Where to find May's biggest rebates on fuel-efficient cars

Gas pump handle

We've found some big-time rebates on cars and crossovers that are fun to drive and should save meaningful money at the gas pump, especially if you're currently driving a big pickup or SUV.

Cash-back deals are especially important if you're "upside down" on your current loan, which means you owe more than your car or truck is worth.

A substantial rebate could be big enough to cover the difference, allowing you to trade in your vehicle without having to come up with hundreds or even thousands of dollars in cash to pay off the loan.

All prices include destination charges.

Ford Focus ($15,445)

You can get up to $2,000 back on the Focus sedan, depending on where you live. The Focus received a new look, inside and out, for 2008 and comes with the exclusive Sync in-car connectivity system you've undoubtedly seen in ads. The Focus also goes a long way on a gallon of gas -- 24 miles in city driving, 33 on the highway, even with an automatic transmission.

Chrysler PT Cruiser ($15,685)

Chrysler is offering one of the most tempting deals available on a fuel-efficient car: $1,500 to $3,000 cash, depending on where you live. While everyone isn't in tune with the Cruiser's retro-van styling, its cavernous and highly flexible cargo area makes a convincing replacement for a midsize SUV. You can cram a lot of stuff back there.

Chrysler also has launched a gimmicky and fine-print-laden promotion that promises $2.99 gasoline for three years on most of its vehicles, including the PT Cruiser. The deal guarantees the price for 1,636 gallons for Cruiser buyers, plus a $1,000 cash incentive. If you don't need more cash up front, do the math: In some circumstances, particularly if you drive a lot and you're in a region with the $1,500 rebate, the $1,000 and guaranteed $2.99 gasoline deal may be better than the full-cash rebate.

Saturn Outlook ($29,090)

General Motors' Saturn division has one of the freshest model lineups in the business but continues to struggle. So the $1,500 cash Saturn is offering for its fine new Outlook crossover is a great deal. The GMC and Buick versions of the Outlook are selling briskly with nothing more than a measly $500 rebate on the GMC.

The smoothly styled and very versatile Outlook crossover is an excellent replacement for a full-size SUV. And, with its sophisticated 3.6-liter V6 delivering 16 miles per gallon in city driving and 24 m.p.g. for the front-drive model, it should be slightly more economical to operate. Outlook offers seating for up to eight and all the latest safety hardware, including stability control, a feature nobody should willingly do without.

Saturn Aura XR ($26,325)

The Saturn Aura is the mechanical twin of the sizzling-hot Chevrolet Malibu, but strangely, Chevy can't make enough Malibus and Saturn can't move the same car with a different name. Go for the Aura and you benefit with a solid $2,500 rebate on a creamy-riding and understatedly competent sedan.

To get the big rebate, you're required to buy a V6 (not the more economical 4-cylinder engine) that gets 17 m.p.g. city and 26 m.p.g. highway. Go for the XR version that includes the much silkier, 3.6-liter V6 and you've got a worthy competitor to your neighbors' Camrys and Accords, while stuffing $2,500 in your pocket the neighbors didn't get.

Mazda6 ($19,790)

The $2,250 to $2,750 Mazda is giving on its still-wonderful Mazda6 sedan has to be one of the best deals in the market.

Yes, Mazda's giving the big incentive to clear out models for the all-new Mazda6 that's coming this year. But that doesn't change the fact that the current Mazda6 makes one of the bolder statements among midsize sedans. The car's crisp handling and quality assembly have always made it a choice nobody will regret.

Stay with the 4-cylinder model and, even with some options and the lowest rebate, you're looking at a no-excuses, efficient (21 m.p.g. city/28 m.p.g. highway), highly reliable midsize car for around $20,000. People are paying more for compact cars with a lot less.

Mitsubishi Lancer ES ($14,615)

Mitsubishi is already stocking dealer lots with 2009 Lancers, which essentially are no different, so we'd be happy to grab an '08 and the $1,000 rebate Mitsubishi offers nationwide. Starting at $14,615, the Lancer is inexpensive but in no way cheap.

Compared with some of the big guns in the compact segment, including the Honda Civic and Mazda3, the Lancer doesn't get much attention. But the '08 model is all new and delivers some fine driving manners, not-unpleasant styling and an uncluttered interior with materials and finish that appear a cut above the norm.

The Lancer's stout 4-cylinder engine has more horsepower than the base engines in the Civic and Mazda3 and sips gas to the tune of 22 m.p.g. city and 29 m.p.g. highway with an automatic transmission. Be wary, however: Don't go with the base DE trim level unless it has the optional antilock brakes that are standard for the Lancer ES and GTS.

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