By Sam Warren
Gas prices are still well above $2 a gallon across most of the country and, with the economy hurting, fuel efficiency should be a determining factor for any car buyer. It's only natural that consumers would first consider Japanese cars, with their proven track record for delivering high gas mileage.
"Honda, over the breadth of its line and history, has generally led in fuel mileage," says Karl Brauer, editor-in-chief of Edmunds.com. "Toyota has done well, too."
Actually, it's the German manufacturers that are leading the most market segments in terms of fuel efficiency on 2009 models. Across the new model year, six from Daimler AG and Volkswagen AG rank among the most fuel-efficient, beating every new model in five classes and tying in one. Japanese models placed at the top of only one category (but tied in two); one South Korean model was the best in its category, and one category and one tie went to American cars.
Behind the numbers
To find the most fuel-efficient cars of 2009, we looked at each model's combined city and highway gas mileage provided by Environmental Protection Agency site fueleconomy.gov (or Edmunds.com, if the EPA didn't yet have the information), and checked those findings against the manufacturers' gas-mileage claims. The figures were compared in 10 market segments, with the best in each making our list. In the case of a tie, both vehicles are included.
Of no surprise is the presence of the popular Toyota Prius, which gets an EPA combined fuel economy of 46 mpg. The only vehicle that approaches its gas mileage is the Honda Civic hybrid, which delivers a highly respectable 42 mpg.
Where the German automakers top vehicle segments, most interestingly, is with diesel models: The Volkswagen Jetta TDI tops the hatchback class, while the Mercedes-Benz E320 Bluetec is the most fuel-efficient luxury sedan.
"Diesel models feature simpler engine design, less energy lost to heat and a more efficient way to utilise fuel," says Brauer. "They're poised for more success today because of the price of fuel, because of clean diesel technology, and because diesel models are great to drive. There has been a huge stigma on diesel from the past, but the truth is that if you put anyone into a modern diesel vehicle, they'll have to redefine their perspective of what diesels are like."
Although they have never before led the market in fuel efficiency, those familiar with German manufacturers may not be surprised by their current fuel-economy prowess.
"German manufacturers have always had pretty efficient engines," says Brauer, "capable of getting impressive mileage while maintaining luxury and performance. Gas is expensive in Europe, so models have to be fuel-efficient."
The aforementioned Mercedes-Benz's E320 Bluetec sedan gets an EPA combined 26 mpg, while the E350, a similar non-diesel model, only gets 19 mpg. The hatchback segment leader, the Jetta TDI gets 34 mpg--maybe more.
"Actually," says Brauer, "while the EPA fuel ratings were redesigned to be more accurate, they're far too pessimistic on diesel models. The Jetta TDI will get over 40 mpg--easy."
It isn't all about the type of fuel; the shape and size of a car play a role as well. Daimler AG's smart, for example, relies on a compact vehicle frame for efficiency. This year's fortwo pure, like the Prius, has performance ratings that leave something to be desired, but its gas mileage is an EPA combined 36 mpg. And at $11,990, it has the lowest base MSRP of any car on our list. Another offered trim, the fortwo passion cabriolet convertible, gets the same gas mileage and performance as the pure with a base MSRP of $16,990.
Volkswagen AG's 2009 Audi models don't feature alternative fuel or compact frames--they simply best their competition. The 2009 Audi A4 (automatic transmission) and A4 Quattro (manual) both get combined gas mileages of 25 mpg, tying Honda's 2009 Acura TSX (automatic S5 transmission) for the top of the upscale sedan segment. The A4 Cabriolet and the Audi TT Roadster, the convertible trims of the A4 and TT models, both get 25 mpg as well, while the Audi TT Coupe gets 26 mpg, placing it at the top of the sportscar segment.
How do American cars measure up? Not great on this particular list, but it isn't all bad news for US automakers. While they are often said to lag behind their Japanese counterparts when it comes to fuel economy--"American manufacturers have always struggled to meet the same level of fuel mileage that the Japanese have," says Brauer--certain American-made 2009 models are leading their categories.
Chevrolet's introduction of E85 FlexFuel-capable engines has been met with some doubt, since ethanol takes more energy to use, but with it GM has produced a 2009 fuel-efficiency winner, a midsize SUV. The 2009 HHR, when using regular gas, gets a combined mileage of 26 mpg, and has a base MSRP of $18,720.
Assuming US automakers survive their current sales slump, fuel economy could get even better in American-made cars over time, according to a recent report from the EPA. The report states that fuel efficiency in consumer vehicles has been rising steadily since 2005. In every market class--from subcompact car to SUV--new innovations in fuel use and further reduction of vehicle size have driven average gas mileages from 23.1 mpg for cars and 16.7 mpg for light trucks in 2004 to 24.1 mpg for cars and 18.1 mpg for trucks in 2008.
They'll have to pick up the pace, though: New federal standards, set in 2007, state that each manufacturer's average fleet gas mileage must reach 31.6 mpg by 2015 and 35 mpg by 2020.
"These standards will make this an interesting coming decade. Meeting these new standards will take re-analysis of legal requirements and development of technology to implement them in the real world," says Brauer. "For companies like GM and Chrysler that are already struggling, finding money to burn on research and development is hard to fathom."