THE BUZZ: Take a plush, smooth-driving American sedan and give it the soul of a Prius and you've got Ford's new Fusion Hybridwith a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder gas/electric engine that delivers a whopping 40-plus miles per gallon.
THE TEST: This car is a teacher. The more economically I drove, the more "leaves" the car grew on the dash's LCD display. Instead of flooring it, I quickly became obsessed with covering the entire screen in sanctifying green.
THE VERDICT: It won't wow you with its pep or handling, but that's not the point. It's a comfy and impressively fuel-efficient sedan. From $27,270; mpg, 41 city/36 hwy; ford.com
THE BUZZ: Trapped inside this budget-friendly hatchback is a 155-mph racer screaming to get out. Mazda tuned the suspension, steering, and transmission to handle the turbocharged, 263-hp engine's thrust, producing a nimble sport compact that can also haul skis and bikes.
THE TEST: Blasting over 11,500-foot Colorado mountain passes was a snap, while the fuel-sipping four-cylinder engine returned a shocking 30 mpg, despite being driven hard and fast over 150 miles with 12,000 feet of climbing.
THE VERDICT: If you're heavy on cargo but light on budgetand secretly lust for a Porschethis is your rig. From $23,200; mpg, 18 city/25 hwy; mazdausa.com
THE BUZZ: Yes, it's a wagon. But thanks to its bigger size and meatier (3.6-liter) six-cylinder boxer engine, it feels more like the SUVs of yorewith superior gas mileage.
THE TEST: All-wheel drive and traction control provided a solid, responsive feel, while the 256-hp motor's torque made punching the gas an unexpected thrill. Inside, it was like a cargo ship. Our six-foot cohorts easily fit in the backseats, and the rear seats folded down to stow two 29er bikes without removing the front wheels.
THE VERDICT: Plenty of pep and a ton of room, especially for a wagon. From $28,000; mpg, 18 city/25 hwy; subaru.com
THE BUZZ: Kizashi is a Japanese reference to something good coming, and with its spacious interior, Euro-style exterior, traction control, and front and rear air bags, this zippy sports sedan lives up to its name.
THE TEST: The more-powerful-than-it-sounds 2.4-liter, 185-hp four-cylinder engine and smooth six-speed manual transmission beg you to drive the Kizashi like a sports car on any mountain road or coastal highway. The only bummer? The manual transmission is offered only with two-wheel drivethe all-wheel-drive version is currently available only as a rough, fun-sapping automatic.
THE VERDICT: Stay away from snow and ice and the manual version becomes a screaming dealeven before you factor in the great fuel economy on road trips. From $19,000; mpg, 21 city/31 hwy; suzuki.com
THE BUZZ: The completely redesigned 4Runner is a serious off-road machine. The V-6 version has a healthy 278 lb-ft of rock-crawling torque, a 5,000-lb towing capacity, and a novel suspension that adjusts the ride for pavement, mud, loose rock, or uneven terrain at the twist of a dial.
THE TEST: In the mountains north of Santa Barbara, the 4Runner's beefy suspension and nine-inch clearanceit's built on the same platform as Toyota's gnarliest off-roader, the FJ Cruiserlaughed at sloppy gravel and steep, rocky switchbacks. On the street, it's a surprisingly smooth operator for such a brawny truck.
THE VERDICT: A traditional midsize SUV that begs to be taken off the beaten path. From $35,700; mpg, 17 city/22 hwy; toyota.com