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Monday, February 6, 2023

The 50-mpg club: 8 affordable cars making the best of high gas prices

Pandemic year or not, gas prices run on supply and demand. Those simple rules have again pushed up prices at the pump, leading many more Americans to once again think about fuel efficiency.

Several unexpected things have driven the price hikes this time, including OPEC drama on the supply side, and a spike in demand due to a rapid recovery from the pandemic in the U.S. and elsewhere. Meanwhile, crude is at its highest price since 2014, creating quite the turnaround from the giveaway pricing just over a year ago.

The higher prices are here to stay for some time. On Tuesday, the AAA announced that it anticipated the pump price will rise another 10 to 20 cents a gallon by the end of the summer. The price of regular gasoline now stands at a national average of $3.12 a gallon, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That’s about 3 cents more than a week ago and 94.5 cents more than a year ago. In California, where prices often lead the nation, a gallon of gas was at an average of nearly $4.19.

‘Which would you choose: Gas or Electric?’ California SB 350 [via Natural Resources Defense Council]

As we underscore often, fully electric cars offer both lower running costs and a green advantage, with lower carbon emissions that get stronger as the grid adds more renewable sources like wind and solar to the mix. But if plugging in isn’t yet a possibility, there are a number of widely available cars that achieve 50 mpg combined or more based on EPA ratings.

Probably the most pleasant surprise here is that they all sell for less than $30,000, well below today’s average new-vehicle price of about $41,000.

We’ve included the current mix of 2021 and 2022 models that you’ll encounter at dealerships, noting what’s different for 2022 if it matters.

Fuel economy and pricing are cited for the highest-mileage model from each lineup, with each model listed only once—although we’ve teased a few plug-in alternatives where relevant. Base prices are listed including mandatory destination fees.

Here’s the 50-mpg club:

2021 Hyundai Ioniq Blue

EPA city/highway/combined mpg: 58/60/59
Base price: $24,405

The Ioniq beats the Prius at its own game, and from what we’ve seen, Hyundai’s hybrid system will outperform the Prius for highway mileage, and it’s more relaxed on the highway. For those who think they can plug in, the Ioniq Plug-In Hybrid SE starts at $27,705, not counting $4,543 EV tax credit eligibility. It can go 29 miles on a charge and its combined rating is 52 mpg versus 59 mpg for the Ionig Blue. As we’ve found, though, the plug-in returns about the same mileage as the Ioniq hybrid without a charge.

2022 Toyota Prius Eco
EPA city/highway/combined mpg: 58/53/56
Base price: $25,570

The current generation Prius is a little weird-looking,  But underneath the skin, Toyota made it a better car all around. It’s sportier than ever, and more efficient than anything else on the market in city driving. You can even get one with all-wheel drive and 50 mpg, or in plug-in Prime guise, with 25 all-electric miles and 54 mpg as a hybrid. The Prius maintains a strong reputation for longevity and reliability, though it’s lost some of its green-car luster as of late.

2021 Hyundai Elantra Hybrid Blue
EPA city/highway/combined mpg: 53/56/54
Base price: $24,555

The redesigned Elantra looks loud enough to be seen, in this year of social distancing, while Elantra Hybrid versions pack a retuned (think sharper-responding) version of the same hybrid system in the Ioniq. Earlier this year, we easily topped 50 mpg in varied driving in a top-of-the-line Elantra Hybrid Limited.

2022 Honda Insight
EPA city/highway/combined mpg: 55/49/52
Base price: $26,205

Honda’s Insight sedan is based on the Civic, but you might not know it as it’s trimmed in a level of detail more like a base-level model from Honda’s Acura premium brand. The 2022 Insight drops the base LX model and boosts the base price by about $2,000 this year, so it’s no longer quite the steal it was originally but we love its seamless, shiftless hybrid system and how perky it feels in stop-and-go driving.

2022 Toyota Corolla Hybrid
EPA city/highway/combined mpg: 53/52/52
Base price: $24,595

The Toyota Corolla Hybrid packs the same hybrid system as the current Prius, as well as many of the same tech features, into a car that looks simple and elegant. In a recent short drive, we had no problem achieving its 50+ mpg rating, and it lives up to the minimalist, affordable mantra that’s carried the Corolla all along.

2020 Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE – Driven – Portland OR, April 2020

2021 Toyota Camry Hybrid LE
EPA city/highway/combined mpg: 51/53/52
Base price: $28,250

Toyota has been refining its hybrid systems for more than 20 years, and the Toyota Camry Hybrid is one of the strongest arguments that Toyota should make all of its internal combustion engine cars hybrids. In a drive last year of the upscale Camry Hybrid XLE, I averaged 50 mpg in total and more than 40 mpg no matter the traffic environment.

2022 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Blue
EPA city/highway/combined mpg: 50/54/52
Base price: $28,755

The Sonata Hybrid is one of the highest-mileage gasoline-fueled sedans ever, so it might come as a surprise just how roomy, plush-riding, and feature-packed it is. The Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Limited we drove last year—with an mpg-boosting rooftop solar panel—matched its 47-mpg combined rating in varied driving, but we had no problem topping 50 mpg in relaxed highway driving. The Sonata Hybrid’s uses a traditional 6-speed automatic transmission, which helps make it the pick for those with long highway commutes.

2022 Kia Niro FE
EPA city/highway/combined mpg: 53/48/50
Base price: $25,865

The Niro offers a lot of frugal flexibility for those who live in the city, with decent back-seat space or, if you flip the seat backs forward, enough space for smaller pieces of furniture or very big grocery stock-ups. A plug-in hybrid version is offered in small numbers, too. Kia upgraded the Niro’s interface and added a few more active-safety features for 2020, but a more extensive refresh could be coming in 2022. We should note that the Niro is the only car on this list with a more SUV-like crossover body style, so its real-world highway numbers can suffer, especially at some of the faster Interstate cruising speeds.

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