This is a great time to get an attractive deal on a fuel-efficient used car. Automakers churned out large numbers of high-quality, high-miles-per-gallon (mpg) vehicles for much of the past decade in response to steep gas prices. But fuel prices have moderated of late, and car buyers are not as focused on fuel efficiency. That’s driving down the prices of all of the fuel sippers from a few years ago as they resurface on the resale market.
Gas prices surely will rise again. In the meantime, the following eight used-car models offer not only excellent fuel-efficient vehicles but also high-quality, affordable and in many cases fun-to-drive cars. For the rest of 2015 and the first half of 2016, a used 2012 or 2013 model generally will be your best bet (except as noted)—these are new enough that they likely have many miles left in them…yet old enough that three-year leases on them are expiring, which tends to be when supplies climb and prices fall.
These days, there are plenty of well-equipped, well-made used cars capable of delivering better than 30 mpg from a conventional gas engine.
Mazda3 is the best all-around compact economy car on the market. It is a lot more fun to drive than competitors such as the Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla—it handles beautifully and gives drivers good “road feel” but still has a comfortable ride. Its interior and exterior styling are striking whether you choose the sedan or the hatchback. Expect to pay around $9,200 for a 2012, a nice markdown from the $16,945 base manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) of a 2015 Mazda3—and nearly $1,000 less than you might pay for a 2012 Corolla.*
Fuel efficiency: The base 2012 Mazda3 delivers 24 mpg city/33 highway. For even better fuel economy, choose one with Mazda’s 2.0-liter Skyactiv-G four-cylinder engine, which offers 28 mpg city/40 highway. (Models with this engine are selling for around $10,606.)
Hyundai Accent is a good car that offers excellent fuel efficiency at a very reasonable price whether you buy one new or used. Expect to pay around $8,800 for a 2012, compared with a starting MSRP of $14,745 for a 2015 Accent. The Accent is not as much fun to drive as a Mazda3, but it is a quiet, comfortable, nicely styled compact car whether you choose the sedan or the hatchback. It does not feel stripped down or plasticky inside the way some economy cars do. And its fuel efficiency is significantly better than that of the base-model Mazda3 without Skyactiv.
Fuel efficiency: The 2012 sedan with the base 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine gets 28 mpg city/37 highway.
Nissan Altima is a larger vehicle with more room for passenger comfort than the Mazda3 or Hyundai Accent. Yet for a roomy midsize sedan without a hybrid engine, it is very fuel-efficient—particularly if you buy one that was made since the 2013 model year redesign. Expect to pay around $12,800 for a 2013, compared with the $22,300 MSRP of a 2015 Altima (a savings of $9,500).
Fuel efficiency: The 2013 sedan equipped with the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine gets 27 mpg city/38 highway.
Nissan Juke is a compact crossover that offers a roomy and versatile interior and very good fuel economy for its class, and it rides and handles very well. Used Jukes are bargains—you can get a 2012 for just $12,504, a major markdown from the $20,250 MSRP of a 2015 Juke. The only downsides—many people just don’t like the way the Juke looks. Also, it requires premium fuel.
Fuel efficiency: The base 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine gets 27 mpg city/32 highway.
Hybrids and Electrics
Some hybrid (gas and electric) and all-electric vehicles sell for well under half the original MSRP after just three years on the road. Many buyers are concerned that the expensive batteries that power these vehicles will soon need to be replaced, but that fear is unfounded. Hybrid and electric vehicle batteries have proved to be surprisingly long lasting, on average. Many still are working just fine after nearly 15 years and more than 200,000 miles on the road.
Nissan Leaf, a plug-in electric hatchback, is an exceptionally good deal. You can buy a 2012 Leaf for just $8,500 and never have to spend a dollar on gas. In comparison, a 2015 Leaf has a base MSRP of $29,010, but the “real” MSRP is $21,510 after the $7,500 federal tax credit that’s available to buyers of many new plug-in electric vehicles. Buyers of used Leafs do not qualify for the tax credit, but at $8,500, used Leafs are bargains even without it. Even though the Leaf isn’t particularly roomy, plush or stylish, it is a well-made, trouble-free little car capable of driving 70 to 100 miles on a fully charged battery—more than sufficient for the typical commute or daily errands. Long recharging times mean this is not an appropriate vehicle for longer trips.
Fuel efficiency: Equivalent of 106 mpg city/92 highway for a 2012 model.
Chevrolet Volt is a plug-in hybrid. It can drive 30 to 50 miles on electricity alone, and unlike the Leaf, it won’t leave you stranded if your batteries run down—the Volt also has a gasoline engine that generates power for the car’s electric motor when necessary. If you use up battery power on a trip, you just keep driving—the switchover to hybrid mode is automatic. And you can take long trips by stopping for gas just as with a regular gasoline car, though it does require premium fuel.
A used 2012 Volt can be had for around $14,700. In comparison, a 2015 Volt’s base MSRP is $34,170 before the federal tax credit or $26,670 after the credit.
The Volt, which is a much more solid, substantial-feeling car than the Toyota Prius hybrid that many people compare it to, is a smart choice if you want the gas-station–skipping upside of a plug-in electric without any anxiety about driving range. Volts do extremely well in owner-satisfaction surveys.
Fuel efficiency: The equivalent of 95 mpg city/93 highway for a 2012 model, with most of the driving powered by electricity.
Honda Insight is a hybrid—it runs on gasoline but boosts fuel economy by recapturing the energy produced by braking. It was designed to compete directly with the Toyota Prius but never caught on with buyers and was discontinued following the 2014 model year. Used Insights now are relative bargains. You can find a 2012 Insight for around $9,800 compared with around $12,472 for a 2012 Prius. (The Insight had an MSRP that started at $18,725 when it was last sold new.)
Fuel efficiency: The 2012 Insight gets 41 mpg city/44 highway.
Lincoln MKZ Hybrid is worth seeking out if you want more room for passenger comfort and a touch of luxury as well. It is a well-made, well-equipped midsize sedan in what automakers call the “near luxury” category—and it’s also very fuel-efficient. The MKZ’s styling is sleek and attractive…its interior is spacious, comfortable and plush…and its ride is quiet and competent, though not as agile as that of some nonhybrid cars in its class. Because the Lincoln name does not have great appeal to most of today’s car buyers, used MKZs can be had for very reasonable prices—around $15,700 for a 2012, compared with the $35,190 MSRP of a 2015 MKZ.
Fuel efficiency: The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with the hybrid system produces 41 mpg city/36 highway. (Without the hybrid system, the MKZ’s fuel economy is an unexceptional 18 city/27 highway.)
*Used-car prices in this article are based on Kelley Blue Book’s estimated fair market value for the base model, except as noted. All fuel-efficiency figures mentioned in this article assume the car has an automatic transmission.