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Best Fuel Efficient Cars Series: Commuter Cars

by Brian Wong (Mar 15, 2012)

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*This is the second in a series of articles focusing on fuel efficiency.

A recently released study from J.D. Power and Associates cited fuel economy as the number one factor for car buyers in 2011, beating out other considerations like price, style, and reliability. With gas prices once again on the rise we predict that gas mileage will be just as important in 2012, no matter what kind of car you're in the market for. Keeping that in mind, we set out to pick the best fuel efficient cars according to the different needs of car buyers.

In this article, the second in our "Best Fuel Efficient" series (last time we looked at Family Cars) we'll take a look at the best cars for commuters, those who have to drive a fair distance to work and make fuel economy a top priority due to the miles they rack up.

We chose to look at two distinct categories: hybrids and compact cars. When it comes to maximizing fuel economy, nothing beats hybrids and their efficient combination of gasoline and electric power. We selected compact cars over subcompacts because most subcompacts are too small to be comfortable for everyday driving and usually don't offer any improvement over compact cars when it comes to mileage. In addition compacts also offer a smoother ride, superior cargo and passenger space, and have more features.

While fuel efficiency was the primary criteria, we also considered other factors such as price, features (both standard and options), style, and reliability when making our decisions. So without further ado:

Best Commuter Hybrid:

Winner:

2012 Toyota Prius
2012 Toyota Prius
Base Price: $24,000
Fuel Economy Ratings: 51 mpg city/48 mpg highway/50 mpg combined*

The king of hybrid sales also takes the top spot on our list based on its unmatched fuel economy and eco-friendly features including plastics that are easier on the environment to manufacture and optional solar panels on the roof that help to regulate the temperature of the cabin during hot days. With 50 combined mpg and a range of over 500 miles, you can go longer between fill-ups and save plenty on gas. When driving, choose between several different modes that will change how the car reacts including a mode that will keep it running solely on electric power as long as possible. The Prius also comes with a lot of standard features you won't normally find in cars at this price, like automatic climate control and push button start, and more cargo room than you'd expect (21.6 cubic feet). It's good to be the king.

Runners-up:

2012 Honda Insight ($18,350; 41 city/44 highway/42 combined mpg)
2012 Honda Insight

It was a very close race between the Insight and the Prius for the top spot. Although it doesn't quite get the mileage that the Prius does and thus costs you more on fuel, the Insight's extremely low base price warrants it a place in the conversation. Consider it this way: the EPA estimates the Prius' annual fuel cost to be about $225^ less than the Insight's. In order to make up the difference in price between the two vehicles, which is around $4,000, it would take over 17 years. When it comes down to pure value, the 2012 Insight is hard to beat.

2012 Lexus CT 200h ($29,120; 43 city/40 highway/42 combined mpg)
2012 Lexus CT 200h

If you're in the market for something a little more upscale to spruce up your daily drive to the office, the Lexus CT200h puts hybrid gas mileage in luxurious wrapping. The CT 200h, which debuted in 2011, is the entry-level model in Lexus' lineup and offers a sportier driving experience than most hybrids along with the luxury and refinement that Lexus is known for.


Best Compact Commuter:

Winner:

2012 Hyundai Elantra
2012 Hyundai Elantra
Base Price: $15,345
Fuel Economy Ratings: 29 mpg city/40 mpg highway/33 mpg combined

The Elantra got a complete makeover in 2011 transforming it from a car that blended in with the pack into one of the most efficient and good-looking cars in its class. It returns for 2012 with the same "fluidic motion" design that many Hyundai's are sharing and more importantly, the same fantastic fuel economy. Another note on that 40 mpg highway: all trims and styles of the Elantra hit that lofty number, while the other cars in this class that hit that magical 40 mpg highway number only do so when equipped with special packages or trims that add a couple thousand dollars onto the base price. That's why the other contenders we considered all start at almost $4,000 more than the Elantra. Inside there is plenty of standard equipment, something true of most Hyundai cars, including power windows/locks, USB/auxiliary audio inputs, and remote keyless entry. The Elantra also offers plenty of interior room (it has more passenger volume than a Nissan Maxima) and some premium options you won't find in the competition, like its class exclusive heated rear seats. All of these factors combined to make the Elantra an easy choice in this category.)

Runners-up:

2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco ($19,325; 28 city/42 highway/34 combined mpg)
2012 Chevrolet Cruze

Debuting as a brand new model last year, the 2012 Chevy Cruze also offers a highly efficient "Eco" trim that offers a few changes from the regular models like a lower stance, low rolling-resistance tires, reduced weight, and shutters behind the grille that close to improve aerodynamics. Downside: if you want 42 mpg on the highway, you have to get the six-speed manual (the automatic is rated at 38 mpg highway).

2012 Mazda Mazda3 (with SKYACTIV) ($19,550 [automatic]; 28 city/40 highway/33 combined mpg)
2012 Mazda3 sedan

It was a close race between the Mazda3 with SKYACTIV and the Honda Civic HF for our last spot, but we gave the final nod to the Mazda for a few reasons. Although the Civic HF gets one more mpg, the Mazda3 comes with a few standard features not found on the Civic including Bluetooth connectivity, which is an important feature for commuters. The Mazda3 also has more responsive handling, a more powerful engine, and (we think) better styling than the Honda.

For a complete list of the most fuel efficient cars on the road, head over to our Fuel Efficient Cars section.

*Combined mileage calculated assuming a mix of 55% city driving and 45% highway driving.

^Estimated for gas prices of $3.75/gallon and 15,000 miles of annual driving.

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