2011 Hyundai ElantraEnlarge Photo
One of the enduring stereotypes of economy cars is that they have to be boring to look at, and dismal to live in.
But 2011 has brought us great transportation options that are green, fun to drive, and have impressive and eye-catching design details.
And it's not just the exterior sheetmetal that counts. The interior, where drivers spend all their time, is increasingly the decisive factor in purchase decision.
Even cars with gas-mileage numbers into the 30s and above are now being fitted with the most alluring displays, seats, and trim that designers can dream up. Banish those thoughts of being forced into a "rubber-mat special" to get the highest fuel efficiency.
2012 Honda CivicEnlarge Photo
The 2012 Honda Civic, in both its standard and hybrid models, has one of the most modern dash layouts on the market. Its dual-level driver display, with a huge digital speed value on the upper level and most of the basic feedback details on a completely separate lower screen, screams high technology.
Both the higher-end hybrid and the highest-spec standard 2011 Civic models indulge the driver with leather seating and leather-wrapped steering wheels.
The 2011 Honda Insight has a similar bi-level display format, but the little hybrid feels more plebian with only an aftermarket "leather wrapped steering wheel cover" as an option. The 2011 Honda Fit Sport also includes a real leather wrapped steering wheel, as well as the excellent Honda details of very well-lighted control buttons for nighttime use.
2010 Toyota Prius combination meterEnlarge Photo
As for Toyota, it hit a blooper with the interior lighting on the second-generation (2004-2009) Prius hybrid, as most of the many control buttons were virtually invisible due to weak red back lighting.
Starting in 2010, the third-generation Prius fixed this weakness, with various digital display numbers and icons that mirror the "Touch Tracer" steering wheel control inputs. All of the new Prius controls are easily found at night by the uninitiated driver.
Beyond lighting, the options of a moonroof (with photovoltaic solar power cells) and heated seats make this one of the nicest family cars around that also gets high gas mileage under pretty much any circumstance.
2009 Toyota Camry HybridEnlarge Photo
Even back in 2007, when the Toyota Camry was introduced, its hybrid model approached Lexus appointments in some areas. The 2011 Toyota Camry Hybrid continues with one of the nicest analog speed and mileage displays available.
It too offers heated leather seats (as part of an option package), a moonroof, and even an acoustic noise-reducing front windshield--all intended to cosset the environmentally compassionate driver and four good friends just as capably as luxury cars of 10 years before.
The sculpting of the four-door body of the 2011 Sonata should get its designer a show in the Louvre. Visually, the 2011 Sonata line has earned unanimous praise from the car press and buyers, and sales are up more than 150 percent compared to the previous design.