Image: 2011 Subaru Outback
Photo courtesy of Subaru
The Subaru Outback is more of station wagon than an SUV, but it gets 24 miles per gallon, has all-wheel drive and a really roomy back seat. 
By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor

Car buyers always consider price. But these days fuel economy is also high up on the list. High gas prices are driving sales of more fuel-efficient models.

According to the auto research site Edmunds.com, compacts and subcompacts accounted for nearly a quarter of the new vehicles sold in April. That’s double the market share from 10 years ago.

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“Smaller cars are better equipped than they were a few years ago,” notes Edmunds.com senior analyst Jessica Caldwell. “They have more amenities, so people don’t feel like they’re giving up much when they go to a smaller car.”

Caldwell says we may see fewer small car sales reported for May and June because of the limited supply of some small cars coming from Japan. That drop in production has resulted in higher prices and fewer incentives. For example, a new Honda Civic has gone up more than $1,600 since March. But Caldwell strongly believes the demand for fuel-efficient vehicles will continue as long as gas prices are high.

Story: US auto sales cooled in May

Even though prices at the pump are dropping a little right now, AAA says the nationwide average for a gallon of gas is still $3.78. That’s a dollar more than last year at this time. And we all know they could go up again at any time. The U.S. Energy Information Administrationsays there’s a good chance the nationwide average price for regular gasoline could exceed $4.00 per gallon in July.

Automakers have seen the shift in demand and are responding. The New York Times reported this week that Ford recently converted a former SUV plant to build small hybrids and electric vehicles. General Motors will soon build its first subcompact model in the U.S.

Dealing with high gas prices

Nearly two thirds (62 percent) of the people responding to a recent Consumer Reports surveysay they expect to choose a model with “much or somewhat better fuel economy” than the car they already drive.

“The survey respondents said they were getting, on average, 23 miles per gallon now and they expect to get at least 29 miles per gallon from their next vehicle,” says Jeff Bartlett, deputy online auto editor at Consumer Reports. “People are willing to compromise on comfort, size and even performance to get the fuel economy they want in their next vehicle. What they won't compromise on is safety and we're glad to see that.”

Video: The trend toward cars with fuel economy

A significant number of people who plan to buy a new car or truck (58 percent) told Consumer Reports they are willing to pay more for their next vehicle to reduce their fuel bills. Bartlett calls that “somewhat surprising” in light of the current economy.

“Clearly, these people are looking at the long-term costs of owning and operating their car,” he says.

Two thirds of the vehicle owners (65 percent) surveyed said they drive less than 40 miles a day. That makes them candidates for a plug-in hybrid or electric car. But most of those responding (75 percent) said if they bought a new vehicle they would be looking for a conventional gasoline engine.

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Top-rated cars that are also fuel savers
When Consumer Reports tests a new vehicle, it also measures fuel economy. The number of recommended models that also deliver great gas mileage continues to grow. Here are a few of the top-rated models in various categories.

Toyota Prius: The editors call this iconic hybrid “the clear gas-saving leader,” delivering a combined 44 mpg in its tests.

Hyundai Elantra: This compact gets an impressive 29 miles per gallon. And with a sticker price at around $18,000, the magazine calls it a bargain compared to most vehicles.

Nissan Altima: This sedan gets 26 miles per gallon and is roomy enough to fit five comfortably. The hybrid version gets 32 mpg.

Toyota Highlander Hybrid: This SUV stands out from the crowd, getting 27 miles per gallon. But its sticker price is almost $50,000.

Ford Escape Hybrid: It delivers 26 miles per gallon, but it’s only $22,000.

Subaru Outback: It's more of station wagon than an SUV, but it gets 24 miles per gallon, has all-wheel drive and a really roomy back seat.

Making it easier to find a fuel-efficient vehicle
All 2013 model cars and trucks will be required to have new fuel-economy window stickers. They’ve been designed to make it easier for buyers to find the most gas-stingy models and to compare vehicles with different power trains.

The sticker, unveiled last week by the U.S. Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency, has a number of new features. Each vehicle will have a “fuel economy and greenhouse gas rating” from 1 to 10. Ten is the best. The label will also show how much you will save or spend extra on fuel compared to the average new vehicle for the first five years.

“This is a giant step forward in giving people information about fuel economy,” says Jack Gillis, author of The Car Book. "They'll be able to look at a vehicle very quickly and determine if it's an 8, 9 or a 10 that it's going to be a great choice."

These new stickers will also be required on cars and trucks with non-gasoline engines. They’ll be formatted to compare vehicles using different fuels.

You’ll also find a QR code on the sticker. Scan it with a smartphone and it will take you to an online database where you can plug in your personal driving habits to get a more accurate fuel-use estimate.

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Explainer: Ten most improved cars of 2011

  • Image: The 2011 Explorer on the all-media drive in San Diego, Californi
    Ford  /  Wieck
    Ford is selling Explorers as fast as it can build them.

    Among the crop of new cars out for 2011 it’s worth singling out those vehicles that have shown significant improvement.

    Like a sports team, when it comes to picking the best car you’ve got your veteran players who everyone expects to be great, and a couple who have gotten complacent and gone into decline but who still enjoy a reputation earned in better times.

    At the same time, some of the guys who have been around awhile and haven’t really performed like pros have really gotten their acts together during the off-season, returning with a form that is getting attention around the league.

    Here are our 10 candidates for the most improved car.

  • Buick Regal

    Buick

    Buick Regal? Isn't that the official car of Florida's early bird specials? Are the seats made so the driver isn't visible from the car behind? This may have been true enough for the old Regal, but no more. The sleek, racy new Regal looks like nothing that would have graced Buick showroom just a few years ago. But two things have changed that. First was Buick's rise in China, where the brand is a top seller and the Regal is seen as a crucial ingredient to General Motors' ongoing success in the market. The other thing that happened was that the Saturn brand was shuttered in the GM bankruptcy, leaving GM with a model that had been planned for the Saturn division that was all dressed up with no place to go. So it became a Buick.

  • Chevrolet Cruze

    GM  /  Wieck

    OK, there was not an old Chevy Cruze for the new one to improve upon. But the Cruze replaced the Cobalt, which had some sound fundamentals, but was poorly executed and detailed. The new car enjoys a much bigger budget, as GM splurged on some nice cabin appointments so that the interior approaches within shouting distance of luxurious rather than living directly in downtown heinous. The Cruze is also sturdily constructed using large amounts of high-strength steel to eliminate the kinds of wobbles and rattles that have long plagued domestic economy models. And Chevy spared no expense outfitting the Cruz with safety equipment, making it a vastly superior option for young drivers.

  • Dodge Durango

    AJMueller  /  Dodge

    The original Durango was a monstrous, thirsty body-on-frame truck that had worse handling and fuel economy than the larger Chevy Suburban, but with less space inside than the Tahoe. The new Durango is built on a new unibody chassis shared with the Mercedes-Benz M-Class and R-Class crossover SUVs and it is outfitted with either the company’s new 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 engine or the latest version of the company’s heralded Hemi V8, with cylinder deactivation for better gas mileage when cruising on the highway. Mercedes’ ride and Hemi power? That’s a tough-to-beat combination.

  • Dodge Journey

    Dodge briefly ran tongue-in-cheek television commercials touting the Journey mid-sized crossover as the best car in the world. It was a joke because the old Journey obviously wasn’t, with its appalling cabin materials and thirsty V6 engine.

    But the 2011 Journey was the recipient of the company’s most lavish makeover, with a positively opulent interior that welcomes customers inside. Under the hood it also gets the new 3.6-liter Pentastar V6, with its accompanying improvements in power, smoothness and efficiency.

  • Ford Explorer

    Ford  /  Wieck

    This one-time darling of suburbia had fallen on hard times, as consumers turned their backs on truck-derived SUVs in favor of jacked-up station wagons. Still, the name held some equity, so while the crossover SUV Ford Freestyle and Taurus X flopped in the showroom, the thinking was that the Explorer name could attract buyers if it were a crossover. That guess has proved correct, as Ford is selling Explorers as fast as it can build them. The Explorer isn't just an improvement on the old trucky model, it is also an improvement on the Taurus X, the vehicle from which the new Explorer was derived. In an instance of less being more, a new Explorer based on the old Taurus X replaces both of those models and is more popular than they were combined.

  • Ford Focus

    Ford  /  Wieck

    Ford’s track record in the compact segment is so abysmal that the company has changed the name of its small model repeatedly over the years, from Falcon to Pinto to Escort to Focus. For a brief moment the company got the Focus right when it imported the European design to the U.S. 1999 and reached its pinnacle with the SVT high-performance edition in 2001. Unfortunately the company dropped the ball when the Focus reached the end of its natural lifespan by replacing it with an all-new car in other markets, but introducing a warmed over version with homely sedan styling for the U.S.

    For 2012 the all-new global Focus is the best in its segment, with refined materials and options that are normally available only in higher segments. Look for the Focus to be one of Ford’s sales heroes this year.

  • Hyundai Elantra

    Here’s a car that largely epitomized cheapness for many years. The old models were ugly and poorly made. But Hyundai’s dramatic turnaround in recent years included its compact model, and the previous edition was solid. The new one is more than that, it is a contender, along with the Ford Focus, for best-in-class honors in the compact segment. Hyundai’s astonishing improvements in powertrain engineering are a big reason why the Elantra is so improved. Its new 145-hp 1.8-liter engine matches with a standard six-speed transmission (either manual or automatic) to produce an impressive 40 mpg in highway driving without the use of hybrid technology or any special high-efficiency options that add cost.

  • Kia Sorento

    Jae C. Hong  /  AP

    When Hyundai was selling jalopies that quickly fell apart, one thing kept the brand out of last place in various quality and satisfaction surveys: Kia. That performance wasn’t sustainable, so Kia eventually fell into bankruptcy, from whence it was bought by Hyundai. Improbably, this combination has worked wonders for both companies.

    The new Kia Sorento is a sleek, stylish crossover SUV that has been winning plaudits from reviewers and now for 2012 it gains the super-efficient corporate 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine which boosts its fuel economy and performance.

    The Sorento is also Kia’s first U.S.-built product, coming from the company’s new plan in West Point, Ga. highway.

  • Kia Optima

    Kia

    Kia also gets its own version of the widely-acclaimed Hyundai Sonata, which was new last year. The company’s mid-sized sedan goes from being an afterthought in the segment to a legitimate player, courtesy of its German styling (penned by an ex-Audi designer) and Korean engineering. The 200-hp 2.4-liter engine matches to a six-speed automatic or manual to produce 35 mpg on the highway.

    Sporty turbocharged and thrifty hybrid models are also available, helping Kia press its assault on a market where it has been largely overlooked for years.

  • Jeep Grand Cherokee

    Jeep

    The Jeep Grand Cherokee suffered during the years when the Jeep brand was controlled by then-DaimlerChrysler. Now that the company has split from the Germans and aligned itself with Fiat, the result has been, incredible as it may seem, a gigantic improvement. The old Grand Cherokee was as capable off-road as ever, but budget pressures robbed its once-luxurious cabin of premium materials, leaving it awash in hard, shiny plastics worthy of, well, Kias of the past.

    Today’s Grand Cherokee returns the premium materials to the cabin, while revving up the styling and installing the company’s efficient new Pentastar 3.6-liter V6 engine or the latest version of the powerful Hemi V8. For off-road enthusiasts it is a restoration of the Grand Cherokee to its deserved position as a premium off-road wagon.

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