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Fun and fuel-efficient cars

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  • Expert: Mini Cooper "most fun car to drive ever"
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By Sheryll Alexander
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New Cars, Used Cars, Kelley Blue Book Values at AOL Autos

(AOL Autos) -- Gas is getting more expensive and yet you still want a fun drive, right? For some car buyers, a genuinely fast ride with excellent handling, braking, tech and entertainment makes for a big fun-to-drive factor.

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Mini Cooper

In the past, these types of cars were commonly the more expensive sporty variety, which weren't usually the best on fuel efficiency. Fortunately, car manufacturers have taken note and provided car buyers of late with some great fun-to-drive vehicles that can truly save you big bucks on gas.

We rounded up eight fun and fuel efficient picks that got at least 30 mpg during our road tests. You no longer need to be bored while saving gas!

Mini Cooper S

Likes: Lightning fast acceleration, perfect transmission, excellent handling and braking, cool retro interior

Dislikes: Too small for large people, big dogs or growing families

MSRP: $21,200-$25,400

Fuel economy range: 36 mpg hwy, 29 mpg city

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The idea for this fun-to-drive-yet-fuel-efficient story came to mind when a bright red Mini Cooper S with white stripes down the oh-so-cute bonnet showed up in my driveway. I really wasn't expecting to hail this Mini Cooper S as the "most fun car to drive ever." Ironically, I pulled a shoulder muscle pretty badly after four days of happily racing around town in this supercharged 1.6 liter, 16-valve inline, four-cylinder midget.

What's so hot about the Mini? The thing hauls ass and stops on a dime, to say it quite frankly. Despite its tiny body and boxy design, the Mini's tight suspension, light weight and superior balance let this tiny racer take curves with ease, respond quickly to your every move and go warp speeds down straightaways. For even more fun, the six-speed manual Geltrag transmission seems to propel the Mini along effortlessly with both parts race car and genteel British ride.

Think the Mini is only for college kids and chase scenes in action movies? Not so. I found the Mini's funky and fab retro interior to be both functional and more roomy than my expectations (and I'm pretty tall for a woman at 5 ft. 8 inches). Happily, the Mini's Harmon-Kardon sound system really bumped, especially when bobbing and weaving like the wind down Southern California's sunny freeways in this sexy convertible model.

Nissan Altima Hybrid

Likes: Sleek exterior, fast gas-electric engine, techy interior, power everything

Dislikes: Groans and gurgle noises from hybrid engine

MSRP: $25,070 - $30,500

Fuel economy range: 35 mpg hwy, 33 mpg city

The Nissan Altima has always been known as a fun car to drive, but what about fuel efficiency? Though Nissan's new hybrid model doesn't get 60 mpg like the Toyota Prius, people buying the Altima hybrid are getting 42 mpg highway, a striking exterior design and great performance.

The bright red 2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid model that I drove was certainly flashy with its curvy backside, sleek windows and overall modern look. The 2.5-liter, 16-valve, four-cylinder gas-electric engine practically drives itself with its smooth-shifting manual transmission as well as the latest handling systems, such as ABS brake, stability and traction control systems.

I was also quite pleased at how the Nissan Altima Hybrid engine doesn't moan and gurgle quite so much as Toyota's hybrid engines, especially the noisy Prius. The Nissan Altima Hybrid certainly does make some rather odd sounds, but overall the sound engineering is quite excellent.

Nissan engineering and design also shine in the Altima's super techy and racy interior. The blue-and-red neon lights inside the gauges make you feel like a race car driver and all of the buttons and power controls seems to be configured for deft ease of use. The Altima also has lots of controls built into the steering wheel as well as a host of luxury and tech-laden features with its connection package, which includes amenities such as leather seats, Bluetooth system, XM satellite radio and automatic headlamps.

Honda Civic Si

Likes: Trendy sleek design and sloping hood, sporty interior

Dislikes: Not enough guts going into third and fourth gears

MSRP: $21,310 to $23,060

Fuel economy range: 32 mpg hwy, 23 mpg city

I was surprised at the subtle exterior shape of the four-door Honda Civic Si. I mean, from one angle it looks like your typical family sedan, but then you glance again and the Honda Civic shows its true colors as a truly trendy ride. The glossy black model I road tested recently prompted lots of looks, mostly from college-aged guys, with this Civic's sexy sloping hood and overall modern look.

With all of the Honda Civic's good looks, there's also the fuel efficient 2.0-liter, 16-valve, four-cylinder engine, which garners 32 mpg highway and 23 mpg city, even while producing a strong 197 hp at a high-revving 7800 rpm. One of the gripes I had was how the transmission in the Honda Civic Si did not respond smoothly when shifting into third and fourth gears -- something that is surprising as Honda is known for smooth-shifting manual transmissions.

Inside, I enjoyed the Honda Civic's minimalist interior. The bubble-like information center in the dash just above the steering wheel is actually rather soothing and not at all distracting. The steering wheel has loads of built-in features and the overall interior design is pleasing and comfortable.

As always, I am not excited by Honda's navigation and entertainment system. While Honda's GPS system offers great functionality, I've used systems with better interface and graphics.

Toyota Prius

Likes: Zippy drive, good for commuter traffic, lots of top-notch technology

Dislikes: Over-the-top modern exterior design looks funky

MSRP: $20,950-$23,220

Fuel economy range: 51 mpg hwy. 60 mpg city

Toyota Prius, the No. 1-selling hybrid vehicle in the U.S. market, is certainly a fuel efficient car at an almost unbelievable 60 mpg city, but is it fun to drive? Absolutely.

Even with its engine's groans, squeaks and gurgling noises, the Prius still delivers exceptional acceleration and handling. The model I drove last spring had a 1.5-liter, four-cylinder, 16-valve hybrid synergy drive engine under its rather funny-looking hood.

Inside, the cabin of the Toyota Prius is cozy and roomy with a high-tech information system on the dash and what I consider the auto industry's best in-dash, push-button multimedia system. What could be more fun than a way-cool multimedia system, right?

Now that's saving money and giving you more time for the pursuit of personal happiness.

Mazda 3

Likes: Zoom-zoom drive, stylish interior, excellent gas mileage, affordable

Dislikes: Not much to dislike for the price

MSRP: $16,255

Fuel economy range: 32 mpg hwy, 24 mpg city

We recently chose Mazda3 as our top pick in a "Cheap New Cars" lineup. Starting at just $14,000, the Mazda3 has it all: a great drive, a stylish look, a small price tag -- and it gets a whopping 34 mpg hwy and 26 mpg city.

The silver 2008 Mazda3 i Sport 4-door we tested definitely had Mazda's trademark "zoom-zoom" drive with tight handling and suspension as well as above average acceleration and braking. And, this Mazda3 i Sport has just the right amount of straight lines and curves outside to make it stand out among the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.

Far from looking cheap, the all-black interior on the 2008 Mazda3 i Sport 4-door reminded us of more expensive Audi interiors with three-dimensional gauges, nice quality plastics and soft touch materials, and red backlit controls and buttons. Burnished chrome accents also gave the interior an upscale, classy, sporty feel. A nice surprise was the addition of audio and cruise control buttons built into the steering wheel which is something usually found on more expensive vehicles.

Chevy Cobalt

Likes: Sporty good looks, great gas mileage

Dislikes: Sponge-like feel to manual transmission

MSRP: $13,710-$18,910

Fuel economy range: 33 mpg hwy, 24 mpg city

GM claims it has more models that get at least 30 mpg than any other manufacturer (23 models in 2007). And with Chevy's 2008 Cobalt getting 33 mpg hwy, GM now sports a refined small car at a good price with excellent gas mileage.

Even better, Chevy's 2008 Cobalt has a broad range of models offering everything from a cheap bare-bones version to more sporty and accessories-laden choices. We got lots of looks from college-aged guys when we rolled up in our Cobalt with its rear spoiler and overall stylish exterior in an eye-popping copper orange metallic color.

The Cobalt's 2.2-liter, four-cylinder, 145 hp engine is lackluster for speed demons with its rather slow acceleration, although this inexpensive ride still makes for a good get-around-town car.

The interior is definitely where the 2008 Chevy Cobalt shines as the inside is certainly comfortable, looks upscale and was designed with ease of use in mind. The white-faced gauges give the looks a more racy edge, which contrasts well with GM's signature minimalist and eye-pleasing central console.

Ford Focus

Likes: SYNC info-tainment system links your digital phone and/or music player to the car using voice commands, sporty interior package

Dislikes: Rather soft manual transmission

MSRP: $14,075-$16,375

Fuel economy range: 35 mpg hwy, 24 mpg city

The 2008 Ford Focus is highly fuel efficient at 35 mpg hwy, is pretty fun to drive and has some of the best new in-car tech toys in its SYNC info-tainment system. Going beyond just providing a digital auxiliary jack, Ford's SYNC has taken in-car technology to the next level. We tried it out with my teenager's iPhone and, within just a few minutes, we had uploaded her entire digital music collection and had figured out how to "sync" her iPhone using Sync's simple voice commands to control the music and phone, including her address book and ring tones.

While I thought the 2008 Focus we tested had a rather soft transmission but not enough pick up from first to second gears, my husband said he loved the "cushy" ride. Overall, Ford's 2008 Focus is a fun-to-drive sedan with tight handling, exceptional suspension and highly responsive braking.

The 2008 model's exterior definitely took cues from Ford's Fusion to create a more sporty feel to the outside with a new all-chrome grille, more flared wheel arches and a sweeping line toward the more beefy behind.

Inside, our 2-door coupe SE model with the deluxe package truly delivered a sumptuous and sporty feel. We loved the matte chrome and black textures, the white-faced gauges with racy red accents and the techy information bubble at eye level on the dash. The saddle-stitched seats and steering wheel (with lots of built-in control buttons) all bumped up the 2008 Ford Focus to a level of sporty luxury.

Porsche Cayman

Likes: True sports car engine feel and sound engineering

Dislikes: Too-small cockpit interior and little storage space

MSRP: $43,400-$93,700

Fuel economy range: 32 mpg hwy, 23 mpg city

With its rather hefty price tag starting at $43,000, were weren't sure the Porsche Cayman would fit into our fuel efficient cars list. But at 32 mpg highway and 23 mpg city, this two-seater beauty truly gets good gas mileage as well as the joy of its pure sports car heritage.

Like Porsche's Boxster, upon which this coupe was designed, the Cayman's engine is inherently fuel efficient by design with its six-cylinder, 2.7 liter, 245 hp engine and lightweight body technology.

Yes, the Cayman gets good gas mileage, but do you really care? Just looking at its curvy haunches, sexy sloping hood and racing rear spoiler make you want to get in and take it on a long road trip. Although the interior is cramped and there's little storage space, the throaty growl and rapid acceleration of this sexy beast makes your heart thump every time you race at Autobahn-like speeds down highways and freeways.

Think you can't afford a Porsche? The Cayman is actually Porsche's least expensive coupe, starting at just $43,000 or so for a racy ride and standard all-leather black interior. And at 31 mpg highway, the Porsche Cayman rides along for hundreds of miles without stopping for fuel. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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