The New Road Order

SUVs are shrinking, hybrids are everywhere, and diesel is suddenly back, with true eco-credentials. The adventure fleet has never had so much variety. Let us get you up to speed.


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Volkswagen Jetta TDI SportWagen
From $23,590; MPG, 29 city/40 hwy

The future looks a little like the past. The 2009 Jetta TDI heralds a new era of affordable, everyday diesels that don’t pollute the way their predecessors did. This year, the Jetta’s 2.0-liter, 140-horsepower engine has been redesigned to run as clean as a Honda Civic’s, so it’s finally available in all 50 states. With hybrid-like gas efficiency but a strong motor and sporty European performance, it’s an attractive option for long-haul commuters and light-load road-trippers who don’t want a sleepy hybrid. Traction control rare in this price range makes it all-weather capable, and those over six feet tall (like me) will appreciate the sightly larger cabin dimensions.

Toyota Matrix S AWD
From $20,400; MPG, 20 city/26 hwy
The first generation of the Matrix was gutless at interstate speeds, but with a new engine, the ’09 has a more confident punch and is still a bargain for drivers who encounter hairy conditions. With a relatively large engine a 2.4-liter, 158-horsepower four-cylinder it feels heavier and more stable than it looks, which is a good thing when a crosswind rips through. The sophisticated all-wheel drive and traction control, which can transfer power to the tires with the best grip, are godsends on snow and ice. As for cargo, it can just allow, with seats down and finagling, two bikes or a surfboard.

Honda Fit Sport
From $15,270; MPG, 28 city/34 hwy (est.)

The new Fit reminded me why I love small cars with small engines. A smooth manual transmission with short, snappy shifts makes every pass, corner, and hill something to look forward to. The biggest surprise? With the rear seats folded down, it’s easy to stash two bikes in this tiny thing. Fold the passenger seat back as well and you could easily load a snowboard or skis. As I crisscrossed Los Angeles County, putting the 1.5-liter, 109-horsepower Fit through its paces, the main thought going through my head was “I can’t believe this thing is only $15,000.” One criticism: While the six airbags are reassuring, this flyweight can be a bit tricky to handle on wet, icy roads or in windy conditions.

Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid
From $23,640; MPG, 24 city/32 hwy

The 2008 Malibu is one of the best-looking sedans ever to come out of Detroit. And it’s a hybrid. The bad news: Behind the wheel, it looks and drives like every other boring American sedan I’ve ever rented at the airport. But what makes this car special is its 2.4-liter, 164-horsepower four-cylinder engine, which does most of the work and gets only sporadic help from the electric half, rather than the other way around. Except when the engine shut down at stoplights, the electric motor was imperceptible. That’s the Malibu’s secret weapon: It drives like a normal full-size sedan, and the performance doesn’t scream “hybrid!” You get respectable, economy-car mileage, minus the economy-car feel.

Mini Cooper Clubman
From $20,200; MPG, 27 city/37 hwy

City feller, here’s your escape pod. The 2009 Clubman is more than nine inches longer than the original Mini, with a third door on the passenger side and a fold-down backseat and split rear doors, which allow you to just fit a bike in back. It’s a blast to drive around town, squeezing into microscopic parking slots and cornering and zipping through traffic like a go-kart. But if you’re used to a plush ride, take heed. This joie de vivre could turn into annoyance after months of the daily grind: Every bump, crack, and pothole shot up my spine. But while the auto­matic transmission and anemic 118-horsepower 1.6-liter render it no match for curvy mountain roads, at least you don’t have to pay a lot for killer fuel economy and head-turning looks.

Jeep Grand Cherokee 4×4 CRD
From $31,390; MPG, 17 city/22 hwy

Take an old-school SUV body, drop in an unbelievably smooth Mercedes-Benz-engineered turbo­diesel, and you’ve got an off-road beast without a monstrous appetite at the pump. No, it’s not a green truck, but it’s progress: The V-6 diesel in the 2008 Grand Cherokee delivers the same power as its V-8 gasoline version, with 25 percent better fuel economy. The four-wheel drive and tough suspension handled any mud, sand, rock, snow, or slop qualifying as a road and brought a nostalgic smile to my face: This is what SUVs were supposed to be. The 3.0-liter, 215-horsepower engine doesn’t burn as clean as the Mercedes or Volkswagen models I tested, and it isn’t available in a few stricter states, but with 450 miles between fill-ups, it sure beats its petrol-swilling cousins in efficiency.

Mercedes-Benz ML320 BlueTec
From $46,000; MPG, 18 city/24 hwy

Luxury SUVs are at the forefront of clean-diesel technology, and Mercedes’s 2009 ML320 with its 210-horsepower, turbo­charged V-6 engine is no exception. It’s both incredibly quiet and powerful. I completely forgot I was driving a diesel until the low-end torque kicked in and I blasted past other cars on Vermont’s winding backroads. Though you might sell your muddy dogs before letting them foul the luxurious, soundproof cabin, the ML320’s all-wheel drive and up to 11.4 inches of adjustable ground clearance handled moderate off-roading with aplomb. Best part: After steering this Teutonic battleship through the Green Mountains all day, I’d averaged a sticker-beating 27 mpg.

Ford Flex
From $28,295; MPG, 17 city/24 hwy

If you need the space of a Chevy Suburban but can’t afford the dismal gas mileage and won’t be caught dead in a minivan, the 2009 Flex is for you. Check out these features: seating for seven adults, four sunroofs, and a passenger seat that folds forward and completely flat, creating enough room to stow a longboard diagonally. Then there are the options: a Sirius satellite-radio system with real-time Doppler weather radar for any location in North America (one of the coolest car toys I’ve ever seen), Sony surround-sound audio, a refrigerator, and all-wheel drive. Although this isn’t a green vehicle, for those who need to transport a small army with gear, it’s impressively efficient. How’s it handle? Like a limo. The AWD version can handle ice and snow, but this beast belongs on asphalt.

Subaru Forester 2.5XT
From $26,195; MPG, 19 city/24 hwy

The 2009 Forester may look boxy on the outside and relatively cheap on the inside, but when I gunned the 2.5XT’s 224-horsepower, turbo­charged engine on a Colorado Forest Service road, I felt the giddy joy of a rally-car driver. Fortunately, the all-wheel-drive traction control kept me upright and on the road when I accelerated too fast and started to drift in some sand. The 2.5-liter, four-cylinder boxer, or flat, engine the same type used by Porsche is almost too sophisticated for this utilitarian cross­over. But since it comfortably holds four passengers or two bikes with the rear seats down, I’ll take useful over stylish any day. Downside? The engine chugs more gas than I expected in a vehicle this size.

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