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Mr. Frugal Presents: The 10 Most Fuel Efficient Cars Of The Last 20 Years

Posted in Car Buying, Chevrolet, Commuter Cars, Compact Cars, EcoLust, Economy Cars, Environment, Fuel-efficient, General, Hybrid, Lists by Kurt Ernst | June 10th, 2010 | 25 Responses |

Sadly, the Lamborghini Murcielago didn't make the cut.

I’ve been getting a lot of e-mails lately from the National Transportation Research Center, emphasizing the need to improve the fuel economy of cars on the road today. Most of their e-mails get binned, because like everything else government-related it’s 10% content, 90% filler. Just like a bargain basement hot dog, only less tasty going down.

One of their recent e-mails caught my eye, because it listed mileage of economy cars based on both EPA estimates and feedback from real-world drivers. I’ve never trusted EPA mileage estimates, since I generally either exceed them or don’t come close to reaching them. Real-world data, on the other hand, is far more interesting.

Below are the ten most fuel efficient cars of the last 20 years, based upon owner reported mileage. I have no way of validating the data, so read it at your own risk. The bottom line is this: if you want to buy something good on gas, one of these cars should do it for you, and almost any of them will be easy enough to track down used.

Honda Insight

2005 Honda Insight
Model Years: 2004 to 2006
User Average Combined Mileage: 70.4 mpg
EPA Combined Mileage: 52 mpg
Total Vehicles In Survey: 11
Engine: 3 cylinder, 1.0 liter, gasoline plus electric motor
Transmission: Five speed manual

Honda Insight

2010 Honda Insight
Model Years: 2010
User Average Combined Mileage: 49.7 mpg
EPA Combined Mileage: 41 mpg
Total Vehicles In Survey: 14
Engine: 4 cylinder, 1.3 liter, gasoline plus electric motor
Transmission: Automatic

Geo Metro XFI

1990 Geo Metro XFI
Model Years: 1990 to 1994
User Average Combined Mileage: 49.4 mpg
EPA Combined Mileage: 46 mpg
Total Vehicles In Survey: 12
Engine: 3 cylinder, 1.0 liter, gasoline
Transmission: Five speed manual

Toyota Prius

2010 Toyota Prius
Model Years: 2010
User Average Combined Mileage: 48.6 mpg
EPA Combined Mileage: 50 mpg
Total Vehicles In Survey: 87
Engine: 4 cylinder, 1.8 liter, gasoline plus electric motor
Transmission: Automatic (CVT)

Chevrolet Metro

1999 Chevrolet Metro
Model Years: 1999
User Average Combined Mileage: 48.4 mpg
EPA Combined Mileage: 37 mpg
Total Vehicles In Survey: 10
Engine: 3 cylinder, 1.0 liter, gasoline
Transmission: Five speed manual

Volkswagen Jetta TDI Wagon

2003 VW Jetta TDI
Model Years: 2002 to 2003
User Average Combined Mileage: 48.2 mpg
EPA Combined Mileage: 39 mpg
Total Vehicles In Survey: 22
Engine: 4 cylinder, 1.9 liter, diesel
Transmission: Five speed manual

Honda Civic Hybrid

2003 Honda Civic Hybrid
Model Years: 2003 to 2005
User Average Combined Mileage: 47.8 mpg
EPA Combined Mileage: 41 mpg
Total Vehicles In Survey: 20
Engine: 4 cylinder, 1.3 liter, gasoline plus electric motor
Transmission: Five speed manual

Honda Civic HB VX

1994 Civic VX
Model Years: 1992 to 1995
User Average Combined Mileage: 47.6 mpg
EPA Combined Mileage: 43 mpg
Total Vehicles In Survey: 11
Engine: 4 cylinder, 1.5 liter, gasoline
Transmission: Five speed manual

Volkswagen Golf TDI

2000 Golf TDI
Model Years: 2000 to 2003
User Average Combined Mileage: 47.0 mpg
EPA Combined Mileage: 38 mpg
Total Vehicles In Survey: 50
Engine: 4 cylinder, 1.9 liter, diesel
Transmission: Five speed manual

Volkswagen New Beetle TDI

2003 VW New Beetle TDI
Model Years: 1998 to 2003
User Average Combined Mileage: 46.2 mpg
EPA Combined Mileage: 38 mpg
Total Vehicles In Survey: 47
Engine: 4 cylinder, 1.9 liter, diesel
Transmission: Five speed manual

So there you have it, Mr. I-Need-Something-Good-On-Gas-To Commute-In. I’m not sure any of these count as lust-worthy, but the least offensive in my eyes is the VW Jetta TDI Wagon or the VW Golf TDI. You can find plenty of used examples, but TDIs have a rabid cult following. Bargains tend to be rarer than relevant e-mails from the government, so make sure you do your pricing homework first.

Source: fueleconomy.gov

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25 Responses

  1. a says:

    I think the toyota prius looks good, and can be justified if you have, say, a BMW M3 as a events/weekend car.

  2. sweet. It’s sad how some of those old tiny ‘shitty’ cars get 50-70 mpg and today americans drive cars that are ‘hi-tech’ and getting 30 mpg is considered good

  3. Tom says:

    Uuuuuhhhhh, what about the fully electric EV cars? like GE’s EV1?

    watch the movie: who killed the electric car.

  4. k2 incense says:

    Wow… That lambo in the first picture is off the charts.

  5. misterdna says:

    1988 Daihatsu Charade – 55 mpg HWY

  6. Bill says:

    Once again the Honda CRX HF (1988-1991) is left out. It was a normally aspirated gasoline based 4cylinder that pushed 55mpg.

  7. liascos says:

    Just wanted to add one work truck to this list.
    if you run a dodge ram 2500 4 door, 2wd with the cummins and auto, you could get my 21 city – 24-28 hwy, depending on load and speed.
    from tank to tank i see 23.5 avg.

  8. Set says:

    The best part of the TDI is the flexibility. Want to run bio? Done. Want 200+ hp without affecting fuel mileage? Done. Want to just leave it stock? It’s still somewhat peppy, albeit not a sports car by any stretch of the imagination.

  9. Chris Taylor says:

    I LOVE that you include User Average combined.

    Though you should be using EPA estimates for the year the vehicle was released. The current EPA estimates are for E10 it seems (since they are what I get if I drive it hard on E10)

    when I can get some E0 I DO GET the original EPA estimates for my 94 XFI which were 53 City 58mpg highway (so a 46mpg combined is not possible)

    I average 55-57mpg with great room for improvement. There are some XFI owners with largely non stop commutes getting over 70mpg in XFI’s with some basic aero mods.

  10. Kurt says:

    Bill, I’m guessing that’s due to population size. Fueleconomy.gov only reported on groups with more than 10 cars, so it’s possible there weren’t enough CRX HF’s to make the cut.

  11. Kurt says:

    Viral, the reason fuel economy is so low these days has to do with mandated safety equipment. Steel door beams, airbags, reinforced roofs, etc. all add significant weight, and the old economy cars didn’t have them.

    Also, we’ve gotten away from “bare bones” cars and tend to shop for cars with power windows, A/C, sunroof, automatic transmission, etc. All these “luxury” items also carry a weight penalty.

    Sure, they could build lighter cars using aluminum or carbon fiber, but how many people would buy a $70,000 Honda Civic, even if it did get 70 miles to the gallon?

  12. Rob says:

    I have a 1995 Nissan 200SX, which is a Sentra with only two doors. It has a 5 speed stick and a 1.6 liter motor. I use this car as my daily commuter and get between 38 and 45 MPG’s. I drive 80 miles a day, mostly highway. The car has 170,000 miles on it currently. I’m not going to lie and say that I love the car, I would much rather be driving the Lambo pictured above, but you can buy these Nissans for about $2000.00. For the money, you can’t beat it. I read somewhere that the Smartcar get’s about 45 MPG’s. You can put 5 passengers and a trunk full of camping gear in the Nissan; I’m just saying……

  13. Linda says:

    5 years ago my husband passed his 1992 Civic VX on to his son. It has now passed 500,000 kilometers and continues to get 50-60 mpg.

  14. Lou says:

    Who made up this list? I have a 1995 Honda del Sol that gets 40-45 mpg.

    • Kurt says:

      Lou, the list is from fueleconomy.gov. The reason the del Sol didn’t make the list is probably due to population size; if they didn’t have 10 or more drivers reporting numbers, the car didn’t make the list. That said, the del Sol didn’t make the list based on EPA estimates, either.

  15. Philip says:

    I like how the majority of those listed on this are diesel. Just my 2 cents here.

  16. Kurt says:

    Philip, I just wish we could get more diesels on this side of the pond.

  17. mwape says:

    i fancy a peugoet brand of a car. do you have any in stoke?

  18. k2 herb says:

    I’ve always loved a metro. vroooom!

  19. Opel Manta says:

    That’s an interesting list considering it’s for the US market. When you look at the autos available in the UK the cars are, on average, even more efficient – http://www.fuel-economy.co.uk/stats.shtml (Check the 2nd list down the page for the petrol-only cars)

    However with the state of some the roads in the US, potholes and the like, I wouldn’t be happy to be nipping around in a small economical car, not to mention the fear factor from SUVs the size of small suburbs!

  20. Kurt says:

    Opel Mantra, you also need to consider that Americans equate size with safety. Since we’re never taught how to drive a car, most drivers on this side of the pond want lots of sheet metal around them to feel safe.

    Me? I’d rather have a small, nimble car that can avoid an accident, thanks.

  21. brian says:

    i really do like that lambo

  22. brian says:

    i think the chevy volt is gonna kill

  23. BigRuss says:

    i think its funny that if you look at the 2010 VW Jetta TDI Sportswagan that if you get the automatic you get 2mpg better than the 6 speed….

  24. Andrew Neff says:

    Good luck finding the Honda HB VX. The Metro’s (Geo and Chevy) are like driving a tin can. Not sporty or nimble; unsafe, scary and loud. If you don’t have a family the old insight is really the best. If you need to carry more than a bag of groceries though the 2002-2003 Jetta (or Passat, but they are only automatics…) TDI is the absolute best. I owned almost every car on this list (couldn’t find a decent hbvx to buy, or it would have been every), and the TDI is so superior it’s not even a contest.