The right way to buy a fuel sipper

Look beyond city and highway numbers at the real costs and at your real needs.

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By Peter Valdes-Dapena, staff writer

The 2008 Saturn Vue Green Line uses a low-cost mild-hybrid system that offers surprising fuel economy benefits.
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NEW YORK ( -- Sky-high gas prices bring fuel economy front and center when it comes to buying a new car. But if you're not careful, your bargain gas-sipper could wind up costing you a lot more in the long-run.

"There's an element of penny-wise, pound foolish in all of this," says Jack Nerad, managing editor of Kelley Blue Book.

Getting started

The best tool for looking at fuel economy numbers is Operated jointly by the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, the site gives you the EPA-estimated city and highway fuel economy numbers for all mass-market passenger cars and trucks sold in the U.S.

These numbers are based on a new testing system introduced last year that produces more realistic figures. In most cases, the numbers will be lower than what you've seen in the past.

Other available information goes well beyond that. Click on any car, and you'll see the EPA's estimated combined fuel economy number. That gives you a single figure to compare instead of juggling separate city and highway numbers.

Even better, the detail page for each car provides estimated annual fuel costs, making for an easy direct comparison. You can see how a small difference in fuel economy has a bigger impact in a low miles-per-gallon vehicle, like a large SUV, than in a fuel-efficient small car.

For instance, the two-mpg difference between a Chevrolet Tahoe and a similar Ford Expedition might not seem like much, but the $435 difference in annual fuel costs certainly does. By contrast, the four-mpg difference between the Toyota Corolla compact car and the Toyota Camry midsize car saves $269 a year in gas.

Keeping an eye on estimated fuel costs can also save you from buying a vehicle that gets great fuel economy but requires expensive "premium" fuel.'s annual fuel cost estimates are based on 15,000 miles per year of driving almost evenly split between the city and highway. Keep your own driving habits in mind as you look at these numbers.

Factor in all other costs

Depreciation, the difference between what you pay for a car and what you can ultimately sell it for as a used car, is the single biggest cost car ownership by far, costing much more than gas or insurance.

The Honda Fit and Ford Focus, for example, are two similarly priced compact cars. The Focus is just slightly less fuel efficient. But the Focus will lose about $3,600 more in depreciation over that time, according to The Focus will also cost more to insure. Those costs will have a far bigger impact than the small difference in fuel economy. (See correction.)

In most cases, differences in the actual cost of depreciation between two similarly priced vehicles won't be that large, but it's still a significant factor that needs to be balanced against fuel costs.

Don't get caught up in hype

"One of the assumptions people often make is that fuel economy is only present in a hybrid car," says Phil Reed, consumer advice editor for the automotive Web site

Look at the real fuel costs and other costs first. You may find a slightly smaller, less expensive vehicle that can save on fuel without the additional cost of hybrid technology. Also, given the short supply of hybrid vehicles on the market, it's much easier to negotiate a good price on a non-hybrid vehicle.

For example, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid offers combined fuel economy of 26 mpg, which is excellent for a roomy, three-row SUV. Meanwhile, the Toyota Rav4 is a little smaller and its fuel mileage isn't quite as good, but it also costs about $10,000 less to start with.

If you're still thinking hybrid, make sure you're looking at a hybrid vehicle that offers a worthwhile benefit without sacrificing capability. Among hybrid vehicles that offer the biggest boost for your buck are the Toyota Prius, Honda Civic Hybrid and the Ford Escape Hybrid SUV.

General Motors' Saturn Vue Green Line uses a mild hybrid system - that means the SUV can't run on electric power alone - that offers surprisingly good fuel economy at a much lower added cost than other hybrids. As with other hybrids, though, supplies are tight.

Beginning this summer you'll also be seeing more diesel cars in showrooms, not just trucks and SUVs. While diesel cars can achieve hybrid-like fuel economy savings, they will also tend to have sticker prices a few thousand dollars above those of similar gas-powered models.

Right now, the high cost of diesel fuel would seem to make them a bad buy, but current diesel prices aren't the norm. Ordinarily, diesel fuel prices are similar to gasoline and often lower. Fuel economy gains and the higher resale value of diesel cars should make up the additional cost over a few years of ownership.

Don't forget your real needs

Take the time to assess your real automotive needs. Do you really need an SUV or will a car do? Do you really need a big car or will a small one do?

You may not realize just how much space you can actually get in a small car today. For example, the Nissan Versa compact car offers the same rear-seat legroom as midsize sedans like the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Chevrolet Malibu. But the Versa goes about four miles further on each gallon than the Accord, saving about $269 in gasoline annually.

You also need to be aware of trade-offs that won't really gain much. In most cars, a manual transmission brings you little, if any, real fuel economy benefit compared to an automatic transmission and will usually hurt resale value.

And in most cars and SUVs, forgoing all-wheel-drive will gain you only one mpg in fuel economy and may hurt resale value. (The Ford Escape Hybrid is a notable exception. Getting 4WD drops its fuel economy by four mpg, adding about $200 to your annual gasoline bill.)

The key is not to get so hung up on gas prices that you forget other costs and benefits. You're making a long-term commitment so make sure you're getting what you really need.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that the Ford Focus would use about $1,600 less in gas over 5 years. The Focus actually uses slightly more fuel than a comparable Fit. We regret the error. (Back to story.) To top of page

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