Image: Honda Insight
Kim D. Johnson  /  AP file
The annual fuel cost of the Honda Insight, an electric-gasoline hybrid car, is only $334.
By
updated 4/2/2004 5:52:20 PM ET 2004-04-02T22:52:20

It's time to put the Hummer on blocks and back out the hybrid. Gasoline prices are going through the roof.

In some parts of the U.S., gas has reached over $2 per gallon, and many analysts are predicting it could go even higher. Summer (April to September) gasoline prices are now expected to average $1.74 per gallon in 2004, which would be the highest inflation-adjusted summer average since 1985.

There are several theories for the rising cost of petrol, including war in the Middle East, high oil prices caused by OPEC production quotas, and political turmoil and labor disputes in oil-rich Venezuela. The refining business has also seen increases in expenses as it struggles to change with new government regulations. New low-sulfur requirements are but one example of how refineries have to reformulate gasoline at the government's mandate--and, of course, those costs get passed on at the pump.

But what exactly are you paying for? According to the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration (EIA), every time you slip a nozzle into your gas tank, 43 percent of your outlay is for crude oil. Taxes are the next biggest chunk (26 percent), followed by refining costs (23 percent). The remaining 8 percent is to pay for distribution and marketing.

As the price of crude oil and refining continues to rise, don't expect any relief at the pump. Gasoline inventories remained tight in February, and the EIA projects that the national monthly average pump price for regular gasoline will peak at $1.83 per gallon this spring.

All the more reason why Forbes is happy to report on the most fuel-efficient 2004 model cars by category. When testing new vehicles on the street, the two most common things we hear from strangers are: (1) "Is that one of those new hybrid cars?" and (2) "I think if I were going to buy a new car, it would be one of those hybrids." Surely, the high cost of gasoline is causing more and more people to be interested in hybrids, vehicles that use smaller engines assisted by battery power. You will find two in our slide show.

All fuel economy figures cited here come from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. Unless otherwise noted, cars listed here lead their categories in both city and highway miles-per-gallon figures. If several cars tied for the lead in city miles per gallon in their category, for example, we chose the one with the best highway miles per gallon .

In each case, figures are given for ideal circumstances. For example, manual transmission cars usually get better gas mileage than automatic transmission cars do. Smaller-engine options are more fuel-efficient than larger ones. Two-wheel drive is more fuel-efficient than four. You will also notice that while cars ordinarily get better highway mileage than city, the opposite is true for Toyota's Prius hybrid. This is because the Prius' engine is off 48 percent of the time during the EPA city mileage test. When the Prius comes to a stop, its engine shuts off; to accelerate from a stop, the car uses its electric motor, not its gas engine.

All kinds of numbers and worries are being exchanged regarding the fuel situation in America. You will be happy to see that you can find fuel-efficient sports cars and luxury vehicles amid the furor. You'll even find (gasp!) an SUV listed below. There's a fuel-efficient car in every category--and, we hope, at least one or two that you would actually be excited to drive.

© 2012 Forbes.com

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