As gas prices fluctuate between $3 and $4, car buyers continue to seek relief at the pump by focusing on cars with high fuel-efficiency. But unlike in recent years, in which hybrids were considered the best bets for consumers wanting high fuel economy, auto observers are now saying gas-powered vehicles may now be the biggest bang for the buck.
Across the board, car companies are making their high-mpg gas cars faster and more powerful, which makes them more attractive than their counterparts from a few years ago.
"As more and more standard-fuel vehicles are coming out at 40 mpg ratings, it's harder for people to rationalize paying the premium for alternative-fuel vehicles," says Camryn Craig, a research analyst with Kelley Blue Book.
If a buyer springs for a high-m.p.g. gas car, savings in fuel costs can be substantial. At current gas prices, a vehicle getting 30 m.p.g. will save its owner $838 at the gas pump per year and $4,190 over five years, when comparing to a car that gets 20 mpg and if the gas price is $3.35, according to the Department of Energy.
But not all fuel-efficient cars are created equal when it comes to making up for their higher sticker prices, according to a recent TrueCar.com study commissioned by The New York Times. Only two hybrids in the study, the Lincoln MKZ the Toyota Prius, made up for extra costs in a short time (1.2 years and 1.8 years, respectively.) Other hybrids took up to a decade or more to make up the cost, with the Chevrolet Volt taking as much as 27 years.
Gas-only winners identified by TrueCar.com included the Mazda3 Touring with SkyActiv, whose owners would see immediate savings, and the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic with EcoTec Turbo, which pays for itself in 2.9 years.
Experts suggest considering nonstandard options that will save fuel as well. Ford is about to introduce a Stop-Start option for its 2013 Fusion, which for $295, improves fuel economy up to 10 percent by switching off the gas engine in heavy traffic or at stoplights and restarts when the brake is released. Ford will include its EcoBoost engine in its cars for around $1,000 to $2,000. The company says the EcoBoost gives vehicles 20 percent improved fuel efficiency.
"It's an incredibly popular option," says Alan Baum, a longtime auto industry observer and founder of Baum and Associates.