Advice: Better Gas Mileage, Used Small, All-Wheel-Drive SUV--UPDATE

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2003 Honda Element DX

2003 Honda Element DX

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UPDATE: Well, we got a note from Denise:

I bought a car today. It's a certified pre-owned 2005 Toyota RAV4, single owner, 41K miles. The only thing I need for it is an iPod adapter!

It's really nice, fabulous condition, and I did fairly well on both the price and trade-in.

What do you think of her choice? Did Denise make the right call, or would you have chosen something different? Let us know in the Comments below.

The EPA gas-mileage ratings for her RAV4, by the way, are 20 mpg city, 24 mpg highway, for a combined 22 mpg.

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Another day, another request for car-buying advice. And, again, better gas mileage is at the top of the list.

This time, we're putting it directly out to you: What car(s) would you recommend, based on the information below?

From our friend Denise, formerly of San Francisco, who now lives in Pittsburgh:

I'd love to get some help on what cars I should look at. I'm a bit out of my element (I can't believe I just said that) in needing to have all-wheel-drive for snow.

And the Honda Element gets just [explective deleted] gas mileage (rated at 20 mpg city, 24 mpg highway) and I can't take it any more.

[Denise adds: For the record, the Element never got anywhere near 20 city. It never got better than 15, and more often it was 13. Never got a mile better than 21mpg highway, with the wind at my back.]

So I'm looking for an AWD vehicle that gets relatively good mileage and isn't noisy. I've considered the Ford Focus too, but it's expensive and also it looks like a granny car.

So, exit the Element. We asked our usual spate of questions to help Denise narrow down her choices:

(1) Preference or requirement for sedan / hatchback / station wagon / crossover-SUV?

It doesn't really matter, but some cool factor would be helpful (thus my reticence about the Focus). So probably a crossover.

I looked at your review of the Suzuki SX4 and had some concerns, but I'm open. I'd certainly go drive one if you thought it was worth trying.

When I got here, I almost bought a Kia Soul--it's my favorite for cool factor so far--but I think I'd be sorry not to have AWD. It killed me not to buy that car, seriously killed me: It has glow-in-the-dark seat covers !!

(2) What's "good mileage" to you? (Bear in mind that because MPG is not a linear scale, you save TWICE as much gasoline--and hence $$$--going from 14 to 20 mpg as you do from 25 to 33 mpg, for instance.)

I did not know that! OK, let's see ... how do I really feel about this? In order not to feel humiliated, I think I'd need to get at least 20 mpg city from a standard engine, 30-ish on the highway.

A hybrid would be great too, but I don't think you get enough bang for the buck to pay the premium.

(3) What price range?

Less than $20K if possible, which answers your next question, kinda.

(4) New, used, or indifferent?

I would probably would to go with used for the money I want to spend. But I definitely want low enough miles to still be under factory warranty.

I'm hoping i can sell the Element for $15K or $16K; it's in great shape and it looks like a lot of people around here like them.

(5) Any must-haves? Won't-haves? Brands you like / abhor?

It has to get decent gas mileage, not be noisy inside, have a smooth ride (the Element might as well be a Jeep, at least it rides like one), and I'd like some designer-y-ness (I cannot drive a grandma car).

Oh, and a good stereo with auxiliary jack and/or an iPod hookup.

I can't think of any brands I truly abhor, except HUMMER. And though I'd prefer something that's not too big, the gas mileage is actually more important than the size.

This time, instead of saying what we would recommend for our friend Denise, we figured we'd put it out there to see what you--our valued readers--recommend.

So, tell us in the Comments below what cars you'd suggest for Denise, based on her preferences above.

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