By Suzanne Kane

Consumers looking for the most fuel-efficient used cars should keep several things in mind. First, try to find the newest model possible that still gets the best fuel economy, and meets other criteria: all the latest safety equipment such as anti-lock brakes (ABS), side airbags (if available), stability and traction control. All things being equal, if the used car has the same fuel economy as new, but you can buy it for thousands less, as long as it’s in excellent condition and runs well, consider it your best used-car buy.

Here are the top 5 best fuel-efficient used cars, using data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Green Vehicle Guide for the most fuel-efficient and cleanest vehicles since 2001. The models listed here meet the EPA’s toughest requirements and are all labeled SmartWay Elite cars.

  • Toyota Prius (2004-2009) – Leading the pack with 48 mpg city/45 mpg highway, is the Toyota Prius, with its 1.5-liter, 4-cylinder gasoline engine paired with electric motor, auto variable transmission, good interior space, although cramped for 6-footers, easy maneuverability and lots of available options. Check out 2002 and 2003 models (with 42 mpg city/41 mpg highway) for deals, since that’s when Toyota began offering optional navigation system, side airbags and cruise control. Edmunds calls Prius a “strong candidate” for shoppers interested in used hybrids but warns that the car is complex and “future repairs and part replacements could be quite expensive.” Both Consumer Reports and Kelley Blue Book list Prius models in their best cars for fuel economy roundup
  • Honda Insight (2001-2006) – Actually in top spot for 2001-2003 (with Toyota Prius in number 2 position), Honda-Insight-2703Honda Insight’s 45 mpg city/49 mpg highway comes from its 1.0-liter, 3-cylinder gasoline engine and lightweight permanent-magnet electric motor. Edmunds says the older Insight (it’s back and all-new for 2010) has “amazing fuel economy…quick steering” but “batteries drain fast under continual electric motor assist.” According to Consumer Reports, the manual-transmission 2000 Honda Insight is a best used car buy for fuel economy.
  • Honda Civic Hybrid (2006-2009) – From Honda Civic’s 2006 eighth-generation redesign, Honda Civic Hybrid, boasting 40 mpg city/45 mpg highway from its 1.3-liter, 4-cylinder gasoline engine and electric motor, plus exclusive continuously variable transmission (CVT), gets, according to Edmunds editors, “fantastic fuel mileage.” The previous generation’s 2003-2005 Civic Hybrid has EPA fuel economy numbers of 39 mpg city/43 mpg highway. Consumer Reports’ list has Honda Civic Hybrid (2003-2007) in best fuel-economy buys for cars $10,000 to $20,000 and Kelley Blue Book identifies Civic Hybrid as tops in fuel economy.
  • Nissan Altima Hybrid (2007-2009) – Benefiting from an all-new redesign in 2007, the Nissan Altima Hybrid midsize sedan gets a solid 35 mpg city/33 mpg highway as a result of its 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder engine and electric motor, plus standard CVT. Also standard at ABS, traction and stability control and full complement of airbags. Edmunds hails the hybrid’s “swift acceleration, sporty handling, miserly fuel consumption” but notes it is sold only in 8 states.
  • Mazda Tribute Hybrid, Mercury Mariner Hybrid, Ford Escape Hybrid (2008) – This trio of corporate siblings benefits from fuel economy ratings of 34 mpg city/30 mpg highway, due to their 2.3-liter, 4-cylinder gasoline engine and electric motor hybrid powertrain. Edmunds editors say that beyond badging and some exterior changes, not much separates the three, although Mazda Tribute Hybrid’s design was all-new. Edmunds praises Mazda’s Tribute Hybrid for its “excellent fuel economy, refreshed styling, and a more attractive, functional and better constructed interior.” Cons are that no stability control is available on any of the three hybrids. Kelley Blue Book highlights the Mariner and Escape Hybrids as high mileage SUVs.

Other noteworthy EPA SmartWay Elite models worth consideration include the 2007-2009 Toyota Camry Hybrid (33 mpg city/34 mpg highway), and the CNG-powered Honda Civic for 2001-2005 (26 mpg city/31 mpg highway) and 2006-2009 (24 mpg city/36 mpg highway).

Finding a best fuel-efficient used car ultimately depends on your needs, which may not be fulfilled with a subcompact, compact vehicle, or even a hybrid. Consider alternatives including clean diesel-powered vehicles, high fuel-economy sedans and midsize SUVs or crossover vehicles. In the end, weigh and balance fuel economy, cost to own and operate, and purchase price to select the best fuel-efficient used car for you.

Click here for a list of top 10 most fuel efficient SUVs.

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