10 Most Fuel-Efficient Gas-Powered Vehicles Ever Produced

NEW YORK (MainStreet) – It didn't always require a plug or a hybrid engine for a car to get more than 40 miles per gallon. It only seems that way.

The revived Mitsubishi Mirage and its 44 miles per gallon on the highway and combined 40.5 miles per gallon are a throwback to the fuel-sipping vehicles that came before. The Geo Metro, the Hyundai Excel, the Ford Fiesta and the oldest incarnations of the Honda Civic all came with a low price tag and incredible fuel efficiency that earned them the title of “econobox.”

Granted, they had absolutely no perks — to the point where you needed to roll down the windows by hand and hope your safety belt was adequate protection — but they were light and easy on the gas. When gas prices spiked beyond $4 a gallon in 2008, suddenly the Geo Metro and its ilk were in high demand despite their dearth of amenities. Find even a 26-year-old model from 1989, and you'd still have one of the most fuel-efficient gas-powered vehicles on the road at a combined 47 miles per gallon.

You'd just be looking in an extremely tough used car market. Manheim Consulting's Used Vehicle Index finds that prices are up more than 2% from a year ago. In January, that index finished the year at its highest rate since 2012, when a combination of recession-driven cuts in rental fleet purchases and post-bankruptcy lease abandonment by General Motors and Chrysler dried up used car inventory and set prices soaring.

If automakers are going to meet the Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency's 54.5 miles per gallon threshold by 2025, however, they're going to have to address the modern gas-powered automobile's sluggish steps forward in mileage. While hybrids help — and more than 15 years after the Toyota Prius arrived in the U.S., they're trickling into the used car market — car buyers still have to look to the past a bit to find the fuel efficiency of tomorrow.

With help from the EPA's FuelEconomy.gov, we compiled a list of the most fuel-efficient gas-powered vehicles available. We consulted with Kelley Blue Book and AskPatty analysts to make sure we were on track, but our efforts yielded a list featuring not only a forgotten early hybrid, but the most efficient econobox ever produced:

10. 1986 Chevrolet Sprint ER
Miles per gallon: 44 city, 53 highway, 48 combined

You couldn't make a car like this today. Mitsubishi tried with its Mirage, but only got to a combined 40.5 mpg.

”The reason why cars like the Chevy Sprint, Geo Metro, Ford Fiesta and Honda Civic from the late '80s get such great fuel economy is they are small, lightweight cars powered by small, lightweight engines, and the vehicles were not bogged down by heavy items we take for granted today, like power windows, ABS and airbags,” says Brandy Schaffels, automotive industry analyst and chief editor of automotive site AskPatty.com.

Just keep that in mind when you're trolling the used car listings for this one. Heated seats, power windows that won't pinch you — none was standard or even an available feature at the time.

"If memory serves me, the Chevy Sprint’s EPA numbers reflect a procedure that was altered subsequently, so they are a bit optimistic," says Jack Nerad, executive editorial director for Kelley Blue Book. "At the same time, one has to marvel that a conventional gas car of 30 years ago nearly rivals the current mileage champs."

Especially a vehicle with such muddled origins as the Sprint's. It was actually made by Suzuki and known as the Suzuki Cutlus in Japan and both the Geo Metro and Chevy Sprint here in the states. It was part of a long-gone era of compact, lightweight econoboxes that is only now affecting modern contemporaries such as the Mirage, Chevy Sonic and Toyota Yaris — not to mention midsize SUVs and full-sized trucks.

"In the 1980s and 1990s there were several cars rated at over 50 mpg on the highway," says Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book. "These cars utilized a small engine in a lightweight body, the latter of which faded away as more safety equipment was added to vehicles in the late 1990s and 2000s. Now, with [vehicle mileage] standards steadily rising, we’re seeing a shift back to lighter vehicles featuring advanced materials like high-strength steel, aluminum and even carbon fiber."

8. Tie: 2010 Toyota Prius/2012-2015 Toyota Prius c
Miles per gallon: 51 city, 48 highway, 49.5 combined for the Prius; 53, 46, 49.5 for the Prius c

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 are all lovely perks. But if you can deal with less space, that's where the compact Prius c comes in.

With just 87 cubic feet of seating capacity and 17 cubic feet of cargo room, the Prius c is an efficient and relatively inexpensive urban option. That 53 miles per gallon in the city, however, just seals the deal.

"The fact that hybrids dominate the most fuel-efficient gasoline cars of all time is appropriate, because it acknowledges that hybrids are essentially gasoline-powered cars that occasionally get an assist from the battery-powered electric motor — or motors," says Jack Nerad, executive editorial director for Kelley Blue Book. "Hybrids are not electric cars, as they are sometime portrayed."

6. Tie: 2013-2015 Ford C-Max Energi/2013-2015 Ford Fusion Energi
Miles per gallon equivalent:
55 city, 46 highway, 51 combined

It isn't entirely surprising that the C-Max looks just like the Prius, considering that's the car Ford was gunning for when it produced this model. It's meant to look like the Prius, have a price tag similar to the Prius and do some Priusy things. The hybrid version lags behind the competing Prius, though this plug-in's electric-only range outstrips that of its competitor.

Not only that, but it's assembled in Wayne, Mich., and has “Made In The U.S.A.” clout the Prius can't claim. It also gets all those sweet Prius benefits such as state and federal refunds and solo carpool lane access. If you absolutely hate how the Prius looks and want everyone to know you're driving a Ford, thank you very much, the midsize Fusion plug-in hybrid looks just like its all-gas counterparts.

5. 2000 Honda Insight
Miles per gallon equivalent: 49 city, 61 highway, 53 combined

This poor, ugly, under-appreciated hybrid deserved better than it got. With its unsightly wheel covers and elongated features, it watched helplessly as the Prius gorged itself on market share despite costing more.

The insight once reigned among hybrids in size with 85 cubic feet of passenger space and 35 cubic feet of cargo room with the rear seats down and was stacked with tech features. Now, as a 15-year-old relic, the Insight represents a chance for someone to pick up a quality hybrid for a minimal price. Just check that battery.

"The most fuel efficient cars tend to combine an internal combustion engine with an electric motor and plug-in battery pack, though the Toyota Prius, original Honda Insight and older cars like the Chevrolet Sprint accomplish similar mileage without the hassle of plugging them in," KBB's Brauer says.

4. 2014-2015 Cadillac ELR
Miles per gallon equivalent: 54 city, 55 highway, 54.5 combined

After a somewhat bumpy start with an unnecessarily paternalistic ad, Cadillac finally got this hybrid out of GM's Detroit Hamtrack plant and onto the streets. Sadly, only 1,316 people sprung for one. That's about one-sixteenth the 2014 sales of Tesla's Model S, which gives buyers a fully electric luxury vehicle for roughly the same price Cadillac charges for its plug-in hybrid. Pack in all the luxury amenities you'd like: If you're going to come out of the gate with that much swagger, you'd better have the juice to back it up.

3. 2012-2015 Toyota Prius Plug-In
Miles per gallon equivalent: 59 city, 56 highway, 57.5 combined

The Prius Plug-In is a bit of a misnomer, given its scant electric radius. A three-hour charge to go a scant 11 miles without using gas implies not only an impossibly short commute, but infinite patience.

Fortunately, the Prius makes up for its lacking electric mileage with 50 mpg hybrid mileage that's still near the top of its class. It 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.

2. 2013-2015 Chevrolet Volt
Miles per gallon equivalent: 63 city, 61 highway, 62 combined

Nope, it's not the technology-packed luxury vehicle that its all-electric competitors are. Take the Volt out for more than 35 miles and you basically have a very costly, somewhat inefficient hybrid.

That said, its all-electric range is still far better than that of any plug-in hybrid on the road. That and its silent interior are the foundation for its 2016 redesign that adds more battery capacity, subtracts weight and increases its all-electric range from 38 miles to 50. It also knocks about $10,000 off the price, which is about right for the in-between technology the Volt represents.

1. 2014-2015 BMW i3 REx
Miles per gallon equivalent: 97 city, 79 highway, 88 combined

It's a bit more efficient (124 miles per gallon equivalent) when it's not built with the available, on-board gas generator that doubles the vehicle's 81-mile range. That's well below the Tesla's Model S' 270 miles, but it's still the best use you'll get out of a gallon of gas.

Made with lightweight aluminum and carbon fiber, the i3 far lighter than most other EVs and requires a smaller battery consuming less energy. 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.

— 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.

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