As someone who grew up in California, I always feel like crazy high gas prices are always just around the corner. Once again it looks like I’m gonna be right, and that might not be the worst thing, because I don’t know if we’ve ever had such an abundance of super high fuel economy cars available to us as we do now.
This subject popped into my head after a bunch of stories on oh man, gas is getting expensive again started some conversations around the office, mostly with our resident Jeepster David Tracy, who keeps a fleet of old gas-challenged off-roaders.
“I cannot afford to drive my cars,” he mourned. “Any of them. I’ve put eight gallons in my Wagoneer just going to the grocery store.”
That’s so many gallons! The last time I put eight gallons in my Volkswagen I was driving to Maine.
In any case, David is currently looking into buying [OTHER CAR FAMOUS FOR LOW MILEAGE REDACTED], and I figured I should go looking for some fuel-efficient but still-fun cars he could get instead. It was at this point I realized whoa there are so many good, good MPG cars available to us Americans at the moment.
America got a whole wave of mini-off roaders from Japan in the late 1980s into the early 1990s, right at the height of the Bubble Era, when Japanese companies were over-engineering everything in sight. This means that lots of these cars have survived to be still on the road, but that they’re old enough that they have become dirt cheap.
Things like the Suzuki Samurai are so far from being hip and cool today that they have passed back into being good, usable little off roaders, mini jeeps from a time when that could make sense on the market.
Even the nicest Geo Tracker is going to run you $5300 like this one with a five speed and some very orange paint in Ann Arbor. The days of minitruckin’ may be behind us, but that’s fine.
You could buy, like, an imported Suzuki Jimny, the go-to used offroader in Japan at the moment, but I don’t even think you need to.
Do you want to drive around in something called “Joy Pop?” Yes. Yes you do.
America did also get a couple of Japan’s midsize vans of the 1980s, in the days before the Honda Odyssey. We got the Mitsubishi Delica, kinda, as the Mitsubishi Van. We also got the mid-engine Toyota Van. (Names were not a strong suit at the time.) The Mitsubishi is often forgotten, but you do sometimes see the Toyotas done up in offroader spec.
What we never got were the vehicles one class down: mid-engine Kei-class trucks and vans, but now they’re flooding into the States as they’re legal under the 25 Year Import Rule. It’s not hard at all to find Subaru Sambars, Suzuki Carrys or Honda Actys these days on the second-second hand market. You don’t need to import these vehicles yourself; somebody else has already done that and wants next to nothing to pass it on to you.
This 1990 Suzuki Carry, for instance, has an engine under the seats and four-wheel drive for $5500. Suzuki may have thought that this thing was too small for American roads at the time, but we know better.
A scale up from the Kei class of vehicle were Nissan’s Pike cars, again legal now to import. These were basically a Nissan March economy hatchback but with super adorable retro bodies that radiate charm in palpable waves. Mileage is inordinately high, and ownership isn’t even all that bad, as our Pao-owning coworker Jason Torchinsky is discovering.
Make it a Be-1, the first Pike car, for me. This one in tomato red in Washington D.C. is a hair under seven grand and is a three-pedal car. There is no way, no way I tell you, that it is anything less than a pure joy.
While I’m on the subject of recently-legal kei cars, I can’t really ignore the trio of the Honda Beat, the Autozam AZ-1 and the Suzuki Cappuccino. These are 660cc economy car parts put in rear-wheel-drive sports car configurations. The AZ-1 and the Beat are mid engine, the Cappuccino is front, more like a mini Viper than anything else. It might seem like it makes no sense, financially, to buy one of these instead of a Miata, but that’s small-minded thinking. Only a few grand will get you one of these (though the mini-supercar gullwing AZ-1s tend to attract a higher asking price) and super good mileage along with excellent handling.
I drove one of these Honda Beats at Gary Duncan’s place in Virginia expecting to be disappointed. I thought there was no way such basic parts could live up to my forbidden-fruit expectations. I was completely wrong. It was like driving a skateboard. I loved every moment.
With all of these now-legal JDM cars, it’s easy to forget that the early 1990s were like the last era for economy cars going after mileage using ultra light weight. As such, it’s easy to mock a car like the Suzuki Swift (the Suzuki badged-version of what we know as the Geo Metro) for being ultra cheap, but they’re remarkably entertaining behind the wheel, mostly because they weigh about five pounds. The mileage is good, but the way they drive benefits incredibly from the low-weight ethos.
This one in the PNW is $1300 (with a rebuilt title) but it’s a manual and I assure you it is fun as hell to drive. The lead instructor at Dirtfish rally school up there has driven me around in his and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt how good they are.
Really, I could keep going with all sorts of other super cheap, still desirable high-economy cars available today, but I don’t have room for all of them here. Which ones have I forgotten about, and which one do you think is the most fun, particularly for David. Let’s tempt him with one while he goes and buys something else and regrets it.