Cheap, High-MPG engines: Two Ways to Get There

2004 Hyundai Accent

Why does fuel efficiency have to come with a price premium? Hybrids, diesels and EVs all cost much more compared to their fossil-fuel-powered brethren.

It’s been well documented that it can take years of saving fuel costs to make up for the extra cost of the vehicle. In some cases, the car will have been sold or traded in before any savings are realized. What we need are low-cost, high-efficiency engines, but so far our lust for power, too, has only resulted in expensive turbos and help from electric motors.

Is it possible to create a non-turbo gas engine that is cheap and returns the fuel efficiency of a hybrid while not sacrificing power? If it were possible, someone would have it by now, right?

A story at Automotive News says an old technology has been refined enough to work in modern applications, in everything from lawn mowers to semi trucks.

Three companies developing opposed-piston engines say they can produce the magic combination of sharply increased efficiency and lower costs. The trio — EcoMotors International, Pinnacle Engines and Achates Power Inc. — are refining a pre-World War II internal combustion scheme in which two pistons operate in a single cylinder.

Opposed-piston engineMaybe opposed-piston engines are the answer we’ve all wanted! They use many of the same parts as current internal combustion engines, but without a cylinder head or valvetrain. Fewer parts means less costs, and the the manufacturers say they can return impressive fuel economy (though no numbers are given).

But of course there are a few problems. First, many of these engines are two-cycle, which is just not practical for automobile use. Second, major automakers have shied away from the technology because of emissions problems. Still, the trio of companies believe they have solutions to these problems and hope to, eventually, sell to automakers from Detroit to Stuttgart.

The other option to achieve cheap fuel efficiency is to buy lighter, cheaper cars. The CarGurus used listings are full of older model Civics, Corollas, Sentras, Rios and Accents that you can pay cash for, then enjoy a few good years of cheap driving.

This is one case where I think old technology is a better buy than new. It’s cheaper, it’s still reliable and it returns excellent fuel economy. What you give up, of course, are modern safety features and quick acceleration times.

Are the sacrifices of an older fuel-efficient car worth the reduced costs of ownership?


Find Used Cars in Your Area at CarGurus

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Used Hyundai Accent


  1. 1994 Toyota Tercel for me! Manual tranny, no AC. Real vinyl seats. Haha. fun little car to drive and I can hit 40 mpg! Little maintenance and cheap to own. But the headlights are bitch to change!

  2. This is why I love my old Celica. It gets 30mpg easy, doesn’t ever break, and I’m pretty sure that the engine in it will go to 500k miles (I’m at 230k now). I paid $900 for it, and sure, it’s a 1996, which means dents, dings, and wear…but parts are still insanely cheap, it looks good, and it still does 110mph with ease. No major issues to report since purchasing it iat 218k 2 months ago…oh, and I got rid of a 2009 Yaris HB for this. No payments, similar MPG, and MUCH more fun to drive. My friends with older TDIs might get better mileage, but after working on and owning VW products for 11 years, I have to shudder at the cost of ownership WHEN something goes wrong.

  3. Some of thee ecoboxes from the 1980’s era (Geo Metro, Honda Civic) had very high mileage. Secret was, as you point out, small, light chassis. They also invariably had manual transmissions and often lacked things like A/C (which can add about 400 pounds to a car.) Manual trannies can be automated (as with some VW and Daimler’s Smart) but this setup leads to a lot of complaints from consumers who don’t understand how the system works. So why don’t we get better mileage from modern ecoboxes like the Yarris or the Chevy Sonic? All the safety requirements add a lot of weight– air bags, stronger structures, better glass, ABS and stability systems. All the electronic junk too, as well as those standard equipment items like power remote door locks, air conditioning, automatic transmissions, sunroofs, fold-down back seats, electric power steering and stuff like that. You could probably take a Yarris and reduce the weight to under 1500 pounds without all that extra stuff. Americans will need to demand less safety and convenience if they want better mileage without the gimmicks like hybrid.

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