July '08's best deals on fuel-efficient rides

Gas pump handle

There are still big-time discounts on a couple of compact cars that are fun to drive and save meaningful money at the gas pump.

But rebates and cut-rate financing are drying up as the demand for all types of smaller cars just keeps growing.

Although we've included a compact SUV, sporty sedan and full-size pickup in this month's picks for the best vehicles with the most attractive incentives, that doesn't mean we've forgotten about $4-a-gallon gas.

All of our choices get good mileage -- for cars and trucks of their size.

Prices include destination charges.

Hyundai Elantra ($14,245)

The Elantra's quietly making a name for itself as a quality subcompact that some critics now prefer to the class standard bearer, the Honda Civic.

Hyundai's baked in some serious upscale feel to the Elantra, including a sophisticated, uncluttered styling that denies the low starting price.

Its 2.0-liter, 4-cylinder engine also manages to be pretty frugal (25 m.p.g. city/33 m.p.g. highway), although its fuel economy isn't the best among compact sedans.

A $1,500 rebate is a fine bonus, even though Hyundai's pricing sleight-of-hand requires you to buy the rather pricey $1,750 "Popular Equipment Package" to get air conditioning (it also adds cruise control, a good stereo and some other stuff).

Nevertheless, you'll drive home with a stylish, tight and efficient compact car for less than 15 grand.

Chevrolet HHR ($17,370)

You probably either like or hate the HHR's retro delivery-van styling. If you can live with the looks, it turns out the HHR is an extremely versatile driving device: There's the smoothness and efficiency of a car, yet -- thanks to the boxy dimensions -- the cargo space rivals that of many midsize SUVs.

That's why we think the HHR is one of the best compact wagons around.

It comes with a choice of two 4-cylinder engines and delivers typical mileage for a compact -- 22 m.p.g. city/30 m.p.g. highway.

Now General Motors is offering the choice of 0% financing for six years or a $1,500 cash rebate.
Although the cheap financing is likely to be the biggest money saver, you can use our rebate or low-cost loan calculator to make sure.

Honda Ridgeline ($28,670)

We already think the Ridgeline is one of the best full-size pickups you can buy.

Now, dealers are getting a $3,000 rebate they can pass on to you (or not) along with 2.9% financing. (So make sure the dealer knows that you know about the rebate.)

The Ridgeline doesn't try to be as rough and tough as the Chevrolet Silverado or Toyota Tundra. It's intended for light-duty work and heavy-duty family use.

Instead of the classic body-on-frame construction used for most pickups, the Ridgeline is built more like a car, with a frame integrated into the body. As a result, it's more pleasant to drive, offering a comfortable ride and reassuring, friendly handling.

The only engine, a 247-h.p., 3.5-liter V6, gets an estimated 15 m.p.g. city and 20 on the highway. That's not as good as you might have expected, but it's at least a couple of miles per gallon better than you'll get with the V8s in most Silverados and Tundras.

Saturn Vue ($22,150)

An updated exterior and functional, if not flashy, interior make the Vue one of the more appealing small SUVs, or "cute utes," as they're sometimes called.

The Vue comes with a 2.4-liter, 4-cylinder engine that gets 19 m.p.g. city/26 highway or a 3.5-liter V6 that's a little thirstier. Yeah, some competitors do better. But GM is offering 72-month, 0% financing on most models. Saturn says that could save you more than $5,400 in interest charges, which would pay for a lot of gas.

That would be an even better deal if Saturn didn't exclude its most fuel-efficient version of the Vue. You can't get 0% financing on the hybrid Green Line that gets 25 m.p.g. city/32 highway.

Dodge Charger ($22,520)

The Charger's still a pretty racy-looking sedan. The fluid, rear-wheel-drive chassis makes for rewarding handling, and inside there's room enough for five in total comfort.

The 2.7-liter, V6 isn't the model of smoothness, and you'll probably need a light foot to coax the promised 18 m.p.g. city/26 m.p.g. highway out of it. But we admit it. We're intrigued by the $500 rebate and the promise of cheap gas. Dodge's "Let's Refuel America" plan guarantees that you'll pay no more than $2.99 a gallon on your first 2,000 gallons of gas.

That gimmick alone makes the Charger an interesting alternative to bland, midsize sedans that aren't all that much more fuel efficient.

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