10 Fuel-Efficient Cars For Your Volkswagen Diesel Buyback Money

Man, did the price of diesel fuel just get a whole lot costlier for Volkswagen.

After Volkswagen cheated on emissions testing, opened itself up to about $18 billion in penalties, forced its CEO out, tanked it stock and nearly killed diesel fuel just as it was dying a natural death, a judge determined that Volkwagen could either pay to fix wonky diesel emissions or buy its cars back from customers.

That puts a wrench in Volkswagen's plan to spend a lowball $1 billion -- or $1,700 for each of the 600,000 rigged vehicles -- to fix software on those cars. However, it also isn't doing wonders for the U.S. quest to meet federal fuel efficiency standards that will require a fleet-wide 54.5 miles-per-gallon average by 2025.

"The plan for Volkswagen going forward involves buy backs, modifications and for lessees, returning vehicles," says Rebecca Lindland, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book. "But this matter is by no means resolved, since penalties and fines still loom. Additionally, Volkswagen has to establish a fund for appropriate remediation efforts and commit other funds to promote 'green automotive entities.'"

Prior to the Volkswagen emissions debacle, IHS Automotive noted that diesel vehicle registrations in the U.S. increased 30% since 2010, compared a 3.6% increase in all vehicle sales during that same period. Allen Schaeffer, the executive director of the diesel-backing auto industry group Diesel Technology Forum, stuck his neck out and argued that today's diesel vehicles are 30% more fuel-efficient than gas-powered cars.

That's now in question, but Volkswagen isn't the only company facing scrutiny for its mileage claims. Mitsubishi -- whose Mirage subcompact is considered the most fuel-efficient gas-powered car in the country at a combined 40.5 miles per gallon -- has admitted to testing the fuel economy of some of its cars in Japan improperly since 1991. Though the company sold only 25,000 vehicles in the U.S. through April -- or half the number of Jeep Cherokees that Fiat Chrysler sold during the same period -- that's still a devastating claim.

"Mitsubishi's admission that it cheated on Japanese fuel-economy tests does not include vehicles sold in the United States so far, but clearly U.S. investigators will be scrutinizing the company," says Michelle Krebs, senior analyst for Autotrader. "Mitsubishi has been trying to mount a comeback in America, an effort that just became even more challenging with its admission of cheating."

If you're still a fuel-conscious car buyer in the land of $2-per-gallon gasoline, these revelations have to raise questions. However, if you're a firm believer that automakers are innocent until proven guilty of manipulating their mileage claims, we have about ten reasons why you shouldn't give up your quest for minimal mileage. If you're one of the Volkswagen owners considering the company's buyback offer, here are just ten of the low-mileage vehicles you should consider instead:

10. 2016 BMW 328d

MSRP: $39,850

Miles per gallon: 32 city, 45 highway, 37 combined

We were going to throw the Mitsubishi Mirage in this spot but... well... things got awkward.

Instead, we're going to go with the entry-level German diesel that didn't get pinched for fudging its numbers. Packed with 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, the 3 series is just teeming with perks. Toss in a pushbutton starter that shuts the engine off when idling, a 180-horsepower engine, adaptive all-wheel drive and hands-free trunk access, and there's very little "entry-level" about this Bimmer.

9. 2016 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid

Starting price: $31,120

Miles per gallon: 48 city, 42 highway, 45 combined

Loyal VW owners may not want to ditch the brand altogether, which is great considering just how much Volkswagen will want some of that buyback money to stay in house.

With up to 170 horsepower, a top speed of roughly 187 miles per hour and a 7-speed transmission that's 20% more efficient than most automatic transmissions, the Jetta Hybrid wants to be driven and not just used. Also, its keyless access, push-button starter, rearview camera, xenon headlights, heated front seats, touchscreen entertainment and information system and 15.5 cubic feet of trunk space cut the mileage without paring down the amenities. Don't let that starting price scare you: Right now, VW dealers are very open to suggestions.

8. 2016 Chevrolet Volt

Starting price: $25,720

Miles per gallon: 43 city, 42 highway, 42.5 combined

All-electric battery 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 stuffy.

It may be an awkward gateway vehicle for the all-electric Bolt that's coming next year, but this plug-in hybrid makes transitional technology a steal.

7. 2016 Toyota Prius

Starting price: $24,200

Miles per gallon: 54 city, 50 highway, 52 combined

You're going to trade German performance for the Prius' combined 171 horsepower, but the most eco-friendly drivers among you will be getting a lot more piece of mind out of the deal.

The newly redesigned Prius gets a combined 56 miles per gallon in the Eco model (including 58 in the city), tighter suspension, a mean new look and upgraded tech including parking assistance and new LED. An impressive 24.6 cubic feet of cargo space turns into more than 40 cubic feet with the seats down, while a heads-up information display on the windshield, multimedia system with app suite and heated seats give the Prius some of the luxuries typically reserved for more burly automobiles.

6. 2016 Ford Focus Electric

MSRP: $29,170

Miles per gallon equivalent: 110 city, 99 highway, 105 combined

Electric charge range: 76 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 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, but this is still a lot of electric vehicle for that price

5. 2016 Volkswagen e-Golf

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 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.

4. 2015 Nissan LEAF

Starting price: $29,010

Miles per gallon: 126 city, 101 highway, 114 combined

Electric charge range: 84 miles

Nissan notes that there are "no reservations necessary," though that's what happens when your vehicle has been around since 2010 with no upgrades.

The roughly $6,000 price drop for 2013 doesn't make up for the lack of a supercharger, 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, a 107-mile range and a quick-charging port can be had for about $5,000 more.

3. 2015 Fiat 500e

Starting price: $31,800

Miles per gallon: 122 city, 108 highway, 116 combined

Electric charge range: 87 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 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.

2. 2016 BMW i3

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's 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 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.

1. 2017 Tesla Model 3

Starting price: $35,000

Miles per gallon: Unknown

Electric charge range: 215 miles

Granted, the waiting list for this vehicle is miles long and details about it are still trickling out, but that pre-incentives price tag has a while lot of people curious. Also, Tesla's claims that it seats five adults, goes from 0 to 60 mph in under six seconds and shares a Model S-style supercharger have drivers anticipating this mid-size sedan in a way that few utilitarian automobiles are. This is Tesla normalizing long-range electric travel, which makes quibbling over repairs to a modestly efficient turbodiesel seem trivial by comparison.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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