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Five fun frugal drives

Here are five fun-to-drive vehicles that also qualify for Ottawa's fuel-efficient rebate.
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“Can I eat my cake and have it too?”

That was the first question on many Canadian driving enthusiasts’ minds when reading about the federal government’s recently introduced ecoAUTO Rebate Program.

There are 17 different 2007 model year vehicles that qualify for ecoAUTO rebates; from $1,000 to the $2,000 maximum.

Then consider if you purchase one of the hybrid-electric vehicles (HEV) that made the ecoAUTO list. Ontario residents could then double-dip and receive an additional $2,000 rebate from that provincial government’s coffers.

But what if you like to drive?

For those Wheels readers who like to combine a little bit of driving fun with their frugality, here are five of the most fun-to-drive vehicles from the ecoAUTO Rebate Program list, plus the added bonus of an honourable mention:

FIFTH PLACE: 2007 HONDA CIVIC HYBRID

THE GOOD: Compared with the 2003-05 Civic Hybrid, this new 110 hp, 123 lb-ft of torque, 1.3-litre single-overhead-cam, four-cylinder gas-electric version is more fuel efficient, and faster. As with every Civic sedan, generous interior space and a good ride and handling package come standard. With a combined rating of 4.5 L/100 km, the front-drive Honda qualifies for both the full ecoAUTO and Ontario HEV rebates, which knocks a significant $4,000 off its $26,250 base price.

THE BAD: Any Civic’s Star Wars interior may take getting use to. Front seats could be more comfortable. You need to mat the accelerator pedal to move with any authority at a stoplight. And a continuously variable transmission (CVT) is your only tranny choice.

THE UGLY: Before you sign on the dotted line for this hybrid model, make sure you do your math. Even with the full rebates, a regular 2007 Civic DX sedan weighs 105 kilograms less, gets a not-too-shabby fuel consumption rating of 7.0 L/100 km and costs $5,270 less before environmental rebates. And you get the choice of a five-speed stick shift.

 

FOURTH PLACE: 2007 Jeep Compass Sport 4×2 2.4 L 5-speed manual

THE GOOD: Created for life on the road, Jeep’s compact sport utility vehicle drives like a car.

There’s little roll when cornering, yet the suspension smothers potholed pavement with aplomb.

The Compass also possesses plenty of passenger and cargo room compared to similarly priced vehicles.

With the standard five-speed manual transmission, the 172 hp, 165 lb.-ft. of torque, 2.4-litre four-cylinder gas engine sips less fuel than the 2.0-litre four/CVT model. Considered a light truck, the Compass is rated at 8.2 L/100 km and qualifies for a $1,000 ecoAUTO discount off the already lowball $17,995 asking price.

THE BAD: To get the free federal money, you’re limited to the front-wheel-drive Compass. Road noise is excessive. And just remember, with limited ground clearance, this is no Rubicon Trail-ready Jeep.

THE UGLY: The injection-moulded plastic interior will remind you daily how little you paid.

 

THIRD PLACE: 2007 Toyota Yaris Hatchback/Sedan

THE GOOD: There’s no sexy “Hybrid Synergy Drive” badge on the front-drive Yaris anywhere.

But if overall ownership costs are your true goal, it’s a better choice than Toyota’s over-hyped Prius – and more fun to drive.

Yaris starts as low as $13,800, whether it’s the three- or five-door hatch, or four-door sedan.

Any five-speed manual version gets a 6.3 L/100 km rating and qualifies for a $1,000 ecoAUTO rebate.

THE BAD: With only a 106-horse, 1.5-litre four under the hood, producing 103 lb.-ft. of twist, don’t expect smoky burnouts rom this Toyota.

The centrally positioned driver’s instrumentation could put off some enthusiasts.

Handling is okay for an errand-runner, but not as sharp as Honda’s Fit.

THE UGLY: Like its Echo predecessor, the tall Yaris is susceptible to crosswinds on the highway.

Base models are kind of stingy on the equipment – no anti-lock braking system.

 

SECOND PLACE: 2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid

THE GOOD: Whatever engine’s powering the front-drive Altima, sporty reflexes, quick steering and excellent brakes come standard.

A 2.5-litre, gas-electric hybrid four pumps out a healthy 198 hp and 199 lb.-ft. of torque, yet mileage is still rated at 5.8 L/100 km.

THE BAD: There’s nothing new under the Altima’s hood. Its hybrid technology is installed under licence from Toyota. Even with the combined federal and provincial paybacks of $3,500 deleted from the Altima’s $32,998 base price, a Saturn Aura Green Line “mild” hybrid is cheaper.

THE UGLY: CVT (continuously variable transmission) is mandatory. Arrrgh!

The battery adds 135 kg to the Altima’s curb weight and reduces the trunk space by half. Ouch!

 

FIRST PLACE: 2007 Mini Cooper, 6-speed manual

THE GOOD: Despite the all-new badge, and a 71-millimetre stretch in length for safety reasons, the front-drive 2007 Cooper retains all the design panache and driving fun of the previous model, introduced in 2002.

A naturally aspirated 1.6-litre four, yielding 118 hp and 114 lb.-ft., powers the Mini Cooper.

Add the six-speed manual and you get a combined 6.5 L/100 km rating, qualifying for a $1,000 ecoAUTO rebate.

THE BAD: Rebate, or not, for the budget-conscious out there, the Cooper’s $25,900 base price may seem steep.

THE UGLY: Sit in the Cooper’s back seat, and you’ll quickly be reminded why they call it a Mini.

All that BMW 3 Series-derived rear suspension stuffed in back means little cargo room as well.

 

HONOURABLE MENTION: 2007 Honda Fit, 5-speed manual

THE GOOD: Admittedly, an asterisk is required here.

With a 6.6 L/100 km rating, the five-speed manual Fit misses the ecoAUTO 6.5 qualifier by the smallest of margins.

Nonetheless, with near Mini-like handling, a roomy, well-built interior and versatile cargo space, the five-door, front-drive Honda hatch may be the best combination of fun and frugality here.

Even the base $14,980 Fit DX comes with ABS and electronic brake distribution.

THE BAD: Fit’s 109 hp, 1.5-litre four, with 105 lb.-ft. of torque, won’t knock your socks off. There’s no dead pedal and visibility out the back is restricted.

THE UGLY: What will it take to get dealers to shave off the equivalent of the ecoAUTO rebate?

wheels@thestar.ca; editors@straight-six.com

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