7 cheap alternatives to hybrids

Save money with our favorite fuel sippers

We've done the math. Sure, hybrid and diesel-powered cars get great mileage, but they cost more to buy. So much more that it can take seven or eight years to make back the extra cost in fuel savings.  That's why we think a traditional front-wheel-drive compact or subcompact with a four-cylinder engine is a better gas-saving alternative for many buyers.  Our seven favorite fuel sippers for 2014 get at least 32 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving yet cost no more than $20,290, including delivery fees. That's incredibly affordable when you consider that the average transaction price for new cars and trucks topped $30,000 last year. These aren't some dreary little rides, either. The nicely equipped versions we recommend seat at least four and come with automatic transmissions, air conditioning, cruise control, six or more air bags, Bluetooth connectivity and iPod interface, and power windows, locks and outside mirrors. Why spend extra for technology if one of these rides will fill your needs?

2014 Nissan Versa SL

Price: $17,700
Mileage: 31 mpg city/40 hwy/35 combined
Estimated Annual Fuel Cost: $1,400

The Versa sedan won't turn any heads. It's as plain as Amish pajamas. But we are impressed with its cabin space — more rear-seat legroom than a Mercedes-Benz C-Class — despite its tidy exterior footprint that allows it to slide into those smaller parking spaces in downtown garages. It easily transports four adults and five in a pinch. Its generous trunk carries more stuff than a C-Class, too. Nissan uses continuously variable transmissions almost exclusively in its cars and put one in the Versa SL, along with a 109-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. Push-button start, trip computer and a 60/40 split-folding rear seat are all standard.

2014 Chevrolet Spark 1LT

Price: $16,645
Mileage: 30 mpg city/39 hwy/34 combined
Estimated Annual Fuel Cost: $1,450

The Spark is the least expensive car you'll find here, yet its combined fuel economy is two mpg higher for 2014 because Chevrolet replaced the old four-speed automatic with a continuously variable transmission. That change will save you an estimated $200 in annual fuel costs. The downside is that Spark comes with the smallest, least powerful engine of our picks — 1.2 liters, 84 horsepower — and the new transmission makes it even less fun to drive. But this little Chevy remains a fierce slayer of urban congestion, and the cabin is more spacious than you might expect with some nice tech touches, including a seven-inch color touch screen and six-speaker audio system.

2014 Mazda3i Sport Sedan

Price: $20,290
Mileage: 30 mpg city/41 hwy/34 combined
Estimated Annual Fuel Cost: $1,450

Talk about fun to drive. The Mazda3i has a wonderful balance of spot-on handling, quick acceleration and impressive fuel economy. Redesigned for 2014, it clearly benefits from Mazda's Skyactiv Technology, which recasts most mechanical components to make this sedan stronger, lighter and more efficient. The new Mazda3i also has the biggest, most powerful engine you'll find here — 2 liters, 155 horsepower — and the only six-speed automatic transmission (an option we recommend and have included in the price).  Inside you'll find better materials and workmanship than in previous versions. Although there are pricier versions with all manner of extra goodies, the Sport ticks all of our boxes.

2014 Ford Fiesta SE Sedan

Price: $17,340
Mileage: 29 mpg city/39 hwy/32 combined
Estimated Annual Fuel Cost: $1,550

Although nicely equipped in its base trim, we stepped up to the mid-level SE version for our pick to get must-haves such as cruise control and power windows. Spending the extra coin also added a few other goodies like trip computer and keyless entry. Every Fiesta comes with seven airbags, six-speaker audio system and voice-recognition technology. We like the spunky 120 horsepower, 1.6-liter engine paired with the optional six-speed, driver-shiftable automatic transmission. Acceleration isn't quite neck-snapping, but the responsive steering and better-than-average handling crank up the driving dynamics. Techies with deeper pockets can add upgrades, such as MyFord Touch with its 6.5-inch color touch screen and systems interface.

2014 Honda Civic LX Sedan

Price: $19,980
Mileage: 28 mpg city/39 hwy/32 combined
Estimated Annual Fuel Cost: $1,550

With its range of engines, body styles and trim levels, shoppers looking for a compact car should be able to find something within the Civic family that meets their needs. For those on the hunt for a sub-$20,000 price and solid gas mileage, the LX Sedan fills the bill. We've priced it here with the standard 143-horsepower, 1.8-liter engine and optional continuously variable transmission. You may have heard that Honda stumbled when it redesigned the Civic in 2012 with a cheaper-looking, noisier interior. But some feverish work over the past two years have pretty much fixed that, and the Civic remains one of the best-driving compacts on the road.

2014 Hyundai Elantra SE Sedan

Price: $19,985
Mileage: 28 mpg city/38 hwy/32 combined
Estimated Annual Fuel Cost: $1,600

The first thing you notice about the Elantra is its stylish, even striking, exterior. Not something you expect in a fuel sipper. Then you climb inside and find the Elantra is the roomiest ride in our slide show. There's enough interior space for the Elantra to be rated as a midsize sedan by the EPA. Handling and performance are competitive with most compacts. You'll definitely like Hyundai's super-long warranties — 5 years/60,000 miles bumper-to-bumper and 10 years/100,000 miles on the powertrain.  We've priced it here with the six-speed automatic transmission; 145-horsepower, 1.8-liter engine; and $975 Preferred Equipment Package that includes Bluetooth connectivity, a backup camera and heated front seats.

2014 Toyota Yaris LE 5-Door

Price: $17,300
Mileage: 30 mpg city/36 hwy/32 combined
Estimated Annual Fuel Cost: $1,550

The Yaris is right at home battling city traffic and squeezing into urban parking spaces. Yet it's surprisingly roomy. Toyota added a few inches to the length in its last makeover, noticeably increasing trunk space. It can now carry more cargo than the Volvo S60. Although the interior is pretty basic, the long list of standard equipment is impressive, including a six-speaker audio system and the extra protection of seven air bags. The bad bits are mostly under the hood. We don't know how Yaris manages such terrific fuel economy with its outdated four-speed automatic transmission. A smaller than average engine — 1.5-liters, 106 horsepower — offers about average performance for a little car.

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