Ask anyone what company makes the most fuel-efficient car on the market, and they'll likely answer Toyota.
But Toyota's reputation for fuel economy rests largely on its expanding line of hybrid-electric vehicles, led by the Prius family of four separate models.
Its gasoline models, on the other hand, don't do so well. The subcompact 2012 Yaris, redesigned this year, only delivers average fuel economy--and the ancient Corolla compact sedan is at the bottom of its category.
First, the good news: Both the 2012 Toyota Prius liftback and the 2012 Prius C subcompact earn an EPA combined rating of 50 miles per gallon. That's the highest rating for any non-plug-in vehicle sold in the U.S. this year.
Sales of the Prius liftback are rising, both from high gasoline prices earlier this year and because supplies have been fully restored after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of the Japanese auto industry.
All Prius models are imported from Japan at present, though Toyota plans to build the next-generation Prius in the U.S. starting in 2015.
2012 Toyota Prius V hybrid wagon, test drive in Catskill Mountains, Jan 2012
The 2012 Toyota Prius V wagon is also selling well, as it fills a niche long desired by buyers: a fuel-efficient wagon with five seats and plenty of load space. Its one drawback is the lack of all-wheel drive, which would take it into crossover territory and open up new horizons.
There's also the 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid, one of the fastest-selling vehicles in the U.S. last month, but we'll leave that out of the equation for now.
But then there's the not-so-good news: In key segments, especially the compact sedan class, Toyota's offerings are either subpar or no more than average.
The 2012 Toyota Corolla compact gets, at best, a combined EPA rating of 30 mpg. That's significantly below most competitors except the Nissan Sentra:
- 2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco: 33 mpg
- 2012 Ford Focus SFE: 33 mpg
- 2012 Honda Civic HF: 33 mpg
- 2012 Hyundai Elantra: 33 mpg
- 2012 Nissan Sentra: 30 mpg
Part of the blame can be attributed to the car's age (it's now six model years old) and the archaic (optional) four-speed automatic transmission, which knocks the combined rating down to 29 mpg.
2012 Toyota Yaris LE three-door hatchback, road test, Hudson Valley, NY, Feb 2012
The news is equally unimpressive for the 2012 Toyota Yaris, an all-new model this year.
Compared to the hybrid Prius C, the 2012 Yaris is a few thousand dollars cheaper but delivers far lower fuel economy and fewer features.
Its 33-mpg combined rating merely equals most competitors, and that number is bested by the Hyundai Accent:
- 2012 Hyundai Accent: 34 mpg
- 2012 Chevrolet Sonic: 33 mpg
- 2012 Ford Fiesta SFE: 33 mpg
- 2012 Nissan Versa: 33 mpg
- 2012 Honda Fit: 31 mpg
While it's not a bad car, our road test gave us few reasons to rave about it--and we only achieved 31.6 mpg, lower than the EPA rating--which is unusual for us.
(All mileage ratings are for the highest-efficiency version in any model range.)
So if you're looking for a new car and gas mileage is important, by all means visit your Toyota dealer.
Just make sure that you get a car with the MPG that you want, rather than a less-expensive gasoline car that delivers only average or even subpar fuel efficiency against its competitors.