AFTER SPENDING DECADES PUSHING bigger, faster cars instead of fuel efficiency, auto manufacturers are busily painting themselves green. So the U.S. auto market is nipping at the fuel-sipping heels of Japan and Europe, right?
Hardly. The reality in car showrooms still doesn't match the PR hype. Of more than 1,000 models available in the United States for 2008, few offer world-class fuel economy. Try to find a vehicle that's frugal and fun in the twisties, or one that's efficient and roomy enough to transport a passel of hyperkinetic Cub Scouts to the planetarium, and your choices feel as limited as those in an Andropov-era Moscow supermarket.
But careful tire kickers can find smart eco-choices in virtually every auto category. Gasoline-electric hybrids land at the top of the miles-per-gallon heap, but conventional (read: less pricey) vehicles have benefited from clever advances such as continuously variable transmissions and engines that shut off cylinders not needed when you're cruising the interstate. (Technological smarts have also made even the smallest cars safer than ever; for details on specific cars, check out the Web site of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety at iihs.org.)
In the chart below, Sierra highlights some of the best of the motoring bunch. The greenhouse-gas, mpg, and pollution scores come from the EPA (fueleconomy.gov); the subjective driver's-seat comments are courtesy of the auto reviewers who believe that even a trip to visit the in-laws should bring a smile to your face. —Frances Cerra Whittelsey
Illustrations by Tim Bower; used with permission.
Photo of Honda Odyssey by Michael Rausch; used with permission.
Mini Cooper: The Mini name, model names, and logo are registered trademarks of Mini, a division of BMW of North America LLC.