feul efficiencyFuel efficiency is on the mind of a lot of car shoppers these days, and automakers have responded with more vehicles that get 40 miles per gallon -- or even more.

Today's super-efficient cars are much nicer than the miserly little fuel-sippers of years past. But there's a trade-off: Extra efficiency costs extra. And the added price may not be worth it, according to the venerable consumer publication Consumer Reports.

Unwrapping the new car package

The July 2012 issue of Consumer Reports calls out three compact cars that are rated at 40 miles per gallon or better: The Chevrolet Cruze Eco from General Motors (GM), Ford's (F) Focus SE SFE, and Honda's (HMC) Civic HF. Each is a popular compact model that has been modified to increase fuel efficiency.

Those modifications -- factory-installed options packages that include things such as special tires and aerodynamic tweaks -- typically add $500 to $800 to the car's price. In the context of the total cost of a new car purchase, that may not seem like a big deal. If it's the car you want, you'll pay the price.

But as Consumer Reports points out, these particular packages could take a long time to pay for themselves.

The magazine says that its Chevy Cruze with the Eco package did indeed get 40 miles per gallon on the highway -- but that's just 4 mpg higher than the regular Cruze it tested recently. The difference in mixed driving was even smaller, only 1 mpg.

Add it all up, and that means that the Eco package will save the average driver just $20 a year. At $770 for the Eco package, it'll take you more than 38 years to recoup the cost in fuel savings.

You'll do better with the Focus and the Civic, but not a lot better -- we're still talking years, not months, before the savings make the packages worthwhile.

Your Mileage (and Savings) May Vary

As far as the math goes, these specific packages may not be worthwhile for every driver, but that doesn't mean they're bad cars. (Like many reviewers, Consumer Reports liked the Focus quite a bit, and the Cruze got pretty good marks as well. They didn't like the Honda much, though.) From a larger perspective, these kinds of calculations don't always reflect the true costs and benefits of owning a more efficient car.

Detractors of hybrid cars like Toyota's (TM) Prius have been saying for years that the extra cost of a car with a hybrid drivetrain (versus an ordinary compact car) takes a long time to pay for itself in fuel savings. Looking just at fuel prices, they might be right. But there are other considerations. For example:
  • Your habits might vary from their "average" assumptions: If you do a lot of highway driving, even the Cruze Eco's small fuel savings might make sense for you.
  • Many have found that hybrid cars are cheaper to insure -- people who buy hybrids might be more careful drivers, on average.
  • And there are other benefits that are harder to put a price on: Maybe you fill up your car four or five times a month now, and you'd appreciate the lower hassle of a car that only needs to be filled up every other week.
  • And some folks just like knowing that they have the most fuel-efficient ride on the block.
Whatever your preference, it's a good time to buy a new car -- as long as you shop carefully, and keep all of the costs in mind.

At the time of publication, Motley Fool contributor John Rosevear owned shares of Ford and General Motors. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Ford and General Motors and have recommended creating a synthetic long position in Ford.

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the goal should be to keep gas prices in check for everyone- if each new car sold gets 100-150 mpt more- then it will allow all of you irresponsible gas hogs to drive your HOV lane pollution vehicles. Just my thoughts.

June 08 2012 at 9:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Yeah right... but if you really loved Obama you would buy a tax payer subsidized Volt... If you love the Green President Obama you would buy Eco friendly Chinese made. If you are a member of the 99% you would be carrying a EVICT THE OCCUPANT sign in front of the White House (Public paid public housing )

June 06 2012 at 9:28 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to cpo1514's comment

How about a little cheese with that whine, Hummm

July 10 2012 at 8:42 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I drive a VW jetta - 29 and 34 - not bad for a 5 cylinder with plenty of oomph when I need it.

June 06 2012 at 8:15 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

The other added costs they did not consider in this are 1. The more a car cost the more you loose in depreciation. 2. higher insurance costs for a more expensive car 3.More expensive plates for a more expensive car. 4. "Time Value" of money for the added cost of these options. Unless gas really goes thru the roof, it makes no sense in the long run. Best way to save money, is drive less. Walk, ride a bike, plan your trips, car pool, live close to work, etc. I even use dog power at times, a pair of roller blades, 2 dogs, a backpack and we are off to the store. They love it. More fun than taking my Vette or Jag out, and I get about 3miles/dog treat. I have cut my yearly miles driven by about 30% doing all this. Get more excerise, save money and my cars will last longer.

June 05 2012 at 10:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The Geo Metro...if you remember those small cars...got as much as 46 miles ot the gallon without being a hybrid or having expense computer programming to help that along. They should reissue it. It was cheap, and the two people I know who had one drove them over the 150K mark.

June 05 2012 at 2:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to billslycat's comment

ANd the good thing is that with the small size you will NEVER be in a long rehabilitation program after a crash.... and they dissolve in a few years once in the ground!!!!

June 06 2012 at 9:30 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

As with almost everything in America, you have to spend money to save money, cars, home improvements, there is a constant cost to every move you make.

July 10 2012 at 8:49 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I would love a car with such good gas mileage, but we would have to drive two vehicles to get my family anywhere. So a larger vehicle, with a lower mpg rating actually makes more sense for my family. If I was single or when the kids are out of the house, these cars will make more sense.

June 05 2012 at 2:01 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Does anyone remember when a good advertised mpg rating was 12 city 17 highwy? We've come a long way.

June 05 2012 at 12:08 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to capenv's comment

The Obama car company still produces trucks & SUV;;; see the Occupants fleet of Suburbans????

June 06 2012 at 9:31 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply