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I may be purchasing a new vehicle soon (still doing the whole cost-reward calculations). When looking for a new vehicle fuel efficiency was important to me, both for savings considering how much I drive and to help the environment.

I have seen vehicles that are designed to be significantly more efficient, hybrids & electrics, but also very tiny cars, that fit less then your usual compact car, either one or two seater usually. But I can't find more information about them, or anyone who sells them. When I look around at online vehicle websites these vehicles don't appear to be listed. The most fuel efficient ones I see are generally 40-42 MPG sedans. The Mitsubishi Mirage gets 44 MPG on highway, for example.

The only tiny cars I've found were electric, but since I may need to do 3 hour drives one way I don't think electric is an option for me.

I'm mildly curious what their footprint is. Are they not mass produced and thus more expensive than their size would imply? Does the lack of mass production affect the environmental cost of manufacture? What other considerations are there?

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    You may be wrong about economy of scale - markets outside the US (which I assume is where you are) tend to value fuel economy and small size rather more, and so these vehicles may not be as rare as you think. – Flyto Nov 4 '15 at 21:22
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    there are some rational reasons too. You tend to have new cities with big, wide, straight streets, so there's less incentive for small vehicles than if you're trying to park somewhere that was built for horses. – Flyto Nov 4 '15 at 22:20
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    @SimonW That's not a rational reason, that's a rational excuse. Just because the streeets are wide doesn't mean the car needs to fill it. – Johnny Nov 5 '15 at 0:06
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    As SimonW mentioned the market for small cars is much bigger in Europe than in the US. This not only has to do with the available space and larger distances in the US, but also with the much lower US fuel prices and the many regulations and huge costs for importing foreign cars. – THelper Nov 5 '15 at 9:24
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    @THelper - while there may be some future developments in producing hydrogen, why not just use those developments to create more clean electricity, which can use the existing grid for distribution instead of needing billions of dollars of new infrastructure (which comes at an environmental cost)? Is a hydrogen powered car significantly more efficient than a battery powered EV? Range is becoming less of a benefit as EV's increase their range and can be fast-charged. – Johnny Nov 6 '15 at 15:58
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In the USA the Daimler/Mercedes "Smart" Fortwo car is the obvious choice, rated at 41mpg on the highway. Those look silly but are quite safe and very fuel efficient, as well and being ridiculously easy to park. In parts of Europe it's legal to park them across a roadside car parking space (so you can get two cars into one spot).

The efficiency is all-round with a car like that. It's small and light, so it doesn't use much space and contains less material than other cars so the environmental impact of producing it and recycling it at the end of its useful life is lower. They're mass produced, and mostly in Europe where standards for things like this are much higher than in the US. For example, they have to be designed to be recycleable and the production facilities have to be safe to work in.

There are many cars like that available around the world, but most have practical restrictions on them even aside from not being approved in the USA. For example in Japan they have cheaper road fees for small vehicles (under 600cc) but also have horrid congestion and parking issues, so tiny cars are a very practical solution. Those cars are often not suited to the USA because they're not safe around high speed traffic - they're designed for 60kph (~35mph) speed limit areas so don't need to survive high speed crashes.

This list of 20 USA fuel-efficient vehicles has a worst-case fuel use of 50mpg, suggesting that there are at least 19 options available (one of the 20 is a Volkswagen so doesn't count).

I'm adding a quote from the linked SMH article in case that link rots:

Choice has discovered at least five cars it tested in real-world conditions this year exceeded the claimed fuel usage by more than 30 per cent. It found a Mercedes-Benz all-wheel drive burned up 43 per cent more fuel than the seven litres per 100 kilometres claimed by the carmaker. It also found a Volvo front-wheel drive consumed 37 per cent more and a Lexus all-wheel drive, 36 per cent more.

That suggests that it might not just be VW ... "optimising engine performance for specific test scenarios".

  • As far as I know Volkswagen only cheated on emissions, not on fuel-efficiency numbers. – THelper Nov 6 '15 at 7:59
  • That depends on how happy you are about killing people, but I suspect you're right thinking that anyone who drives has made that decision already. – Móż Nov 6 '15 at 8:30
  • @thelper thank you for indirectly explaining that last comment morz made, because I had no clue why volkswagons don't count. I assume there was some issue with their cheating some standards tests? – dsollen Nov 6 '15 at 16:42
  • @dsollen VW have cheated on the diesel emissions tests, but there are also now reports that they have probably also cheated on consumption tests for both diesel and petrol vehicles. – Móż Nov 6 '15 at 21:02
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Don't hold me to it, but I've been reading a lot of stuff on this matter, on an off, these past few years.

The private automobile is the least efficient means of transportation currently in use. Remember that your car consumes 99% of the energy available to it in order to transport ITSELF. That's not very efficient, now, is it?

That said, even jet airplanes are more efficient than cars. Buses are more efficient. Electric trains are more efficient by orders of magnitude, as are streetcars (a.k.a. trams) and trolley buses.

The most energy-efficient vehicle right now is the bicycle. This is not a metaphor or a joke: the actual ratio of energy spent/distance covered is absolutely off the charts.

Please don't be fooled by the amazing miles-per-gallon ads. A train can travel 1000 miles on 0 gallons of gasoline. So can your bike.

If the Governor of your state, or any other state, had the courage to tax private motoring into the ground, there'd be an economic boom in that state, and later on, in the world: think of all the train and streetcar tracks we'd have to build! I'm not kidding.

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    Hi Ricky, welcome to sustainability.SE. I've downvoted your answer as it reads more like a polemic against cars than an answer to the question that was asked. Although the asker didn't say so originally, I'm pretty sure that they are going to buy a car anyway, and intended to ask how very small cars compare with others. Telling them "don't buy a car" is not helpful. – Flyto Nov 9 '15 at 14:42
  • (also, "jet airplanes are more efficient than cars" is a statement whose veracity will vary somewhat depending on exactly what is being measured) – Flyto Nov 9 '15 at 14:43
  • Trains use fuel too,,and are hugely heavy. Electric trains get their energy from the power stations nearby, whatever they are burning near you. Trains only make sense if they are packed full of people. – RedSonja Jan 7 '16 at 12:20

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