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Fuel-efficient cars for every budget

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David Zalubowski/AP/File

(Read caption) This February file photo, shows a 2012 Chevrolet Volt outside at a Chevrolet dealership in the south Denver suburb of Englewood, Colo. For under $50,000, the Chevy Volt is zippy for its size and gets lots of praise from its owners.

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It's not difficult to find cars with high gas mileage these days. Car manufacturers have made a sterling effort in recent years to push economy up, without sacrificing performance or equipment.

So if you're in the market for a new green car, but want a little fun every time you drive it, what are your options?

We've taken a look at several price points, to select a fun, gas-sipping car for every budget.

Under $15,000
Smart ForTwo Passion Coupe, $14,890, 36 mpg combined

The Smart ForTwo doesn't have the greatest reputation for fuel efficiency given its size, but with new cars under $15,000 you take what you can get.

Actually, if you understand its limitations, the ForTwo can be quite fun to drive, particularly around the tight city streets it's designed for. Highways aren't its natural habitat and it manages a middling 38 mpg there, but 34 mpg in the city is better. It's just a pity that you can't get the Cabriolet under $15,000 brand new.

Up to $20,000
Honda CR-Z auto, $19,695, 37 mpg combined

Honda's strikingly-styled CR-Z offers about as good a compromise as you can get for under $20,000. It's both reasonably economical, managing up to 39 mpg highway with the continuously-variable transmission, and fun to drive.

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With its 122-horsepower 1.5-liter engine and a hybrid drivetrain, the CR-Z is no race car, but sharp steering and a short wheelbase make it nimble around the turns. When you aren't carving corners, it becomes an easy-to-drive economy car. It's just a pity it doesn't offer slightly better gas mileage

Up to $25,000
Volkswagen Beetle TDI, $23,295, 32 mpg combined

The original tree-hugger's car was always pretty good on gas (provided it was kept in good health...) but its modern equivalent is faster, quieter and cleaner. It's also the more overtly fun choice than the similarly-priced Jetta TDI, which is why it sneaks onto our list in the Jetta's place.

The retro styling looks great and VW's turbodiesel engines are known for their surprising performance. 32 mpg combined may be nothing to write home about, but that figure rises to 41 mpg on the highway with the manual transmission--and it's not unknown for the EPA's figures to be a little conservative with diesel cars. Peace out, man.

Up to $30,000
Lexus CT 200h, $29,120, 42 mpg combined

The Lexus CT 200h may not be the obvious "fun" choice, but considering the car it's based on--Toyota's Prius--Lexus has done an impressive job of turning the CT into a fairly sporty drive.

It looks good for a start--even more so with the newly-announced 2013 F SPORT package, likely to be over the $30K limit--and although it makes do with the same 134-horsepower 1.8-liter hybrid drivetrain, in Sport mode it's actually quite responsive. It feels more nimble than the Prius too, though you do sacrifice some economy. Nevertheless, 43 mpg city and 40 highway isn't to be sniffed at.

Up to $50,000
Chevrolet Volt, $39,145 (pre-incentives), 94/37 mpg combined

Unfortunately, all of the more potent hybrids on the market--the Infiniti M, Lexus GS 450h, Porsche Panamera, BMW ActiveHybrid 5--all come in at over $50K. So instead, we've gone for a curve ball.

No, the Volt is no sport compact, and its weight rules out the kind of cornering you'd enjoy in a Volkswagen GTI, but drivers are still very keen on their Volts. The electric motor provides sprightly acceleration, for a start, and the low center of gravity means it hangs on in the corners too. At 94 MPG-equivalent in electric mode and up to 40mpg on the highway using the range-extender, it doesn't use much gas either. In fact, almost two thirds of all Volt miles have been done on electricity alone...

Wildcard
Tesla Model S Performance, $84,900, 89 mpg-equivalent

We couldn't resist putting this one in here. In fact, you can technically get a Model S for below $50,000, if you go for the 40 kWh battery pack--but the quicker, longer-range Model S Performance would be hard to resist.

Plant foot to carpet and you'll reach 60mph in a scant 4.4 seconds, and go on to 130mph. Driven more gently, you may even see 300 miles--though EPA range is 265 miles, and Motor Trend recently achieved just under 240, still an impressive figure.

What's more, the Model S corners well, looks fantastic and is high on equipment. Money no object, it's the one we'd have - and it doesn't use any gas, making it the greenest car here.


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