Countdown to Earth Day: Five Cars You'll Want When Gas Prices Soar

While walking through the displays at major auto shows, we often think about what we'd recommend to our readers. As we study the dozens of new vehicles ranging from hybrid sedans to full-size SUVs, we realized our recommendations needed to factor in future fuel prices.

We contacted independent oil analyst Patrick DeHann. As the Senior petroleum analyst for, DeHann tracks fuel prices for tens of thousands of independent gasoline stations. What DeHann told us was sobering: "As the economy continues to grow, so does our appetite for fossil fuels. The U.S. Department of Energy consistently reports that demand for petroleum fuels has been up while at the same time, oil supplies have been at all time highs."

Unfortunately, DeHann reported, the supply of crude oil has dropped due to cutbacks from oil-producing countries. Because of this supply reduction, DeHann expects that gas prices will begin to climb. "By the time the U.S. driving season starts in May, we may see gasoline prices in the average $3.65-$4.05 per gallon, which would be the highest since 2008," he said.

The national average peaked at $4.08 in July of 2008. DeHann expects to see the highest gas prices during the EPA mandated winter-to-summer fuel blend changeover in late May, and again in August when hurricane season rolls around.'s DeHann did have some good news regarding rising fuel prices. "OPEC would likely want to curb oil prices should they rise over $110/barrel to keep the U.S. economy reliant on fossil fuels. It isn't in OPEC's interest to see demand for their product drop as a result of high pump prices," opined DeHann, who believes that OPEC will attempt to keep American fuel prices below $4 per gallon in the long run.

So what new models would we recommend to combat rising gas prices? Find our top five picks after the jump.

2012 Fiat 500

Depending on your age, you may not know that the Italian manufacturer Fiat ever sold cars in North America. Well, it did, some 27 years ago. Now Fiats are coming back, with the brand partnered with Chrysler. The 500 offers American buyers a fun, retro-styled car that's similar to the Mini Cooper.

Immensely popular in Europe, the two-door 500 hatchback is smaller than the Mini. But like it, the Fiat is roomier inside than it looks. Full-size adults won't have trouble getting comfortable in the front seats. The rear seats are a snug fit for those over 5-foot 6-inches. The trunk holds 9.5 cubic feet and the rear seats fold when you need more cargo room.

In addition to its Italian flair and undeniable cuteness, the Fiat 500 delivers EPA mileage of 30 mpg city, 38 mpg highway when equipped with the 5-speed manual transmission. With a 6-speed automatic, that falls to 27 and 34, respectively.

While the European and American 500s appear identical, our car is improved with additional safety features. With a 101-horsepower 1.4-liter four cylinder, the North American Fiat 500 also has more power, but don't expect Corvette-like acceleration. On the road, the 500 feels sporty, substantial and solid. This is good, because at a starting price $15,500, the built-in-Mexico-by-Chrysler 500 isn't cheap.

2012 Ford Focus
2012 Ford Focus – Click above for high-res image gallery

2012 Ford Focus

If you're not ready for a micro car, then the larger Ford Focus might be what you're looking for – especially because the Focus achieves similar fuel economy.

The all-new Focus comes in a four-door sedan and sporty five-door hatchback body styles. The new Focus drives so smoothly and quietly that you might mistake it for a larger, more expensive car. Riding on a 1.3-inch longer wheelbase than 2010, the two new bodies share a crisp, modern design that is highlighted by clever details. Tiny wings molded into the rear taillamps smooth airflow and active shutters can close off the grille opening to reduce drag.

The '12 Focus gets 160 horsepower from a new 2.0-liter four-cylinder featuring direct fuel injection. However, with just 146 lb-ft of torque, the engine has to work a little to pull the car's 3,000 pounds of curb weight. A five-speed manual and Ford's new twin-clutch six-speed automatic deliver 27/36 mpg (city/highway) and 28/38 mpg, respectively. Even better, the Focus SE sedan with SFE (super fuel economy) package and the six-speed automatic transmission manages to get 40 mpg on the highway. The automatic is good in traffic but feels lazy when roads get exciting. The European-tuned chassis helps makes up for the transmission. The new Focus comes in four trim levels that start at about $17,000.

2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid – Click above for high-res image gallery

2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

What if you could have fuel economy that's better than the Fiat 500 or Ford Focus in a car with the room of a mid-size sedan? You can, with the 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid. The Sonata's all-new design was introduced last year, and the $25,795 Hybrid model is new for 2011.

Hyundai's innovative 2-motor hybrid system biases performance for the way Americans drive (fast), which is why the Sonata gets its best mileage (40 mpg) on the highway. City mileage is still an impressive 36 mpg.

The powertrain in the new Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is significantly different from those in other hybrids, which is why it can drive at up to 75 mph propelled only by its electric motor. This is much faster than competitive hybrids, including the Ford Fusion Hybrid and the Toyota Prius.

2012 Hyundai Veloster
2012 Hyundai Veloster – Click above for high-res image gallery

2012 Hyundai Veloster

It's an unusual name for an unusual car: The Veloster looks like a sporty 2-door hatchback from the driver side, but it's not. When you look at the car from the passenger side, you realize it has two doors on that side of the vehicle, giving it a total of three doors plus the hatch. The design is brilliant in its practicality because it simultaneously gives the driver easy access to the front seat while making things convenient for passengers on the curbside.

This innovative and practical design gives the Veloster a bold advantage over traditional two- and four-door compact cars. Equipped with a high-tech, direct-injected 1.6-liter engine, the Veloster has 138 horsepower. Because the latest Hyundai won't be in dealerships until hurricane season, EPA mileage figures aren't yet available. Hyundai did announce that it expects 40 mpg highway.

2011 chevrolet volt

2011 Chevrolet Volt

What if you could instantly become immune to gasoline price swings? Driving a Chevrolet Volt could be your ticket to freedom from gasoline, provided you commute less than 35 miles and have a place to plug in to recharge the car's batteries.

Unfortunately, scoring a 2011 Chevrolet Volt may be a problem that's bigger than its $41,000 price tag. Currently, orders far exceed Chevrolet's manufacturing capacity through the end of the year. (Production volumes will increase for 2012.) While driving a new Volt, which gets the equivalent of 93 mpg when running on electricity, is a great high-tech experience. Practically, it may make sense to drive something more conventional and less costly.

Editor's Note: This article was previously published in a slightly different form on AOL Autos.

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