The automotive industry has changed immensely since the last gasoline crisis saw prices spike in the upper $4.00 per gallon range. While hybrids were flying off dealership lots, small cars still really hadn't caught on. This time around, automakers seem to have gotten the hint that small and fuel efficient no longer equates to cheap, boring and stripped down. So before you get into the 'sell your SUV and buy a hybrid' mode, here's a quick look at the top five non-hybrid cars that are not only affordable to fill up but also entertaining to drive and offer plenty of cabin tech.
2011 MINI Cooper
Coming in at $19,400, the 2011 MINI Cooper is, surprisingly, not the most expensive car on this list despite the fact that price usually comes up whenever this sporty, fun-to-drive hatchback is mentioned. Looking at the spec sheet, the 1.6-liter inline-four doesn't look all that impressive with 121 horsepower and 114 lb-ft of torque, but this helps balance the car between sportiness and fuel efficiency with EPA fuel economy estimates of up to 29 miles per gallon in the city and 37 mpg on the highway. The last time fuel prices shot up to record levels so did sales of the MINI Cooper, and this time around things should be no different.
2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco
The Chevrolet Cruze is all new for 2011, but the mid-level Eco model is the top trim level for fuel efficiency with EPA estimates of up to 28 mpg city and 42 mpg highway. With a starting price of $18,425, the 2011 Chevy Cruze Eco commands a $1,900 premium over the base Cruse model, but it also improves fuel economy by 2 mpg city and 6 mpg highway. The Cruze Eco uses the same 1.4-liter inline-four as some other Cruze models, but this 138-hp engine manages to deliver better fuel economy thanks to changes to the rest of the car. The biggest of these changes are the unique aerodynamic enhancements that include a new front fascia with active aero shutters and a rear spoiler, but the Eco also comes standard with 17-inch ultra-low rolling resistance tires and an Eco overdrive gear added to the six-speed manual transmission.
2012 Ford Focus SFE
2011 Ford Fiesta SFE
Ford's SFE trim level gives two of its most popular cars some impressive fuel economy figures. On the all-new 2012 Ford Focus, the SFE is only available as a $495 option on the Focus SE sedan with the automatic transmission which would start at $18,860, but it returns fuel economy estimates of 28 mpg city and 40 mpg highway (improvements of 2 mpg city and 4 mpg city over the base Focus models). Changes to the Focus SFE include 16-inch low rolling resistance tires, aerodynamic wheel covers and a rear spoiler. Similarly, the SFE is only available on the 2011 Ford Fiesta SE with the automatic transmission but is offered on both hatchback and sedan models starting at $16,885 (including the SFE option) to attain the 40 mpg highway rating. Both cars feature Ford Twin-Independent Variable-cam Timing (Ti-VCT) engine technology to balance fuel economy with decent power.
2011 Hyundai Elantra
Competitors such as the Focus SFE and Cruze Eco produce at least 40 mpg highway, but the 2011 Hyundai Elantra beats both by attaining this magic fuel economy number without any special package. Starting at $14,595, all of the new Elantra models are rated at 29 mpg city and 40 mpg highway. All models also use the same 148-hp, 1.8-liter inline-four paired with either a six-speed manual or automatic transmission. Along with its more efficient powertrain, the all-new 2011 Elantra has also been given a sleek and stylish exterior design and a comfortable, luxurious interior that includes options such as rear heated seats.
2011 Volkswagen Golf TDI
2011 Volkswagen Jetta TDI
When it comes to hybrid alternatives, diesel engines are about as close as you can get to the fuel economy without sacrificing a car's performance. For 2011, Volkswagen offers its TDI engine in a trio of cars that deliver 30 mpg city and 42 mpg highway: the Volkswagen Golf TDI, Volkswagen Jetta TDI and Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI. One downfall of the diesel performance is the added premium at the time of purchase as well as the more expensive diesel fuel when filling up. The TDI adds more than $5,000 to the base price of a 2011 Golf and more than $6,000 to the base price of a 2011 Jetta. Still, if you're looking for a fun-to-drive, fuel-efficient car, it is hard to beat Volkswagen's TDI cars.