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How to Choose a Fuel-efficient Vehicle

How to Choose a Fuel-efficient Vehicle

By Jeff Youngs, February 24, 2012

When it comes to choosing a newvehicle, for many buyers, fuel economy ranks right up there inimportance along with body color and style. It's a crucial decision-theaverage owner spends thousands of dollars each year on fuel costs.According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the difference between acar that gets 20 mpg and one that gets 30 mpg amounts to $715 per yearin additional fuel expenses (based on 15,000 annual miles driven and afuel cost of $2.86/gallon).

Helping all consumers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)requires automakers to post mpg ratings on all passenger cars and lighttrucks sold in the country. While this makes it much easier to discernwhich vehicles are more fuel efficient, it doesn't always tell thecomplete story. In fact, choosing the most fuel-efficient vehicle foryour particular driving style and routine requires a bit more insight.

No more than a decade ago, an unwritten automotive rule said that bigengines delivered horsepower and torque at the expense of fuel economy.On the other hand, small engines were efficient but their lack of powerresulted in a less-than-exciting driving experience. Along those samelines, big cars and trucks-and performance cars-were deemed gasguzzlers, while small cars were automatically labeled economical.Thanks to modern engine controls and electronics, things have changedquite a bit. Today, small engines can be powerful and large engines canbe very fuel efficient. There are even fun-to-drive sports cars withfuel economy figures rivaling purpose-built economy cars.

When shopping for a new car or truck, there are four generalcharacteristics that matter when it comes to fuel economy:
VehicleSize-Choose a new vehicle that is appropriately sized for yourpassenger and cargo needs. For the most part, larger vehicles requiremore fuel because they have to carry the additional weight associatedwith their increased size and passenger/cargo capacity. Larger vehiclesalso move through the air less efficiently (increased aerodynamicdrag), at the expense of fuel economy. If you require more than5-passenger seating, consider a 7-passenger minivan as an alternativeto a sport utility vehicle. Minivans are often more fuel efficient. Or,if you need a full-size SUV, consider a full-size hybrid such asthe GMC YukonHybrid or ChevroletTahoe Hybrid. Pickup trucks offerexcellent towing ability and utility, but the new car-based crossovertrucks, such as the Honda Ridgeline, might be sufficient for yourneedsand be more economical.

Engine Type-Automakers offer gasoline, diesel, natural gas and hybridpowerplants today. Hybrid vehicles combine a small-displacementgasoline engine with an electric-assist motor-a very fuel-efficientconfiguration. Hybrid vehicles, such as the Toyota Priusand FordFusion Hybrid offer excellent city and highway fuel economy. Dieselisan excellent alternative for larger vehicles (Mercedes-BenzGL 350BlueTEC, BMW X535d, and Volkswagen Touareg Diesel), or highwaycommuting (VolkswagenJetta TDI, AudiA3 TDI). The typical dieselpowerplant has plenty of power, yet delivers impressive economy.Vehicles that run on natural gas (Honda Civic GX)deliver lowemissions, but fuel economy (and fuel availability) is a potentialdownside.
EngineSize-Unless you do a lot of towing, don't always assume you needthe largest engine. Automakers often offer 4- or 6-cylinderalternatives to their 6- and 8-cylinder flagship powerplants. Thanks todirect injection and turbocharging, these smaller-displacement enginesdeliver much more power than their larger predecessors. (e.g., BMW'snew turbocharged 3.0-liter 6-cylinder is more powerful than theautomaker's last-generation 4.4-liter V-8-and it delivers better fueleconomy). However, always check the fuel economy sticker. Thanks to newtechnology, some vehicles, such as the Ford Explorerand BuickLaCrosse, earn better mileage with the larger optional enginethanks toadvanced fuel injection and more sophisticated transmissions.

Transmission Type-Manual transmissions used to be thefuel-efficientchoice when the industry was dominated by 3- and 4-speed automatics.Today, computer-controlled automatic transmissions with 6, 7, or even 8speeds often outperform a traditional manual stick shift-inacceleration and fuel economy-thereby eliminating any compromise. Whenyou are seeking a vehicle with a choice between a manual and anautomatic transmission, check the window sticker for the most accuratempg information. In some cases, modern automatics can deliver bettermileage than their stick-shift counterparts.

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