Fuel-efficient vehicles are great. Driving less is even better.

We're big bicycle fans here. Bikes are tough to beat in terms of urban transportation: they're reliable, emissions-free, take up very little parking space, and cost almost nothing to operate. Depending on your commute or the length of your errand, it's possible that a bicycle will get you where you're going faster than an automobile. And they're great for your health.

For many people, a bicycle could replace a car (or a second vehicle). Even if putting your auto out to pasture isn't a realistic option, having a bicycle on hand can substantially lower your monthly transportation costs and environmental footprint.

What is an urban bike, anyway?

You can commute, get some fresh air, or fetch groceries on pretty much any bike that rolls. But urban bicycles are a developing class of bike which falls between skinny tired, racing-style bicycles and their burly offroad cousins, the mountain bike. They're known by a lot of trade names: city bikes, commuters, town bicycles and hybrids. Generally speaking, urban bikes are optimized for reliable city travel.

Features vary from bike to bike and manufacturer to manufacturer. Most urban bikes are built with a comfortable, upright riding position for better visibility in traffic. They may be equipped with one or more of the following: cargo racks; fenders and mudflaps; a light set; chain guard; wider, puncture-resistant tires; and a kickstand. Almost all urban bikes are multispeed, and many feature low-maintenance internal gearing.

About the bikes we've selected

We've chosen a dozen examples of purpose-built urban bicycles that would make worthy, full-time transportation. The cheapest retails for just over $500, and most are in the $1,000 class. Some cost more.

Why such expensive bicycles? Our philosophy in picking this bunch is that we're looking for automobile replacements. Even the most expensive of our choices is a bargain compared to a scooter, motorcycle or used car. You'll be getting quality components and a great frameset, which is the heart of a bicycle. Most models come with accessories which would cost more, if purchased separately. With reasonable care, any of these bikes could last a decade or longer — even under heavy use.

We've also stuck to bicycles from manufacturers with strong reputations. Most of these models should be available wherever you live, or can be purchased online. We'll list our choices alphabetically. Let's ride!

Breezer Uptown 8

Joe Breeze was an early pioneer in the development of what are now called mountain bikes. In the late 1990s, his attention turned to the idea of bicycles as urban transportation. Under the banner "transportation for a healthy planet," Breeze began designing bicycles specifically for the comfort and convenience of riders who would primarily use them for riding to work and running errands.

The Breezer Uptown 8 is an excellent example of a purpose-built urban bike. The unisex U-frame model, pictured here, can be ridden by anyone (a men's frameset is available). Here are all the classic city bike features: a built-in generator set and LED lights, a chainguard — the newest models are fully enclosed to keep cyclists clean — fenders, cargo rack and an internally geared 8-speed hub.

Breezer Uptown 8 from Breezer Bicycles. Approximate retail price $1,159.00.

Cannondale Street 1

Cannondale's aim with this model is clearly to put some style into urban commuting. The Street 1 is a great-looking package, with an aggressive-looking compact frame design and sexy paint. Strong points include disc brakes and a mild front suspension that can be locked out for maximum efficiency when roads are smooth. On the downside, the Street 1 is going to require considerable additions to make it ready for anything more than light commuting. Racks, fenders and lights will add to the Street 1's none-too-cheap purchase price.

2009 Street 1 from Cannondale Bicycles. Suggested retail price : $1,179.00.

Fuji Cambridge

Here's a gorgeous bike clearly designed to evoke the glory days of Raleigh 3-speeds and vintage grocery bicycles. The Fuji Cambridge oozes retro styling, but with modern components and materials. The Cambridge's most obvious feature is its lugged steel frame. Steel has fallen out of fashion as a frame material, replaced with lighter (and easy to fabricate) aluminum. But while it's a bit heavier, steel can give a much more forgiving ride than its aluminum equivalent — particularly when carrying cargo.

There are some nice details on the Cambridge, such as the sprung Brooks look-alike saddle, fenders, and an unusual mustache handlebar set. The 700c wheels are heavy duty, and paired with wider 38c tires for durability. Gearing is internal, through a Shimano 8-speed rear hub. Add headlights, and the Cambridge should serve for many years as a bombproof commuter with timeless lines.

Fuji Cambridge by Fuji Bikes. Suggested retail price: $1,250.00.

Gary Fisher Simple City 8

Technically, this is the Simple City 8W (women's frame). The men's version is the Simple City 8M, and comes in any color you like — so long as it's Gloss Sand.

Gary Fisher is actually a Trek company these days, but the parent company has shown enough common sense to let Fisher express its own design sense. That’s the case with the Simple City 8, a satisfyingly complete urban bike for under $1,000.

Both the men's and women's version of the Simple City 8 feature a distinctive front basket. In our experience, most bike errands are small runs with loads of 20 pounds or less. A lot of people find carrying cargo up front to be comforting. Your stuff is where you can see it — just throw a few bags in the basket and go. This particular basket, which is painted to match the bike, has a 5-point mount and a spring system to keep in in place while loading. Add a Shimano Nexus 8-speed rear hub, and the Simple City is a well-balanced, convenient city cruiser at a reasonable price point.

Simple City 8 from Gary Fisher Bicycles. Suggested retail price: $969.99.

Giant Transend EX

Giant started life stamping out bikes for other brands. These days, they've found their own voice, and are making some well-priced offerings in the commuter market.

The Transend EX is another remarkably complete city bicycle in the $1,000 class. Highlights include powerful disk brakes, a semi-enclosed chain, full fenders and a rear rack that comes with built-in straps (no fumbling with bungee cords!). Add lights, and you won't need a car for much.

Transend EX from Giant Bicycles. Suggested retail price: $920.00.

Novara Fusion

The Fusion is a great-looking urban bike that comes equipped with virtually everything: a headlight with built-in generator, disk brakes, cargo rack and full fenders. Best of all, it retails for $900.

There are downsides to the Fusion. It's only available through REI, the online outdoor merchant, so you probably won't be riding one before purchase. There only three frame sizes. But neither of these things are disqualifying, and the Fusion is an excellent, all-inclusive deal.

Novara Fusion by REI. Suggested retail price: $899.00.

Roll on to bikes 7-12 >