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Smaller cars offer more upscale features, style

High gasoline prices have been good news for manufacturers of small, fuel-efficient cars.

The 2007 models, and the few 2008s already on the market, have been selling well this year. The trend is likely to continue, as gasoline price increases are equally likely to continue.

However, while some of this recent surge in sales is due to consumers' desires to pay less at the pump, get better mileage, and do the right thing for the environment, another part of the equation is that manufacturers seem to be paying better attention to their small car offerings.

A Toyota vice president, in introducing the new Yaris line of subcompacts, said the company had made a special effort to give its small cars a more upscale look and feel.

Economy buyers, he said, "don't want to be seen as losers in cheap cars."

Not surprisingly, the Yaris is a favorite small car.

Toyota Yaris ($11,150 to $14,250): Look no further, if you want good fuel economy (34 city, 40 highway), reliability and style on a budget. The Yaris comes in two basic model styles: a 2-door with a hatchback, and a 4-door sedan. Acceleration is not its strong point, with a 1.5-liter, 91-horsepower engine, but Toyotas tend to run forever, with little or no maintenance headaches. The Yaris is also comfortable and surprisingly refined. Caution: Though a lot of options are available, they can really drive up the base price. If you need a lot of features, see the Corolla.

Toyota Corolla ($14,305 to $16,315): The bulletproof Corolla comes with a higher level of standard equipment than the Yaris and feels like a more substantial vehicle. It is. Though the Corolla gets up to 41 mpg on the highway, it tends to be overlooked due to consumer familiarity and being overshadowed by the similarly sized 60 mpg Prius hybrid. A redesign is coming, but it has been delayed until 2009 while Toyota takes extra time to figure out how to make the next Corolla one-up the new Civic.

Honda Civic ($14,810 to $24,350): Honda boasts that it offers the most fuel-efficient lineup of cars on the planet. If that's so, the Civic can take a lot of the credit. Even with an automatic transmission, the gasoline-powered Civic gets 40 mpg on the highway. A hybrid version hits 51 mpg. And Civic, redesigned in 2006, achieves all this economy while offering a stylish new exterior and an upscale interior. Competitors are also hard-pressed to top Civic's blend of dependability, quality and retained value. Civic lovers are almost certain to like its new little brother, the Fit.

Honda Fit ($13,850 to $15,970): A half-step below Civic in size, price and utility is the new Fit. One of Fit's strengths is how well it does divvying up space between front seats, back seats and cargo bay. Clever engineering gives Fit a class-above amount of interior space, including room for tall drivers. It delivers excellent fuel economy in the mid-to-upper 30 mpg range. The Fit is one of several popular new minicars on the U.S. market, like the Yaris and the Nissan Versa.

Nissan Versa ($12,550 to $15,550): Advertisements for the Versa stress that it is one small car that doesn't make its occupants feel squeezed. Engineers have done a good job of squeezing the fat out of the design, not its occupants. Versa handles well and is comfortable to drive, as well as drive in. The 1.8-liter, 110-horsepower engine is adequate for everyday driving. Fuel economy of low-to-mid 30s, however, is a notch below the Fit and Yaris. A 4-door model joins the previously introduced hatchback as the Versa line expands in 2007.

Mazda 3 ($13,795 to $23,955): Mazda enjoys a sportier image than some of its competitors. But the 3 compact also offers good driving dynamics, an engaging interior design and build quality that will keep an owner admiring the purchase long after the loan is paid off. Fuel economy could be a bit better for a vehicle this size, but there is an inevitable trade-off for all that "zoom-zoom." Enthusiasts love the MazdaSpeed versions with 263-horsepower turbo engines. Zoom, indeed.

Ford Focus ($13,480 to $17,550): Not as much fun as its cousin, the Mazda 3, the Focus still has a loyal following. The 2007 model is the last in a line of vehicles that have been around, with few changes, since 2000. It had been expected that the '07s would be a tough sell, because a re-styled Focus is scheduled to make its debut this fall as a 2008 model. But as gasoline prices have risen, so have sales of the outgoing Focus model. In fact, through the summer months, Focus sales were up, while sales of many of its rivals, such as the Chevrolet's Aveo, HHR and Cobalt, were down. The '08 Focus is essentially the same loaf of bread in a different wrapper.

Toyota Prius ($22,175 to $23,070): Though the Prius is classified as a compact car, this environmentally friendly hybrid feels like it is in a class by itself. It's not fast, doesn't handle all that well, could be roomier and more comfortable, and its looks are an acquired taste. But there is no arguing with Prius' fuel-saving benefits for the planet, as well as your wallet. Prius is one of those "statement" cars. The statement the Prius makes is "I care."

Mini Cooper ($18,050 to $25,400): The Mini Cooper is a compact car with 40 mpg fuel economy, more style per square inch than any car in the industry, and a fun-to-drive quotient that will leave you with a permanent grin plastered to your face. A new version arrived in 2007 and although it is larger - inside and out - and much improved over the outgoing model, most people would be hard-pressed to notice the differences. And that's fine with Mini lovers. This is one car whose looks will never go out of style.

Other choices worth considering include the Scion line, Suzuki's new SX4, the Kia Spectra, Hyundai Accent, Nissan Sentra, Chrysler PT Cruiser.

By next year, we hope to be able to add to this list the much-anticipated, often-delayed new Smart car.

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