NEW YORK (MainStreet) – Vehicle fuel efficiency standards still have a long way to go if they want to hit 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, but they're closing that gap quickly.

The Environmental protection agency notes that cars and light trucks built during the 2014 model year got an average of 25.3 miles to the gallon. That's still less than halfway to the EPA and Department of Transportation's goal set back in 2012, but automakers are starting to get the message and make efficient vehicles more available to the masses.

Tesla (TSLA) just announced that its upcoming Model 3 would sell for $35,000 when it's finally finished. That doesn't factor in $7,500 in federal electric vehicle incentives, which drop its price closer to $27,500. While not cheap, that's still a lot more affordable than Tesla's Model S and its starting price of nearly $70,000. Not to be outdone, the competing Chevrolet Bolt that General Motors (GM) announced at the Detroit Auto Show is claimed to offer 200 miles of electric range for $30,000 after incentives. Thats actually 65 miles less than the Tesla Model S, but it's also considerably less expensive than Tesla's only offering — which wont be followed up by the Model X until later this year or by the Model 3 until 2016 at the earliest.

It's also more than double the range of the current fleet of non-Tesla electric vehicles, which is led by Toyota's Rav 4 EV crossover and its nearly $50,000 price tag. Just about any distance from the pump is helpful when fuel prices are this volatile, though. As gas continues to dip below $2 per gallon, we're reminded that drivers were paying nearly $3.50 per gallon in 2014 and more than $4 just five years ago.

As it stands, there are more than 30 new vehicles in the U.S. achieving more than 40 miles per gallon in combined mileage. That's including a lot more low-priced hybrid and electric vehicles, but also a lot of gas-powered vehicles that just consume less of it.

That's increasing options across the board for U.S. car buyers still concerned about conserving fuel. To give you some example of just how far technology has come, we took a look at five vehicle fuel categories and — with help from Kelley Blue Book and the EPA — came up with the most efficient vehicles of each type. Whether you want to keep filling up or start plugging in, there are ways to do so without much guilt.


2015 Mitsubishi Mirage
Starting price:
Miles per gallon: 37 city, 44 highway, 40.5 combined

No hybrid engine, no plug: Just a light little econobox that makes the most of its fuel.

We're going to stress that this is not a big car by any measure. About 12 feet long and little more than 5 feet wide, the Mirage doesn't even provide the illusion of space. But its 17 cubic feet of trunk space is larger than the Jetta's and increases to 47 cubic feet with the hatchback's seats down. Throw in a push-button starter, hands-free phone, available navigation system and automatic climate control and you're getting a whole lot in this little package.


2015 BMW 328d
Starting price:
Miles per gallon: 32 city, 45 highway, 37 combined

The BMW 3 Series isn't so much the "cheap BMW" as it is the sought-after Beemer that just happens to come in at that price. In fact, it's actually far more expensive than the $24,000 Volkswagen Jetta TDI and its combined 36 miles per gallon.

But the 328d comes packed with great features, including a heads-up display projected onto the windshield, blind-spot detectors in the rearview mirrors and a freestanding iDrive screen for communication, navigation, entertainment and apps. In fact, it piles them on with features including a push-button starter that shuts the engine off when idling, a 240-horsepower engine that gets 34 miles per gallon on the highway, adaptive all-wheel drive and hands-free trunk access.

Know what else squeaks into the 328 series? A turbodiesel model that gets a mild-mannered 180 horsepower, but boosts fuel efficiency to 45 miles per gallon on the highway. Those are a lot of options at a price that's supposed to offer luxury car buyers very little.

Plug-in hybrid

2015 Toyota Prius Plug-In
Starting price:
Miles per gallon: First 11 miles: 95 mpge combined. Next 529 miles: 50 mpg combined

The Toyota (TM) Prius Plug-In is a bit of a misnomer, given its scant electric radius. A three-hour charge to go just 11 miles without using gas implies not only an impossibly short commute, but infinite patience. In fact, the Honda Accord plug-in, BMW i3 plug-in and Chevy Volt all use their tiny electric range more efficiently

Fortunately, the Prius makes up for its lacking electric mileage with 50 mpg hybrid mileage that's at the top of its class. Only one other plug-in manages gasoline efficiency above 40 miles per gallon, and the Accord's 46 still fall short. The Prius, meanwhile, also gets owners some sweet state and federal rebates for their trouble, as well as an occasional comfy solo ride in the carpool lane to go along with 21.6 cubic feet of trunk space, remote climate control, headed seats, navigation system and Entune app center.

Standard hybrid

2015 Toyota Prius and Prius c
Starting price: $24,200 for the Prius, $19,540 for the c
Miles per gallon: 51 city, 48 highway, 50 combined

The original-recipe 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.

A relatively cavernous 21.6 cubic feet of cargo space that turns into 40 cubic feet with the seats down, a heads-up information display on the windshield, multimedia system with app suite, an available solar roof that powers an internal fan to cool your car's interior while you're away and an available remote air conditioning system all continue to make the Prius the eco-friendly status symbol of choice.

If you don't have the space or money for the original, however, the compact Prius c with its 87 cubic feet of seating capacity and 17 cubic feet of cargo room makes for an efficient and relatively inexpensive little urban grocery-getter.

All-electric vehicle

2015 BMW i3
Starting price:
Miles per gallon equivalent: 137 city, 111 highway, 124 combined
Electric charge range: 81 miles

We're not trying to start a war here. We're not saying that the BMW i3 is better or worse than the Tesla Model S. We're just noting that both the EPA and Kelley Blue Book put it up at the top of their lists, and did so for a reason.

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.

It also means that the i3 can pack in 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 seats make the i3 surprisingly practical. With lots of luxury amenities BMW customers have come to expect, the i3 beats the Model S in one big area: Price.

If drivers can get all the luxury cachet and features by spending less than the more well-off residents of Silicon Valley, it's tough to blame them for doing so. They just shouldn't get too mad when Tesla drivers mock them for getting a gas-powered assist.

— By Jason Notte for MainStreet

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