2008 Saturn Vue XE
3.5-liter V-6, 6-speed auto, 4-wheel drive
15 mpg city/22 mpg highway
Not unlike much of the population, too much curb weight is the main culprit affecting the Saturn Vue's efficiency. How GM could pack 4350 pounds into a vehicle fewer than three inches longer than a Honda Civic is beyond us (perhaps it got a great deal on leaded Chinese paint).
The 222-hp, 3.5-liter pushrod V-6 in the all-wheel-drive XE is from the same "High Value" engine family as the 3.9-liter in the Pontiac G6 on this list, but any value buyers see up front will be quickly negated by the 15/22 mileage figure. Spend a bit more cash for the XR or Red Line model, and you get a 3.6-liter V-6 that, despite being only 74 cubic centimeters larger, makes 35 more horsepower and 29 more pound-feet of torque and returns better city fuel mileage (if only barely). That engine is a lower-horsepower version of the same all-aluminum, direct-injection "High Feature" V-6 found kicking ass in the Cadillac CTS.
The mileage issue is a shame, because the Vue is a surprisingly good vehicle, offering tremendous value, luxurious appointments, and refinement beyond others in this class and some more expensive SUVs. The Vue doesn't have to be such a lush, as proved by the front-wheel-drive Green Line hybrid version, which gets 25 mpg in the city and 32 on the highway. Moreover, the Vue will shortly receive GM's excellent two-mode transmission and will be the first genuine plug-in hybrid sold by the General.
2008 Pontiac G6 GT Convertible
3.9-liter V-6, 4-speed auto, front-wheel drive
15 mpg city/22 mpg highway
Pushrods are really not okay. There, we said it. GM gets special dispensation for its LS-series V-8, which is so good that conspiracists should look into extraterrestrial involvement in its development.
The 3.9-liter V-6 under the hood of the Pontiac G6 GT hardtop convertible gets a double raspberry for unimpressive power production and subpar fuel economy. GM calls this its "High Value" engine family, which means it's GM's coffers receiving the value, not yours. At least the 222 thundering horsepower -- 15 fewer than found under the hood of a Honda S2000, despite an extra 1.7 liters -- sound decent.
The G6 still only gets 15 mpg in the city and 22 on the highway. This isn't just the engine's fault: It's not unfair to round the G6 GT's curb weight to two tons, and with only four gears in the automatic transmission, some compromises have been made in ratio selection. As long as your days don't cover many miles, the G6 GT offers good value and comfort, but if you're a hardtop-down road tripper, the similarly priced VW Eos offers roughly 40-percent-better fuel economy.
2008 Mazda RX-8
1.3-liter 2-rotor, 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
16 mpg city/22 mpg highway
The little Japanese automaker that can, Mazda consistently produces vehicles that make us smile. No other company imbues its entire product line -- including entry-level vehicles -- with such focus on driving fun. This focus apparently isn't lost on the public, as Mazda's sales numbers grew more than any other major automaker's in 2007.
An unavoidable trade-off for entertaining driving, though, is fuel economy. The RX-8 scores worse than some might expect because of its rotary engine, a design inherently thirstier than a piston engine. Displacing just 1.3 liters, the RX-8's 232-hp Renesis rotary with 159 pound-feet of torque sucks down fuel like Homer Simpson chugging Duff at Moe's -- returning just 16 mpg city and 22 highway.
We like the RX-8 enough that it made our 10Best list from 2004 to 2006 and won its last comparo despite being in its fifth year of production, but the rotary is certainly not without its compromises. The bingo-and-buffet-express Honda Accord V-6 runs a quicker and faster quarter-mile, and the Chevrolet Corvette makes 204 more horsepower and 269 more pound-feet of torque yet bests the RX-8 by 4 mpg on the highway.
It is rumored that the RX-8 will receive the next iteration of the Renesis rotary, dubbed the 16X. It weighs less than the current 13-B but gets a bump in displacement, and with the more precise fuel metering of direct injection, it is entirely possible that more horsepower and torque could be coupled with more mpg. We love 9000-rpm redlines and hope the rotary's flatulent exhaust note will pour from generations of Mazda vehicles to come.
2008 Mazda CX-7
2.3-liter inline-4, 6-speed auto, 4-wheel drive
16 mpg city/22 mpg highway
The best interpretation of the term crossover we've seen yet, the Mazda CX-7 appeals to people who want something that looks sporty and drives better than most cars while providing some pretense of outdoorsiness and a DIY spirit to perpetuate the great SUV lie. Good thing they require only pretense, as the latter two requests are pretty much quashed by a modest amount of usable space and limited off-road talent.
The CX-7 shares its engine with the late Mazdaspeed 6 and various chassis bits and layouts with the Mazda 3. Depending on equipment, it weighs an Al Pacino or Calista Flockhart less than two tons. The high-tech, direct-injection 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder produces a sporty 244 horsepower, helping produce a respectable 7.9-second 0-to-60 time but, unfortunately, gulps a gallon of premium every 16 miles in the city and 21 on the highway. The competing Toyota RAV4 V-6 with all-wheel drive, however, sprints to 60 an immense 1.6 seconds faster, yet gets three more mpg in the city and four more on the highway. It does not, however, look anywhere near as cool or drive nearly as well.
The CX-7 is Mazda's first mid-size SUV since it rebranded the Ford Explorer as the Navajo -- not a high point for the Mazda. Despite the poor fuel economy and questionable utility, the CX-7 is undoubtedly a Mazda, and the most rewarding crossover to helm.