40 Miles Per Gallon Isn't All It's Cracked Up to Be

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feul efficiencyFuel efficiency is on the mind of a lot of car shoppers these days, and automakers have responded with more vehicles that get 40 miles per gallon -- or even more.

Today's super-efficient cars are much nicer than the miserly little fuel-sippers of years past. But there's a trade-off: Extra efficiency costs extra. And the added price may not be worth it, according to the venerable consumer publication Consumer Reports.

Unwrapping the new car package

The July 2012 issue of Consumer Reports calls out three compact cars that are rated at 40 miles per gallon or better: The Chevrolet Cruze Eco from General Motors (GM), Ford's (F) Focus SE SFE, and Honda's (HMC) Civic HF. Each is a popular compact model that has been modified to increase fuel efficiency.

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Those modifications -- factory-installed options packages that include things such as special tires and aerodynamic tweaks -- typically add $500 to $800 to the car's price. In the context of the total cost of a new car purchase, that may not seem like a big deal. If it's the car you want, you'll pay the price.

But as Consumer Reports points out, these particular packages could take a long time to pay for themselves.

The magazine says that its Chevy Cruze with the Eco package did indeed get 40 miles per gallon on the highway -- but that's just 4 mpg higher than the regular Cruze it tested recently. The difference in mixed driving was even smaller, only 1 mpg.

Add it all up, and that means that the Eco package will save the average driver just $20 a year. At $770 for the Eco package, it'll take you more than 38 years to recoup the cost in fuel savings.

You'll do better with the Focus and the Civic, but not a lot better -- we're still talking years, not months, before the savings make the packages worthwhile.

Your Mileage (and Savings) May Vary

As far as the math goes, these specific packages may not be worthwhile for every driver, but that doesn't mean they're bad cars. (Like many reviewers, Consumer Reports liked the Focus quite a bit, and the Cruze got pretty good marks as well. They didn't like the Honda much, though.) From a larger perspective, these kinds of calculations don't always reflect the true costs and benefits of owning a more efficient car.

Detractors of hybrid cars like Toyota's (TM) Prius have been saying for years that the extra cost of a car with a hybrid drivetrain (versus an ordinary compact car) takes a long time to pay for itself in fuel savings. Looking just at fuel prices, they might be right. But there are other considerations. For example:
  • Your habits might vary from their "average" assumptions: If you do a lot of highway driving, even the Cruze Eco's small fuel savings might make sense for you.
  • Many have found that hybrid cars are cheaper to insure -- people who buy hybrids might be more careful drivers, on average.
  • And there are other benefits that are harder to put a price on: Maybe you fill up your car four or five times a month now, and you'd appreciate the lower hassle of a car that only needs to be filled up every other week.
  • And some folks just like knowing that they have the most fuel-efficient ride on the block.
Whatever your preference, it's a good time to buy a new car -- as long as you shop carefully, and keep all of the costs in mind.

At the time of publication, Motley Fool contributor John Rosevear owned shares of Ford and General Motors. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Ford and General Motors and have recommended creating a synthetic long position in Ford.
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