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Economy car buying tips: Searching for the perfect economy car

1967 Comuta all electric car.  Source: Photo by C-Car Tom.
1967 Comuta all electric car.  Source: Photo by C-Car Tom.
Guest Article by Contributing Editor, Jeffrey Church --     
“All charged up and ready to roll is the Comuta, an experimental electric automobile developed by the Ford Motor Company…”  “General Electric Company and Westinghouse… stepped up research and development activity on electric-powered cars. No auto company expects to produce vehicles … in less than ten years.” Colliers Yearbook 1967.

In 1985, economy cars were getting in the 50 to 60 MPG range (Honda CRX, Geo Metro) and later in the 1990-2001 Toyota Tercels and Echos and Saturn SL’s reached into the 40’s. If cars could do that in 26 years ago, why can they not the same or better now? I wish I knew.

So what is the best economy car out there? As an economy car buff, I look at the websites that promise a great break through “soon”. The views are mine and I receive nothing from any company so let’s look at the options.

Needs vary; family size, commute or distance travel, cost, etc. Also is environmental impact is a factor? For example some hybrids are considered Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicles (SULEV) while the peppy diesel VW Jetta may get 42 MPG but is not as environmentally friendly. I also strongly prefer an American name plated car if possible. Unfortunately there is no one great fits all choice.

For most of us, it will boil down to a basic non-hybrid gas car. For the right person the Chevrolet Volt is worth a look. The same holds for electric cars although many will prefer to wait for be sure the bugs are worked out and prices dropped.       

There are cars that run on natural gas (CNG) such as the Honda Civic GX and conversions available for some trucks to propane and CNG. There is a potential for a California businesses to make a lot of money doing quality conversions. I still don’t understand while the manufacturers don’t build them that way. Some Las Vegas taxi cabs run on propane. With conversions running $5,000 to $8,000 it may be a good decision for low MPG trucks if parts and service were locally available.

Likewise a critical Consumer Report on the Volt compared cost of operation versus a gas car. They entirely missed the point; cars and trucks running on alternative fuels or electric reduce the demand for gasoline, reduce our dependence on oil from unfriendly countries, are better for the environment and use American or Canadian produced products. Electric cars run on American produced power, in San Diego often Nuclear or natural gas. Propane and CNG are generally cheaper than gasoline and who knows how high gas may go?

If you haven’t been paying attention, things are heating up in the Middle East and especially in Iran. An oil flow reduction is entirely possible. What then?

So suggestion #1, if you feel you must have a mid- sized vehicle or truck please consider one that at least is Flex Fuel (E85 ethanol). For example the highly rated Ford Fusion fits the bill.

Lacking an American high MPG hybrid alternative, I opted for the Honda Insight, a small car but it has a back seat. It is sluggish but averages 40-42 MPG. It is rated as very safe and extremely reliable, great for your high school or college student as well as a commuter if you can live with the lack of power. After you bump your head a few times you’ll learn to duck and it does surge a bit as the hybrid system engages at starts. It is priced not much above basic new economy cars. Mileage is about 8 MPG better than good gas economy cars so that adds up in the long run. That could easily be $500 or more a year if you drive a lot. Its strong point is commuting not hills or high speed.  

Due to problems with quality control and their lack of candor with past problems, I did not look at the Toyota such as the more expensive Prius.

Hybrids that Toyota once said got 60 MPG really are getting around 44 MPG. Still you may want to look at them.

So what else is out there? First don’t be fooled by assuming a small size means good fuel economy. The tiny now replaced Chevy Aveo is a relative gas hog. The Fiat (sold by Chrysler) is cute and gets decent mileage but less than many others. The Smart car is- frankly in my opinion and others- not smart. Cars that are worth a serious look and have generally favorable reviews include the Chevrolet Cruze and Sonic, Ford Fiesta and Hyundai Elantra. Both the Cruze and Elantra are more mid-size cars comparable to an Accord or Camry. With the right engine they can get @ 40 MPG highway but be sure to look at the City average. Most these cars will really average around 30-33 MPG so don’t be fooled by 40 MPG claims unless you do a lot of open freeway driving. Compared say to the Insight, the Cruze has incredible power and is not a small car.

So for many these cars are likely the best options and at least worth a test drive. Do also consider a good old used car until something better comes along. Generally the cheaper the car, the less your sales tax, insurance and annual registration! Hybrids may also be exempt from smog checks. All are money saving factors!

Finally let’s look at the Chevrolet VOLT and electric cars. A number are currently out or hitting the market soon (Leaf, Focus, MiEV, Prius plug-in and others). The Volt may be more appealing as it has a gasoline engine too so you don’t run out of energy on the road.

Critics have panned the Volt and electrics due to their rapid loss of power in cold weather or on steep hills. True, so don’t buy one if you live in North Dakota or Lake Tahoe. They are a good choice for some from southern California to Florida. Also they are good if you own a home that has a garage for charging, commute a lot, can maybe add solar or wind to home, care about the environment, want to reduce the demand on foreign oil and want that back-up plan should we face another oil embargo. I’m old enough to remember the past two- those that don’t remember the past are condemned to relive it!

One more comment on electrics; we continue to search for that perfect lightweight battery that holds a good charge. Like the 1967 article, someday we’ll get that but expect the military and fleets to get them first.

The VW Diesel autos are a peppy option but fuel is more expensive. They may run on bio-diesel if you can find it. Various companies are currently researching bio-diesel from various sources (vegetable oil, soybean, grasses, algae, etc.) so that holds future potential for an American produced clean fuel.

You can research new and used cars on websites like A test drive is a must. Some rental companies have fair prices on newer used economy cars. Joining organizations like AAA or Costco/ Sam’s Club may be worth it to get best prices rather than haggling over price.

So suggestion #2 is find what is right for you; the Volt has a definite niche as do pure electrics but for most it may likely be a basic economy car, new or used. I believe that there are many worthy American plated cars out there such as the Cruze, Sonic or Fiesta. Consider average MPG, not the high. Consider price, other costs (insurance, smog checks, sales tax), the environment and what is good for our country. In theory, much more economical cars are coming soon but no one really knows when soon is.

Here are some good websites but they tend to get your hopes up:,,

Compare cars by E.P.A fuel economy rating.


The Author: Jeffrey Church is an economy car nut who lives in San Diego part time. Views are solely his and he received no compensation from anyone. This document may be reproduced and disseminated without charge if it is attributed.
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