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How to shop for a fuel-efficient used car

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Fuel efficiency isn’t just found in electric cars and hybrids. There are a wide range of fuel-efficient used cars available with all sorts of engines — largely because manufacturers have been focusing on fuel efficiency for the last decade. You shouldn’t have any trouble finding a used car that sports a high miles per gallon. But if you are looking for a cheap option, you will be hard pressed to find one in today’s car market.

Look at more than just hybrids

Yes, hybrids are an amazing fuel-efficient option that are easily available as used cars. But they are far from the only option out there. Considering manufacturers are pushing more electric and alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs) — and standard gasoline engines are getting better — you will have a wide selection.

Electric

Electric vehicles don’t use gas or oil. Provided you have a place to charge your car overnight, many EVs have a range of 200 miles or more. And they’ve been available for so long that you may not have much trouble finding a used model, especially if you live somewhere with good public charging stations.

Factor in the cost of installing a 240-watt plug and the electricity your car will need to determine the cost per mile. This can guide you toward a used electric car that won’t cost more to drive than its gas-guzzling cousins.

Plug-in hybrid

Traditional hybrids utilize the energy generated from braking to keep fuel efficiency up. A plug-in hybrid, on the other hand, has a secondary electric engine. This gives them a longer range and can increase fuel efficiency for both gas and electricity used.

Plug-in hybrids have been on the market for a few years now, but they are popular. This means you should be able to find a used model — just that it may not be as budget-friendly as some other choices.

Natural gas

Natural gas vehicles are available but finding one used may be difficult. They are much less common than other AFVs. And while natural gas results in less greenhouse gas emissions, it also means a shorter driving range when compared to traditional gasoline or diesel vehicles.

You will need to factor in the cost of fueling them alongside the availability of natural gas in your area. If you live somewhere with an abundance of natural gas, it could be a more fuel-efficient choice than a traditional gas engine. If not, fuel efficiency may not outweigh the hassle of driving a car powered by natural gas.

If natural gas is in limited supply, consider a bi-fuel or dual-fuel car. Bi-fuel cars run on either natural gas or gasoline, while dual-fuel cars run on natural gas but use diesel to start their engines.

Clean diesel

Diesel is a relatively clean and fuel-efficient option for SUVs and trucks. Many run on a combination of biodiesel and petroleum diesel, which keeps emissions down. However, these vehicles are more expensive to own — and it may be harder to find used cars that have a diesel engine. If you are looking into a diesel car, ensure that the fuel efficiency outweighs the extra dollars you will be spending at the pump to fill your tank.

Four-cylinder standard

Standard gasoline vehicles are getting more fuel efficient each year. Manufacturers are racing to squeeze the most miles per gallon into each car, which means used cars are almost as fuel efficient as their new counterparts.

In fact, quite a few vehicles are considered flexible fuel vehicles (FFVs) and can run on up to 85 percent ethanol, according to the US Department of Energy. This means they use less gas but still have a similar range and miles per gallon as vehicles that use 100 percent gasoline.

Check websites like Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book (KBB) for miles per gallon and fuel efficiency ratings on standard used models you are interested in. It’s likely that you’ll find a fuel-efficient option that won’t break the bank.

Consider your location

The time you spend on the road matters a lot. Electric vehicles and hybrids are no longer limited to short ranges, but that still may not make them the best choice for frequent long trips.

  • City dwellers who make short trips around town will get the most use out of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. These have the most fuel efficiency for short trips.
  • Residents of the suburbs should make their choice based on commute. For long commutes into a city with lots of traffic, an EV or FFV makes sense — provided you have a place to charge. But if you are just making short trips, a plug-in hybrid could keep fuel costs low.
  • If you live in a rural area, stick to fully electric, traditional hybrid, gas or diesel vehicles. These have the longest range between needing to be charged or fueled, which makes them good for long trips.

Don’t rush if you can afford to wait

Semiconductor shortages, delays in shipping and an active market have all contributed to the increase in used car prices. Even with the best negotiation skills, you are going to be hard pressed to find a deal. And while interest rates continue to stay relatively low, it may not be enough to offset the price of a fuel-efficient vehicle, which is already more expensive on average than a standard model.

Wait if you are not pressed for a car. The market may calm down and gas prices may decrease if you give it time. It will also allow you to wait for new models with new features — which in turn means the current models will have time to decrease in value.

Almost every big manufacturer has committed to expanding its suite of electric and hybrid models within the next ten or so years, according to data gathered by Forbes. If you can wait, you may be able to snag technology that hasn’t hit the sales lot yet.

Be ready to negotiate

Buying a used car takes just as much research and preparation as a new car. Dealers know fuel efficiency is a big selling point for most people, so you need to haggle. Come to the car lot with financing from a bank or other lender in hand, and don’t agree to add-ons that you don’t need.

Trading in your old, less fuel-efficient car and putting up a hefty down payment also helps your chances of scoring a good deal on your next vehicle.

Next steps

The used car market is bustling. This means you may not be limited when looking for fuel-efficient cars, but it also means you will spend more when you do find something. Do the math to ensure the extra amount you spend outweighs the amount you would spend on gas for a less fuel-efficient car. Otherwise, it may make sense to focus less on fuel efficiency and more on the overall cost of your used car.

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