Saturn Aura Green Line

Overall mpg: 27, according to more stringent 2008 EPA testing regimen

Safety: All 5 stars in NHTSA testing

The Aura Green Line - and every other Aura for that matter - aced the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's front- and side-impact tests, earning top scores for protecting every occupant from every angle.

Electronic stability control is standard. Stability control is important because it helps keep the car under control during abrupt maneuvers, especially on slippery roads. Studies have shown that stability control could reduce fatal crashes by as much as one third.

The Aura Green Line is what is sometimes called a "mild hybrid." That means it can't drive under electric power alone, but the electric motor provides assistance during acceleration and it allows the gasoline engine to be shut off altogether whenever the car stops.

In a test drive last summer, the Aura Green didn't shine. Both pedals were awkward to use, providing uneven-feeling acceleration and braking. The car's 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine felt noisy and strained.

Engineers went to work ironing out the bugs. A test drive a few months later in another car with the same hybrid system revealed much smoother and more natural-feeling performance.

All 2008 Aura's will have the upgraded software that was in the second test vehicle I drove, GM says.

Nissan Altima Hybrid

Overall mpg: 34, according to more stringent 2008 EPA testing regimen

Safety: All 5 stars in NHTSA testing

The Altima got perfect scores from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for protecting all occupants in front and side impacts. Electronic stability control is standard.

Under its Nissan body, the Altima Hybrid relies on licensed Toyota technology to squeeze out the extra miles.

It's currently available only in California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Toyota Camry Hybrid

Overall mpg: 34, according to more stringent 2008 EPA testing regimen

Safety: All 5 stars in NHTSA testing

The Camry got perfect scores from the federal government for protecting all occupants in front and side crashes and it has standard electronic stability control.

To make sure you get the best out of its hybrid drivetrain, the Camry Hybrid makes a sort of game out of saving gas. When your trip is finished, if your average fuel economy is better than 35 miles per gallon, the word "Excellent!" flashes in the car's information display. As you're driving, the rings around the gauges also glow a brighter shade of blue as your average fuel economy improves.

In most respects, the Camry Hybrid is probably less of a value than the Toyota Prius. Besides getting better fuel economy, the Prius matches the Camry in interior passenger space and has more luggage space

But the Camry has somewhat better NHTSA crash test scores. Where the Camry gets five stars across the board, the Prius gets four for most things except for front seat side impact protection, where it gets five.

Honda Civic Hybrid

Overall mpg: 42, according to more stringent 2008 EPA testing regimen

Safety: 5 stars in NHTSA testing for all but front occupant side impact protection, which is 4 stars.

There are a couple of soft spots in this Honda's otherwise stellar safety regimen. One four-star rating for front seat side impact protection is barely worth mentioning.

More disappointing is that electronic stability control, a technology that helps keep the car under control during abrupt maneuvers, is not available on the Civic Hybrid.

The Civic Hybrid's mileage comes within shouting distance of a Prius - in terms of highway mileage, they're the same - but it does offer better crash test scores.

Otherwise, its biggest downsides compared to the Prius are less rear-leg room and luggage space.

Ford Taurus

Overall mpg: 22, according to more stringent 2008 EPA testing regimen

Safety: All 5 stars in NHTSA testing, and an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety "Top Safety Pick."

OK, 22 miles per gallon overall may not sound so great compared to the other cars on this list. But no other car is as big and roomy or has achieved the Taurus's grand-slam safety scores.

To earn an Insurance Institute best pick, a vehicle must get top scores on all the Institute's crash tests, and it must be available with electronic stability control (the privately funded IIHS tests far fewer cars than the federal government's NHTSA, so many cars do not have IIHS ratings). Stability control is standard on the Taurus.

The new Taurus, unlike the old Five Hundred it replaces, has a plenty powerful engine with a nice, smooth-shifting six-speed transmission. With the increased power, it actually gets slightly better fuel economy, too.

The Toyota Avalon comes within a hair's breadth of the Taurus with the same overall fuel economy and crash test scores that are just as good except for a "poor" Insurance Institute whiplash protection rating.

Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid

Overall mpg: 21, according to more stringent 2008 EPA testing regimen

Safety: All 5 stars in NHTSA testing

What's a full-sized SUV doing here? For starters, it's a full-sized SUV that gets the same city fuel economy as a four-cylinder Toyota Camry. If we're talking about all-wheel-drive vehicles, the Tahoe Hybrid gets the same overall fuel economy, city and highway combined, as a four-cylinder Subaru Legacy.

But there are things the Tahoe can do that a mid-sized sedan just can't. Besides being just plain bigger and roomier than a car, the Tahoe retains the full towing capacity of the non-hybrid version. The Tahoe's sophisticated hybrid also offers seamlessly smooth performance with no burbles going from electric-only to gasoline-driven modes.

In terms of safety, there is truth in the idea that larger vehicles offer more protection in a crash, especially ones that, like the Tahoe, have outstanding crash test scores. The downside is that larger vehicles are more ungainly to handle, even with electronic stability control, which the Tahoe has. That's why big SUVs are not recommended for younger, inexperienced drivers.


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