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Super Cheap High MPG Cars: 1978-1981

Looking for a car that gets crazy great gas mileage but don’t want to spend a lot of cash? This list of knucklebusting (can we call them classic?) small cars from 1978 through 1981 haul down some impressive gas mileage figures and can be had for chump change … if you’re handy.

It’s not just that they’re cheap … these cars are past the magic 25 year point that may actually make them qualify as antique cars, dependent on state regulations. While the thought of a rusty old Dodge Omni or Plymouth Horizon with historic plates might lead to hysterics, the owner can take solace in those remarkably high gas mileage figures.

The possibilities run from wannabe exotics to the work-a-day. Imagine finding a Dodge De Tomaso, under a tarp in a barn … only to realize that it’s not only "the Italian sports car from Detroit," it’s worthy of a 50 mile per gallon highway rating. Need to haul around some stuff? How about a 1980 Chevy Luv pickup truck that pulls down 53 miles per gallon on the highway? We sure could use some of those small diesel pickup trucks today …

Fuel Efficient 1978-1981 Cars

Year Manufacturer Model Engine Disp Trans City Highway
1981 DODGE OMNI 4 M4 30 50
1981 PLYMOUTH HORIZON 4 M4 30 50
1981 DODGE 024/DE TOMASO 4 M4 30 50
1981 PLYMOUTH TC3/TURISMO 4 M4 30 50
1981 FORD ESCORT 4 1.6 M4 28 44
1981 LINCOLN-MERCURY LYNX 4 1.6 M4 28 44
1981 FORD ESCORT WAGON 4 1.6 M4 27 42
1981 LINCOLN-MERCURY LYNX WAGON 4 1.6 M4 27 42
1981 HONDA CIVIC 4 1.3 M4 32 40
1981 HONDA CIVIC 4 1.3 M5 31 41
1981 HONDA CIVIC 4 1.5 M5 32 42
1981 HONDA CIVIC WAGON 4 1.5 M5 30 40
1981 ISUZU I-MARK 4 M5 27 40
1981 ISUZU I-MARK 4 M4 41 51
1981 ISUZU I-MARK 4 M5 37 49
1981 DATSUN 210 4 M5 31 44
1981 DATSUN 210 WAGON 4 M5 31 44
1981 B11 WAGON 310 4 M4 30 41
1981 B11 WAGON 310 4 M5 28 40
1981 B11 WAGON 510 4 M5 29 40
1981 RENAULT LE CAR 4 1.4 M4 29 40
1981 DODGE COLT 4 M4 34 45
1981 DODGE COLT 4 D4 32 41
1981 PLYMOUTH CHAMP 4 M4 34 45
1981 PLYMOUTH CHAMP 4 D4 32 41
1981 DODGE COLT 4 D4 31 41
1981 PLYMOUTH CHAMP 4 D4 31 41
1981 MAZDA GLC 4 1.5 M4 35 43
1981 MAZDA GLC 4 1.5 M5 35 45
1981 MAZDA GLC WAGON 4 1.5 M4 31 41
1981 MAZDA GLC WAGON 4 1.5 M5 31 43
1981 TOYOTA STARLET 4 M5 36 50
1981 TOYOTA COROLLA TERCEL 4 M4 36 48
1981 TOYOTA COROLLA TERCEL 4 M5 33 45
1981 VOLKSWAGEN RABBIT 4 M4 28 42
1981 VOLKSWAGEN RABBIT 4 M5 25 40
1981 VOLKSWAGEN SCIROCCO 4 M5 25 40
1981 VOLKSWAGEN JETTA 4 M5 25 40
1981 VOLKSWAGEN RABBIT 4 M4 40 54
1981 VOLKSWAGEN RABBIT 4 M5 38 56
1981 VOLKSWAGEN JETTA 4 M5 41 57
1981 VOLKSWAGEN DASHER 4 M4 36 48
1981 VOLKSWAGEN DASHER WAGON 4 M4 36 48
1981 DATSUN PICKUP 2WD 4 M4 37 47
1981 DATSUN PICKUP 2WD 4 M5 38 51
1981 AUDI 4000 4 M5 26 41
1981 SUBARU SUBARU 4 1.6 M4 32 43
1981 SUBARU SUBARU 4 1.6 M5 32 44
1981 SUBARU SUBARU 4 1.8 M5 28 40
1980 HONDA CIVIC 4 1.5 M4 32 41
1980 HONDA CIVIC 4 1.5 M5 32 45
1980 HONDA CIVIC 4 1.5 M4 32 41
1980 HONDA CIVIC 4 1.5 M5 32 45
1980 DATSUN 210 4 M5 29 41
1980 DATSUN 210 WAGON 4 M5 29 41
1980 DATSUN 310 4 M5 29 41
1980 DATSUN 510 4 M5 30 42
1980 DODGE COLT 4 D4 31 43
1980 PLYMOUTH CHAMP 4 D4 31 43
1980 DODGE COLT 4 D4 31 41
1980 PLYMOUTH ARROW 4 M5 27 40
1980 PLYMOUTH CHAMP 4 D4 31 41
1980 MAZDA GLC 4 1.4 M5 30 42
1980 MAZDA GLC WAGON 4 1.4 M5 30 42
1980 TOYOTA COROLLA TERCEL 4 M4 30 41
1980 TOYOTA COROLLA TERCEL 4 M5 30 42
1980 VOLKSWAGEN RABBIT 4 M4 40 52
1980 VOLKSWAGEN RABBIT 4 M5 42 56
1980 VOLKSWAGEN DASHER 4 M4 36 49
1980 VOLKSWAGEN DASHER WAGON 4 M4 36 49
1980 VOLKSWAGEN RABBIT 4 M5 26 40
1980 VOLKSWAGEN SCIROCCO 4 M5 26 40
1980 VOLKSWAGEN JETTA 4 M5 26 40
1980 DATSUN PICKUP 2WD 4 M4 39 48
1980 CHEVROLET LUV PICKUP 2WD 4 M5 40 53
1979 FORD FIESTA 4 1.6 M4 26 40
1979 HONDA CIVIC 4 1.5 M5 28 41
1979 DATSUN 210 4 M5 27 41
1979 DATSUN 310 4 M5 27 40
1979 DODGE COLT HATCH 4 D4 32 43
1979 DODGE COLT HATCH 4 M4 32 42
1979 MIRADA CHAMP 4 D4 32 43
1979 MIRADA CHAMP 4 M4 32 42
1979 DODGE COLT HATCH 4 D4 30 42
1979 MIRADA CHAMP 4 D4 30 42
1979 MAZDA GLC 4 M4 30 40
1979 MAZDA GLC 4 M5 30 42
1979 MAZDA GLC WAGON 4 M5 29 41
1979 VOLKSWAGEN RABBIT 4 M4 40 50
1979 VOLKSWAGEN RABBIT 4 M5 41 55
1979 VOLKSWAGEN DASHER 4 M4 36 46
1979 VOLKSWAGEN DASHER WAGON 4 M4 36 46
1979 VOLKSWAGEN RABBIT 4 M5 24 42
1979 VOLKSWAGEN SCIROCCO 4 M5 25 41
1978 FORD FIESTA 4 1.6 30 43
1978 CIVIC CIVIC 4 34 43
1978 ACCORD ACCORD 4 35 45
1978 CIVIC CIVIC 4 33 41
1978 ACCORD ACCORD 4 31 42
1978 DATSUN B-210 4 1.4 29 40

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118 comments ↓

#1 mpg-o-editor on 11.25.11 at 9:06 am

@Karl – Thanks for your input! As far as this site being filled with it, hey we’re only conveying the official numbers. Many of these early government ratings were optimistic, little doubt about that. I owned a Pinto. Holy cow, it was the worst car I’ve owned, hands down. I could never calculate MPGs with it back then … either I couldn’t afford to fill the tank or it broke down. Thank heavens it was light, because I pushed that thing home a couple of times. It’s amazing that you owned ten of them. I hit my thumb with a hammer once. After that I learned. 🙂

#2 John on 12.05.11 at 8:51 am

@Karl: I drive a mostly stock Pinto now, with a 2.3 and a 4 speed. I get around 25 city and 28-29 highway. I got over 300 miles in the 11 gallon tank in a highway trip this summer. And this is with the car running a little rough.

And it’s been reliable as hell for a car that hadn’t been driven for years before I got it. I had some charging system issues early on, but now that those are resolved it doesn’t give me any problems. Aside from it marking its territory that is, haha.

#3 John on 12.05.11 at 8:54 am

I’ve got to say the Pinto is my favorite out of all of the vehicles I’ve had, it’s really fun to drive even though I’m stuck doing 55-60 on the highway when the speed limit here is 65.

I had a gas 87 Isuzu P’up about 2 years ago and I was getting about 35mpg highway. No muffler, and it backfired every time I threw it in 3rd and stomped the gas pedal. It’s a shame the frame was too rotted and I had to get rid of it.

#4 Wil on 12.31.11 at 2:38 am

Has anyone thought about the gas they are selling us today? It’s not the same as it was 30 years ago. Why allow consumers to go the ‘extra mile’ when it comes out of your (gas producers) pocketbook. They figured it out and fixed it. Those numbers do seem high though. I drove a 99 Saturn 1.8L and it was a great GREAT highway car. Topped out around 41mpg at 70mph. Faster it would only drop to 36mpg. At 46-52mph with a tail wind 48mpg.

#5 mpg-o-editor on 12.31.11 at 10:30 am

@Wil – You hit two key points …

1) Today’s gasoline is different, no doubt about that. An E10 (10%) Ethanol blend provides less fuel economy than “pure” gasoline. One of our goals in 2012 is to test “pure” gas vs E10 in a number of different vehicles.

2) Highway speed has a significant effect on fuel economy. The faster you drive, generally speaking, the lower your MPGs. There was a national speed limit thirty years ago …

#6 Ron on 01.19.12 at 12:30 am

You missed the best ones of all- the Mercedes diesels. My 61 190Db has a mileage chart in the drivers manual which shows 40 mpg at 60mph and 68MPG at 40- I have proven both. My 84 190D-2.2 has averaged 42MPG for the last 5 years in a mix of 75MPH Highway and city driving with an accurate documented best of 54MPG on a hot day with a tailwind on the highway. And all in comfort and style! My bit old 84 300SD only gets 30mpg (In a HUGE 4000lb luxo sedan). And they are all reliable as an anvil and easy to maintain.

#7 Dirk on 02.25.12 at 7:24 am

A VW Jetta is bigger than a VW Rabbit but gives more MPG using the same engine????? C’mon research dept..

#8 joe on 02.27.12 at 4:04 pm

I think the MPG’s in above table were from EPA data. Years ago the EPA estimates were way overrated. In past couple decades the EPA finally adjusted their system so estimates are much closer.

On the other hand, 1972 Datsun 620 pickup weighs about 2300 lb, 170 inches long, 98 HP carburetor motor. I used to easily get over 30MPG combined. The smallest pickup you can get today is the Tocoma, 190 inches, 60% more HP, weighs 900lbs more. I want a pickup to occasionally carry sofa, wheelbarrow, big table, push lawnmower, etc. Everyday use is to commute to work. Don’t need that HP, length, weight. It would suit me just fine that if I load it up with 500 lbs of lawn products on the weekend that I would have to accelerate slower.

#9 john on 03.01.12 at 4:29 pm

This summer I will pick up my grandmothers 1980 chevette. I have understood that these cars are UGLY but get good gas mileage and last forever (this one has 56k because it has been parked since 85). I drove it around and its a dog (no power at all) so I was wondering what mods can be made to pep up the power which wont hurt gas mileage? So far Ive been told to replace the carb to manifold gasket with a gasket without a screen, drill holes in the air cleaner housing to increase air getting to the filter, and disconnect the smog pump. Can you add anything?

#10 James on 10.19.12 at 9:24 pm

If I get one of these and replace the old engine with a newer injected four cyl, will it get even better mpg?

#11 joe on 01.07.13 at 6:54 am

the chevy luv does not get anywhere 53 mpg highway. i drive a 1980 chevy luv and i average 30mpg highway driving at 55mph, i have electronic ignition, and aftermarket more efficent carb and have never seen over 32mpg with it. do not expect anything over 28 combined mpg from one.

#12 mpg-o-editor on 01.07.13 at 8:14 am

@Joe – I’d reckon your Chevy Luv is a gasser, not a diesel?

#13 ron on 01.26.13 at 9:56 pm

I had a chevy vega actually liked it. But u had to check the gas and fill the oil when u stopped at a gas station.

#14 Dorians 210 Datsun on 07.27.14 at 3:54 am

Yes! You’ve read right folks. 7 years after this was published and I’m commenting to add that I recently picked up my 1981 Datsun 210 2 Dr sports coupe. Just a stock rebuilt A15(s) with a manual 4 speed. Can’t say much about it yet but Im a die hard jdm follower and I know what I have (; the body has 300k on it and the motor has about 1k on the rebuild( so I was told). But even so, she purrs like a kitten and I’m about $2,500 in after a rebuilt carb ($565).. Damn you carb. But anyways call me a fool if you like, but I’m loving my ride. 40+ mpg, rare, stylish, a freeway neckbreaker, and she gets loose haha what more ya need??? Anyways later guys I’m off to drift 😛 *Shakotan*

#15 mpg-o-editor on 08.16.14 at 7:26 pm

@Dorian – Cool! The 210 has always been a favorite of mine. Best of luck with the project! 🙂

#16 litesong on 12.08.14 at 2:07 pm

Considered many cars, along with the Datsun B210, back then. Almost bought a Volvo Sport at the time or Saab(good buy), but finally bought a Subaru.The only car of the bunch that was any good was the B210……oh, well.

#17 Doug on 08.30.15 at 10:16 pm

This list is totally inaccurate. I have owned many of the cars listed. If you take off at least a good 10 miles per gallon it would be somewhat accurate. Very misleading !

#18 mpg-o-editor on 09.01.15 at 6:52 pm

@Doug – The numbers on this list are straight from the original EPA ratings. Did they estimate high? Survey says: Yes. =)

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