The cars you see grabbing all the eco-friendly headlines tend to be hybrids. Cars like the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius have so much mindshare that you'd think they had 50% of the market; in reality the hybrid segment is only about 3% of all new cars sold. What gives? It's simple: hybrids are really expensive and the payoff (the time it takes to recoup the downstroke of paying for all that hybrid technology) tends to be longer than most people are willing to wait. Do the math: Hybrid cars start at about $20,000 at the low end (and top $100,000 -- we're serious -- for the lux-barge sedans from the Germans), making them the playground of the middle class only. Sure, $20,000 is lower than the average price for an American car sold in 2009, but it's not cheap.

Given that, what's a better option? It might offend Al Gore, but we'd recommend a simple alternative to the hybrid game: simple, small four-cylinder gas engines. As The Firm's Mitch McDeere said upon busting up Bendini, Lambert & Locke for mail fraud, "it's not sexy, but it's got teeth."

Let's take a look at the (non-hybrid) cars you'll be driving in the future that will get that new bogey: 40 MPG or more. They get great mileage and -- for the most part -- they're within everyone's budget.

MPG: 40 MPG highway when matched to the 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine
When Available: Summer 2010
Price: Starts at $13,320

The 2011 Ford Fiesta launched in December of 2009 at the LA Auto Show, establishing a brand new small car in Ford's North American lineup. The reality is that the car was available for sale elsewhere in the world over the last few years (winning more than a few awards), although this version only shares about 60% of its parts with the European model.
MPG: 40 MPG highway when matched to the 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine
When Available: Summer 2010
Price: Starts at $13,320

Ford claims the new 2011 Fiesta will achieve 40 MPG on the highway, something that will make it a near hybrid competitor (or in some cases, even better than a hybrid). The engine is, not surprisingly, a four-cylinder 1.6 liter. But what is surprising is the six-speed automatic transmission (an expensive and fuel-saving move by Ford), something that helps the Fiesta get that high mileage rating.
MPG: 40 MPG highway from a high-efficiency model
When Available: Fall 2010
Price: TBD but should be in the mid teens

Chevy launched in 2011 Chevy Cruze a few weeks ago at the LA Auto Show, finally giving Chevrolet a credible competitor to the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and the rest of the small car segment. Chevy's only competitors to date have been the Aveo and Cobalt; while GM claimed for years that those cars were as good as some rival cars, we can tell you the truth: they weren't.

The new Cruze attempts to right those wrongs and from what we've seen of the show car, we think GM is on the right track. The Cruze has a handsome interior, a nice exterior (if a little bland) and some serious technology under the hood.
MPG: 40 MPG highway from a high-efficiency model
When Available: Fall 2010
Price: TBD but should be in the mid teens

The Cruze will feature six-speed automatic (and manual) transmissions, something that we're big fans of as they almost instantaneously give drivers two big wins: higher mileage and quieter on-road characteristics. The big story is the inclusion of a new 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, an exciting little engine that we're looking forward to sampling in the future. GM promises 40 MPG from the car in a "high efficiency model," they'll be selling after the car's launch.
MPG: 38 MPG on the highway
When Available: Limited Metropolitan Areas Late 2010
Price: TBD but could be in the low $20s

The Fiat 500 is a storied nameplate with decades of history (and more than a few famous film appearances). Chrysler recently announced it would bring the car to America at the end of 2010 in select areas. Think of it as Chrysler's answer to the Fiesta and Cruze, but with a more luxurious approach. In that sense it's almost like Chrysler's version of the Mini Cooper or Smart Fortwo.
MPG: 38 MPG on the highway
When Available: Limited Metropolitan Areas Late 2010
Price: TBD but could be in the low $20s

The Fiat 500 will feature a 1.4-liter four-cylinder gas engine (built in Michigan, while the entire car will find assembly in Mexico). That little engine won't have much in the way of push (99 hp and 107 lb-ft of torque), but the car isn't exactly a heavyweight. We don't expect the little Fiat to touch the 40 MPG mark, but it won't be far off: expect mileage in the high 30s.

The 500 will be like nothing else on the road and for that we applaud Chrysler. We just hope it makes its way to more than just a few select metro areas.