The Most Affordable Fuel-Efficient Cars of 2011

By Christian Hudspeth
June 10, 2011

Gas prices are near historic highs, and with a national average between $3.50 and $4.00 per gallon, you may be wondering if it's time to buy a hybrid or fuel-efficient car. You're not the only one thinking about it -- small car sales have jumped over 22% YTD compared to this time last year.

But have you ever noticed how high the sticker price of a hybrid can be compared to cars of the same model or class? Is it worth it to pay the higher price on a car to save on fuel costs over the next few years? Will you save money overall on the investment and come out ahead in the long run? 

InvestingAnswers has crunched the numbers to compare 17 of the most popular fuel-efficient cars based on their manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP), MPG (miles per gallon), annual fuel cost, payback period and total cost over five years to find out which car will save you the most green to "go green."

[See the slideshow version of our list: The 20 Most Affordable, Fuel-Efficient Cars on the Market]

We've categorized our comparisons into three categories to make it easier for you to make an informed purchase decision. In the table below, we compare the most popular statistic in fuel efficiency for car buyers and enthusiasts: highest MPG and lowest annual fuel cost.

Top 5 Fuel-Efficient Cars with Highest MPG and Lowest Annual Fuel Cost

The Nissan (NSANY.PK) Leaf and the Chevy (NYSE: GM) Volt top out the list with an impressive EPA estimated 99 MPG and 93 MPG (gas equivalent reading). Their electric and plug-in hybrid engines sip nearly half the fuel of even a hybrid Toyota (NYSE: TM) Prius

These stats certainly generate plenty of excitement in consumers and media alike. But even with generous federal tax credits of $7,500 each, the Leaf and the Volt's steep price tags dwarf the cost of the same-class Toyota Camry, which starts at a modest $20,190. 

The new technology used in hybrids, all-electric and plug-in-hybrid cars impress at the pump, but their initial price may be a bit high for many unless they can prove to save money in the long run. 

[InvestingAnswers Feature: Boost your Fuel Economy to 85 Miles per Gallon]

But suppose that you do decide to pay the premium price on a hybrid or electric vehicle (EV) rather than settle for a conventional gas model of the car. You would probably like to know how long it would be until you made your money back on your extra investment through fuel savings. So we've figured that for you as well in our next comparison category (our table shown below). 

Top 5 Hybrids/EV Cars with Fastest Break-Even Time
 
 
Notice that we compared most of our hybrids/EV cars with a non-hybrid, 4-cylinder Toyota Camry. This is because these hybrids/EV cars do not have non-hybrid counterparts, so we've used a car in the same class/size category for the closest comparison possible. 
 
Based on our findings, the Toyota Prius and the Nissan Leaf each take less than three years to pay back the added price through the fuel savings.
 
After that time has passed, they will indeed save you money over the Toyota Camry, making them a financially sound choice.
 
Despite this handful of good car options, a whopping six out of ten hybrids on our list take more than a decade to recoup the added cost over the non-hybrid model.
 
With the average driver holding onto their car for no more than five years, it may be financially unwise for most to choose any other hybrid/EV other than the ones listed above until gas prices have risen further.
 
So we have shown that hybrids, plug-ins, and EVs can save you significantly on fuel costs, but what about the overall, long-run costs? We've crunched the numbers to find out which cars on the list make the most financial sense. Our results are in the chart below:
 
Top 5 Fuel-Efficient Cars with Lowest Long Term Cost

 
The best car combo of fuel efficiency and affordability in 2011 is the Ford (NYSE: F) Fiesta subcompact, which wins out with a savings of nearly $4,000 over the next best Honda (NYSE: HMC) Civic (non-hybrid).
 
The 93 MPG Chevy Volt costs nearly $47,000 (double that of the Ford Fiesta) over five years. An honorable mention goes to the Nissan Leaf, the all-electric vehicle which came in a close 6th and costs a fairly modest $32,204 over five years.
 
 
The Investing Answer: Consider fuel-efficient, non-hybrid compacts or subcompacts if you're looking to spend the absolute least money on long-term car travel expenses. If you need something a bit roomier for the family, consider a Toyota Prius or a Ford Escape (non-hybrid). 
 
After comparing the top fuel-efficient cars, we now know that hybrids still do not always save you the most money in the long run. A car with high MPG ratings will certainly wow you, but you should always do the math and make sure it makes financial sense and that the vehicle fits your needs.
 
Photo courtesy of Flickr: Honda News