I shredded a tire on my 2000 Dodge Neon this morning. That’s one way to keep me from getting to church on Sunday. What makes things much worse is that I won’t have the car past the end of June, so my last few miles on that car are expensive ones.Since I’d just thrown a bunch of money away, I figured I’d spend some time looking at Americans’ favorite money sink: cars. I was slightly happy to find out that it’s almost impossible to get a gas/electric hybrid in St. Louis. That probably means they’re not bringing enough of them here, but it’s good to see that the ones that are coming in are selling.

But I want an upgrade from my Neon in terms of reliability, fuel economy, and price. My Neon’s been decent, but I want something that’s an improvement in all three. With financing the way it is today, almost anything lowers my monthly payments. But now I have the opportunity to slash my second-largest monthly expense and significantly lower my sixth-largest, and I’d much rather spend money on almost anything other than gasoline and a depreciating car. Computers depreciate even faster, but I’ve more than made back the money I dumped into computers over the years.

The Volkswagen Jetta is priced well and holds value extremely well, but its fuel economy is rated at 23/29 MPG city/highway, and I consistently get between 27 and 32 in my Neon, depending on how much city driving I do.

The Nissan Sentra is priced similarly and gives upgraded fuel economy (28/36) but Nissans don’t hold value as well as a Volkswagen, Toyota or Honda. The only reason I looked, in all honesty, is because the local VW dealer also sells Nissans.

As I scanned the three rows of Honda Civics at the Honda dealer across the street from the VW dealer, I spotted something I really liked. In a jungle of cars rated 29/38, I spotted a lone car rated 35/40. It’s a Honda Civic HX. It’s a mid-range Civic, and it offers the same transmission they use in the Civic Hybrid, which gives it a slight edge over the other Civics for fuel economy. (The Hybrid is rated at 48/47.) I did the math, and a Civic Hybrid getting 10 MPG more will save me about $600 over the course of the next five years, but it’ll cost me $7,000 more. The $2,000-a-year tax deduction on hybrid vehicles is going away, so it’ll only save me $560 in taxes once. If I kept the car for 10 years and got a $2,000 tax deduction every year, the Hybrid would be more economical than the HX. Barely.

A little research at www.fueleconomy.gov shows that particular Civic is the most fuel-efficient conventional gasoline-powered car with an automatic transmission on the market in the United States. The only cars that beat it are hybrids or diesels.

I know where to get a Toyota Prius (52/45 MPG), but it’s not priced much better than the Civic Hybrid. It still won’t pay for itself over a Civic HX without help from the government. I also don’t like its styling all that much. I can live with it, but I actually like the way most of the other cars on my short list look. (The Nissan Sentra I can take or leave, but I like it better than the Prius.) The Toyota Echo has the second-highest fuel economy among conventional gasoline cars, but I really don’t like the Echo’s looks.

A few test drives will undoubtedly change my order of preference, but for now I’m definitely leaning towards the Civic HX.

It doesn’t hurt that the Civic HX’s tires are a lot cheaper and easier to find than tires for my Neon, either.