Not long ago Zack O’Malley Greenburg had a problem.
His parents had finally decided to replace the 1991 Nissan Sentra he had driven in high school and still used occasionally to make the trip from Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., back to Manhattan.
The Sentra, among other foibles, lacked air-conditioning and a side mirror. It rattled and hummed at any speed approaching 80 miles per hour. Thing is, the elder Greenburg wanted to replace it with something affordable and fuel efficient, such as a Honda Civic or Chevy Cruze. Greenburg the younger wanted — nay, needed — something cool.
“When I heard what they were looking at, I kind of groaned and thought that I would be doomed to be borrowing rental cars from them for the rest of my life,” he said.
Fortunately for Zack — a music reporter here at Forbes — his sense of style won out. After weeks of debating the relative merits of reliability, maintenance costs, safety scores and, most importantly, fuel economy, he convinced his parents to choose a cherry red, black-roofed Mini Cooper. With rally-car handling and an impressive 37 miles per gallon on the highway, the iconic coupe proved the perfect compromise between efficiency and style.
“In the end they decided to buy the Mini because it had personality and spunk,” he told me. “It was fun to drive — and got good gas mileage.”
Fighting the bulge at the pump
In this instance, Zack’s sense of style prevailed. But his parents weren’t totally wrong to insist on something fuel efficient. Gas prices currently average $3.59 per gallon nationally, with analysts at Kelley Blue Book saying they will surpass $4.00 per gallon sometime this year.
Alec Gutierrez, the senior market analyst of automotive insights at KBB, said the change won’t cost consumers that much. Assuming 12,000 annual miles driven on a 20-mpg car, even a $1 raise in prices from $3.60 to $4.60 per gallon would result in paying $11.50 more per week. In short, he says, don’t assume high gas prices mean you’ll get a special discount on a high-efficiency car this year.
But wanting to save money on gas doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be stuck with a Toyota Prius. Consider the 2012 Subaru Impreza. The $20,295 2.0i Sport Premium edition gets 36 miles per gallon on the highway and is renowned for its dexterity in the snow. It also has 17-inch gunmetal alloy wheels, roof rails and fog lights; standard, too, is an all-weather package that will do wonders on weekend trips up to the mountain.
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Or try a more luxurious hatchback, the Audi A3. This $30,250 diesel gets 30 miles per gallon and 40 on the highway — and has fantastic electronics like speed-sensitive steering, quattro all-wheel drive, ambient interior lighting and electronic brake stabilization. Plus a leather-clad interior and halogen headlights.
For a more urban environment, consider the Mercedes-Benz E350 BlueTEC. Mercedes is known for its progressive technology and posh interiors. The E Class doesn’t disappoint: It has advanced sound and comfort technology in the cabin paired with burnished trim and wooden veneers. It also has LED daytime lights and enough stability programs to ensure a smooth ride in even the most pockmarked of Manhattan streets. The $51,690 BlueTEC diesel edition gets 32 miles per gallon on the highway.
And for likely the best overall value on this list, consider something from Hyundai.
“Veloster is one of my favorites,” says Jake Fisher, the head automotive tester for Consumer Reports.
He’s right: The $17,300 hatchback is distinctive because it has three passenger doors rather than two or four — one side of the car has a second side door while the other has only a driver-side door. Veloster combines an aggressively styled front grill with a 1.6-liter engine that sips fuel with the best of them (40 mpg on the highway). But it drives with spunk, thanks in part to the fact that it weighs about as much as a Mazda Miata.
The ultimate high-mpg status symbol, though, requires nothing less than electricity. Fisker’s plug-in Karma sedan, with a buttery smooth ride and exotic good looks — plus 300-mile driving range — has received rave reviews.
And the Tesla Model S, due out in July, combines progressive technology inside with a 0-60mph time on par with the Porsche Panamera.
A 40 kWh version of the seven-passenger sedan will cost just under $50,000 with federal rebates; the higher performing will cost more: $59,900 for a 60 kWh (230-mile-range) model and $69,900 for an 85 kWh (300-mile-range) model. The 85 kWh performance Model S, which comes with additional equipment like Nappa leather interior and performance wheels, will cost $79,900 after federal tax rebates.
The dashing good looks and cool personality of both these sedans are nearly as electric as their motors. Of course, if you drive a green car like one of these, you may miss the sound of a rumbling engine and the challenge of changing gears.
It’s no small thing. Just ask Zack.
“I’m really thrilled because with the Mini because I get to drive a car that actively excites me,” he says. “But I still wish they had gotten a stick shift!”
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© 2012 Forbes.com