In the past 17 years, no vehicle in America outsold the Ford F-150 on a monthly or yearly basis -- not once. In May of this year, however, Honda moved more Civics and Accords and Toyota more Corollas and Camrys than Ford moved of its bestseller. This shift has less to do with a change in Americans' vehicular preferences than the fact that trucks guzzle fuel, the cost of which has doubled in the past three years.
America has been sideswiped by the $4 gallon of gasoline, and auto industry heads believe the higher gas prices are permanent, not just a temporary shift or spike. Companies have been reconfiguring their lineups accordingly. GM has green-lighted the electrically motivated Volt plug-in hybrid for a 2010 release, and in addition to ceasing production of trucks and SUVs at four U.S. plants and idling thousands of workers, it is considering selling off the iconic Hummer brand.
From a manufacturing perspective, it's increasingly difficult to build fuel-sipping vehicles, as current safety and emissions technologies add weight, a primary nemesis of fuel economy. Hybrid technology and low mass are the most cost-effective strategies to better fuel economy, and the bulk of our list of the 10 most-fuel-efficient vehicles utilize one or both. Toyota plays both sides, managing to field three of the top 10 -- four if you count the Nissan Altima, which uses the Toyota Camry's hybrid drive system under license.
That five of the vehicles on our list are hybrids is a harbinger of things to come. Although there's only one diesel in this group, expect that to change. The following vehicles are ranked according to their EPA combined fuel-economy ratings. Since the EPA calculation favors city mileage, that number is used here as a tiebreaker.
First Place: 2008 Toyota Prius
City: 48 mpg
Highway: 45 mpg
Combined: 46 mpg
Base Price: $22,160
The Toyota Prius, the gold standard for fuel economy, is a bit like steamed broccoli: utterly insipid but wholesome just the same. Iconic status was guaranteed when Hollywood types with air-conditioned mega-mansions trotted out Priuses as their green beards, even before the car was immortalized with its own episode of South Park. An anodyne ownership experience includes tepid acceleration, numb steering, and nonlinear brakes. Of note are the unbeatable fuel economy, the impressively low price, and the unique, futuristic lines that house a large amount of usable space. Stay tuned for the next-generation Prius and a plug-in version, which will further increase fuel economy, in 2011.
Second Place: 2008 Honda Civic Hybrid
City: 40 mpg
Highway: 45 mpg
Combined: 42 mpg
Base Price: $23,270
The Prius's main contender is the Civic hybrid, a more quotidian approach to economical hybrid transportation. In rendering the hybrid more aerodynamic, Honda also made it one of the better-looking Civic offerings, more likely to appeal to those who don't need to wear their environmentalism on their lapel, although this might be part of the reason it hasn't seen nearly the sales success of the Prius. The Civic hybrid drives more like a regular car than the competition, is a more responsive handler, and is a touch less sluggish. The Civic's hybrid system is simple and compact but doesn't deliver quite the miserly numbers of the Prius.
Third Place: 2008 Smart Fortwo
City: 33 mpg
Highway: 41 mpg
Combined: 36 mpg
Base Price: $12,235
A small sum of money gets you a Lilliputian car that returns the third-best fuel mileage of any vehicle here. The Smart Fortwo delivers solidly on its niche-market promise. It's the ultimate urban vehicular solution as defined by stylish cachet, excellent fuel economy, and -- by virtue of being the smallest -- being also the biggest gun in the parking wars. Your mileage may vary; ours did, with an average of four fewer mpg than the EPA's combined number. Given that the Fortwo is the slowest-accelerating passenger vehicle in the country (say a Hail Mary before merging onto a freeway), a lead foot, with a resulting impact in fuel economy, is practically a safety requirement.
Fourth Place: 2008 Nissan Altima Hybrid
City: 35 mpg
Highway: 33 mpg
Combined: 34 mpg
Base Price: $26,140
The Altima hybrid is sold only in California and the seven eastern states that share the California Air Resources Board's air-quality statutes, which is a shame because it delivers hybrid efficiency in a stylish, pleasurable-to-drive sedan. The Altima hybrid delivers similar fuel economy numbers to those of the Camry hybrid, which isn't surprising considering Nissan licensed Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive for the effort. Paired with Nissan's 2.5-liter gasoline engine, the Altima hybrid returns performance numbers better than the standard model's. It delivers on its sporty looks and design-forward interior with a fun, enthusiastic chassis and precise steering. If the name "Camry" makes your inner rebel cringe, you'd do well to consider the Altima hybrid.