Our favorite fuel-efficient cars can save big bucks

The best way to protect your budget against a sudden spike in gas prices -- and you know it's coming -- is to drive a car that gets great mileage.

Of course, no one buys a car based on just how far it goes on a gallon of gas.

Price is always a big factor.

You also need something that's got enough room for your stuff, all of the creature comforts you need to pull off long commutes and the kind of praiseworthy performance that keeps driving from becoming a chore.

The trick is to find a car that works for you, and your life, without giving up 1 mile per gallon more than you absolutely must.

That's why we think you should consider one of our favorite high-mileage cars. They'll treat you right at the pump and on the road.

Low-Price Subcompact: 2012 Kia Rio LX

When a low purchase price and high fuel economy trump all other considerations, we don't think you can do better than the totally redesigned 2012 Kia Rio hatchback.

There are a handful of four-door cars that sneak under its $13,600 base price, but we believe the Rio LX provides the best combination of interior space, standard content and impressive fuel economy among budget subcompacts with four doors.

Toss in its industry-best guarantee, which includes a 10-year or 100,000-mile limited powertrain warranty, and Rio LX is an unbeatable value.

Generating a segment-leading 138 horsepower, Rio's 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine delivers an EPA-estimated 30 m.p.g. in the city and 40 m.p.g. on the highway, whether you choose the standard six-speed manual transmission or the optional six-speed automatic.

Yes, this is an entry-level car, yet it features four-wheel antilock disc brakes, stability control and six air bags.

Standard features include air conditioning, trip computer and an audio system with full iPod integration.

We suggest springing for the $1,000 Power Package that adds power windows, door locks and remote keyless entry. An automatic transmission adds another $1,100, for a total sticker price of $16,450, including destination charge.

The Rio is so new that consumer websites such as Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book don't have an average transaction price for it yet. But that doesn't mean you won't be able to negotiate a lower price.

Small Economy Family Sedan: 2012 Hyundai Elantra GLS

We believe this is the ideal sedan for small, budget-conscious families concerned about fuel economy.

With more than 33 inches of rear-seat legroom and a trunk about the size of Toyota Camry's, Elantra is roomy enough for the EPA to classify it as a midsize sedan.

We're also fans of the quiet, smooth ride delivered by its 148-h.p., 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine.

Prices start at just $15,195, and every Elantra comes with lots of goodies, including six air bags, four-wheel antilock disc brakes with stability control and an audio system with iPod interface.

But we think you're going to want air conditioning and some other popular features such as cruise control and a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel in the $1,250 Comfort Package.

Fuel economy is the same -- an EPA-estimated 29 m.p.g. in the city and 40 m.p.g. on the highway -- whether you go with the six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission that costs an extra $1,000.

When equipped with the automatic, the total retail price with destination charge is $18,205, and that's pretty much what you're going to pay. According to Kelley Blue Book, the average transaction price is $18,159.

The Elantra also has the same terrific warranty as the Kia Rio, plus Hyundai's Trade-in Value Guarantee.

Midsize Sedan: 2012 Buick LaCrosse

We are cheerleaders for the 2012 Buick LaCrosse on several levels, including its value and fuel economy.

First of all, the base model at $29,960 is as much sedan as most of us will need.

We expect a Buick to deliver a premium passenger experience, and it definitely lives up to those expectations with a full range of safety features, six air bags and upscale creature comforts like dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth connectivity and satellite radio.

It also comes with what General Motors calls its eAssist powertrain, which is what is usually called mild-hybrid technology.

An electric motor tapping the power stored in a lithium-ion battery is not powerful enough to turn the wheels on its own, but it provides the robust 182-h.p., 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine a little extra boost during acceleration.

With eAssist on board, LaCrosse gets an EPA-estimated 25 m.p.g. in the city and 36 m.p.g. on the highway.

Although we don't usually recommend hybrid cars as a way to cut the overall cost of vehicle ownership, it's easy to make this exception because eAssist is the base powertrain.

In fact, this hybrid system costs no more than an optional V6 engine yet delivers 40% better fuel economy.

We think that's real value.

With the destination charge, the retail price is $30,820, but according to Edmunds' True Market Value, you can expect to pay around $30,108.

AWD Wagon: 2012 Subaru Forester 2.5X Premium

Among wagons offering the foul-weather confidence of all-wheel drive, gobs of cargo space and stingy fuel economy, all at an affordable price, you can't go wrong with the 2012 Subaru Forester 2.5X Premium.

At $23,295, the 2.5X Premium isn't the least expensive Forester, but we think it's worth spending a little extra up front for reclining rear seatbacks, iPod integration and a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, among other trim-level upgrades.

We particularly like that it can carry more cargo than a Ford Escape and tow up to 2,400 pounds.

Surefooted in rain or snow, the Forester still manages an EPA-estimated 21 m.p.g in the city and 27 m.p.g. on the highway, whether you opt for the standard five-speed or the optional four-speed automatic transmission.

Since it won't affect your fuel economy, we think it makes sense to spend the extra $1,000 and go for the automatic. Do that and the retail price of the 2.5X Premium is $25,070, including destination charge.

Neither Edmunds nor Kelley Blue Book have average purchase data yet on the 2012 Forester, but KBB shows the average transaction price for 2011 models is about $1,400 below retail.

We believe a big plus is the added stability provided by the low center of gravity of the flat, horizontally opposed, 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine that delivers 174 h.p.

Add to all of this a well-rounded standard features list with full power accessories, cruise control, air conditioning, as well as a trip computer, and we think the Forester makes good sense as a utility vehicle even a greenie can appreciate.

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