Many of us try to make choices to reduce the amount of energy and effort it takes to live our lives. It's human nature to strive for efficiency. The benefits can be experienced daily, including having more time to spend on the things and people that matter most. Collectively, our actions can have a far-reaching impact, such as reducing energy consumption and contributing to cleaner air.

Choosing to buy a fuel-efficient car is one way a personal choice for efficiency can make a real, collective difference, and give some personal benefits as well. Fuel-efficient models save on fuel costs and time spent filling up. Plus, through their efficiency, they have the added benefit of reducing the amount of smog-contributing pollution compared to driving other cars. Advanced technologies such as plug-in hybrids and pure electrics can push efficiency to further extremes.

Even during dips in gas prices, fuel-efficient vehicles can save consumers money, no matter what size of vehicle they are looking for, and are a smart hedge against the inevitable rise in gas prices.  

When it comes time to purchase your next car, there are many factors to consider, such as safety and reliability. Be sure to consider fuel economy, as well, to keep your operating costs in check.

Thanks to increasingly tough fuel economy standards and higher consumer expectations, efficiency has been improving across most vehicles, so it's easier than ever to find a fuel-efficient model that meets your needs and your budget. However, buyers should still pay close attention because every vehicle segment sees fuel economy cover a spectrum, from better to worse. (See the most fuel-efficient cars.)

For example, the small SUVs tested by Consumer Reports returned between 21 and 29 mpg overall, all using regular gas. That spread results in a $400 to $600 difference in annual fuel costs, even when gas is between $2 and $3 per gallon. That's nothing to scoff at, especially given that most people hold on to cars for many years. (See the most fuel-efficient SUVs.)

Pickup trucks rate between 14 and 20 mpg overall, resulting a fuel cost spread of $500 to $800 per year. Over the long ownership span for pickups, that can really add up.

And in the midsized car segment, fuel economy varies by an even larger gap, spanning from 22 to 39 mpg overall, when hybrids are included in the mix. This translates to a difference of $600 to $900 per year in annual fuel costs. Fuel-efficient models often carry no price premium, making them attractive choices even when gas prices are down.

Similar comparisons can be found in every segment. (See the best and worst for fuel economy.)

No matter which vehicle type you are considering for your next purchase, it definitely pays attention to study EPA fuel-economy numbers, Consumer Reports' test results, and the vehicle’s window sticker, which details emissions for that particular model.

You don’t have to be the world’s most fuel-efficient woman, or man, but it is wise to remember that when buying your next car, choosing better efficiency benefits everyone.