Consider something like a little Suzuki Reno. The Reno's conventional 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine gives it a rating of 23 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway. And with an MRP of only $13,499, it is much more wallet-friendly than a hybrid that will run in the neighborhood of $30,000.

Our test vehicle was the basic Reno. Standard features include a five-speed manual tranny, fourwheel disc brakes, tire-pressure monitoring, power/heated mirrors, A/C, an eight-speaker audio system that includes MP3, and speed-sensitive power steering. The 127-hp engine performs the way you would expect; this isn't a car you buy to compete in NASCAR events. Results I've seen put its 0-to-60 mph performance at 9.5 sec. But I can't really knock the Reno's performance. It is a front-wheel-drive, compact economy car that tools through traffic well, thanks to decent midrange torque, and lives up to its billing. And its strut suspension and stiff body structure give it a ride performance that is ok for a compact car.

A point in the car's favor is its interior space: not bad for a compact. Rear-seat occupants have some legroom, more so than in cars like the Mazda3 hatchback or Toyota Matrix. And with its split 60/40 seats folded down, the Reno also provides cargo room comparable to those two cars. But the interior is strictly functional. Seats are cloth and dash components all have the look of inexpensive plastic. Again, you get what you pay for.

I note that other car reviewers have griped about the long throws in the Reno's shifter. I have to disagree. People who buy this car are going to be more interested in hitting the right gear rather than in lightning-fast shifting. So I'd say the long throws are an advantage, not a problem.

On the outside, the Reno is a nice looking hatchback. Its styling comes from the noted design firm Italdesign. They did a good job giving it a cute look. It rides on 15-in. wheels: not large enough for the "big-wheel" look popular today but still attractive. For those interested in style, Suzuki plans to introduce a sportier version of the Reno next year with a more powerful engine.

Potential buyers might also note that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Suzuki Forenza (and by extension, the Reno which is built on the same platform) an Acceptable rating on its frontal offset crash test. It earned a Poor rating for rear-crash protection. The latter rating isn't as bad as it sounds when you consider that the only other cars in the Reno's class performing better were the Aerio and Grand Vitara, both receiving only Marginal ratings.

All in all, there are cars in the Reno's class that exceed its performance in one category or another. But buyers of this car will likely look at its price tag, the combination of features offered for the money, and the 100,000mile warranty, shrug, and say, "Works for me."

— Lee Teschler