FORD FOCUS ZX3
$12,125
www.ford.com or (800)392-3673
Fun Factor: 8
Fuel Factor: 7

Fashion Factor: 8
Personality: 8

After straddling us with two decades of the milquetoastish Escort, Ford is making amends with the Focus, a zippy, personable little buggy that'll warm your heart and wallet.

The Focus comes in three flavors: a grocery-getting wagon, a sporty sedan, and the ZX3, a cheeky, three-door hatchback that comes standard with 15-inch aluminum wheels and a CD player. Mated to a five-speed manual transmission, the ZX3's 16-valve, 130-horsepower inline four cylinder will cover 33 miles of highway on a gallon of gas, and meets Low Emissions Vehicle (LEV) standards, meaning it emits approximately 50 percent fewer smog-forming hydrocarbons than required by U.S. regulations.

Thanks to its available AdvanceTrac Integrated Vehicle Dynamics and a well-designed, rigid chassis, the Focus has smooth, tight European flair on twisty roads that belies its bargain basement price tag.

ALT-FUEL TECH
Until this year, the future of alternative-fuel vehicles seemed somewhat uncertain. Consumers have been unreceptive to electric cars, which have thus far been high on cost and short on run time, power, and space.

But the recent release of Honda's Insight and Toyota's Prius have brought convenience and practicality to the market. By utilizing both gas and electric motors, the Insight and Prius offer adequate - if not overwhelming - power, and never need recharging. The Insight is a two-seater, best reserved for single commuters, but the Prius offers seating for five. Best of all, the Insight delivers close to 70 mpg, while the heavier and more spacious Prius runs in the low 50s.

Also promising is BMW’s 750HL (no word yet on its release date), which runs on either liquid hydrogen or gasoline. Liquid hydrogen is a desirable fuel because it produces no pollutants; the tailpipes of liquid hydrogen vehicles spout plain steam, rather than exhaust. Of course, there are downsides: hydrogen’s tendency to explode when it comes in contact with air, chief among them. Consider, too, the last time you saw a liquid hydrogen filling station. But BMW, not a company given to frivolity, is confident of liquid hydrogen’s future as an automotive fuel.

Due to the rapid progression and uncertainty of future technology, no one knows exactly what form tomorrow’s alternative-fuel vehicles will take. A decade from now, you might be able to choose from cars that run on electricity, natural gas, and even vegetable oil. What is certain is that alt-fuel vehicles are in our future. After all, oil is a finite resource. “This is just a first step,” says Honda’s Art Garner, of the Insight. “The future of alt-fuel technology is excellent.” And, many would add, absolutely necessary.