Buying a car? Choose wisely.

With fuel prices having risen 70% since 2000 and nothing but further increases in prospect, the chances are your choice of used car will have fuel economy pretty near the top of the list.

The good news is that newer cars are generally much more economical than the cars of even ten years ago. Whereas I used to praise cars for fuel consumption in the mid 30s, I now reserve that praise for new cars that return figures in the mid 40s.

So what should you look for on your used car forecourt if you want to reduce your fuel costs? Do you go for diesel? Or petrol? Or, should you try to search out a hybrid? For the moment let’s forget electric plug-in cars. On the used car lots they are as rare as hen’s teeth.

Hybrids can produce quite remarkable fuel consumption figures. I remember being astounded by the Lexus RX400h which I drove back in 2006. This 4.75-metre 4WD SUV returned 57.6 mpg on my morning commute. But, as I pointed out in that test, the ‘wow-factor’ figures are anything but real world. Over a period of use, the city average dropped to 27 mpg – 10 mpg better than its conventional sibling, but nothing to write home about.

The inner geek in me loves hybrids. Only by watching the display do you realise the way the technology seamlessly switches from electric motor, to petrol, to dual power and recharge modes almost imperceptibly. But, the real world fuel economy has tended to leave me less impressed than I would expect with all this impressive technology.

Volkswagen Golf Bluemotion

Volkswagen Golf Bluemotion proves you don’t need hybrid technology to sip fuel

Take the Toyota hybrids – the Prius and the Auris. The Prius boasts a combined fuel consumption figure of more than 70 mpg. That alone might have you rushing for your chequebook, if you are lucky enough to find one on the used car lot.

But, bear in mind that my real-time mileage per gallon figures on the Prius, Auris and the disappointing Honda Insight hybrid, were all around the mid 40s. Honda’s CR-Z sporty hybrid coupe was a little thirstier at just a shade under 40 mpg.

So, at least for the moment, there are many simpler, conventional cars out there that deliver similar mpg figures and, arguably, a better driving experience.

Take, for example, the Volkswagen Golf Bluemotion, which I drove just a few weeks after my most recent experience of the Prius. At 74.3 mpg the Bluemotion’s combined economy figure already tops the Prius. It was quite a remarkable performer and, had I driven it more sedately, I am convinced my 44 mpg overall fuel consumption would easily have matched, or beaten, all the hybrids.

But the German marque is not putting all its eggs in the diesel basket. Volkswagen have also been leading the charge to smaller turbocharged petrol engines that offer greater economy – a route also now followed by other manufacturers, including Vauxhall.

Toyota Auris Hybrid
Toyota’s other hybrid – the Auris

The Volkswagen Golf 1.2 TSI that I drove recently is a classic example. You might think (as I admit I did) that a 1200cc engine in a family hatchback would be a recipe for boring motoring. But, as I found out this really is a remarkable car. So much so that I admit I did pedal it quite hard, but I still achieved up to 44 mpg in ‘real life’ driving conditions.

So what does all this tell us about buying an economy car? Firstly, don’t be dazzled by hybrid technology. In my experience it is clever, but does not yet produce sustained economy figures that really justify all that technology.

DIesels do tend to produce the best economy for conventionally-powered cars. But, they usually cost more to buy and to fuel. So, do some calculations. Try to find a realistic mpg figure (the combined figure test can favour some diesels and produce wildly over-ambitious figures). Will the extra few miles per gallon add up to enough, over your yearly mileage, to justify the extra purchase and fuel cost?

If you hammer up and down motorways all day, the extra economy of diesel probably will. But, if you do just 10,000 miles a year, you may well be better to stick with an economical petrol engine.

Finally make a point of reading what people say about the cars and models you are thinking of. Also drive the cars yourself. I have come across a few diesels recently that have been so eagerly tuned to produce outstanding economy that they are a pain to drive.

If I had bought the Citroen C5 eHDi 110 Auto on the basis of its 61.4 mpg or the Mercedes-Benz B180 CDI SE for its 54.8 mpg combined economy, without finding that they are not too great to drive, I would be pretty upset.

This blog post is featured on
blog comments powered by Disqus
© 2007-19 Ken McEwen. All rights reserved. Contact me