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Fuel-smart car shopping

How to find a new car with space, style and performance without paying for it at the pump.

October 18, 2005; Posted: 12:56 p.m. EDT (1656 GMT)

By Lawrence Ulrich, Money magazine

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NEW YORK (Money Magazine) - If you're planning on buying a car in the new world of $3-a-gallon gas, fuel economy has probably gone from nice option to deciding factor.

Do the math: If you can save, say, around $1,000 a year in gas, that will equal roughly $5,000 in five years -- enough for a nice down payment on a car for your kid.

It used to be that if you wanted a car that took it easy at the gas station, you were going to have to make some sacrifices: You'd squeeze yourself into something smaller than you really wanted. Or you'd find yourself behind the wheel of something really thrifty -- and really underpowered.

It doesn't have to be that way anymore. If oil prices have been getting you down at the dealership, check out the following four car-buying strategies. Each one is a way to drive something that is miserly at the pump but also a great ride -- regardless of the price of gas.

Blur the Lines

Okay, so you need something big to haul all your stuff. That doesn't mean you need to get a gas guzzler. As the lines blur between cars, trucks and wagons, it's quite possible to find vehicles that go beyond the traditional car/truck/van categories. Most start from the idea of merging SUV practicality with car-like comfort and mileage -- without copying the look of a traditional SUV or, heaven forbid, a minivan.

The proudly boxy Scion xB is one example. Small on the outside, enormous inside, the Toyota-built Scion is rated at 31 miles per gallon in the city and 35 on the highway, and it starts at less than $15,000.

If you have more affluent tastes, Mercedes' R-Class may be the minivan you always wished someone would dream up. The stylish R-Class ditches the minivan's sliding doors but offers useful seating for six adults in three rows. Equipped with a modest 3.5-liter V-6, the R350 version managed 22 mpg in real-life highway driving, better than most SUVs with this kind of space.

And don't overlook the humble wagon, which can rival SUVs for utility and also blow them away in mpg. The Subaru Legacy is one of our favorites, with standard all-wheel drive and smooth performance. With a new and stronger 176-hp, four-cylinder base engine for 2006, it still posts mileage figures of 23 mpg city/30 highway.

Cars that blur the lines

Check Out Diesels

Europeans have been dealing with pricey fuel for years now. Their solution: cleaner diesel engines. Today's versions get 20 percent to 40 percent better mileage than gasoline engines without the notorious diesel drawbacks of old (noisy idling, tepid acceleration and smelly, sooty exhaust).

In the U.S., new diesel models include cars from Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and Jeep. They tend to cost only about $1,000 more than their gasoline equivalents -- a lot less than the $3,000 to $6,000 premium that hybrids usually command -- but they still serve up large amounts of torque and acceleration, giving you gas-like performance at hybrid-like efficiency. (The price advantage gets even better in 2006, when diesel buyers will qualify for a tax deduction of as much as $3,400.)

The downside? Diesels still produce more soot than gas engines, so the states of California, New York, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont prohibit their sale (but not their ownership or operation). That will change soon: Next year pumps will start dispensing a newer formulation of diesel fuel that burns cleaner, and after 2007 all diesels will have to meet the same toughened emissions rules as any gasoline model.

Diesel choices

Get a Smaller Second Car

Fine, so you need an SUV, a pickup or a minivan--but do you really need two? Instead, round out the family fleet with a smaller, more economical car that's perfect for commuting and for doing errands around town, which take the biggest toll on economy.

Sure, hybrids get all the press, and most excel in mileage. But gas-only cars like the Toyota Corolla can deliver close to 40 mpg on the highway as well. Choose a compact hatchback such as the Mazda3, Ford Focus or Audi A3, and you'll be amazed at its versatile space. Even a mid-size sedan or wagon will whip a big SUV at the pump.

Little big cars

Count Your Cylinders

Sure, hybrids get all the press, and most excel in mileage. But gas-only cars like the Toyota Corolla can deliver close to 40 mpg on the highway as well. Choose a compact hatchback such as the Mazda3, Ford Focus or Audi A3, and you'll be amazed at its versatile space. Even a mid-size sedan or wagon will whip a big SUV at the pump.

Many cars and trucks today offer a choice of engines. Choose a four-cylinder over a six, or a six-cylinder instead of the V-8. Technologies such as variable-valve timing are making the best four- and six-cylinder engines incredibly smooth and surprisingly quick (unless your daily commute includes the autobahn, they have more power than anyone could reasonably need) while still delivering two to five more miles a gallon than their larger versions.

Not only will you save at the pump, but you'll also leave the dealership with a lot more cash in your pocket. Efficient six-cylinder versions of top luxury cars -- such as the Audi A6, BMW 5-Series, Infiniti M35 and Mercedes E-Class -- cost $6,000 to $10,000 less than their thirsty V-8 counterparts and still have plenty of juice for passing, merging or just plain showing off.

Little engines that can

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