There’s nothing fancy about the $17,000 Hyundai Elantra Blue edition I’m driving this week, but with a manual transmission, it’s surprisingly sporty, and I like the iPod connection. The styling is bland and dated, but the kids don’t complain sitting in the back seat. Did I mention the 35 mpg on the highway? That's two mpg better than last year's base Elantra, at just $25 more.

Like the kid who gets into Wesleyan but not Yale, the Elantra just misses being part of an exclusive club. It doesn’t cross the magic threshold of 40 mpg. The new $13,995 Ford Fiesta, due out this summer, is a car I’ve been following closely. It just got an acceptance letter from the EPA — it’s in, 40 mpg on the highway, 29 in the city. And that’s with a six-speed automatic. Oddly enough, the manual Fiesta is more like the Elantra — 37 highway, and only 23 in town.

The Fiesta was designed from the beginning to have green appeal and to sell to texting, tweeting and Facebooking 20-year-olds. Ford promoted it by handing some early Euro versions to young bloggers for six months, then two-person teams (friends and couples) were handed cars to write about. College students should welcome the fuel frugality, as should no-kids-yet young marrieds and first-job ladder climbers.

The Fiesta looks promising to me, but I haven’t driven one yet. Those bloggers said it was, well, cool. There are other 40-mpg contenders, including the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan hybrid twins, a raft of diesels (Audi A3, Volkswagen Jetta and Golf), Honda Civic and Insight hybrids, and the Smart ForTwo.

As readers know, I did get to spend time in the Passion Cabriolet version of the Smart, and liked it more than I expected to, but also encountered some serious flaws, including bad hesitation, a noisy engine, and truck-like brakes. I’d choose the slightly less fuel-efficient but similarly priced Elantra, with an extra row of seats, or the even more capable Honda Fit (35 mpg).

The entry-level economy car is about to get a whole lot more interesting, especially from American carmakers. The Fiesta will be complemented by the larger Ford Focus, and General Motors is trotting out the very small Aveo and Spark, as well as the larger Cruze. The latter is debuting an exciting "Eco" edition — see the video below:

I chatted with Charlie Mott, who is the product and marketing manager for the Aveo, and he filled me in on this wholly new entry. GM started selling a no-great-shakes Aveo in 2003, a product of its joint venture with Daewoo in Korea. Soaring gas prices helped move some of them. “A well-timed entry,” said Mott.

But the new Aveo is built from scratch, benefitting from small car experience at both Daewoo and GM’s European Opel division.

The Aveo (priced somewhere between $13,000 and $15,000) and the tiny urban-oriented Spark start production in 2011, part of a laser-like car focus at the newly profitable GM. As a stockholder, I’m proud. “We don’t intend to take a backseat to anyone with small cars,” said Mott.

My car of the year is the Cruze’s new Eco model as shown in the video. It uses every trick in the book (shaved welds, an air curtain for aerodynamics) to get better fuel economy without a turbo or hybrid drive. And guess what? 40 mpg on the highway.

Also on MNN: Kelly Green Book announces top green cars for 2010

MNN homepage photo of Cruze courtesy of Chevrolet

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

40 mpg: These days, a lot of cars reach that holy grail, including American vehicles
You don't need to buy a hybrid or spend much money to cross that fuel-efficient threshold. U.S. carmakers are finally entering turf long cornered by the Asians.