Fifth Place: 2008 Toyota Camry Hybrid
City: 33 mpg
Highway: 34 mpg
Combined: 34 mpg (Ratings from 2008 model year)
Base Price: $25,860
Yellow-paintbrush-wielding New York cabbies can't be wrong. The Toyota Camry hybrid is good at moving passengers economically and without drama. Unlike the Altima hybrid, you can buy the Camry hybrid nationwide. Hybridization did nothing to impact the virtues that make the Camry an award-winning family-hauling appliance: laudable road manners, quiet and comfortable operation, and a highly competent overall experience. Stepping up to the hybrid also begets stability control and the top-of-the-line XLE interior package, minus leather seats.
Sixth Place: 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI
City: 30 mpg
Highway: 41 mpg
Combined: 34 mpg
Base Price: $22,640
The TDI, as equipped with a six-speed manual transmission, shines in highway driving, returning fuel economy on par with the air-hockey-table-sized Smart Fortwo. Diesel currently outpaces gasoline prices by about 20 percent, but the TDI betters the fuel economy of the next-thriftiest Jetta model by more than 30 percent. The SportWagen, although slightly more expensive than the sedan (pricing starts at $24,240), suffers no penalty in fuel economy. It offers more luggage volume than the Prius and just slightly less passenger volume while being good-looking and offering a driving experience that won't approximate the work of an anesthesiologist. Both aesthetically and dynamically, the diesel-sipping Jetta TDI is engineered to be enjoyed by the user, not just employed.
Seventh Place: 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid
City: 34 mpg (est)
Highway: 30 mpg (est)
Combined: 32 mpg (est)
Base Price: $29,000
The lone American ranger in this group is the Ford Escape hybrid, the roughest and tumblin'-est vehicle here, if mostly by posture. Refreshed for 2009, the Escape addresses many of the issues that made it an almost unacceptable compromise, including the anemic performance, punishing ride, and poor brake feel. The stronger four-cylinder now boasts 177 horsepower in addition to its hybrid-electric drive, the revised suspension system includes a rear anti-roll bar, and the brakes feel something like normal. The Escape is a hybrid SUV with solid moves at an affordable price for which no excuses need be made. Although an official fuel economy rating has yet to be obtained for the new model, not much change is expected from 2008.
Eighth Place: 2008 Toyota Yaris
City: 29 mpg
Highway: 36 mpg
Combined: 32 mpg
Base Price: $12,210
It's a happy day for consumers when one of the most-fuel-efficient vehicles sold is also one of the cheapest. The Yaris isn't even too much of a slowpoke, scampering to 60 mph in fewer than nine seconds. If the petite Yaris seems more quirky than masculine, it's because it was designed for markets where gas has always been expensive and where people say things like sauve qui peut. Those hoping for Lotus Elise-like reflexes or Gatsby-esque luxury will be disappointed, but those without champagne expectations will enjoy a plush ride and solid build quality. Despite a short wheelbase, the Yaris can transport deceptively large quantities of cargo.
Ninth Place: 2008 Mini Cooper/Clubman
City: 28 mpg
Highway: 37 mpg
Combined: 32 mpg
Base Price: $18,700
It's not surprising that a small car designed and manufactured by BMW is a pleasurable thing, but that it's extra miserly is icing on the strudel. Thanks to a recent redesign, a new 1.6-liter four-cylinder, slightly smaller dimensions, and a new six-speed transmission conspire to produce good fuel efficiency, particularly on the highway, where an extra cog makes all the difference. The Mini Cooper and the slightly longer Clubman get the same fuel economy, so there's no penalty for the latter other than greater expense and a reduced number of parking opportunities. Watch those options, though. Despite a reasonable $18,700 entry price, the last naturally aspirated Mini Cooper we tested cost as much as a Camry hybrid.
Tenth Place: 2008 Honda Fit
City: 28 mpg
Highway: 34 mpg
Combined: 31 mpg
Base Price: $14,620
We crowned the Honda Fit the best of seven inexpensive people movers in a recent comparison test because it makes us smile as few cars this affordable or stingy on gas can. Mini-minivan styling might not seduce the vain, but the upshot to odd proportions is oodles of usable space -- this thing is like a clown's bottomless suitcase. You'll need to mate a five-speed manual transmission to the Fit's 1.5-liter engine for the best mileage, but this is something you'll want to do anyway if you view cloverleafs as opportunities rather than nuisances. In Sport form, the Fit serves up similar fun and more passenger and cargo room than either the Mini Cooper or Clubman for almost $4000 less.