The four-door hatchback Chevy Aveo from General Motors Corp. leads the ranking of the best new-car values in terms of "total ownership cost" as calculated by automotive data firm Edmunds.com, based on $5-a-gallon gas. The highest-ranked hybrid was the Honda Civic at No. 10. The Toyota Prius hybrid -- No. 1 in the government's fuel economy rankings -- came in 26th.
Hybrids, which are powered by both an electric motor and a gasoline engine, typically get better gas mileage than their non-hybrid counterparts but carry higher price tags.
A 2008 Aveo hatchback with manual transmission lists for $10,235 and is rated by the Environmental Protection Agency at 27 miles per gallon in combined city-highway driving. The Prius, by contrast, has a combined fuel economy of 46 mpg and a suggested retail price of $21,500 -- and typically sells for thousands of dollars above that because of high demand.
The study's purpose "isn't to discourage people from buying hybrids," said Jesse Toprak, head of industry analysis for Santa Monica-based Edmunds.com. However, "consumers ought to consider regular-engine small cars if their goal is just to save money."
The Edmunds.com findings are at odds with a recent analysis by Consumer Reports, which ranked both the Prius and the Civic hybrids among the 10 cars that the offer "the best fuel economy for the buck."
Consumer Reports only included vehicles that get its "recommended" rating, which is based on reliability, safety, handling and other factors in addition to sales price and fuel economy. That's part of the reason the Aveo and the Toyota Yaris didn't make Consumer Reports' fuel-economy cut.
"We didn't want to send people to cars that are going to let them down in other areas," said Rik Paul, the magazine's auto editor.
One car-shopping strategy that's almost certain not to make sense financially is to trade in a late-model sport utility vehicle or pickup truck for a smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicle. Because of plummeting demand, trade-in values on these gas guzzlers have been falling fast -- some dealers won't accept them at all -- and that can wipe out the gas savings achieved by switching to a smaller car, auto research firm Kelley Blue Book Co. said in a report last month.
Toprak noted that many people buy hybrids because of the cars' environmentally friendly image or other reasons unrelated to economics.
"At least 50% of all automotive purchases are not based on financial considerations," he said. "Its a very emotional purchase that doesn't always involve numbers."