Automotive performance used to be judged by the time it took for a car to reach 60 mph or hit the quarter-mile mark from a dead stop. Horsepower and torque grabbed the headlines, and adept handling dominated the subtitles. However, as fuel costs spiked over the past decade or so, a new gold standard of performance entered the spotlight: fuel economy.
As gas prices increased, owning a car that stretched each dollar at the pump became a high priority. Water-cooler bragging rights moved from speed dominance to fuel economy. Fuel-efficient cars previously labeled as dull saw their resale values soar, and folks still driving around in notorious gas-hogs were ridiculed for wasting money and resources.
Driven by growing consumer interest and rising government fuel-economy standards, manufacturers increased research and development efforts, ultimately releasing vehicles offering mileage ratings unheard of just a few years earlier. Many performance vehicles now deliver over 30 mpg on the highway, and some gas/electric hybrids achieve 50 mpg or more combined.
All of the five picks listed below earn at least 40 mpg in highway driving, and four of the five earn at least 40 mpg combined. While this short list is in no way comprehensive, it’s a good starting point in your search for a reliable fuel sipper.
The Best Seller: Toyota Prius
Toyota has made the gasoline-electric hybrid an affordable reality for everyone from families to teenage drivers. The world’s best-selling hybrid electric vehicle arrived on U.S. shores for the 2001 model year. While its familiar wedge-shaped design may not be everyone’s cup of tea, the Prius is a brilliant example of form meeting function. An aerodynamic body helps it achieve optimum fuel economy, and the 2016 model is rated at an impressive 54 mpg city and 50 mpg highway.
Over the years, the Prius has diversified with hybrid models ranging from the subcompact Prius c to the family-friendly Prius v, a wagon offering more cargo space than many SUVs. Trim levels range from basic no-frills transportation to top-of-the-line models with LED projector headlights, a power moonroof, 17-inch alloy wheels, leatherette power seats, push-button start and wireless smartphone charging.
The Luxury Pick: Lincoln MKZ Hybrid
Once you leave economy-car territory, finding a vehicle offering 40 mpg combined becomes a bit trickier, especially in the luxury segment. Lincoln offers a formidable contender with the MKZ Hybrid. The hybrid variant of Lincoln’s midsize luxury sedan is powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that’s matched with an electric motor and a continuously variable transmission (CVT). This combination generates 188 horsepower and fuel economy of 41 mpg city and 39 mpg highway.
The Lincoln MKZ hybrid provides a high level of standard equipment, including 10-way heated power front seats, adaptive LED headlights, 18-inch alloy wheels and an infotainment system with an 8-inch touch screen, USB inputs and Bluetooth connectivity. Opting for the top-of-the line model adds blind spot monitoring, navigation, heated rear seats and more.
The Performer: Mazda Mazda3
The 2016 Mazda Mazda3 hatchback with a 155-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and a manual transmission offers a combined rating of just 33 miles per gallon. However, this hatchback’s 40 mpg highway rating allows us to sneak this one by, and it’s a worthy choice when you consider its reasonable sticker price. This Mazda starts at just $18,545 plus a destination charge.
Its 155 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque may not seem like much on paper, but the Mazda3’s power is nearly perfect for the car. Precise steering, a fantastic sport-tuned suspension and an absolutely inspiring six-speed manual transmission create an economically priced hot hatchback. With a generous 20.2 cubic feet of cargo space, this versatile Mazda does double duty as a sensible family car.
The Family Car: Honda Accord Hybrid
The Honda Accord Hybrid has the highest fuel-economy rating of any midsize hybrid sedan on the road. Honda has suspended production for 2016 but plans to return next year with a second-generation model, which promises to be even more efficient than the 2015 model’s 47 mpg combined.
Powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and an electric motor, this family sedan stands out as a leader, despite being part of segment packed with superlative choices.
The Plug-In Hybrid: Chevrolet Volt
If you’re in the market for a plug-in hybrid and your daily commute falls within the Chevrolet Volt’s full-charge range of 53 miles, Volt ownership means you may never have to visit a gas station again. Also, thanks to its rewarding driving dynamics and excellent torque, the Volt rates highly when it comes to performance.
The Volt gets its power from a pair of electric motors with a combined 149 horsepower a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine. This Chevy’s gasoline engine delivers fuel economy of 42 mpg combined, and the Volt gets an equivalent of 102 mpg when running solely on electric power.
If you can’t stand putting gasoline in your car, but aren’t ready to commit to an electric vehicle, the Chevrolet Volt might be the perfect choice for you.