With fuel prices soaring and seemingly no end in sight, where does one turn?
For some, it's a vehicle that's been engineered to sip, not guzzle. The question then: Which brand is more likely to ease you out of the gas station without feeling you've been turned upside down and shaken?
Perhaps surprisingly, it's not always the Asian-based carmakers that come up on top where fuel economy ratings are concerned.
A look at the U.S. government's official fuel economy ratings (published by the Department of Energy, the Office of Energy Efficiency and the Environmental Protection Agency) might not be light reading, but it does give a new sense of perspective on what is a very complex issue.
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One observation: Carmakers are, on the whole, doing a pretty good job of bringing choice to the market when it comes to fuel economy.
There may, however, be two races to win: the most fuel-efficient car on the road and the automaker that "on average" is most likely to save you money at the pump.
On a single car basis, the Toyota Prius comes out on top, its hybrid technology delivering 48 city miles on a gallon (like other hybrids, its fuel efficiency drops slightly on the highway, to 45).
With fuel prices hitting hard, where are motorists more likely to find relief?
On a fleet basis, the best performing manufacturer is BMW's MINI division, with three models averaging out at just over 27 mpg city/highway.
But fitting a family any bigger than two or three in the MINI isn't possible; Honda might be a more realistic choice, its 27 models average out at almost 24 mpg combined.
Domestically, the winner in average fuel economy is Chevrolet, its 88 models average a combined 23.26 mpg combined city/highway, only slightly lower than Honda's 23.81 mpg average.
What's more impressive is that Chevrolet's numbers factor in a full line of trucks, not the case with Honda (its only offering in that category being the Ridgeline).
But as shoppers would be quick to point out, it's not the fleet that we're buying. It's the individual car or truck.
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By category, the 2008 Fuel Economy Guide singles out the leaders, and there it's more than a little apparent that the traditional Asian and European brands aren't about to give up their leadership position.
MINI stands alone in the next size category (mini-subcompact), with its two variations (manual and automatic) delivering 28/37 combined and 26/34 respectively.
An interesting side note: the traditional argument that manual transmissions deliver higher fuel economy no longer holds true. Several carmakers boast higher fuel economy with the automatic transmission than with a manual (if available).
Toyota's Yaris takes top honors in the subcompact category, posting 29/35 with an automatic transmission (29/36 for the manual).
A little bigger vehicle will still take you further, notably if it's the industry leading Toyota Prius. In second place is the Nissan Versa and its 26/31 mpg rating.
The federal government's "large car" category has the Honda Accord at the top with 21/31 mpg (manual) and 22/31 mpg (automatic).
Honda once again takes top honors in the small station wagon category, the Fit coming in at 27/34 (automatic) and 28/34 (manual).
Volkswagen's Passat came out on top in the midsize station wagon category with 20/28 mpg for the automatic and 20/29 with manual transmission.
Where pickups are concerned, the differences between manufacturers are only slight, with Ford's Ranger two-wheel-drive Ranger pickup tying with its Mazda cousin, the B2300 at 21/26 mpg city/highway, followed by Toyota's Tacoma two-wheel-drive version delivering slightly less -- 19/25 mpg.
GM apparently owns the cargo van category when it comes to fuel economy, its Chevy 1500/2500 and GMC version delivering 15/20 mpg.
And the Mazda5 has similar bragging rights in the minivan category, with 21/27 mpg (automatic) and 22/28 mpg (manual).
The sport utility vehicle category has Ford Motor Co. taking top honors, not only with the Ford Escape Hybrid at 34/30 but its virtually identical hybrid cousins the Mazda Tribute and Mercury Mariner. The Jeep Compass and Patriot, both with manual transmission and two-wheel-drive, are rated at 23/28 mpg city/highway.
So who's the worst when it comes to earning the gas guzzler label?
But people who buy those cars aren't nearly as likely to wince as the gas pump numbers go flying by.
The lesson: Just about any way the numbers are sliced and diced, there are options for car buyers looking for fuel relief.
And the differences may be surprising.
Comparisons based on data available in the Model Year 2008 Fuel Economy Guide, published by the U.S. Department of Energy, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- www.fueleconomy.gov. Number of vehicles for each manufacturer includes variations in transmission, engine and trim, and fuel octane requirements.
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