ē Q. I drive a long way for work ó about 310 miles round trip. Fortunately, I only have to do that eight or nine times each month, but it is still a long commute. I drive a 2008 Toyota Prius and average about 45 mpg going 70-75 mph and over the mountains to get there and back. I am considering the purchase of a replacement car, and have looked at the new Prius, the plug-in Prius and other hybrid and electric cars. I havenít found an electric-only car that has the range I need (even one way) for a reasonable price, and I am not sure if the additional cost for a plug-in hybrid really saves any money, as they provide electric-only operation for just the first 15 miles or so. My question is this: What is the best vehicle to maximize my fuel economy? Iím used to the Prius, but is there anything better out there that has a reasonable purchase price? Thanks for your help!

RAY: If excellent mileage at a reasonable price is what youíre looking for, you really canít go wrong with another Prius.

TOM: Iíd skip the plug-in Prius in your case; itís more expensive. And while the plug-in system will improve your overall mileage, itís designed to benefit you more if you do a lot of local driving, during which you can run primarily on the cheaper electric power.

RAY: But since youíre driving 150 miles at a time, the regular Prius is going to get you 48 mpg on the highway (51 city), which is pretty darn good. And its reliability has been well demonstrated.

TOM: There are alternatives now ó many more than when you bought your last Prius, in 2008. There are other Prius models of slightly different sizes, thereís an improved (but not as good as the Prius, in our opinion) Honda Civic hybrid. The well-reviewed Ford Fusion hybrid gets slightly lower highway mileage, but itís larger, and you might find it more comfortable. Honda Accord is coming out with a hybrid version soon. And we found the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima hybrids very impressive, too.

RAY: Thereís also the brand-new Ford C-Max, which we havenít reviewed yet, but which is a mini-minivan from Fordís European market that gets mileage very comparable to that of the Prius.

TOM: You also can look at the Volkswagen line of diesels ó Golf, Jetta, Passat. Theyíll get you something in the low 40s on the highway, but the diesel fuel will cost you more per gallon.

RAY: So the good news is, at least you have more options now. Every year, weíre seeing more and more credible high-mileage cars. So if you donít like the way the seat fabric chafes your butt in the Prius, now you can buy something else thatís comparable. But if youíre happy with the Prius, we donít have any reason to recommend against it.

ē Q. HELP! My daughter-in-law purchased a new, 2009 Toyota Corolla Type S in late 2008. The car currently has about 40,000 miles on it, so it has exceeded the warranty by about a year and 4,000 miles. The car was taken to the Toyota dealership from which it was purchased because the steering wheel dropped down when the wheel was turned. The dealer said that the bolts that secure the steering wheel had backed out. The dealer later stated that the steering column would have to be replaced, because they couldnít reinstall the bolts through the bracket on the steering column. A claim was opened with Toyota, and Toyota denied the claim, citing expiration of the warranty. Aside from faulty bolts or improper torque, what would cause these bolts to back out? Is there anything she could have done to make this happen, or is this clearly a defect? The estimated price of a new steering column is about $2,000, so now my daughter-in-law is making payments on a car she canít drive or afford to repair. Should Toyota at least share the cost?

TOM: In my opinion, definitely. Thereís absolutely nothing your daughter-in-law could have done to strip the bolts on the steering wheel. I donít think weíve ever seen that happen, in decades of repairing cars. So it could have happened one of only two ways.

RAY: Either the bolts or some part of the steering column was defective when the car was manufactured, or someone made a mistake on the assembly line and it somehow slipped through the quality-control process.

TOM: So I would ask your dealer to set up an appointment for you with Toyotaís ďzone managerĒ for your region. Thatís someone whoís empowered to investigate unusual situations and take action if itís called for.

RAY: Iíd think Toyota would be embarrassed to have its steering wheels falling off at 40,000 miles, and would want to quickly fix this, even with the car out of the warranty.

TOM: And if Toyota isnít embarrassed by this, write back to us and weíll try harder to embarrass them. Good luck.

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