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Volkswagen
The Volkswagen New Beetle two-door, powered by diesel with a base price of $18,390, can get up to 44 miles per gallon in highway driving.
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updated 10/11/2006 8:22:03 PM ET 2006-10-12T00:22:03

Comedian Dennis Miller joked last week on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" that he is helping to combat global warming by driving an SUV. That way, he said, America will run out of oil more quickly, forcing creative solutions to petroleum dependence.

But if Miller drives an Escape Hybrid SUV from Ford Motor, he will not help the U.S. burn fuel at an alarming rate. The Escape Hybrid offers consumers more than surprisingly good mileage from an SUV; it is also one of the 10 most fuel-efficient cars overall, according to the latest data from the Environmental Protection Agency.

More amazing still is that the Escape Hybrid made the list despite a shift in the market toward smaller, more fuel-efficient automobiles. This year's losers have been heavier, thirstier vehicles, and the winners have been smaller, more fuel-efficient cars.

Just look at Toyota Motor's U.S. performance in the first three quarters of this year. The company's Toyota, Lexus and Scion brands had 23 models on the market last year that are still selling in 2006. Of the 11 that have seen sales go up this year, 64 percent are small or midsize passenger cars. Of the 12 that have seen sales decline, 67 percent are full-size models, SUVs or other light trucks.

Now, a slew of well-engineered, fuel-efficient subcompacts are threatening to push the Escape Hybrid (now in tenth place) off the list. And while the small, efficient cars of decades past —the Gremlins and Le Cars — were not exactly blueprints for long-term success, heavily marketed models like Toyota's Yaris, Honda Motor's Fit and Nissan Motor's Versa have gobs of youth appeal. These cars aren't just a way to survive an oil crisis; they are actually stylish.

The Yaris and Fit, in their first year on the market, have both made the top-ten fuel-efficiency list.

The Yaris, which can get 40 miles per gallon on the highway, is the most fuel-efficient car with a traditional, gasoline-powered engine. It is the fifth most-efficient car overall, outranked only by gas/electric hybrids and Honda's natural-gas-powered Civic. And with 52,000 units sold in the U.S. this year, the Yaris is outpacing Toyota's Scion xA and xB subcompacts.

In the slide show we arranged the market's most-efficient cars not by mileage figures, but by EPA-reported annual fueling costs. This is because you often cannot compare the mileage of different cars. Hybrids, because they can switch to electric power at low speeds and stoplights, tend to have better city mileage than highway — the opposite performance of gas-powered cars. And even if two competing models have the same combined city/highway mileage, one may cost more to fill up if the manufacturer recommends using a different type of fuel.

Another factor in arranging the list is that an individual model line can have different mileage figures and fueling expenses depending on different configurations — automatic versus manual transmission, diesel versus gas, bigger engine option versus smaller, etc. For each car we evaluated, we looked only at its most-efficient configuration. The fueling costs reported in the slide show are the lowest costs available for the cars in question.

In the next couple of years, we expect to see more passenger-car hybrids and more subcompacts like the Yaris. In 2008, the Escape Hybrid will fall off the list as the number of smaller, more-efficient hybrids increases. Eventually, driving a hybrid SUV might be considered an attack on the environment—and Dennis Miller will be proud to drive one.

© 2012 Forbes.com

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