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Smart Buys as Gas Prices Rise

As gas prices spurt higher than an uncapped oil well (I keep picturing Dick Cheney covered in crude, yelling "Yee Haw!," there have been new winners and losers in automobile showrooms. Some of the biggest, baddest SUVs and pickups have seen their sales hammered. Cars have gotten a leg up, outselling trucks in some months for the first time in years. And frugal subcompacts have finally shown up on 's radar screens, boosted by strong models such as the Honda Fit.

All of which got me thinking: Are carmakers gearing up to promote this stuff? Toyota has loudly hyped its hybrids, painting itself as the greenest automaker in the land. GM has countered by noting that it offers more models that top 30 highway mpg than any other automaker. But for the most part, the ads I see and read are still largely focused on pickups, SUVs and luxury models — the expensive rides that have always paid the bills at Automaker HQ.

During football and baseball games, even with gas at $4 a gallon, the ad landscape looks more like a rodeo than the real world, filled with pickups and cowboys workin' on the range. This is because the Ford F-Series pickup is still the nation's best-selling vehicle, as it has been for two decades. The Chevy Silverado pickup is right on its spurs, hoping to someday break Ford's winning streak. is trying to lasso its own buyers with the Texas-built Tundra.

Those pickups, along with high-dollar SUVs, are what fill the coffers for . In contrast, cars that go easy on gas tend to be smaller and inexpensive, which means they contribute far less profit. No surprise then that for every advertising and marketing dollar that carmakers spend, they've usually devoted a smaller slice to models that aren't carrying their financial weight.

But with every automaker chasing a green image, they've become shyer about promoting models that slurp fuel like frat boys on a beer keg. For the first time in ages they're calling attention to their solid-citizen cars.

SUVs Crossing Over
Ford executives are well aware of how the market shift is changing business. The new 35-mpg Ford Focus has been one model to reap sales benefits. Old-school trucks such as the Explorer are on their way out, to be replaced by more efficient crossover SUVs. "We'll put company resources behind the products people want, wherever the marketplace is going," said Ford spokesman Alan Hall.

For Ford and everyone else, that means more models like the Ford Flex. This car-based, seven-passenger crossover goes on sale in June, with a 3.5-liter V6 engine expected to deliver roughly 24 highway mpg — at or near the top of its class for economy.

Spokesman Jim Cain said that Ford has six million of its traditional SUVs on the road (Explorers, Expeditions, etc). That's six million potential customers, many of whom still demand a roomy family vehicle, but one that's easier on gas. Naturally, Ford will go all-out to lure those owners into the Flex, Edge or another Ford or Lincoln model.

At the same time, the automaker has rolled out a major 'Drive One' media blitz. The campaign focuses on Ford's environmental efforts and fuel-saving technologies, everything from recyclable, soy-based seat materials to its turbocharged and direct-injected Eco-Boost engines.

Now, aside from the obvious candidates — the Toyota Prius, MINI Cooper and other small cars — which other models might benefit from the dizzying cost of fuel? Here's a short list of new cars and their EPA mpg ratings that become smarter buys when you throw in the rising cost of gasoline.

Mazda5 (base price: $18,630): 21/27 mpg (city/highway)
Most minivans are maxi in size, but the Mazda5 deserves the name. It's the only European-style compact van sold in , with zippy handling and room for six adults. When the Mazda5 was first released, its fuel economy was disappointing, barely better than full-size minivans. For 2008, however, a new five-speed automatic transmission and retuned engine significantly boost the 5's mileage. That makes this ultra-affordable hauler worth another look, especially for families on a budget.

Honda Civic Hybrid ($23,235): 40/45 mpg
While Toyota sold 181,000 of its signature Prius last year, the Civic Hybrid toils in the shadows. Yet the gas-electric Civic gets virtually the same mileage as the , handles better and costs no more. Sure, the Honda's Clark exterior doesn't shout "hybrid" like the Prius. But why more mileage-seeking shoppers don't stick a nozzle in the Honda is one of the mysteries of autodom.

Toyota Avalon ($27,735): 19/28 mpg
If you need a stretch-your-legs sedan that also stretches a gallon, consider the Avalon. It's so sophisticated that it might as well be a Lexus. In fact, the Lexus ES 350 is essentially a restyled Avalon with a fancier cabin and a fatter price tag. The Avalon's silky 276-horsepower V6 engine is one of the most fuel-efficient V6s around. It can nudge 30 mpg on the highway — stellar mileage for a powerful full-size sedan.

Mercedes-Benz GL320 BLUETEC (est. $55,000): 18/24 mpg
On sale in October, the diesel-powered GL will be the nation's highest-mileage large luxury SUV. Along with versions of the M- and R-Class SUVs, the Mercedes will be the first diesels to meet tough new pollution standards in and all 50 states. That the GL may also be the best current luxury sport ute — with room for seven adults, a posh cabin and impeccable ride and handling — is the icing on this green cake.

Ford Escape Hybrid ($27,335): 34/30 mpg
Go easy on the gas pedal, and the smooth-driving Escape will top 30 mpg in combined city/highway driving. That's nearly 50 percent better mileage than the typical compact SUV, and enough to save an owner from $600 to $1,200 a year in fuel compared to its main rivals. Those kind of savings can justify the roughly $4,000 added cost of the Escape's hybrid technology.

Audi A4 ($29,675): 21/30 mpg
Many sports sedans go fast yet slurp fuel with their six- or eight-cylinder engines. But the Audi delivers 200 horses worth of turbocharged fun from a mere 2.0-liter four-cylinder powerplant. Handsome, sweet-handling and luxurious, the Audi is a genuine sports sedan with a bonus: a class-best 30 mpg on the highway, 31 around town with the six-speed manual transmission.

Saturn Aura Hybrid ($24,290): 24/32 mpg
The 2007 North American Car of the Year is the best-driving, best-looking Saturn sedan ever, yet it's gotten off to a slow sales start. Frugal and affordable, this hybrid family sedan might be just the ticket to lure shoppers into a Saturn dealership.

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-- Lawrence Ulrich of MSN Autos

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