Here at About.com Cars, our philosophy is that one shouldn't give up comfort, safety and enjoyment just to save fuel. That's why this isn't just a by-the-numbers list of cars with the best fuel economy. Instead, the About Cars test drivers and I are pleased to present our list of cars we think are the creme-de-la-creme of fuel-savers. Here they are, in alphabetical order.
1. Ford Focus
Though most of the cars on this list are imports, that doesn't mean the domestics don't built fuel-efficient cars -- though it's no coincidence that the fuel-efficient Focus was largely designed by Ford's European division. The Focus' fuel economy trails a bit compared to Japanese compacts, but it's cheap to buy, brimming with personality and enjoyable to drive.
2. Honda Fit
The Fit is one of several minicars to hit American (and Canadian) streets in recent months, but few, if any, do such a good job of divvying up space between front seats, back seats and cargo bay. Thoughtful engineering gives the Fit gobs of interior space, including room for tall drivers, and it delivers excellent fuel economy in the real world, not just on paper.
3. Honda Civic
When it comes to squeezing every last inch of motion out of a drop of gasoline, no one does it like Honda. A 40 MPG highway figure makes the Civic the most thrifty automatic-transmission-equipped non-hyrbid car on this list. It's an amazing feat considering the Civic's acres of interior room and full complement of safety features. And if that isn't enough, Honda does, indeed, offer a hybrid version of the Civic.
If everyone in the US got the chance to test-drive a Mercedes E320 BLUETEC, I bet the demand for diesel cars would go through the roof. With its 3-liter V6 powerplant, the E320 BLUETEC offers the passing power of a V8 with the fuel economy of a compact sedan -- pretty impressive for a car this big and luxurious. With a price premium of only $1,000 over the gasoline-powered version and significantly better fuel economy, the E320 BLUETEC just makes sense.
5. MINI Cooper
The MINI Cooper has already earned a reputation for being fun to drive and remarkably spacious considering its pint-sized interior. A new version introduced in 2007 features a new 1.6 liter engine derived by BMW, MINI's parent company. Thanks to the new engine, the base-model MINI Cooper is more powerful, more fuel efficient, and produces cleaner tailpipe emissions.
6. Nissan Altima
EPA city/highway mileage: 23/32 (manual), 23/31 (CVT automatic)
The four-cylinder Nissan Altima's EPA fuel estimates are becoming of a small car, but the Altima is anything but small. And the four-cylinder version is anything but gutless -- it has a big 2.5 liter engine that packs a health 180 lb-ft of torque. Best yet, it uses a continuously variable automatic transmission, which wrings more power out of the engine than a conventional automatic while scoring fuel economy similar to a manual. A great choice for those who need a mid-size car and are looking to save money on fuel.
EPA city/highway mileage: 24/31 (manual), 25/33 (CVT automatic)
Common wisdom says that if you want the best fuel economy you should buy a car with a manual transmission. That's not true anymore; many automatics get similar or better fuel economy than their manual counterparts (see the Honda Civic, above). But the Nissan Sentra takes goes one step futher with its continously-variable automatic transmission (CVT). The CVT Sentra not only gets better fuel economy than a manual, it also feels more powerful -- plus it comes wrapped in a roomy and handsome compact sedan that's easy to live with.
Image © Toyota
EPA city/highway mileage: 33/34
When America's best-selling car adapts hybrid technology, you know it's here to stay. Unlike the Prius, the Camry presents an altogether conventional driving experience. Its bigger (2.4 liter) engine and conventional tires, among other factors, yield fuel economy that's lower than a Prius, but a darn sight better than regular Camrys -- and it's so transparent you can easily forget it's a hybrid.
With all those hybrids in the Toyota family, not to mention the hybrid version of its arch-nemesis, the Honda Civic, it's easy to forget that the Corolla is a remarkably economic car in its own right, even in automatic guise, provided you stick with the smaller 1.8 liter engine. Completely redesigned for 2009, the n Corolla is roomy, well trimmed out, affordable, and unbelievably reliable -- plus it boasts fuel economy equal to or greater than many subcompacts. Impressive!
10. Toyota Prius
The Prius will be remembered as the car that put hybrids on the map. But even if you put fuel economy aside, the Prius is still a great car. The hatchback body makes it excessively practical, and the Buck Rogers interior is a nice change from the typical car interior that's both futuristic and easy to get used to. Expect real-world fuel economy of around 45 MPG, which is pretty darn good for a car this roomy.