Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 17, 2022

Honda Insight Hybrid.

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The top fuel-efficient cars

Carol Presement had to say goodbye to an almost decade-old member of the family recently: her 1998 Pontiac Grand Prix. Even though the choice of new

vehicles on the market is downright staggering, the Toronto-based private investigator had a pretty good idea what sort of options she wanted in a new car.

In addition to such comforts as air conditioning and power windows, Presement wanted a car that looked sharp. In this day and age of renewed environmental awareness, and given that regular gasoline is selling for over $1 a litre, she also wanted a gas miser and a vehicle that would produce fewer harmful emissions.

She found exactly what she was looking for at her local Toyota dealership: a Prius (or, as she calls it, "my cute little egg"). Beauty will always be in the eye of the beholder, but Presement certainly covered her other two criteria with her mid-size car: improved fuel economy and reduced emissions.

Unlike a typical passenger vehicle, the Toyota Prius is a hybrid, meaning its powertrain is controlled by a sophisticated energy-splitting system. This allows the car's traditional gas engine and its zero-emissions electric motor to work either independently or in tandem. The end result: less gasoline is required to power a car that emits an astounding 90 percent fewer emissions than conventional vehicles.

Presement also found the Prius easy on her pocketbook -- at least in terms of fuel savings. After a few months of driving, she discovered that her hybrid was consuming about two-thirds less fuel than her old Grand Prix. Based on her personal driving habits, she estimates that she's saving at least $2400 a year on gas, thanks to hybrid technology. "For my needs, it's perfect," she says.

While there's perhaps no such thing as a "perfect" vehicle in terms of environmental impact (bicycles excluded), for a vessel with an internal-combustion engine humming away under the hood, the Prius comes pretty darn close.

Style With Less CO2
A hybrid vehicle emits the lowest amount of CO2 emissions per kilometres (238 g) compared to other forms of fuel, including compressed natural gas (258 g), diesel (268 g), gasoline with 10 percent ethanol derived from corn (315 g) and conventional gasoline (321 g).

However, while hybrids continue to receive considerable positive press these days and are vehicles for those who want to wear their environmental activism on their bumpers, would-be car buyers should take note: hybrids tend to excel in fuel savings only under certain driving conditions.

Mohamed Bouchama, of Toronto-based Car Help Canada, notes that hybrid vehicles deliver huge fuel savings when the vehicles are driven mostly in the city, as opposed to the highway. The reason: during periods of braking, the hybrid car's electrical motor takes over as the gas-powered motor shuts down. Alas, there's precious little braking when cruising the highway at 100 kilometres per hour.

"If about 80 percent of your driving is in the city, the hybrid will definitely pay off for you," says Bouchama, noting the average driver should realize at least 15 percent better gas mileage than a gas-burning engine. "If you are on a budget, make sure you need it. I wouldn't buy one just because it is the trendy thing to do -- it should fit your needs."

The reason, says Bouchama, is the cost of the vehicle. Hybrid technology is not cheap and a consumer can expect to pay a premium for a hybrid versus an identical gas-burning vehicle.

For example, the manufacturer's suggested retail price for the base model of the gas-burning 2008 Ford Escape SUV is $25,349 (plus taxes); the base model for the hybrid goes for $31,499 (plus taxes). So in order to get a return on your investment, you'd have to recoup at least $7000 in fuel savings over the course of owning the vehicle.

Another potential red flag is the hybrid's whiz-bang electric battery. According to Bouchama, most hybrid car batteries cost more than $8000 to replace. If the battery fails after the warranty expires, the hybrid is essentially a write-off. It should be noted, however, that there haven't been widespread reports of hybrid car batteries failing.

Dreams of Diesel
For those who do an excessive amount of highway commuting, there's a far better choice when it comes to cutting back on fuel bills: the overlooked, under-appreciated mechanical wonder that is the diesel engine. In Europe, diesel passenger vehicles account for more than 50 percent of the market, and the choice of diesel-powered vehicles is staggering. A diesel version of the Honda Accord exists overseas, but this sedan isn't even for sale in North America -- yet.

That's too bad given that a diesel powerplant is a superior engine: it has fewer parts and offers more torque than a gas-powered engine. On average, a diesel engine is about 30 percent more fuel efficient than an equivalent gas-burning motor. Better yet, diesel fuel tends to be slightly cheaper than regular gas. And the mileage is impressive: consider the Volkswagen Jetta TDI Diesel station wagon, which is rated at 5 litres per 100 kilometres (city) and 3.9 per 100 kilometres (highway).

But there are encouraging signs. Mercedes-Benz is now selling some models in North America featuring the clean-burning BlueTec diesel technology. At the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January, Acura announced it will introduce the new i-DTEC clean diesel engine to the North American market in 2009. The i-DTEC engine reduces noxious exhaust emissions while boosting power and fuel efficiency; the first new i-DTEC clean diesel engine, which meets Euro5 emissions standards, will go on sale in Europe later this year.

Plug and Play
We can only speculate about what sort of fuel-sipping, environmentally friendly vehicles will be available in car dealerships in the years to come. But new-age vehicles are indeed on the way.

One fuel source that continues to receive considerable buzz is hydrogen. As General Motors spokesman Tony LaRocca notes, if the automobile were to be invented today, hydrogen (rather than petroleum-based fuels) would be the preferred route, given that hydrogen emissions consist simply of air and water.

While vehicles using hydrogen fuel cells or liquefied hydrogen are still several years away, progress is being made. LaRocca notes that GM is is already in partnership with Shell to set up stations to dispense hydrogen. The first of its kind in North America is in Washington, DC. And, in the months ahead, GM will be rolling out over 100 hydrogen-powered Chevrolet Equinox fuel cell electric vehicles (on a test basis) in New York, Washington, DC and California.

GM is also spending considerable resources on its next electric venture, the Chevrolet Volt. The electric car promises to be OPEC's worst nightmare.

Simply plugging the Volt's lithium-ion battery into a wall outlet for six hours of electric charging will do the trick, giving the Volt a range of about 64 kilometres, ideal for short commutes to work. For weekend trips, the Volt will also come with a small 1.0 litre engine to recharge the battery and a 45-litre gas tank that will give the car a range of more than 800 kilometres.

While the Volt is still a few years away from market (it was originally set to debut in dealerships in 2010, although that doesn't seem likely now), there are plenty of options if you want to make fuel economy your number one prerequisite. At the Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto in February, Natural Resources Canada rolled out its EcoENERGY Awards lauding the most fuel-efficient vehicles on the market.

Most fuel-efficient subcompact (tied)

The price:
Mini $22,800-$32,000
The stats:
Mini Cooper/Cooper Clubman
Engine: 1.6 L, 4-cylinder, 6-speed manual
Fuel consumption: city 7.1 L/100 km; highway 5.3 L/100 km
Annual fuel consumption: 1260 L
CO2 emissions: 3024 kg/yr
The skinny:
Still fun and funky after all these years, the Mini is a blast to drive thanks to its low to the ground posture and relatively long wheel base. And this year, there is more rear seat room and 63 percent more cargo space offered thanks to the introduction of the stretched Mini: the Clubman.
What we liked most:
The go-kart-like handling capabilities and the quirky interior/exterior design cues.
What we liked least:
Options that were previously included as standard equipment now cost extra.

The price: $13,915-$19,085
The stats:
Engine: 1.5 L, 4-cylinder, 5-speed manual
Fuel consumption: city 7.0 L/100 km; highway 5.5 L/100 km
Annual fuel consumption: 1260 L
CO2 emissions: 3024 kg/yr
The skinny:
The Yaris represents good, solid, basic transportation. Shift quality is superb (go for the five-speed manual as opposed to the four-speed automatic). It's easy to park and it qualifies for the ecoAuto Rebate program.
What we liked most:
At $13,915, you're getting Toyota quality and reliability at a Kia pricepoint.
What we liked least:
Cramped backseat. The flat-folding 60/40 seats are only available on the pricier RS models.


Most fuel-efficient two seater

The price: $14,990-$18,250
The stats:
Engine: 1.0 L, 3-cylinder, 5-speed automatic (with manual mode)
Fuel consumption: city 5.9 L/100 km; highway 4.8 L/100 km
Annual fuel consumption: 1080 L
CO2 emissions: 2592 kg/yr
The skinny:
The Smart Fortwo is all-new for 2008. The diesel engine is history, replaced by a new 3-cylinder 70-horsepower gas engine. While it will never be mistaken for a muscle car, the Fortwo is a peppy performer thanks to its low curb weight, and it can cruise at 140 kilometres per hour on the highway. The '08 model is also a tad bigger - length has been increased by 19 centimetres, although at 2.7 metres bumper-to-bumper, the Fortwo is still the shortest automobile in the world, making it a pleasure to park.
     Interior and exterior design has been upgraded and refined (yet still looks funky), while handling and gear shifting are noticeable better than the first generation model. Best of all, while the car is indeed tiny, it does not feel small from the inside given its surprisingly spacious cabin.
What we liked most:
If you want anything more fuel efficient, you'll have to buy a scooter. Also, the Fortwo qualifies for the federal government's ecoAuto Rebate.
What we liked least:
Two's company, three's an impossibility - the Smart Car does not have a backseat.

Most fuel-efficient compact

The price: $26,250
The stats:
Engine: 1.3 L, 4-cylinder hybrid, continuously variable (CVT)
Fuel consumption: city 4.7 L/100 km; highway 4.3 L/100 km
Annual fuel consumption: 900 L
CO2 emissions: 2160 kg/yr
The skinny:
One of the most inexpensive hybrids on the market, the Civic features a wonderful chassis, which makes the car a joy to drive. As well, the interior is well thought out.
What we liked most:
The Civic was redesigned in 2006 and it is arguably now the best-looking compact car, handsome inside and out.
What we liked least:
While the Civic Hybrid delivers awesome fuel economy, keep in mind it is a so-called "mild hybrid," meaning it won't run solely on electric power.

Most fuel-efficient station wagon

The skinny: $14,980-$19,580
The stats:
Engine: 1.5 L, 4-cylinder, 5-speed manual
Fuel consumption: city 7.1 L/100 km; highway 5.7 L/100 km
Annual fuel consumption: 1300 L
CO2 emissions: 3120 kg/yr
The skinny:
It's a bit of a stretch to think of the Fit as a station wagon, but it "fits" the bill given its hatchback design. Even so, for a little car, there is a lot of room in a Fit, and the rear cargo area is surprisingly large.
What we liked most:
The base price will please those on a budget.
What we liked least:
The price rapidly rises as you add options like steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

Most fuel-efficient special-purpose vehicle

The price: $31,499
The stats:
Engine: 2.3 L, 4-cylinder hybrid, CVT
Fuel consumption: city 5.7 L/100 km; highway 6.7 L/100 km
Annual fuel consumption: 1220 L
CO2 emissions: 2928 kg/yr
The skinny:
Redesigned for '08, the Ford Escape Hybrid is a sharp-looking, small SUV. As well, it is a "full" hybrid, meaning it can run near-silently on 100 percent electric power for speeds up to 40 kilometres per hour (saving gas in the process).
What we liked most:
The Escape Hybrid offers the best of both worlds: the utility of an SUV and the economy of a gas miser.
What we liked the least:
It costs almost $6000 more for the Hybrid versus the Escape base model.

Most fuel-efficient mid-size

The price: $29,500
The stats:
Engine: 1.5 L, 4-cylinder hybrid, CVT
Fuel consumption: city 4.0 L/100 km; highway 4.2 L/100 km
Annual fuel consumption: 820 L
CO2 emissions: 1968 kg/yr
The skinny:
The Prius remains the über-cool car for the enviro-set - a vehicle that is synonymous with going green. For 2008, consumers get more Prius for the money: standard equipment now includes seat-mounted side airbags, front head/side airbags, electro chromatic rear-view mirror, 16-inch alloy wheels, garage door opener, fog lamps and colour-keyed rear spoiler.
What we liked most:
In addition to all the new standard equipment, Toyota has cut the price of the '08 Prius by about $2,000.
What we liked least:
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the Prius has a love it or loathe it look.

Most fuel-efficient full-size

The price: $25,090-$34,990
The stats:
Engine: 2.4 L, 4-cylinder, 5-speed manual
Fuel consumption: city 9.4 L/100 km; highway 6.4 L/100 km
Annual fuel cost: $1440
Annual fuel consumption: 1600 L
CO2 emissions: 3840 kg/yr
The skinny:
All-new for 2008, the Honda Accord remains a can't miss family sedan. It's also significantly bigger than the '07 model it replaced: 7.6 centimetres longer, 2.8 centimetres wider and 2.3 centimetres taller.
What we liked most:
As usual, superb build quality.
What we liked least:
Compared to its chief rival, the Toyota Camry, the Accord is an aesthetic disappointment.

Most fuel-efficient minivan

The price: $20,795-$24,815
The stats:
Engine: 2.3 L, 4-cylinder, 5-speed manual
Fuel consumption: city 9.6 L/100 km; highway 7.1 L/100 km
Annual fuel cost: $1512
Annual fuel consumption: 1680 L
CO2 emissions: 4032 kg/yr
The skinny:
Think of the Mazda5 as a mini-minivan. While other manufacturers ranging from Chrysler to Toyota continue to supersize their minivans, Mazda has veered in the other direction by offering a slim-downed six-seater vehicle for those who don't need the extra space.
What we liked most:
Thanks to its size, the Mazda5 is perhaps the most agile minivan on the market.
What we liked least:
When fully loaded up with people and cargo, the Mazda5's four-cylinder engine does tend to struggle a tad.


This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.


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