offers a lot even among Audis.
Starting price: $34,600
Miles per gallon equivalent: 99 combined
Electric charge range: 27 miles
Yep, Hyundai's midsize gets the plug-in Hybrid treatment for 2016, just as Hyundai introduces its Ioniq line of plug-ins. However, considering this is the vehicle owners are most familiar with, it makes sense that the Sonata would get the plug-in treatment first.
The Sonata can't fit a scout troop or the midfield and defense of a youth soccer team, but for a family of four there's 106.1 cubic feet of cabin space that's among the roomiest in its class -- and larger than the C-Max's 99.7 cubic feet. There's 35.6 inches or rear leg room and the back seat bench can sit three adults comfortably and three kids with room to spare.
Throw in the Blue Link telematics system, backup camera, touchscreen audio, steering wheel mounted controls, Bluetooth and optional dual-zone automatic climate control, and you're getting a lot of sweet perks for your $35,000.
Starting price: $23,785
Miles per gallon: 52 city, 49 highway, 50 combined
Kia introduced this sleek crossover during the Super Bowl and, well, it seems a bit undersized. The 97.1 cubic feet of passenger volume and 19.4 cubic feet of cargo space is smaller than that of Toyota's Prius V or Ford's C-Max. Its 104 horsepower falls below that of the C-Max and Honda's HR-V and only its satellite radio and auxiliary jack really stand out from the crowd.
So what does it have going for it? That mileage, which is the best among all the competitors listed above and the whole reason why they aren't on this list.
Starting price: $29,605
Miles per gallon: 49 city, 47 highway, 48 combined
This Honda (HMC) is one of the best-selling cars in the U.S. even without a hybrid engine. When that engine adds 17 miles per gallon to the Accord's already impressive combined mileage, however, it's worth looking into.
With a starting price roughly $5,000 higher than the base Accord sedan, including ten-way power seats and dual-zone automatic climate control. However, the lengthy list of perks also includes lane monitoring, adaptive cruise control, drift control, collision prevention, remote engine starter and LED fog lights.
This car came out of the lineup in 2017, but it returned sleeker and more stocked than ever.
Starting price: $29,120
Miles per gallon equivalent: 118 city, 96 highway, 107 combined
Electric charge range: 115 miles
There are a bunch of electric offerings from U.S. automakers, but this formula tends to work best when a company just converts a popular car everyone is comfortable with into fossil-fuel-free ride.
With automatic dual-zone climate control, pushbutton start, the Ford (F) SYNC 3 voice-controlled communications and entertainment system and a 160-horsepower engine, this fairly basic commuter car looks and feels much better than its gas-powered counterpart. Granted, it's almost $12,000 more than the base SE model -- and has a tiny 14 cubic feet of cargo space that only extends to 33 with the rear seats down -- but this is still a lot of electric vehicle for that price.
Starting price: $20,150
Miles per gallon: 48 city, 43 highway, 45.5 combined
Prius c owners just keep reporting better performance as this car age.
Making an already-efficient Prius smaller gave it more miles to the gallon, but drivers were wary of trading 24.6 cubic feet of cargo space (40 with the seats down) for just 87 cubic feet of total seating capacity and 17 cubic feet of cargo room in the c. However, its remarkable efficiency in the city makes it a favorite among both young workers and their downsizing retiree parents. Meanwhile, if you were an owner of one of the gas-powered subcompacts of yesteryear, toys like a heads-up display, Entune audio/apps and a host of sensors (lane departure, pedestrian detection, collision prevention, radar cruise control) represent a huge upgrade.
Starting price: $27,100
Miles per gallon: 55 city, 53 highway, 54 combined
Electric charge range: 25 miles
The mileage is the Prime's main draw, but it's the other features that give it the "Prime" distinction. This plug-in hybrid gets 133 miles per gallon equivalent out of its fuel and electric mileage. Loaded with remote air conditioning, heated steering wheel, heated front seats, backup camera, power and USB outlets, Entune audio and navigation, a 7-inch high-resolution touch-screen with split-screen display, Siri Eyes Free advanced voice recognition, SiriusXM Satellite Radio and nearly 20 cubic feet of trunk space, the Prime is as great as the Prius line gets and as close to an electric vehicle as a hybrid may ever be.
Starting price: $32,250
Miles per gallon: 120 city, 92 highway, 105 combined
Electric charge range: 93 miles
This wagon is taking itself a lot more seriously than it did during its dancing hamsters and LMFAO days. The touchscreen UVO infotainment system and its charge status updates, charging station navigation, climate control and sound system with beat-sensing mood lighting and boasted top speed of 149 miles per hour all have some youthful vigor to them, but this vehicle has embraced efficiency.
It's stripped away the broad color palette, mix-and-match accent plates and sunroof upgrades still of the standard model, but it still has the Soul's 60/40 rear seating and 23.7 cubic feet of cargo space (49.5 with the rear seats down). The ten-year, 100,000-mile Kia warranty also suggests a car that's managed to balance its practicality with playfulness.
Starting price: $28,995
Miles per gallon equivalent: 126 city, 105 highway, 115.5 combined
Electric charge range: 83 miles
Again, we realize that VW owners may not want to drift, but Volkswagen's electric versions succeed where its turbodiesels failed The Golf hatchback was a prime candidate for a low-mileage makeover, and this one hits all the right notes. Its standard features including an electrically heated windshield, full LED headlights with LED Daytime Running Lights, rearview camera, Media Device Interface (MDI) with iPod cable, navigation system with 5.8" touchscreen with proximity sensors and voice control, Volkswagen (VLKAY) Car-Net connected car features with e-Golf functions, keyless access with push-button start and heated front seats just blend in seamlessly. The 115-horsepower engine may seem underpowered 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.
Starting price: $36,620
Miles per gallon equivalent: 128 city, 110 highway, 119 combined
Electric charge range: 238 miles
Forget the Chevrolet Spark or Volt: this vehicle is GM's first serious swipe at Tesla.
With 200 horsepower, fast-charging capability, satellite radio, OnStar information and communications with 4G Wi-Fi, automatic climate control, remote liftgate release and an 8-inch passenger information system, the Bolt is built as if it wants to attack Tesla's Model 3 head-on. However, with safety features like lane departure and collision sensors extra and with cargo volume restricted to 16.9 cubic feet with the seats up, the Bolt is leaning heavily on that range -- which still falls short of the more powerful Model S.
Starting price: $30,680
Miles per gallon equivalent: 124 city, 101 highway, 114 combined
Electric charge range: 107 miles
Nissan notes that there are "no reservations necessary," though that's what happens when your vehicle has been around since 2010 with few substantial upgrades.
The roughly $6,000 price drop for 2013 doesn't make up for the lack of a supercharger -- which still requires a nearly $4,000 upgrade -- but a starting price that gets a whole lot more affordable once incentives kick in has made this the commuter EV of choice for a long time.
Loads of audio, navigation and app support features - including maps of nearby charging station -- are now fairly standard among the competition. However, the LEAF still has a dead-silent interior and is an incredibly affordable option for folks looking for a mid-sized EV at compact prices. Besides, an upgrade to a larger battery increased its range from 84 miles, and that supercharger is available if you want to pay the price.
Starting price: $31,800
Miles per gallon equivalent: 121 city, 103 highway, 112 combined
Electric charge range: 84 miles
Long derided by Europeans and forgotten by U.S. driver, the 500 is a zippy little car for all its 111-horspower. However, with little space to offer, it leans heavily on its electronic push-button shifter, TomTom navigation with voice-activated commands, a FIAT (FCAU) mobile app with with telematics and assistance, BLUE&ME hands-free communication, seven airbags, rear parking assist, heated seats and mirrors, stability control and Sirius XM satellite radio to win drivers' hearts and minds. Pedestrian alert, hill assist and a four-year warranty on all electric parts are just a bonus.
It's somewhat amazing that Fiat has the audacity to charge that price for so little car, but Fiat didn't strip out any of the 500's features for electric efficiency.
Starting price: $25,165
Miles per gallon: 58 city, 53 highway, 55.5 combined
The original Prius still has the one thing everyone wants out of its brand -- incredible mileage -- but it's all of the Prius' perks that keep buyers coming back even as the efficient car market gets increasingly crowded.
The latest incarnation of the Prius gets a combined 52 miles per gallon in its base model, but an upgrade to the Eco gets four more miles per gallon combined, for about $500 more. Both vehicles have a tighter suspension, a mean new look and upgraded tech including parking assistance and new LED. A relatively cavernous 24.6 cubic feet of cargo space that turns into more than 40 cubic feet with the seats down, a heads-up information display on the windshield, multimedia system with app suite and heated seats make the Prius the eco-friendly status symbol of choice. The Eco version's lithium-ion battery just does it all a bit more efficiently.
Starting price: $42,400
Miles per gallon equivalent: 137 city, 111 highway, 124 combined
Electric charge range: 81 miles
Even though its diesels survived regulatory scrutiny, BMW has seen the wisdom in going electric.
This tiny Bimmer is efficient even without an available, on-board gas generator that doubles the vehicle's 81-mile range -- which is still well below the Tesla Model S's gas-free 270 miles. Made with lightweight aluminum and carbon fiber, the i3 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 automotive pricing site 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 $34,900 still isn't cheap, but it has some upside.
Starting price: $30,335
Miles per gallon equivalent: 136 combined
Electric charge range: 124 miles
It took Hyundai long enough to jump into the hybrid and electric vehicle market, but the Ioniq is doing so all at once. This line already includes a hybrid and will bring on a plug-in hybrid at the end of the year, but this electric model doesn't hit dealerships in California or a handful of other states until April. For everyone else, it's going to be a special order. The parts of the Ioniq made of sugar cane, volcanic rock and recycled plastic are great and all, but Hyundai will need features like its 7-inch touchscreen, Apple Play, Android Audio, Blue Lin telematics, navigation, wireless device charging, heated seats, leather stering wheel, sunroof and sensor-based safety features to do much of the heavy lifting. It's a surprisingly competitive market for fuel-efficient vehicles, so every perk helps.