Best Mileage Cars - The Top 10 Most Fuel-Efficient New Cars $20k-$25k

Last Updated: Mar 4, 2010

Our best mileage cars roundup reveals the pros and cons of the top 10 most fuel-efficient new cars priced from $20,000 to $25,000. Four are gas-electric hybrids and despite the reputation of import brands as more fuel-efficient than domestics, four wear American nameplates.

Though the $20,000-$25,000 range is below today’s average new-vehicle transaction price of $28,588, none of the top 10 is a bare-bones model. In fact, only cars equipped with automatic transmission, air conditioning, curtain side airbags, and antilock brakes qualify for our best-mileage squad. Several even have leather upholstery, heated seats, power sunroofs and other amenities.

The list uses the combined city/highway miles-per-gallon estimate reported by the EPA. The price we cite includes the manufacturer-mandated destination charge, but no tax, title, or license fees. All cars are 2008s, except for the Hyundai Sonata and Toyota Camry, which are in showrooms now as early 2009 models.

Toyota Prius
Four-door hatchback, $23,560.

  • Fuel economy: 46 mpg combined; 48 mpg city/45 mpg highway.
  • Recommended extra: Option Package 2 adds an antiskid system, rearview camera, keyless locks and ignition, and upgraded audio system ($575).
  • Surprise feature: Frankly, it’s the overall design of this pacesetting hybrid. Inside and out, the Prius is like nothing else on the road – at least until Honda unveils its yet-to-be-named new hybrid during 2009.
  • You need to know: Toyota will replace the current Prius with a larger, more-powerful version for model-year 2010. Until then, demand for the current model is certain to remain strong so don’t expect Toyota dealers to show much sympathy when talking price.

 

2009 Honda Civic Hybrid
Four-door sedan, $23,505.

  • Fuel economy: 42 mpg combined; 40 mpg city/45 mpg highway.
  • Recommended extra: No factory options are available, but we’ve tabbed the less-expensive of the two Civic Hybrid models. The more-expensive one adds a navigation system, but breaches our $25,000 barrier.
  • Surprise feature: To save mileage-robbing weight, the Civic Hybrid is unavailable with a power sunroof. And the location of the battery pack precludes fold-down rear seatbacks.
  • You need to know: The Hybrid hardly looks different than any other Civic, which hasn’t helped sales. But starting in 2009, Honda hybrid owners who want to show their green colors can choose the 2010 Honda Insight a new hybrid-only model with exclusive, futuristic styling.

Mini Cooper Clubman
Three-door wagon, $21,450 (includes $1,250 for the optional automatic transmission).

  • Fuel economy: 29 mpg combined; 26 mpg city/34 mpg highway.
  • Recommended extras: The Premium Package adds automatic climate control, a power sunroof and upgraded audio ($1,500). The Cold Weather Package includes heated versions of the front seats, windshield-washer squirters, and outside mirrors; those mirrors also get power-folding capability ($500). The wood and leather steering wheel is a touch of class and includes auxiliary audio controls ($500).
  • Surprise feature: The Clubman is the longer version of the tiny Mini and not only has more luggage space and rear-seat room, but a charming right-side rear door hinged at the back (hence, the “three-door” designation), plus cute-as-can-be side-opening rear cargo doors.
  • You need to know: The Clubman sacrifices virtually none of Mini’s legendary go-cart-like handling while adding a welcome dollop of ride comfort and accessible space for people and stuff.

Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid
Four-door sedan, $24,290.

  • Fuel economy: 27 mpg combined; 24 mpg city/32 mpg highway.
  • Recommended extra: The Driver Convenience Package adds a six-way power-adjustable driver’s seat and power-adjustable gas and brake pedals ($325).
  • Surprise feature: Unlike the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic hybrids, Malibu’s gas-electric power system can’t propel the car on electricity alone. Instead, it saves fuel with the ability to shut off the gas engine when the car isn’t moving and by augmenting it during acceleration.
  • You need to know: Malibu is all-new for 2008 and is a hit for its styling, roominess, and build quality. The Hybrid is all that, and looks virtually identical to the non-hybrid four-cylinder Malibu.

Saturn Aura Green Line
Four-door sedan, $24,290.

  • Fuel economy: 27 mpg combined; 24 mpg city/32 mpg highway.
  • Recommended extra: The Preferred Package adds an eight-way power-adjustable driver’s seat and steering-wheel auxiliary audio controls ($440).
  • Surprise feature: Saturn is a division of General Motors and bases the Aura on the same underskin design as the similarly sized Chevrolet Malibu.
  • You need to know: Green Line is Saturn’s code for hybrid, and the Aura Green Line uses the same gas-electric power system as the Chevy Malibu Hybrid. Both are pleasant to drive, with the often-overlooked Aura likely to enjoy wider availability and greater opportunities for price discounts.

Nissan Altima 2.5 S
Four-door sedan, $21,305.

  • Fuel economy: 26 mpg combined; 23 mpg city/31 mpg highway.
  • Recommended extra: The Convenience Plus Package outfits the Altima with such features as a power sunroof and alloy wheels, leather-wrapped steering wheel with auxiliary audio controls, an eight-way power driver’s seat, and side windows that can raise and lower with one touch from within the car or – great for instant ventilation -- via a button on the remote keyfob ($2,150).
  • Surprise feature: Altima’s automatic transmission is a CVT, or continuously variable transmission. CVTs dispense with pre-set gear ratios in favor of a rheostat-like delivery of power. They save weight, and thus gas, but take some getting used to.
  • You need to know: No other car on our list matches Altima’s blend of aggressive styling, sporty performance and roomy accommodations. Altima also offers a Hybrid model rated 35 mpg city/ 33 highway and 34 mpg combined, but it tops our $25,000 limit by $795.

Chevrolet Malibu LT
Four-door sedan, $21,580.

  • Fuel economy: 25 mpg combined; 22 mpg city/30 mpg highway.
  • Recommended extras: The 2LT option package includes alloy wheels, suede-like upholstery, heated front seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, power adjustable pedals, automatic-dimming rearview mirror, compass and illuminated visor mirrors ($1,855). Power sunroof ($800).
  • Surprise feature: Antilock four-wheel disc brakes, antiskid system, tilt/telescope steering wheel with auxiliary audio controls and generously sized 17-inch wheels and tires are all included in the Malibu LT’s reasonable base price. Nice going, Chevy.
  • You need to know: The LT we feature hooks a four-speed automatic transmission to its four-cylinder engine. Step up to the four-cylinder Malibu LTZ model and Chevy substitutes a more-advanced six-speed automatic. Unfortunately, the LTZ, which comes with leather upholstery and other goodies, starts at $26,670. The good news is there’s little difference in fuel economy, at 22/32 and 25-mpg combined for the six-speed.

2009 Hyundai Sonata Limited
Four-door sedan, $24,650.

  • Fuel economy: 25 mpg combined; 22 mpg city/32 mpg highway.
  • Recommended extras: The Limited is the top-of-the-line version of Hyundai’s midsize sedan, and its only available option is a navigation system. Adding that $1,250 feature pushes the price above $25,000.
  • Surprise feature: Loaded with leather upholstery, heated front seats, power sunroof, automatic climate control and other luxury items, the Sonata Limited goes toe-to-toe with any rival for standard pleasantries but undercuts most by $1,000-$1,500 on sticker price.
  • You need to know: Sonata follows a formula that’s been increasingly successful for Hyundai: deliver upscale interiors and lots of appealing features, save money by skimping on cutting-edge mechanical design. 

Pontiac G6 Base
Four-door sedan, $20,700.

  • Fuel economy: 25 mpg combined; 22 mpg city/30 mpg highway.
  • Recommended extras: The Sun and Sound Package adds a power sunroof and an audio unit with a six-disc CD changer ($1,100). The leather upholstery option is accompanied by heated front seats and a six-way power driver’s seat ($995). The Preferred Package includes remote engine start and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with auxiliary audio controls ($495).
  • Surprise feature: A low base price allows you to ladle on the comfort and convenience options and still keep a lid on the sticker price. Stuffed with our recommended extras, the G6 base model lists for a palatable $23,290.
  • You need to know: The G6 puts a Pontiac body over the same font-wheel-drive midsize-car skeleton used by the Chevy Malibu and Saturn Aura. It also shares their four-cylinder engine/four-speed automatic transmission powertrain.

2009 Toyota Camry SE
Four-door sedan, $23,050.

  • Fuel economy: 25 mpg combined; 21 mpg city/31 mpg highway.
  • Recommended extras: Power sunroof ($940). The antiskid-system option includes traction control, a combination that makes its easier to maintain control in fast changes of direction and to get away from a stop on slippery surfaces ($650). The Sport Convenience Package adds a universal garage door opener, compass and automatic day/night rearview mirror ($275).
  • Surprise feature: If the built-to-coddle Camry has any sporting pretensions they show up in the SE version, which has a tauter suspension and bigger tires than other models. Standard alloy wheels, fog lamps, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel are nice bonuses.
  • You need to know: Like any four-cylinder Camry, the SE takes its time getting up to speed. Too bad the Camry Hybrid, which is actually faster than conventional four-cylinder Camrys and gets a laudable 34-mpg combined city/highway mpg, is disqualified from our list because it starts at $25,590.