The term 'econobox' used to conjure images of shoddily-made compact cars (read, Yugo) that got awesome gas mileage and might vaporize in a head-on crash with a Schwinn. No more.

These days, the lower end of the automotive spectrum yields gems whose fit and finish, gadgetry, occupant safety and driving enjoyment rival models costing tens of thousands of dollars more. And their petrol consumption make them automotive infidels in the eyes of bejeweled OPEC potentates.

What follows is a comparison of three front-wheel-drive vehicles - all sedans - that have MSRP's ranging from $14,550 to $16,375, sans options. While none of them will make you the toast of the town, there isn't a rolling punch line in the group.

Suzuki SX4 || Free Price Quote

Suzuki slapped a 100,000-mile, seven-year, transferable warranty on this puppy, implying you needn’t fret over durability and reliability if a SX4 graces your driveway. The press vehicle I drove had a $15,270 base price that rose to $15,895 thanks to a destination and handling charge.

The $15,895 sticker managed to undercut the Scion's by $20, and buys you a 143-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-banger that's mated to a five-speed manual transmission. Fuel economy is 22 mpg around town, 30 mpg on the interstate.

Side curtain airbags are standard, as is a tire-pressure monitoring system, power heated mirrors, cruise control, steering wheel audio controls and a stereo system that accommodates MP3 players. Quite impressive.

However, the Suzuki SX4 gets annihilated by its two colleagues when it comes to fun quotient. Anemic acceleration, a rubbery feeling shifter and a pedestrian suspension give the impression the little Suzuki trudges between Point A to Point B grudgingly. Someone needs to tell Suzuki that the era of dull-as-dirt econoboxes is mercifully gone!

Suzuki also manufactures an all-wheel-drive (AWD) version of the SX4, making it the cheapest AWD vehicle available -- or the most expensive snowmobile depending on how you look at it.

Scion xD || Free Price Quote

Like the folks at Suzuki, Toyota knows that inexpensive economy cars had better be stuffed to the gills with standard equipment. So the Scion xD leaves the lot laden with halogen headlights, chrome exhaust tips, sporty buckets seats, a 160-watt Pioneer stereo system with six speakers, and a sport-tuned suspension (remember this last item) at no extra charge.

Ain't competition wonderful? There used to be a time when everything, including windshield wipers and an engine, were optional in an econobox. Okay, maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but what's standard these days is awe-inspiring. Which makes it all the more puzzling why Scion felt it necessary to charge $165 for floor mats?

Those mats and a $650 vehicle stability control system help drive the Scion xD's base price from $14,550 up to $16,491. For that you get a bug-like, four-door hatchback full of the superior workmanship and engineering Toyota is renowned for. This sense of quality becomes even more pronounced after you start driving and discover the xD is a joy to fling around highway entrance ramps, as you row through the five-speed gearbox.

Power is supplied by a small but peppy 1.8-liter four-cylinder that produces 128 horsepower. That's less than the Suzuki, but automotive enjoyment isn't strictly a function of horsepower. The Scion xD's sport-tuned front McPherson strut suspension, and its torsion beam rear suspension are more than sufficient to put a grin on your face, while delivering 27 mpg city, 33 mpg highway.

Ford Focus SES || Free Price Quote

U.S. carmakers have demonstrated time and again that they understand SUVs and big sedans, but divining the likes and needs of economy car buyers has always been something of a mystery. The redesigned Ford Focus shows that Ford, at least, may have finally figured things out.

The company's actually produced an econobox that appears to be well-conceived, crisply-executed and is even a bit whimsical and attitudinal, something Scion is a master at. In light of Ford's long-standing love affair with greedy Expeditions and Explorers, the timing of the Focus's release couldn't be better, now that $4-per-gallon gasoline seems inevitable.

Step into the Focus and you're immediately struck by how its interior appears to have been lifted from a more expensive car. Exterior styling is more conservative and less distinctive than the Suzuki or Scion, although still an improvement over the previous Focus.

The new Ford has the most expensive base price, $16,375, and its out-the-door $20,200 price tag was by far the highest. The Focus' automatic transmission cost $815, followed by $695 for leather bucket seats (in an economy car?). By far the oddest extra was a $295 ambient interior lighting option that made red, blue, green and pink ambient lights appear inside the footwells and inside the cup holders. Definitely quirky, but not worth $295, in my view.

The Focus SES has good road manners, and its 2.0-liter, 136-horsepower, four-cylinder engine delivered a consistent 24 mpg, even though it's supposed to get 27 mpg city, 37 highway. In fairness, I drove the stuffing out of the Focus as I put it through its paces around Miami.

Being able to listen to Sirius satellite radio was wonderful, ($195), but charging $695 for a stout music system seems excessive. Particularly when Scion tosses in a 160-watt Pioneer at no extra charge.

So there you have it -- three totally different approaches to providing motorists with inexpensive transportation. Each is light years ahead of econobox niche offerings seen as recently as the early 1990s.

The Suzuki, Scion and Ford are representative of a segment upgrade that was long, long overdue.

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