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Image: Jetta TDI
Volkswagen
The Volkswagen Jetta sips gas, but it also has some pretty amazing torque.
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updated 3/26/2010 8:13:15 AM ET 2010-03-26T12:13:15

By this time next year Chevrolet, Ford, Nissan and Fisker will each have a plug-in electric vehicle on the U.S. market. But until automakers can sell hundreds of thousands of them off the lot — not just to first-adopters and municipal fleets — they won't mean much to society. Experts say it'll take mass acceptance to significantly alter the way Americans consume energy.

"It's going to be very difficult, unless you have $8-a-gallon gasoline, for any normal consumer to look at a Volt or a Nissan Leaf," says John O'Dell, the senior editor of Edmunds' Green Car Advisor. "Right now it takes more than six years, with gasoline prices in the $3 range, for most people to earn back enough money purely on gasoline, to pay for an electric car."

Fortunately, while we wait for electrics to become cheaper and more practical, there are plenty of non-hybrid, gas-engine cars on the road that get exceptional fuel economy.

As one would expect, subcompacts like the Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris fare best — but small cars aren't they only models that sip fuel. Ford's Escape small SUV and Volkswagen's Jetta sedan are solid, money-saving options as well.

To determine the vehicles with the best gas mileage, we evaluated mile-per-gallon fuel efficiency as measured by the EPA and five-year total fuel costs as measured by Vincentric, an auto-consulting firm based in Bingham Farms, Mich. (The data assumes an annual rate of 15,000 miles driven per vehicle and a price of $2.60 for regular fuel, $2.86 for premium and $2.75 for diesel. It also applies an inflation rate for the fuel prices, since the calculations predict costs over five years.)

We awarded points to the vehicles with the best city and best highway mileages, and to the vehicles with the lowest total fuel costs over five years, with one point going to the car with the best efficiency in each category, two points to the next-best, and so on. Lower points indicate better overall fuel economy.

We did not include hybrids in our tally because they would have dominated the entire list. Had we included them, the Toyota Prius, Honda Civic Hybrid, Honda Insight, Ford Escape and Fusion Hybrids, Mercury Milan Hybrid, Nissan Altima Hybrid, Toyota Camry hybrid and Lexus 250h all would have made the cut.

Sales of hybrids and small-engine cars are directly related to gas prices — the higher the cost of a gallon of gas, the more these cars sell — but don't look for a major up-tick in price-per-gallon any time soon. The national average price of gas is $2.811, up from $2.608 last month and $1.933 a year ago. But forecasts from the U.S. Energy Information Administration predict that the annual average price for a gallon of regular gas will reach just $2.96 by 2011 — granted, with a possibility of reaching $3 a gallon at times this summer.

That's good news compared to the $4-plus spikes of July 2008, but it means automakers have less motivation to economize gasoline engines, says Mike Quincy, an automotive specialist for Consumer Reports.

"If gas prices go up to $4 a gallon, your hybrid, even on the used-car market, is going to be very attractive," Quincy says. "But you can't just put pressure on people to buy smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. They won't until they have to. They won't do it until the price of gas gets really expensive."

If fuel economy is already your chief priority, diesel-powered Volkswagens are the way to go. The $22,354 Volkswagen Golf TDI and the $22,830 Volkswagen Jetta TDI tied as the cars with the best overall gas mileage: The four-door VWs each get 30 mpg in the city and 42 mpg on the highway, with a 2.0L turbodiesel engine and a six-speed automatic transmission.

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They also have amazing torque; their 236 foot-pounds of power are stronger than the supped-up Volkswagen GTI (207 ft-lbs) and nearly equal that of competitor Subaru Impreza WRX (244 ft-lbs).

Honda also has two models on our list, the $14,900 Fit and the $25,340 Civic GX (a four-door compact that runs on natural gas).

The Fit makes the cut mostly by virtue of its 27-mpg city efficiency. The $7,107 it takes to fuel it for five years is actually on the more expensive side when compared with the $6,881 required for the Toyota Yaris or the $6,712 required for the Ford Escape SUV

It takes just $5,297 to fuel the Civic, which is the least expensive of any car on the list. The sedan uses a 113-horsepower, 1.8L "SOHC i-VTEC 4-cylinder engine" — a combustion engine that runs on compressed natural gas with almost no emissions. Fuel economy is 24 mpg in the city, 36 mpg on the highway.

To really be taken seriously, though, even natural gas and hybrid vehicles will have to compete against the conventional engines on our list. They simply can't be beat in terms of price, performance and convenience, says Nissan's director of product planning, Mark Perry. Perry is leading the launch of Nissan's all-electric Leaf, due out in December.

"Anything long term, to really break out of the early adopter pattern and get the mass market, we have to be considered against other internal combustion engine cars, eventually."

© 2012 Forbes.com

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