Although its awareness has gone mainstream among consumers, Earth Day dates back more than four decades, to 1970. The first Earth Day pre-dated the 1973 oil crisis that first brought the issue of petroleum dependence to the national consciousness by a few years, but with fuel prices now averaging around $4 a gallon, interest in high-economy cars has also gone mainstream. With that in mind, we’ve rounded up the top 10 most economical 2012 models, by combined EPA rating. All 10 are either electric, plug-in or hybrid.
Okay, we’ll give props to the Mitsubishi i for topping the list for being the most frugal vehicle you can buy in 2012. But in terms of desirability, this electric is at or near the bottom of most of our lists. It’s hard to believe this rolling epitome of driving boredom could have come from the same company that brought us the Lancer Evolution. Either of the next two models would be higher on our EV wish list.
Nissan may have been first out of the gate with a mass-market pure electric for the U.S. market, but Ford wants a piece of the action with its recently-introduced Focus EV. For those weirded-out by the Leaf’s deliberately different styling, the Focus may be more appealing, as its styling is virtually identical to its gas-powered siblings, aside from a different grille and some minor details. Because it’s an adaptation of a conventional chassis, and not a purpose-built electric, there are some compromises with the Focus EV, such as a substantially smaller cargo area than the gas models. But Ford claims higher efficiency and quicker charging than the Leaf. Unfortunately, it will cost you. The Focus EV silently rolls out of the showroom at a steep $39,995 before government rebates and credits, compared to the Leaf’s $36,050 MSRP.
Nissan’s green poster-child comes in third on the list, and despite this EV's unconventional outward appearance, there’s nothing unusual or off-putting about how it drives. The Leaf’s 10-second 0-60 time won’t exactly pin you back in your seat like a GT-R, but is plenty sprightly for commuting duty. As long as your daily slog doesn’t surpass about 80 miles round-trip, or you have a charging station at work, the Leaf may be a practical option. But if you’d rather not have to worry about range anxiety, you may be better served by some of the other choices down our list.
4. Coda EV Sedan – 73 MPGe
Neither the most stylish, most sophisticated, or most affordable electric car on the market, the Coda EV Sedan is based on the Chinese-market Hafei Saibao sedan. The sedan is powered by a 134 hp motor with 221 lb-ft of torque, delivering a 0-60 time just under 11 seconds, according to the manufacturer. Coda claims a range of up to 125 miles per charge, but like all other electrics “your range may vary.” Charge time is around six hours with a stage two 220v charger. Starting price before applicable rebates and credits is $38,145.
5. Ford Transit Connect Electric – 62 MPGe
As has been the case over the past year, green energy seems to be a very volatile business prospect currently highly dependent on government loans, and facing an uncertain political climate. Due to converter Azure Dynamic’s recent bankruptcy, the Ford Transit Connect Electric is no longer being made, but you may find a few floating around out there that you can get your hands on. Original projections called for 400 models to be made in 2012. The future of an Electric Transit Connect remain uncertain at this point, but considering Ford’s aggressive electrification strategy, it could make a comeback in the next few years.
The first entry on this list with gasoline power is our 2011 Automobile of the Year award winner, the Chevy Volt. Although hypothetically capable of 93 MPGe on electric power, the Volt’s unique power train defies easy categorization or objective measurement. The term “your mileage may vary” was never more appropriate than with the Volt. If your round-trip commute is under 35 miles round trip, and you have a home charger installed, a tank of gas in this car could last you a long, long time. Regardless, if you can plug in at least a few times during the week, this car is a ground-breaking way to stretch a gallon of gasoline further than in most other cars.
The smallest of the new Prius family, the C matches its bigger brother’s combined economy, but in a smaller, more affordable hybrid package. Customers in both Japan and the U.S. have responded enthusiastically, with the C selling strongly right out of the gate. Although its 0-60 time of 10.6 seconds will hardly get enthusiasts’ blood pumping, its $20,000-ish starting price combined with its 50 mpg rating will hit the sweet spot of economy and affordability for a lot of customers.
8. Toyota Prius – 50 MPG
The original hybrid and still the standard-bearer for the green-car class, the third-generation model is bigger, roomier, quicker, and more efficient than ever. Its distinctive wedge shape delivers sleek aerodynamics, generous passenger room, and cargo versatility. Like the smaller C, its acceleration and dynamic performance is hardly the stuff of legends, but driven in a mellow manner, the Prius delivers outstanding economy without forcing the owner to deal with plugging it in or jumping through any other unusual green hoops.
9. Honda Civic Hybrid – 44 MPG
Recently-updated, the new Civic Hybrid now features a lithium-ion battery, and an improved version of Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist gives it the highest fuel economy ratings the model has ever achieved. The Civic Hybrid is a solid entry in the hybrid segment, but ultimately overshadowed by the Prius’ more sophisticated powertrain and greater versatility for near the same starting price.
The last entry on our top 10 list is the largest member of the Prius family. Depending on your perspective, it’s either a crossover or a tall wagon version of the Prius, but we lean toward the latter. Although not quite as frugal as its hybrid brethren, the V’s added passenger room and cargo versatility will likely meet many families’ needs while returning a highly-respectable 42 combined average MPG. As with the other Prius models, acceleration is less-than-thrilling, but if you get your thrills from achieving a high economy average, but still need a family shuttle, this is your ride.