How to Choose a Fuel-Efficient New Car

Get maximum fuel economy, no matter what type of vehicle you plan to buy

Filling up a car with gas Photo: Consumer Reports

Update, May 19, 2022: The national average price for a gallon of regular gasoline is $4.59, an all-time high in the U.S., and up 2 cents from the $4.57 cited below.

Safety, fuel economy, and reliability are always on the list of car buyers’ top concerns. But with regular gasoline averaging an all-time-high $4.57 a gallon nationwide as of May 18, 2022, fuel economy may be bumping to the top of the list for a lot of motorists. Fortunately, there are ways to improve fuel economy with the vehicle you own. But if you’re shopping, you may find major gains are possible, especially if you move to a hybrid of the same class, or a smaller vehicle, or if you join the electric car revolution

“Good fuel economy” is relative; there are models in every category that deliver more efficiency than the norm, from hybrid SUVs to diesel pickup trucks. But such technology isn’t the only news in fuel savings.

Conventional gasoline-powered cars are more efficient than ever and are squeezing more miles out of every gallon of gas, thanks to advances in engine technology, better aerodynamics, and clever computer controls. Replacing the typical used car, being 5 or more years old, with a similar model can see significant fuel-economy gains. But you can do better with just a bit of research.

Exploring the Possible Savings

The typical person drives about 12,000 miles each year and now pays $4.57 for a gallon of regular gasoline. Let’s look at a scenario to underscore the value of exploring your options:
• Say you have a 5-year-old minivan. Moving from a 2017 Honda Odyssey (21 mpg overall) to a 2022 Odyssey (22 mpg) would save $119 a year in gas.
• A similar upgrade from a 2017 Kia Sedona (20 mpg) to a 2022 Kia Carnival (21 mpg) would save $130 a year at current prices.
• However, the redesigned Toyota Sienna comes standard with a hybrid powertrain, and it returned a stunning 36 mpg overall in CR’s tests. Trading in that Odyssey or Sedona for a new Sienna could save $1,087 and $1,218, respectively, a year in fuel. And that is just one of many examples available across the automotive spectrum, thanks to the proliferation of hybrids. 

more on fuel economy

Downsizing often boosts the potential gains, although this may be feasible only if your lifestyle and passenger needs permit it. 

If you started with a 2017 Chevrolet Traverse (16 mpg), a new three-row SUV—such as the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, which gets 35 mpg overall—could save significant money ($1,859) at the pump without losing much functionality. And moving from a three-row midsized SUV to almost any small SUV would net notable savings due to a combination of lower weight, less aerodynamic drag, and more efficient powertrain. 

Going from that Traverse to a new RAV4 (27 mpg) could save $1,395 a year. But switching to a smaller RAV4 Hybrid (37 mpg) could mean more than $1,944 in savings. (Fun fact: Using the CR’s Car Value Estimator tool, a 2017 Traverse Premier has a $30,990 trade-in value—about the same as a new RAV4 Hybrid with active safety features that come standard.) 

Even trading a 2017 Toyota Highlander (22 mpg), a good SUV with competitive fuel efficiency, for a RAV4 would save $461 a year in gas, and going for the RAV4 Hybrid would save $1,010. Or trading in for a new Highlander Hybrid with the same practicality would save $925.

Ultimately, how much you save comes down to what concessions you are willing to make. Hybrids no longer carry a large price premium over conventional versions of the same model. They often cost just $1,000 to $2,000 more, which means the fuel savings could easily make up the purchase-price difference in just a few years. (Of course, laws of supply and demand may see real-world transactions start to increase the difference between regular and hybrid versions if gas prices remain elevated.)

“Hybrids not only save you fuel and gas money, but they also run cleaner and can propel themselves silently at low speeds on electric power,” says Gabe Shenhar, who manages car buying and testing at Consumer Reports. “We often find the hybrid version quicker and quieter than the conventional version, as we recently did with the Hyundai Tucson Hybrid.” 

The case for hybrids is bolstered by data from surveying CR members. Hybrids are often among the most reliable models in our annual auto surveys, with the Toyota Prius being legendary for its high reliability over many years. Further, owners tend to report higher satisfaction with hybrids than with conventional versions of the same models.

Split the Difference With a Plug-In Hybrid

Plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles bridge the gap between a hybrid car and an electric vehicle: They can run on electric power for longer and more often than regular hybrids, which have limited electric-only capabilities. Once their electric-only mode is depleted, they revert to regular hybrid operation. Their relatively small batteries, compared with an EV’s, provide 22 to 45 miles of electric-only driving—enough for local errands and short commutes. Most of them also qualify for a federal tax incentive of up to $7,500.

Note that when the gasoline engine is operating, these are less efficient than a true hybrid because of the extra battery weight. However, the combined results, especially for drivers who can charge frequently and take short trips, PHEVs can yield very impressive fuel economy. For example, the Prius Prime plug-in returns 50 mpg in hybrid mode, compared with 52 mpg for the regular Prius. However, it can provide more than 20 miles of electric-only power, making its equivalent fuel economy, at least for that first gallon, more like 70 mpg.

And while most EV owners will want to install a dedicated wall-mounted, 240-volt charging station, plug-in hybrids handily recharge overnight using a regular 120-volt outlet. 

Ready to Go Electric?

The best way to save on gas is to not use it at all. There is an increasing array of electric vehicle choices, with many more expected over the next year. Already there are small hatchbacks, like the Chevrolet Bolt and Nissan Leaf, and premium models like the Mercedes-Benz EQS, Porsche Taycan, and Tesla Model S. In between, there is a growing crop of EVs like the Hyundai Ioniq 5 and Kia EV6 that joined the Ford Mustang Mach-E, Volkswagen ID.4, and Tesla Model 3 and Model Y, with fresh entries, such as the Subaru Solterra and Toyota bZ4X coming later this year.

EVs can be very appealing if you have a convenient place to charge overnight. The range for most models is well over 200 miles—more than enough to cover the daily use for most drivers, with ample miles for weekend adventures. A growing public charging network can provide comfort for longer trips.

Using electricity, rather than gas, to propel the car cuts the cost of driving by 50 to 75 percent at today’s gas prices. Of course, electricity costs vary by state. Costs are further impacted by whether you’re able to home charge during off-peak hours at a lower rate, or if you use public DC fast chargers, which cost more per kilowatt-hour to use.

A 2020 CR study showed that there are significant potential savings in maintenance because of the simpler powertrain. Even though EV owners don’t have oil changes to deal with, several other common wear items, like wipers, brakes, and tires, will still need periodic service.

CR reliability surveys show that some EVs have reliability concerns. But rather than being an inherent issue with EVs, our analysis showed that initial teething pains with some models stems from them being truly all-new designs with lots of technologies, but not the EV components. We see a similar phenomenon with regular cars: Models that are complete, ground-up designs with new platforms, powertrains, and in-car electronics tend to have more problems than those that are partial redesigns, say using an engine or infotainment system that had launched previously on another model. In either case, it is smart to wait a year or two for any all-new design to allow for manufacturing gremlins to be sorted out.

Given the commitment automakers have announced, there will be tremendous focus on EVs later this decade, particularly in California, where regulations are pushing consumers to adopt electric cars. Even if an EV isn’t right for you now, there’s a good chance one will be in your driveway eventually.



But What About Diesel?

Diesel passenger cars have faded away from the American market. Several pickup truck and SUV models are available, however. While they are cleaner than they used to be, diesels don’t have the same low emissions as hybrids and the price of diesel fuel is higher than that of regular gas—$5.58 as of May 18, 2022.

Bottom Line

There have been money-saving improvements in fuel economy over the past few years, meaning drivers trading in models—especially those that are at least 5 years old—would have no problem identifying a replacement with better fuel economy. The real win is if you can make a significant gain, perhaps by choosing a hybrid, while also getting a car with the latest safety features and a strong track record for reliability. This is very feasible if you do your homework. Consumer Reports ratings can help, and our Top Picks can be a great place to start.

Jeff S. Bartlett

A New England native, I have piloted a wide variety of vehicles, from a Segway to an aircraft carrier. All told, I have driven thousands of vehicles—many on race tracks across the globe. Today, that experience and passion are harnessed at the CR Auto Test Center to empower consumers. And if some tires must be sacrificed in the pursuit of truth, so be it. Follow me on Twitter (@JeffSBartlett).