Cheap High MPG Cars: 1990

The 1990 model year saw the high-MPG field tighten, as gas mileage ceased to be the priority it was in the early years of the previous decade. While half of the top ten highest-MPG cars in 1990 carried a domestic nameplate, those choices were all imports. GM grabbed the top honors with the fuel-sipping three-cylinder Geo Metro XFI, a rebadged Suzuki Swift. (In fact, all of GM’s highest mileage offerings in 1990 were manufactured by Suzuki.) The Chevy Cavalier struggled to break the 35 MPG highway mark. On the other side of the domestic fence, just one model of the domestic Ford Escort broke the 40 MPG highway mark, as did the imported Ford Festiva. The two-seater Honda Civic CRX HF continued to produce respectable results, with a 52 MPG highway mark. The Jetta remained as Volkswagen’s sole compact diesel.

Top Ten High MPG Cars – 1990 Model Year:

  • Geo Metro XFI 3-cyl., 1.0 liter – MPG: 53 city / 58 highway
  • Honda Civic CRX HF 4-cyl., 1.5 liter – MPG: 49 city / 52 highway
  • Geo Metro 3-cyl., 1.0 liter – MPG: 46 city / 50 highway
  • Suzuki Swift 3-cyl., 1.0 liter – MPG: 46 city / 50 highway
  • Geo Metro LSI 3-cyl., 1.0 liter – MPG: 46 city / 50 highway
  • Chevrolet Sprint 3-cyl., 1.0 liter – MPG: 46 city / 50 highway
  • Pontiac Firefly 3-cyl., 1.0 liter – MPG: 46 city / 50 highway
  • Honda Civic CRX HF 4-cyl., 1.5 liter – MPG: 43 city / 49 highway
  • Suzuki Swift 4-cyl., 1.3 liter – MPG: 40 city / 44 highway
  • Volkswagen Jetta 4-cyl., 1.6 liter – MPG: 37 city / 43 highway

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Cheap High MPG Cars: 1985

1985 marked a turning point for high-MPG cars in the United States. According to the EPA data, the number of vehicles exceeding the 40 MPG highway mark in 1985 dropped dramatically from the previous year. As the price of gasoline fell, so too did America’s appetite for small fuel-efficient cars.

The drop was most clearly seen at General Motors, as Buick, Cadillac, and Oldsmobile were all gone from the ranks of the 40+ MPG pack. Chevrolet’s 40+ MPG offerings were reduced to just 8 versions of the Chevette, Sprint, and Spectrum. (An exceptionally thrifty version of the 3-cylinder manual Sprint scored 53 MPG highway.) Pontiac had the 1000, Sunbird, and Firefly (which like it’s Sprint cousin, also scored 53 MPG). Chrysler-Plymouth offered the Plymouth Colt, Horizon, and Turismo, along with the Dodge Colt, Omni, and Charger. Ford’s 1985 high-MPG fleet contained the Escort, EXP, and Tempo, as well as the Lincoln-Mercury Lynx and Topaz.

The ranks of the highest-MPG imports contracted, as well. Honda’s Civic rode it alone with the highest MPG honor going to the Civic HF and Civic CRX HF which scored 51 and 54 miles per gallon on the highway, respectively. Nissan’s over 40 MPG entries were reduced to just the Sentra diesel, which delivered a very respectable 49 and 50 MPG highway. The 626 soldiered on at Mazda, while Mitsubishi offered just the Mirage. Volkswagen stayed the course with the Golf (formerly the Rabbit) and Jetta diesels. The Corolla was Toyota’s sole 40+ MPG offering in 1985.

The Portland Biodiesel Co-op has an excellent chart that shows the decline specifically in the number of diesel-powered vehicles from the 1960s through 2002.

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Cheap High MPG Cars: 1984

1984 was a high-volume year for high-MPG cars in the USA, as the domestic and import manufacturers produced a range of cars that matched or exceeded the 40 MPG highway mark and met America’s thirst for fuel-thrifty vehicles.

General Motors was quite well represented among the domestic manufacturers. Buick offered the Skylark, Skyhawk, Regal, Century. Cadillac had the Cimmarron, while Chevrolet had the Chevette, Cavalier, Celebrity, and Citation, along with a 4-cylinder Camaro and S-10 Pickup. (GMC offered the S15 Pickup, as well.) Oldsmobile had the Cutlass Ciera, Firenza, Cutlass Supreme, and Omega. Pontiac was flush with high-MPG choices, including the 1000, 2000 Sunbird, two-seat Fiero, 6000 Wagon, and the four-cylinder Firebird.

Chrysler-Plymouth offered the Plymouth Colt, Colt Vista, Horizon, Reliant, and Turismo, along with the Dodge twins: Colt, Omni, Aries, Daytona, and Charger, and the tiny but unique Rampage Pickup. Ford’s 1984 highest MPG offerings consisted of the Escort, EXP, Laser and Tempo, along with the Lincoln-Mercury Lynx and Topaz.

The Japanese auto manufacturers sold boatloads of cars during 1984, with Honda’s Civic, Accord, and Prelude leading the way. Nissan hit its stride with the Pulsar, Sentra, 200SX, Stanza, and 2WD Pickups, while Toyota had the Starlet, Corolla, Tercel, Camry, and 2WD Pickup. Mitsubishi’s Precis (also sold as the Dodge and Plymouth Colt), Tredia, Cordia, and Pickup, met or exceeded 40 MPG highway, as did Mazda’s GLC, 626, and B2000/2200 Pickup. Subaru and Isuzu hit the mark, as well.

Among European manufacturers, Volkswagen was exceptionally prominent, with diesel models of the Rabbit, Quantum, and Jetta hitting or exceeding the 50 MPG mark. Knowing shoppers also found the Mercedes-Benz 190 in that same vaunted category.

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Cheap High MPG Cars: 1983

1983 was another banner year for high-MPG cars in America, with both import and domestic auto manufacturers well-represented among the ranks of cars that eclipsed a 40 MPG highway rating.

The high-MPG imports were lead by the Volkswagen Rabbit Diesel at 50 city / 67 highway, the Datsun (Nissan) Sentra at 48/62, and the Honda Civic at 46/59. The top of the charts included the Toyota Starlet, Renault Alliance, Isuzu I-Mark, and the Audi 4000 Coupe.

American auto manufacturers hit a high point with the Chevy Chevette and Pontiac 1000 oil burners at an amazing 43/60. Mopar put in some very respectable numbers with the Dodge Omni, Dodge Charger, and Plymouth Horizon, along with the Dodge and Plymouth Colts (which were rebadged Mitsubishi Precis). Ford lagged a bit behind GM and Mopar, but still managed to put a good number of Escorts and EXPs over the 40 MPG highway mark.

Amazingly, there were de-engined pony cars in the group, with four-cylinder versions of the Chevy Camaro and Pontiac Firebird landing mileage rankings of 26/42. Z-28s and Trans-Ams, they weren’t.

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Cheap High MPG Cars: 1986 – 1989

Looking to buy a truly inexpensive car that provides 40 to 50 miles per gallon (or more) on the highway? The 1986 through 1989 model years provide a range of small fuel efficient cars that can be had for a song and dance. If you need to get around on the least amount of money, one of these vehicles just might be the ticket. There’s little doubt that it pays to be a careful high-MPG car shopper. While the 86-89 ranks are full of both domestic and imported high MPG choices, some imports are certainly better left alone. Parts may be an issue for marquees like Daihatsu and Renault that no longer have a broad support system here in the States. (Perhaps the Charade wasn’t the best name for a car, after all?)

The GM-branded imports of this period – Chevy Sprint, Geo Metro, and Pontiac Firefly – are rebadged Suzukis, most notable for their remarkably small and fuel-efficient three-cylinder engines, in both standard and turbo form.

The 1986-1989 vintage is prime for small vehicles with diesel engines for those that want to experiment with either biodiesel or vegetable oil conversion kits without investing thousands upon thousands of dollars in a test vehicle.

While the Volkswagen Jetta and Golf diesels are certainly the most commonplace among the compact import diesels, keep an eye out for the rare Nissan Sentra diesel, and the Isuzu Pup diesel pickups. The domestic manufacturers flirted with small diesels during this timeframe as well, with the Chevy Chevette diesel, the Ford Tempo diesel, the Ford Escort diesel, the Lincoln-Mercury Topaz diesel, and the Lynx diesel.

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