Thinking Of Switching To A Smaller Car To Save On Gas?

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With the arrival of summer and gas prices at around $4 a gallon, the water cooler conversation has turned again to fuel efficiency. One important thing to remember is that the MPG number is not directly proportional to how much money you’re paying for gas. The chart below shows the annual cost of gas varies with the miles-per-gallon rating. Assumptions are 12,000 miles driven a year at $4/gallon.

Going from a medium-sized SUV that gets 20 mpg (Ford Explorer, Nissan Xterra) to a compact car that gets 30 mpg (Honda Civic, Ford Focus) will save you $800 a year. That is more money than going from the compact car to a hybrid like a Toyota Prius that gets 50 mpg combined, which would save you $640 a year.

Now, if you are driving a full-size truck that gets 15 mpg, just going from 15 to 20 mpg would also save you $800 a year. So we see that going from 15 to 20, 20 to 30, and 30 to 60 mpg are each about the same size “step” in terms of annual savings. For heavy drivers, each such step would be nearly $1,000 a year in gas, and that’s assuming gas prices don’t keep increasing! Look up your car’s numbers at

So while making the jump to 50 mpg would still save you the most gas, the Prius still costs more money than a similarly-sized compact car like a Honda Fit. One piece of good news I read recently was from Scott Burns at AssetBuilder that his Prius batteries have lasted 100,000 miles and 8 years with no need for replacement. If you get good at buying and selling used cars on Craigslist, you could conceivably make the swap to a more fuel-efficient car relatively painlessly.

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  1. Money Beagle says

    I think the only real way to benefit from this is if you are planning a new car purchase anyways. To make an unplanned purchase to improve efficiency isn’t financially beneficial in the long run.

  2. ShavenYak says

    Just to provide another data point, I also have a Prius that is over 5 years old, past 100,000 miles, and shows no sign of needing new batteries.

    The math was a bit different when I bought it, though – the tax credit back then made it price-competitive with any other comparably-sized car, most of which got around half the MPG.

  3. It always bugs me when folks incorrectly compare the Prius. It is considered a mid-size car by the EPA. Having previously owned one, I agree. While it is quite small in terms of exterior dimensions, it is relatively very large and roomy on the inside. I don’t think the Honda Fit and the Prius are in the same realm in terms of features, comfort, quality, et cetera. That isn’t taking away from the Fit, just saying I don’t think it’s apples to apples. I am not up on current Corolla vs. Prius options, but back when we bought our Prius it had many options not available on the Corolla (e.g., bluetooth, JBL stereo, xenon/HID lights, stability control, etc.). Also, our family owns a Corolla and the Prius was definitely bigger overall on the inside.

  4. Graham Lutz says

    Anyone else get the feeling that “Someguy” works in Toyota’s Social Media department?

  5. Graham: I have no affiliation with any car maker or anything auto related. Just a dedicated car guy for several decades. If someone is going to make a factual/mathematical analysis then it is important to have all the facts. I also forgot to mention that Consumer Reports lists the Prius as a family car. I’m sure my pointing this out will further your suspicion, once again I have no religion to any maker or magazine… only to factual accuracy.

  6. Captain Cheapo says

    I drive a 1995 Civic Hatchback that still gets 43 MPG. In my 16 years of ownership, the only repair outside of routing maintenance (brakes, batteries, oil changes, tune-ups and one set of wires) was the alternator. Paid $13,300 for it delivered. Still on the first clutch.

    The new Honda Fit looks almost identical to my Civic Hatchback. Even under the hood the layout is similar. If it’s half as reliable, you could buy two of them for the price of a new Prius. When all is said and done, the Fit will probably end up being more green (as well as saving you more green) since it doesn’t have lead batteries (well it has one small one) that will eventually have to be disposed of somehow.

    Of course, the car is tiny, but I still manage to fit my 6 foot 239 pound body in there comfortably.

  7. You can go to several car comparison websites and look at the specs.

    Here’s some from for 2010 Honda Fit vs. 2010 Prius vs. 2010 Corolla. Sorry for the lazy formatting:

    Front legroom 41.3 ” 42.5 ” 41.7 ”
    Rear legroom 34.5 ” 36.0 ” 36.3 ”
    Front headroom 40.4 ” 38.6 ” 38.8 ”
    Rear headroom 39.0 ” 37.6 ” 37.2 ”
    Luggage volume 20.6 cu.ft. 21.6 cu.ft. 12.3 cu.ft.
    Luggage volume (max) 57.3 cu.ft. 21.6 cu.ft. 12.3 cu.ft.
    Passenger volume 91 cu.ft. 94 cu.ft. 92 cu.ft.,USC00TOC161B0,USC00TOC041D0

    I’ve been in both and have felt they are about equal. Most Priuses do have nicer exteriors edit: interiors, but the Prius tops out at 28k with options, while the Fit tops out at $10k less. I don’t know what a base Prius looks like.

  8. At 6’6″ (175lbs) I find the Fit is definitely too small and the Corolla/Civic are pushing it. The Prius was similar to the Corolla/Civic — ok although in the passenger seat my knees were an inch or two from the dashboard — not good in a front collision. However, overall interior space was much greater in the Prius vs the C-cars.

    I think the Civic and Fit are both excellent cars. The MSRP of the bare-bones manual-tranny Fit is $15,850 and the Civic is a grand or two higher. An automatic tranny adds ~$800. The Fit is rated 27/33 and the Civic 28/39 MPG. The Prius is automatic only, MSRP of base model $24,280 and rated 51/48.

    So the Prius is 1.4 times more than the Civic (auto) and 1.5 times more than the Fit (auto). Of course when we bought the Prius it had the $3,000 tax credit which makes it 1.3 times more than the cheapest Fit.

    A while back, Consumer Reports analyzed hybrid vs non-hybrid savings and found only the Prius (vs. Corolla) and Camry hybrid (vs. Camry I-4) saved money. They factored in gas prices, insurance, financing and also repairs and depreciation. They did not adjust cost for features (Toyota’s hybrids typically come fairly loaded).

    Other interesting cars are the Jetta TDI (less reliable, unfortunately), and the Mercedes E-class bluetec if you are looking for a larger, more comfortable vehicle. The Ford Fusion hybrid also looks interesting, although I have not driven it so I can’t comment too much.

  9. I bought a Prius in Jan (a 2010 Clearance model). I was in the market for a new car. I was driving an 02 Ford Escape (17 MPG). It is still running but the 16 YO is driving it. Being of a “Certain age” I was looking for a comfortable car and the sub compact FIt would not have been a contender. I probably spent 3-4K more for the Prius than I would ahve for a replacement car, but I am very happy with the tradeoff. There is plenty enough legroom that we can make this the family car and leave Hubby’s mini van in the driveway.

    I am very happy with my decision. It was the right one for me at this time.

  10. Alexandria says

    I have to agree somewhat with someguy. The Prius always struck me as a far nicer vehicle than the cars that people like to compare it to. I see a lot of apple to orange comparisons as far as price.

    That said, I think there are a lot more cost effective options. Ford Fiesta is in our line of sight for our next vehicle. (Our 2001 Ford Escort gets 40mpg and we haven’t seen much like it the past decade as gas guzzlers became more popular. It’s nice to see more fuel efficient options becoming popular again – more choice).

  11. Alexandria says

    P.S. I am in no way shape or form comparing the Fiesta to a Prius, either. The Fiesta is far cheaper. I just don’t see the point to pay a big premium for much else.

  12. Just bought a used ’07 Chevy Impala for $7000. It gets 25-30 MPG. It’s a HUGE, comfortable car. A 2007 Prius (available for ~ $20,000 according to would save me $800 per year in gas, per Jonathan’s chart. No thanks.

  13. Warren, how are the seats in the Impala? I rented an Impala for business and drove 2-3 hours in it and found the seats were horrible ergonomically. Maybe my body type just isn’t the target for a lot of the standard American cars.

    Also, $20K is insane for a 2007 used Prius. We were offered $9-10K for our 2006 (Option 7 — everything except Nav) by all the local places and eventually sold it for $2K more privately. It had about 50K miles on it and was in showroom condition. The Prius will also be substantially more reliable than the Impala. If you keep your car more than a few years, the Prius will be the same or cheaper and IMO, a nicer vehicle overall to drive.

  14. Someguy: The seats in the Impala are not bad. I have the 6-way power seat plus adjustable lumbar. Not quite as nice as my Fusion but not bad. I often find rental cars uncomfortable and feel like my own car fits like a glove after getting back in it. I’ve had the Impala for 2 months and it’s definitely more comfortable now than it was at first.

    Regarding the price, it came directly from Kelly Blue Book (… ’07 Prius:
    Certified Pre-Owned: $20,020
    Average Retail: $19,570
    Private Party: $17,520. shows 471 2007 Prius’s for sale nationwide at an average price of $18,729.

    Regarding your concern about reliability, I am not worried. My last 4 American made cars since 1990 have given me basically perfect reliability. Change oil, brake pads and tires, that’s it. I suppose for the price of the Prius I could by a second Impala and just park it… just in case I need a spare.

  15. Brent212 says

    Recently sold my 99 4Runner and got a 2007 Yaris. Big downgrade in terms of luxury, but I’m okay with that, considering the Yaris had 100k less miles on it, is 8 years newer, and has averaged about 39.5 mpg OVERALL (both highway+city). I’m both surprised and stoked at that, because I think even the highway rating alone is in the mid 30s, and I wasn’t expecting to get more than that. Very cool.

    After selling the 4Runner, the Yaris cost me $1500. I drive about 20k/year, so it should save me around $2500 yearly in gas (the 4Runner got about 17.5 mpg).

  16. What about Chevrolet Aveo5?
    I recently bought it and it has plenty of legroom.
    I typically get 28 mpg of both freeway and city street combined.
    I paid out the door $15,000 for it.

    So far, I like it.
    What are your thoughts on this one?

  17. We just bought a Fit for my wife’s car and I am very pleased with it.

    Great gas mileage, comfortable forward compartment and lots of accessible cargo space.

    Speaking of cargo space on the Fit, my wife plays string bass and it carries that quite well.

  18. I got my Honda Fit 2011 last year, after my first oil change i am getting 39, 42, until 43.9 mpg. I drive in my speed and in cost. For my was a surprisse getting more miles that the dealer told me about my car. Althought my car is automatic transmition my mpg are more that i expected. I am happy with my Honda Fit.

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