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Great Fuel Economy For Less: 5 Affordable Used Cars That are Surprisingly Good on Gas

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2006 Honda Civic

author photo by Josh Sadlier

Seems like the only thing automakers want to talk about these days is how their cars suddenly get great fuel economy. Given this relentless chatter, it's tempting to conclude that most older cars must be fuel-gulping gluttons.

But in many cases, the new models are actually only a little less thirsty than their predecessors. Engines have been pretty efficient for a pretty long time, and that means there are plenty of affordable used cars that can also help you pinch pennies at the pump. Here are five of our favorites.

5. 2006-2011 Honda Civic

It's an open secret that the latest Civic, which debuted in 2012, is generally a disappointment relative to its illustrious predecessors. In terms of fuel economy, though, it's a modest step forward, returning 28 mpg city/39 hwy with the automatic transmission versus the previous model's average of 25/36 mpg. But what does that mean for your bottom line? Well, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a handy Fuel Economics calculator that estimates annual fuel costs, and it turns out that you'd end up paying just $200 more per year to refuel a previous-generation Civic. When you consider the thousands you'd save on the purchase price due to depreciation, not to mention the new Civic's lack of significant improvements, the old model emerges as a compelling alternative.

4. 2008-2011 Ford Focus

No question about it, the appealing current-generation Focus is better than its dowdy predecessor in every conceivable way, including fuel economy. But when the new Focus debuted in 2012, it came with a significant price hike; meanwhile, the old Focus had begun to depreciate quickly. Accordingly, choosing an older example could save you a serious pile of cash, yet you're still going to do pretty well on gas. The previous Focus returned 24/33 mpg with the automatic, and as with the old Civic, it'll run you only $200 extra bucks in gas per year versus the new one.

3. 2003-2008 Toyota Corolla

You don't have to take our word for it that Toyota has grown complacent with the Corolla. Just look at the fuel economy numbers. Way back in 2003, when the previous-generation Corolla debuted, its 1.8-liter inline-4 and 4-speed automatic achieved 25/34 mpg. For 2013, a full decade later, the current-generation Corolla features a 1.8-liter inline-4 and a 4-speed automatic that achieve...wait for it...26/34 mpg. Plus, the made-in-Japan previous Corolla enjoys a nearly peerless reputation for reliability, and it arguably had a nicer interior. Find one in decent shape and laugh all the way to the bank.

2. 2000-2006 Volkswagen Golf TDI

Buying an old German car requires what our friends south of the border refer to as cojones. Maintenance is everything with these diesel-powered Volkswagens: a well-cared-for Golf TDI could run for hundreds of thousands of miles, but a neglected example could nickel-and-dime (or $500 and $1,000) you to death with nagging issues. Still, this version of the Golf TDI was never rated worse than 28/40 mpg, and real-world reports put the car's numbers closer to the 2000 model's great fuel economy of 35/44 mpg (the EPA changed its testing methodology during this model cycle, causing some confusion). Make sure you have any old Golf TDI thoroughly checked out by a VW specialist before buying, but these cars are potentially great deals for the fuel-averse.

1. 2004-2009 Toyota Prius

Let's be clear about one thing upfront: the current-generation Prius is no fence-sitter like the current Corolla. Much has improved in the latest Prius, and we certainly recommend it to those with the means. But if you're on a tighter budget and still want top-shelf fuel economy, the previous-generation Prius is hard to beat. It already had lots of advanced features, including a touch-screen navigation system with nifty hybrid readouts in many models, and it was rated at a truly remarkable 48/45 mpg. Reliability? Don't sweat it. This Prius was widely used as a taxi in Vancouver, and the hybrid components proved remarkably durable. Oh, and it also had a big back seat, as well as a flat cargo floor in its handy hatchback trunk. If you find one in good condition, don't hesitate; it's a winner.

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Great Fuel Economy For Less: 5 Affordable Used Cars That are Surprisingly Good on Gas