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The Green Highway

Think compact if you want a green car Add to ...

2011 Ford Edge
READ MORE: Click here for full coverage of the Canadian International Auto Show



Toronto isn't the place where the automotive industry rolls out much in the way of new "green" technology; it generally debuts at Geneva or Los Angeles or Detroit. But there are a number of more prosaic products in the Toronto show that mean more to the cause of The Green Highway than sexy, 700 horsepower concept cars with electric motors and tiny gas turbine engines.

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When you get right down to it the most significant way most of us can go "green" is simply to get a newer, smaller car. This year, there are some great new compact cars including one each from General Motors and Ford. It has been years; no it has been forever, since North American product could compete in this segment. The third is from, no surprise, Hyundai.

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The Japanese have owned the compact car market for decades. Year after year it's been Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Mazda3 battling it out for top spot in car sales in Canada. The "domestics" have had nothing worth taking seriously. The Dodge Calibre is a dud, the Chevy Cobalt a big disappointment and the old Ford Focus just not good enough. The last time Detroit had some real volume in this segment was the ancient Chevy Cavalier, which was a horrible car but by the end of its 20-year run they were selling so cheaply that anyone mildly impoverished couldn't say no.

This has changed. The Chevy Cruze, apart from its deficiency in spelling, is a major step forward from the now-deceased Cobalt, the new Ford Focus is tremendously improved over the previous edition and sneaking up through the traffic toward the front of the pack is the new Hyundai Elantra. Talk about competition for Civic, Corolla and Mazda3 - this could be the year we finally get a new leader.

If you're not already shopping in this category, although most Canadians are, it should not be because you believe that compact cars are 1. too small, 2. underpowered, 3. uncomfortable or 4. unsafe. Today's cars in this segment are truly refined and provide all the comfort and safety most normal people require while delivering excellent fuel economy. If it's an ego thing or a status issue - get over it. It will be years (decades?) before we all have a hydrogen fuel cell car or maybe something that runs off algae in the tank. If you're serious about "green" in the real world today, go compact.

Let's take a look at the three new contenders that you'll see down at the auto show. The Chevy Cruze base model starts at 15 grand and this is a comfortable, roomy, handsome car that is unbelievably quiet on the road. Sure you can load it up with options and take the price up to low twenties but still it strikes me as a tremendous value. I also said the same thing about its mid-size cousin the Malibu and it never sold up to its potential. Blame GM's marketers, don't blame the engineers. They've done a great job on this new global Chevy.

The new Ford Focus, which starts at 16 thou and goes up to mid twenties, is sexier looking that the Cruze and comes with more, fairly costly, high-tech options. Ford has finally fixed its quality problems (the old Focus was always falling apart) and this new global version brings cool stuff like torque vectoring stability control and voice recognition to the masses. Ford made so much money in the good old days on its giant pickup trucks and SUVs that it basically gave up on cars, especially small cars. No more. This Focus is definitely worth a test drive, right after you send your giant pickup or SUV to the wreckers.

If the Cruze and Focus weren't surprise enough, then wander over to the Hyundai stand to look at the new Elantra. Hyundai's sales are going through the roof with new stuff like the mid-size Sonata. I find the Sonata's styling a bit too gaudy for my conservative tastes but the Elantra gets it right. It has a brand new four-banger plus a six-speed tranny. It's comfortable and peppy but if you want a car as quiet as a library you'll prefer the Cruze. Like the Focus the Elantra starts at 16 and goes all dressed up to 25.

I'm sorry if I've disappointed you by not discovering the latest levitating, zero emission, super-car powered by cold fusion. It ain't there or at any other auto show. What is there are some of the best compact cars yet produced. So, go green, go compact.

In Pictures: 12 must-see cars on display at the Toronto auto show

The most significant cars your should see this year - from the cheapest to the most fuel efficient. And let's admit it: looks count

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