2011 Toyota Prius

2011 Toyota Prius

As of the middle of April, gasoline is approaching $4.00 per gallon across the United States and oil is surging past $110 per barrel.  More and more energy observers are talking about "$5 per gallon fuel" here in the U.S.

So how do you minimize your gasoline costs and maximize your mileage?

What makes more sense, a high-mileage small car, a midsize hybrid, or a plug-in electric car?

According to Consumer Reports, the typical American drives about 12,000 miles a year. If you're driving a lumbering SUV, you're probably lucky to see 20 miles per gallon.  

A more sedate midsize car can return around 25 miles per gallon. Higher-mileage compacts like the Hyundai Elantra, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, and Chevy Cruze can get around 35 mpg in real-world driving.

Here's what those numbers mean annually if you pay $4 for gas:

  • Small Car          35 mpg over 12,000 miles - gas costs  :  $1,371
  • Economy Car    25 mpg..............................................:  $1,920
  • Economy SUV   20 mpg ............................................:  $2,400
  • Guzzler SUV      15 mpg ............................................:  $3,200
  • Diesel VW         40 mpg (fuel at $4.25/gallon)..................$1,275

In general, heavier vehicles will also have greater tire wear, more expensive tires, and other normal maintenance parts, so those upkeep costs will be higher as well.

2011 Chevrolet Volt test drive, Michigan, October 2010

2011 Chevrolet Volt test drive, Michigan, October 2010

Medium-size hybrids, like the Ford Fusion Hybrid, Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, and Toyota Camry Hybrid will provide the interior room expected in that size, but fuel costs closer to the "small car" above.

For the family that needs a comfortable vehicle for longer trips, the economy of the "medium size hybrid" should be enticing.  

Drivers needing more space for stuff can opt for the Ford Escape Hybrid, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, or the Lexus RX 450h and still approach mileage improvements of 30 percent.

But the real draw in impressive operating economy comes with the 2011 Toyota Prius and the new 2011 Chevrolet Volt.

Here is the annual fuel cost for the true hybrid as represented by the Prius and the Volt:

  • 2011 Prius           50 mpg over 12,000 miles - gas costs:      $960
  • 2011 Volt              Estimated mpg....73 mpg   ..............:      $658
  • 2011 Volt              Estimated mpg..."100 mpg"  ............:      $480

The attractiveness of the 2011 Chevrolet Volt all depends on how you use it. You might, in a commuting-only application, never use gasoline for months at a time, though its engine will turn on briefly to keep bearings and other parts lubricated after several weeks of electric-only operation.  

2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

It is quite possible for the Volt to use as little as one tank of fuel over 12,000 miles of actual driving, if it's a secondary car or used solely on trips of 25 to 40 miles or less. 

At the typical U.S. home electricity rate of $ 0.11 per kilowatt-hour, the Volt would take only about $330 per year of electric "fuel" to keep the battery charged for full electric driving.

At anything higher than $4.00 per gallon for fuel, the fuel savings of a hybrid and the even greater saving for a plug-in hybrid partly fueled by grid power simply increases.  The 2011 Prius saves the driver at least $900 per year in operating costs, and the 2011 Chevrolet Volt would save at least $1300--potentially around $1500 per year.

To view these "savings" from another perspective, consider that a 2011 Prius driven 12,000 miles a year saves the country 240 gallons of gas compared to a 25-mpg vehicle, and the 2011 Volt can save the country as much as 350 gallons per year.

A recent Associated Press article reports that Americans are using 3.6 percent less fuel this year than last, because they are driving fewer miles to save money. Smart car shoppers who are ready to replace their current typical vehicle can save upwards of 50 percent on their fuel bill by "going hybrid."


Follow GreenCarReports on Facebook and Twitter.