They're called "bridge" cars, and you may be in the market for one. It's an inexpensive vehicle that gets good mileage. He or she will drive it back and forth to work and save the SUV for weekend outings with the family. So what is a good buy and what's not? Here are a few suggestions:
Honda: Knows more about wringing mileage from regular gas engines than anyone, and they've been doing it since back when nobody cared. The 1988 Honda Civic CRX HF, for instance, is rated at 41 mpg city, 50 mpg highway, and that's using the new, less optimistic EPA ratings. The HF was an ultra-high-mileage model, and there aren't that many out there, but most any Civic of any era is a good economy buy.
Toyota: The Corolla has never been quite as much fun to drive but has always delivered good mileage and extraordinary dependability. Also worth a look: the Tercel, smaller and cheaper than the Corolla.
GM: The GM versions of the Corolla, like the Chevrolet Prism and Pontiac Vibe, deliver similar results.
Dodge/Chrysler: Find a Neon with a fresh head gasket and a working air conditioner, and the rest of the car is pretty dependable for the money and should nudge 30 mpg. Early-model Chrysler PT Cruisers are getting quite affordable, too. And if you need a cheap people mover, Chrysler minivans with the 2.4-liter four- cylinder engine, late 1990s and up, are thrifty — but be aware that, like the Neon, air conditioners are a problem.
Diesels: Skip 'em. The unprecedented spike in diesel prices has caught everyone by surprise, so even a Volkswagen diesel, which two years ago would have been near the top of this list, is less attractive.
Korean cars: Skip 'em, too. Hyundai and Kia lagged well behind the Japanese and some U.S. manufacturers in figuring out how to squeeze good mileage from their four-cylinders. A 1995 Hyundai Elantra, for instance, is only EPA rated at 19 mpg city, 26 mpg highway, not great for a 1.6-liter engine.