With gas prices over three dollars a gallon, more and more people are bypassing the SUVs and considering fuel economy as an essential part of their car-buying decision.
If you have to spend more to get better fuel economy, it becomes a numbers game, balancing the extra upfront money you pay on the sticker price against the monthly or yearly savings you recoop the longer you keep the car.
Most people keep a car for about seven years (longer than before). If gas prices are $3.34 a gallon and you have a larger car that gets 15 mpg, it's going to cost you about $2,600 a year to fuel the year - assuming you don't drive more than 1,000 miles per month.
Over the seven years you're keeping the car, you'll spend $18,700 on gas. If you choose a more efficient vehicle like a midsize car that gets 22mpg, you'll save $1,100 a year and $7,700 over the time you keep the car.
So is it worth it financially? It depends if the midsize car costs more than $7,700 base price than the gas guzzler.
You can trace and predict the behavior of car buyers simply by looking at gas prices. When gas is cheap like it was in 80s and 90s, buyers gravitate towards expensive SUVs and large, heavier vehicles. After gas prices shot up post-9/11, sales of SUVs went way down as you would expect.
So if you're in the market for a new vehicle but you want to get the best balance of fuel economy and value, here are some tips on buying a fuel efficient car that will help you make the best purchase possible.
Weight and Engine Size
The weight and the size of the engine are the biggest factors in how efficient a car is. Heavier cars burns more gas simply by being heavier to push around on the road. And the size of the engine affects how much power the vehicle has, while also being a major source of weight itself.
Unfortunately, we seem to have two conflicting trends. The lighter vehicles get the best gas mileage. But the heavier vehicle tend to be the safer ones. But keep in mind that cars in general are safer than they've ever been. You could get in a wreck in a compact car and the crumple impact zones all around you might total the vehicle, but you're still very very likely to walk away from the accident. Provided you were smart and wore your seatbelt, of course. So with this consideration, you have to look at the combination of factors including the safety rating, and determine how much risk aversion you have in exchange for gas mileage.
Looking at Fuel Efficiency Ratings
The EPA Estimated Gas Mileage ratings have come under fire in recent years because there seems to be a gap in what the EPA publishes and what people get in mileage out in the real world. The reason for the difference seems to be that the EPA figures are ideal ones that don't reflect real world driving in terms of passengers and cargo or don't reflect what happens when the car or truck is broken in and not in tip-top shape, and the tests don't reflect real world things like using the air conditioning. The EPA test also skews results for hybrids, the vehicles you'd think are the kings of gas mileage. But the EPA test calculates fuel use by measuring the carbon burned in the emissions, and experts say this practice makes the hybrid gas mileage ratings overly optimistic.
The Buying Decision
First, you have to decide what kind of vehicle you want. Weigh the factors of safety and style and decide how much gas mileage you're willing to sacrifice for size and power. If you're really into saving gas, ditch the four wheel drive models. Next, you can consult reputable sources like Consumer Reports who actually do real-world mileage testing to give a better picture of the gas mileage you're likely to get on the road, not on a laboratory dynomometer. They will typically break down their recommendations by car size and style.
Pick The Right Options
Don't forget that the options can affect the gas mileage. Adding a turbocharger for performancd only helps when you're juicing the gas pedal, and that by definition means you're burning more gas. Choosing a stick shift will get 2-3 mpg or more over an automatic. Pay attention to the axle ratio, a little-known option for pickup trucks and performance vehicles. Choose a lower ratio (i.e. 2:1 or 3:1 over 4 or 5:1) to allow the engine to run slower over more speeds, but only if you don't intend to do much towing or hauling. And cruise control is a good thing that help regulate your speed on long, flat roads, saving you gas.
Check out some of our other posts on saving money on gas:
This post was published on June 18, 2013 and was updated on December 3, 2013.