Although it will be a cold, green day in Crawford, Texas, before gasoline costs as much in the U.S. as it does in Europe or most other parts of the world, petrol is pricey enough that the middle class is slowly releasing its sweaty embrace of the hulking SUVs that have defined the American road for the past decade.
Simultaneously, not just those who play hacky sack and wear tinfoil hats, but normal citizens, too, are fretting about that global-warming thing. These two factors have conspired to make fuel economy almost sexy, such is the new consumer lust for miles per gallon. It's win-win for everyone but manufacturers whose sagging limbs are heavy with the rotten fruit of outdated gas guzzlers and Satan, otherwise known as the petroleum lobby.
Not all the vehicles on this list boast best-in-class fuel mileage numbers, but they are all significant for the fuel economy they offer, considering their package or particular talents. We've selected vehicles in segments generally considered as green as coal (which isn't) like midsize and large SUVs, sports cars, heck, even a supercar.
Weight is a primary foe of fuel efficiency, and we've seen all vehicles large and small pork up in the last 25 years. Although the basic new car equipment set has risen (remember painted metal interiors?), most new safety technologies have added weight. For example, the original VW Rabbit weighed under 2000 pounds; the current Rabbit, over 3000. Hauling around greater curb weights means engines need to produce more power, but consumers and additional legislation demand that they do so while using less fuel and producing fewer harmful emissions.
The rules governing efficiency, in reference to combustion, are as elemental in the extraction of maximum miles per gallon as they are for the production of monster horsepower and torque. The confluence of fuel efficiency and respectable performance is golden in a market where most consumers are willing to sacrifice absolutely nothing.
The vehicles here approach the fuel economy challenge differently, employing hybrid drive systems, forced induction, precise combustion control, the diesel cycle, good ol' American ingenuity, or some combination thereof. That almost every light-duty diesel vehicle on sale in the U.S. now or in the near future is on this list is an indication of what you should expect in coming years. We look forward to seeing the current screaming horsepower wars get supplemented, if not supplanted, by growling torque smack downs.
2008 Volkswagen Jetta TDI
31 mpg city/39 mpg highway (est)
Vee-Dub diesel die-hards, particularly those who live in the states tied to California emissions standards, are dancing an oily polka, because their diesel messiah returns in the form of the 50-state-legal, state-of-the-art Jetta TDI. The rest of us are just excited about a car that should regularly return more than 50 mpg. Official fuel-economy figures aren't out yet, but we expect to see something like low 30s in the city and high 30s on the highway from normal use, although we're sure diesel-huffing fanboys (and -girls) -- the sort of people who debate the optimal drafting distances for differently shaped "tow vehicles" -- will employ their favorite mileage-stretching strategies to crush the Prius's 45-mpg highway figure.
An expected jog to 60 mph in 8.0 to 8.5 seconds, although not embarrassing, does fail to express how well this car will dispatch day-to-day driving duties. With torque available from idle to redline, the stress of sphincter-clenching maneuvers such as country-road passing and sprints across busy intersections is much mitigated.
The federal mandate for ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel, long available in other parts of the world, facilitates the use of emissions-control technologies developed with Mercedes and others under the BlueTec label, although Volkswagen will continue to use its TDI moniker. Unlike the Mercedes-Benz E320, the Jetta TDI makes do without urea injection, instead employing a storage catalyst that traps nitrogen oxides until enough have built up to be burned off. No word yet on the rumored Grateful Dead–edition TDI equipped with an NOx-to-nitrous-oxide converter with dashboard-mounted balloon inflator.
2008 Nissan Altima Hybrid
35 mpg city/33 mpg highway
Bet you didn't know Nissan sells a hybrid. It's been on sale since early 2007, but only in states sharing California's stricter-than-thou environmental regulations. So those of you living in the blue states of California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont, take note.
Nissan's hybrid program was birthed at a rocky financial moment in the company's history, and CEO Carlos Ghosn, usually lauded for making good decisions, decided the public wanted CVT transmissions more than hybrids. When that proved not entirely accurate, playing catch-up meant licensing Toyota's proven Hybrid Synergy Drive, which includes the transaxle, inverter, lithium-ion battery, and control unit, and coupling it with a detuned 2.5-liter four-cylinder from the base Altima. City mileage goes up by 12 mpg to 35, and highway mileage improves slightly to 33.
The Nissan's obvious competitor is the Toyota Camry hybrid. Rather than looking like a bloated digestive organ on roller skates, however, the Altima Hybrid is attractive, even sporty-looking. It's as quick as the base Altima, running to 60 mph in 7.4 seconds. The hybrid is swift where it counts, boasting the Altima's stiff chassis, sporty suspension tuning, quick steering, and excellent brakes -- all of which encourage eco-tourism to local mountain roads.
2009 Toyota Matrix
26 mpg city/32 mpg highway
The 2009 Toyota Matrix is the latest take on the quirky, practical Matrix formula. New doesn't necessarily mean better, but in terms of statistics, the new car delivers. Starting at just over $15,000, it costs the same as many four-door econoboxes, but offers significantly more usable space, and if you opt for the base 1.8-liter engine, it will return an impressive 26 mpg in the city and 32 on the highway. The four-cylinder makes use of VVT-i (variable valve timing with intelligence) on both camshafts to produce 132 horsepower. It's not enough to make the Matrix interesting, but that seems to be the thrust of this once-compelling car anyway. Opt for the more powerful Camry-sourced 2.4-liter, and fuel mileage will suffer accordingly.
Although the original Matrix sported novel lines, a then-trend-setting interior, and an optional engine spirited enough to grace the Lotus Elise, the new Matrix trends toward sameness. Most unfortunately, it features swoopy front fenders similar to those on the Shamu-esque Camry Solara coupe and better left to rot on a Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS.
Setting the Matrix apart is available all-wheel drive, which, although it exacts a penalty in fuel consumption, offers a persuasive and far less expensive alternative to mini-utes for those who need improved all-weather capability.
2008 Mercedes-Benz E320 BlueTec
23 mpg city/32 mpg highway
The Lexus hybrid line, not as much green as a shade of straw yellow, was as "responsible" a luxury car as you could order until Mercedes announced that, for 2008, the E320 BlueTec -- currently only available in 45 states -- would be cleared for sale in all 50 states. An upgraded exhaust-filtering system that further reduces emissions from the diesel is to thank for the E320's newfound compliance.
Mercedes beat Volkswagen back to the nationwide diesel market with the full Mercedes experience -- rattle-free, pampered quietude, and effortless speed -- while consuming considerably less fuel than the comparable gasoline-powered model. The current car gets six more miles per gallon in the city and eight more on the highway than the E350, yet it still makes the run to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds. The 50-state tweaks should not affect those numbers one whit. We won't bother you with a horsepower figure because it doesn't matter when you have 400 pound-feet of torque -- more than the BMW M6 -- on tap, thanks in part to a variable-geometry turbocharger.
Although the BlueTec E320 is the only, and therefore the most compelling, vehicle in the luxury-diesel segment, it's about to get interesting with Audi and BMW ushering in their own über-powerful compression-ignition offerings in the near future.
2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
27 mpg city/25 mpg highway
Yes, the Ford Escape, the Mazda Tribute, and the Mercury Mariner hybrids better the Highlander hybrid's fuel economy by 2 mpg city and highway, but the all-new 2008 Highlander hybrid is of the physical size that most people think they need in an SUV -- big -- will seat eight in a pinch, and is about three seconds quicker to 60 mph. Americans aren't celebrated for their embrace of compromise, and unlike the Escape, Tribute, and Mariner triplets, the Highlander hybrid doesn't require much.
Toyota combines a 3.3-liter V-6 (down from 3.5 liters in the nonhybrid version) with electric motors on the front and rear axles. A combined total of 270 horsepower matches the nonhybrid version's, although it is meted out through a continuously variable transmission. Teens will appreciate the button that engages electric-only operation up to 25 mph, allowing silent escape from the cul-de-sac when "borrowing" the car for an evening out.
A Highlander Limited hybrid can weigh more than 4600 pounds, the kind of curb weight that used to be associated only with ladder-frame SUVs and cast-iron V-8s, but such are the costs of modern equipment, hybrid-drive systems, and proportions proportional to American posteriors. That it still manages 27 mpg city and 25 highway is impressive, but just imagine if Toyota could excise the weight of a Yugo or two.