For years it was the "must have" set of wheels: A bright, shiny new sport utility vehicle that nearly engulfed the width of a driveway, cast a long shadow on the next lane of traffic, made smaller vehicles give it room to pass when it approached. Some were so tall they needed a side step rail to climb in but offered a commanding view for the effort. Life was good in the heavy duty lane. But that was before gas prices had risen to unimaginable heights and wild weather throughout the country raised the spectre that greenhouse gases really were creating global warming, or at least adding to unprecedented changes in climate.
Those heady years faded with the speed of an ice cube melting under a hot summer sun. Almost as if someone had flipped a switch, the big guys became the pariahs of new car showrooms as consumers searched every corner of new and used car lots for something small, fuel efficient and maybe still a little fun. Auto makers heeding the distress of their customers pushed forward plans for fleets of fuel stingy vehicles as quickly as development demands would allow. The biggest challenge perhaps was putting some zip into the sport utility/crossover/wagon category while still making them fuel efficient to drive.
While some big SUVs and pickups remain on the road thanks to advances in hybrid, flex fuel, clean diesel and improved gasoline engine technologies, we look at their smaller siblings that offer the best bang for the fuel efficient buck. And with even more on the horizon as auto makers scramble to introduce their new green trucks, we think 2009 could turn out to be a very good year.