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Auto Buyer’s Guide: Fuel-Efficient Picks For Every Lifestyle

Going green is the fashionable thing to do these days and looking to cash in, automakers have begun to release a flood of hybrid vehicles on to the market. Unfortunately, many of these so-called “hybrids” are considered niche market vehicles and often carry a price tag that reflects that. Both the economic and the energy crisis are a very real thing, however, and motorists looking to downsize for legitimate reasons, rather than simply because it’s trendy, run the risk of being hoodwinked by hollow hybrids.

While there are a countless number of eco-friendly options currently available that legitimately earn the right to be called hybrids, many are so expensive they seem almost counterproductive to the overall goal (yes we mean you, Toyota Prius). What few motorists are aware of is that a vehicle doesn’t have to bear the coveted “hybrid” tag in order to achieve great gas mileage, and “buying green” shouldn’t immediately translate to “mountainous debt.” So if you’re looking to find a ride that’s high in mpg’s and low in USD’s, check out our eco-friendly picks tailored to meet the needs of 5 different lifestyles.

Who you are: high school/college student or recent graduate in need of a dependable, fuel-efficient car but working on a very, very tight budget.
What we recommend: the Mercedes-Benz 300D. Initially introduced in 1975, despite the fact that the 300D badge was officially retired in 1993, over 75% of the Mercedes-Benz 300D’s that were originally registered are still on the road today. In addition to famed longevity and reliability rivaled only by Volvo, the 300D is also powered by a fuel-efficient diesel engine that averages 19 mpg city/21 mpg hwy. A 300D in good condition can usually be had for anywhere from $2-5k, and when you’re shopping around for one, don’t be alarmed when you see odometer readings in the 200,000 range. Again like Volvo, the Mercedes 300D is notorious for its ability to outlast damn near anything and as long as basic routine maintenance is performed on a consistent basis, you can roll 500,000 miles on a 300D no sweat.

Who you are: a frequent off-roader and/or a driver who relies heavily on the versatility and storage capacity of an SUV.
What we recommend: either the Ford Escape Hybrid or the Mercury Mariner Hybrid, both are virtually the same vehicle. The put it simply, SUVs are gas guzzlers. So unfortunately, unlike consumers in the market for a sedan, if you’re looking for an SUV that’ll get great mileage, your options will be largely limited to hybrid models. Luckily, unlike the Dodge Durango Hybrid or the Cadillac Escalade Hybrid, both the Escape Hybrid and the Mariner Hybrid are not only budget-friendly brand new, but they’re also approaching their 5th year on the market. So if you aren’t comfortable springing for a $30,000 2009 model, you can easily pick up an older, used model for anywhere from $10k-$15k that will still average about 36 mpg city/31 mpg hwy.

Who you are: single, middle-class, looking to trade up from the beater you drove through college but not exactly ready to head to the Mercedes dealership.
What we recommend: A Toyota Camry or a Ford Fusion. Both mid-size sedans are available with luxury options that won’t break the bank, and they both feature a base price and an EPA rating that only differs by the faintest of margins. If you’re interested in upgrading but still value practicality over luxury then hands down, the 2009 Ford Fusion is the way to go. At $19,035, it’s the definitely the cheapest, and its 20 mpg city/29 mpg highway EPA estimate is easy on the Texas Tea. Standard features on the 09 Fusion are also surprisingly generous, including everything from an iPod/MP3 integration system to an electronic tire pressure monitoring system. While you might have to sacrifice a few of the interior amenities, if the Fusion’s 160-hp just isn’t producing the power you want, you might want to consider the 2009 Toyota Camry. Priced at exactly $110 more than the ’09 Fusion, the 2009 Camry comes standard with a 3.5L Duratec V6 that produces 268 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque, yet still manages to average 21 mpg city/31 mpg highway.

Who you are: a family with 2 or more children, horrified by the price of a brand new Honda Odyssey.
What we recommend: Volvo 850 or 960 Wagon. Both models are available as either sedans or wagons, but if you have a family large enough to necessitate a minivan, the wagon is going be your best bet. While neither model has been available new since around 1997, with 2+ children in today’s economy, we’re going to assume you’re not operating with much of a disposable income, so don’t be so hasty to dismiss a 10 year old car. In addition to featuring a powertrain with a documented lifespan of 500,000+ miles, both model’s set industry benchmarks in safety. Of notable importance to the family-friendly car buyer: the Volvo 960’s pioneer integration of the child booster seat was awarded both the Prince Michael Road Safety Award for the best technical innovation in the field of safety, as well as the Auto Car & Motor award for the best safety feature. Debuting a year later, the Volvo 850 was truly one of Volvo’s most stunning achievements and ultimately took home 40 international awards for its distinction as the first vehicle in the world fitted with a side airbag to supplement the structural side-impact protection system (SIPS). In addition to legendary safety technology and incredible reliability, both the Volvo 850 and the Volvo 960 average anywhere from 18 mpg city/23 hwy (960) to 25 mpg city/29 mpg hwy (850). Officially, the KBB on a used 850 Wagon with 100k on the tranny (which is roughly equivalent to having 1000 miles on a new Dodge caravan) is about $5k and a 960 around $3k. If you want to shave even more off the $3k-$5k bottom line though, here’s an insider tip: many used car dealers relatively new to the game (Volvo dealerships excluded, of course) aren’t familiar with the reputation of the older Volvo’s, and when they get an 850/960 trade-in with over 100k on the clock, all they see is a heap with high mileage they’ll never be able to move. If you’ve got the brass for negotiating a little and aren’t easily intimidated by sleazy used car salesmen, you should be able to score an 850/960 for little more than a song.

Who you are: older, more mature professional with an established, successful career and a newly empty nest. Now that the children have left the house (or are on their way out), you’ve decided its time that some of the decisions you made reflected what you wanted. So while you’re not necessarily in dire need of a new set of wheels, you do think it’d be nice if fueling up at the pump every week didn’t feel like a Hardrada viking raid.
What we recommend: depending on how much luxury you’re looking for, either the Toyota Prius, Lexus RX Hybrid, or the Lexus GS Hybrid. If you’re looking to belong to an exclusive group of individuals who are known equally for the energy they conserve as well as the elitism they emit, the Toyota Prius is certainly the vehicle for you. Available brand new starting at $22,000, the Toyota Prius averages a whopping 48 mpg city/45 mpg highway and is by far the most fuel-savvy of the four. The Prius is also quite ugly, to be frank, and if you aren’t quite ready to sacrifice aesthetics or comfort all in the name of better gas mileage, the Lexus Hybrid lineup might be worth looking into. The Lexus RX Hybrid SUV begins at $42,080 and in addition to being the least expensive of the three, it’s also the most fuel efficient featuring an average of 26 mpg city/24 mpg highway/25 mpg combined. As it usually is with higher end items, better gas mileage does not immediately equal lackluster horsepower, and the Lexus RS Hybrid’s 268 horsepower, 3.3L Hybrid V6 engine is capable of accelerating from 0-60 mph in 7.2 seconds. If you want to shave about 2 seconds off that average and aren’t opposed to shelling out $10k more, consider the Lexus GS Hybrid sedan. Available stock at $56,400, the Lexus GS Hybrid boasts a track time of 0-60 mph in 5.2 seconds and features a 3.5L Hybrid V6 engine conservatively rated at 340 horsepower.

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3 Responses

  1. […] You can see Suzanne Denbow’s complete guide post here. Thanks Suzanne! […]

  2. James says:

    I’m scratching my head over the Mercedes 300D pick. Firstly, 19-21mpg out of a diesel is HORRIBLE! I’m guessing that must be some sort of typo because I get better mileage out of my full sized truck with a gasoline engine. Secondly, though I’ve never owned a Mercedes, the German cars I have owned have all been incredibly expensive to fix. The engines tend to go forever, but if something simple like a power window breaks, it costs a fortune to fix. And just forget about electrical systems, ignition computers, injection systems or anything complicated. Maybe a Mercedes is different, but I can’t imagine how it could be. Thirdly, there are many many many other cars out there that run cheaper and greener. It’s not hard to pick up a 1991 Honda Civic these days for under $2,000. They cost pennies to fix, and they are also known to go for hundreds of thousands of miles. Plus, they don’t spew diesel exhaust into the air. Unless you are running veggie fuel, I’m pretty sure diesel emissions are worse than good cheap 87octane. I have a Civic beater/project car that has been getting over 40mpg lately. It blew a CV recently and I picked up brand new half axle for $50. The same place sells a similar part for a 1980 300D for $169.79. Is there something I’m overlooking about the Mercedes? If not, I would stick by the Civic as a cheap, green, reliable mode of transportation.

  3. Ray says:

    I’d like to comment on James comment. He said am I missing something about picking a Mecedes 300D for folks looking for a reliable fuel efficient vehicle on a budget instead of say a Honda Civic.

    A short answer is yes. You cannot compare a Mercedes 300D to a Honda Civic period. First of all a Mercedes 300D is made like a tank. I don’t know how James feels about safety but I would rather take my chances with the Benz in the event of a collision versus a Honda Civic. Diesels as a rule tend to be guilty of spewing more pollution into the air when compared to a gasoline engine but they can run on SVO/WVO/Biodiesel and any combination of alternative fuels which can be mixed with diesel in varing amounts. If one chooses to mix diesel with any of these alternative fuels polluting emissions can be significantly reduced. Running alternative fuels are cost effective beckoning back to the good old days when gasoline was $0.35/gallon. Fuel economy for a 1985 Mercedes 300TD(turbo diesel) is typically 28 city/32 highway. Not bad for a vehicle weighing close to 5000lbs. Couple that with inexpensive alternative fuels fuel economy can be increased significantly.

    My commute is 130 miles round trip but driving my 300D I arrive at my destination like it was a 15 minute trip. Very little if any road noice enters the cabin at highway speeds. Wind noise is a hush even at 80MPH. The seating though not made for racing, are extremely comfortable covered with indestructable MTex they are like sitting on a sofa. Yes at idle you do realize you are behind the wheel of a diesel but once you get moving the clackety clack disappears and power is available once the turbo winds up. Like I said you cannot compare the two. Parts are plentiful and rather inexpensive and working on the car is pretty easy once you figure out the alternator is not necessary to keep the engine running.

    Don’t get me wrong the Honda Civic is a good automobile it’s just not in the same class as the Mercedes. Load up 5 adults and all of their luggage for a trip to somewhere in comfort is a snap for the 300D.

    So James good luck with your Honda but for my money owning a Mercedes 300D is a no brainer and I’m sure for thousands of other folks the story is the same.