How do older gas sippers stand up to the new breeds?
Everything changed for the automotive industry in 1973 when OAPEC (Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries) dropped an oil embargo on the nations it believed supported Israel during the Yom Kippur War. The first nations to feel the heat were Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. Up until then, gasoline was plentiful and particularly in the United States where the muscle car was king. Suddenly, gas stations were closed and cars were never quite the same again as reality bit. The world realized just how reliant on petroleum it was and how quickly things could change.
Honda got a head start into the newfound importance of fuel efficiency. In the mid-70s, Honda's CVVC (Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion) engine managed to meet the new American regulations while avoiding using expensive and power-sapping catalytic converters. This also led to the greatest troll in automotive history as the CEO of General Motors at the time panned Honda’s engine saying, " Well, I have looked at this design and while it might work on some little toy motorcycle engine, I see no potential for it on one of our GM car engines.”
Word got back to Soichiro Honda and he was unimpressed with the insult, so he had a 5.7-liter 1973 Chevy Impala shipped to Japan. His engineers then built a CVVC system for it, put it back together and sent it back for the EPA to test. The horsepower remained the same and the Impala passed the 1975/1976 emissions testing with no loss of fuel efficiency.
Fast forward through the years, and in the 1990s Toyota started playing with a hybrid electric and internal combustion system that led to the Prius slowly but surely changing the automotive landscape again. However, despite Toyota leading the charge, the most fuel-efficient car the roads have ever seen isn’t actually the Toyota Prius.
We’ve left modern plug-in hybrids off this list to keep the playing field level as in the real world it depends on whether someone actually plugs it in or not. We’ve also ruled out the current cars that have been adapted to hybrid technology as they are mostly using drivetrains from purpose-built siblings. The aim here is to see how older cars stack up against modern gas-sippers.
The first generation Prius is slow-burning into becoming the most significant car since the Ford Model T. It started as a concept for Toyota to play with, but slowly developed into the most hated production car on the planet while leading the way for the hybrid drivetrain we see everywhere now. It got 40 mpg in the city, and on the highway managed a healthy 43 miles to the gallon.
The second generation Insight looked suspiciously like a Prius because the wedge-shaped body was the best at the time for aerodynamics, and Honda knew a five-door hatchback would be popular in Europe. It was also aimed at being affordable to buy as well as run with a price of around $20,000. On the highway, it got 43 mpg but it really shone in the city by getting 41 miles to the gallon.
It was only sold outside of Japan for one year as the SA310, but we knew it after that as the Suzuki Swift and under its General Motors names of Chevrolet Sprint, Pontiac Firefly, and Geo Metro. It had 3 cylinders and 1 liter of displacement but managed a thrifty 39 mpg in the city and 47 on the highway.
While the 8th generation isn’t the most popular Civic, it hit all the right notes if you didn’t mind your Civic being a bit of a blob to look at. It competed directly with the 2010 Prius and had the fact it wasn’t a Prius on its side, but suffered from limited cargo space and a sluggish engine. Around town, it got 40 mpg to the gallon, and on the highway racked up 45 miles to every gallon.
In 1995 Honda was still trying to win the mpg game and the little 1.5-liter 5-speed 3-door hatchback delivered. It got a more than respectable 39 to the gallon around town but out on the freeway, it would cruise along at an astounding 50 mpg without electric assistance.
The Prius C is a cheaper alternative to the regular Prius, and you get what you pay for here. It’s harsh, noisy, cramped, and slow. With 37 mpg in the city and 48 on the highway, we can’t understand why someone that wants a Prius wouldn’t buy a used full sized model.
In 1986 the Civic Coupe HF was the compact economy car to own. Practical, fun to drive, and hit 42 mpg around town before swinging for the fences and getting 51 mpg on the highway. All that came ten years before the idea of an electric hybrid was a glint in anyone's eye.
While the Geo Metro was the butt of jokes and a dreadful car, it also developed a cult status and gave birth to the idea of hypermiling as a discipline. It was also incredibly durable and the 1994 model got 43 mpg in the city. With a little aerodynamic and weight modification and using hypermiling techniques, a 1998 Geo Metro badged as a Pontiac Firefly clocked in 99.7 mpg. Owners of stock 1994 models could expect 52 mpg on the highway.
The earlier Sprint was also a rebadged as the SA310. It made 0-60 mph in 15 seconds, weighed 1600 lbs, and was an absolute death trap in an accident because its lightness wasn’t down to high-tech materials. Around town it got 44 mpg but on the highway it got a more than respectable 53 miles to the gallon.
The darling of the automotive green movement and owned mainly by the insufferable bores of the world, the third generation Prius managed to be practical while packing serious technology. It also pulled off a neat trick in having better city fuel economy in the city than on the highway with 51 mpg and 48 mpg respectively.
Currently, the new Insight has excellent fuel economy according to the EPA, although real world experience has varied. Nearly 20 years after it's first iteration, the Insight's city mpg is 55 and its highway reach is 49 mpg. What it can do though that its earlier incarnation couldn't is carry passengers in the rear while looking like a regular and handsome car.
Not only did the Honda Insight beat the Toyota Prius to market as the first hybrid car available to the public in the US, but it also had better fuel economy than the Prius. However, what it didn’t do is sell well. The first Insight was limited to two seats and the smooth rear wheel covers looked silly at the turn of the century. It showed the concept was good though, and while Honda didn’t stay at the forefront of hybrid and electric drive technology, development continued unabated. Around town, the first generation got 49 to the gallon, but, like the later Prius, it also got better highway economy. With a gentle right foot, the Insight made a massive 61 miles per gallon.
Toyota has refined the Prius to the point there’s not much downside unless you dislike its looks. In the city, it gets a respectable 43 mpg but on the highway it evens out to 59 mpg. On top of that, the low operating costs make the Prius Three a sensible choice.
With the Ioniq Hybrid, Hyundai has given us a great alternative to driving a Prius. The Ioniq gets 57 mpg in the city and cracks 59 mpg on the highway while featuring a smooth six-speed dual-clutch transmission along with a solid standard feature set.
The largest curiosity thrown up by this list is just how fuel efficient older cars were. That’s highlighted by the fact the Prius has been developed for over two decades now but is still comparable in fuel economy with older hybrids and straight-up petrol powered cars. The biggest factor is that technology for drivetrain efficiency is developing, but safety standards and legislation has made cars heavier. Things like airbags, side impact bars, rollover protection, crumple zones, and all the extra comfort features we expect on a car add up to a lot of extra weight.
There's also the consideration of pedestrian safety legislation affecting aerodynamics. Add that and the weight of batteries in a hybrid drivetrain, and it’s no surprise that little tin cans like the Geo Metro from 32 years ago still rank high as economical cars to run.