I NEED HELP AND I NEED IT NOW, writes Carl, in capitals, clearly indicating he's not mucking around. "My pocket can't take all these high petrol prices. Which car has the best fuel economy and what are the best buys, say a year or two old? I do big mileages, and my Falcon's costing me a fortune. Petrol or diesel, manual or auto, but I'm not keen on a hybrid."
Flexible, but the less the better
Kia Rio EX diesel hatch
Here's a car that's unexciting but offers 4.5 litres per 100km overall from its 1.5-litre diesel. Does everything well enough and has a good level of specification. There aren't many on the used market, but a 2009 model with low mileage will likely be in the $18,000-$19,000 range.
Mini Cooper D
The distinctive Mini comes in many guises and the 1.6-litre manual diesel's one of the best, offering heaps of fun and lively performance and a thirst of just 4.4 litres per 100km overall. Drawback for some: it's a two-door. But there's also the Countryman, sort of a wagon with two doors on one side, one on the other.
From around $26,000
Toyota Corolla 1.4 TDI
There are older diesel Corollas around, some going back to the 1990s, courtesy of the used import market. But we're talking of the current five-door hatch with its willing 1.4-litre motor. Toyota has dangled the carrot of an automatic, but so far it's only available NZ-new as a manual. Not to worry, some recent-model used imports come with auto, a 1.8 diesel and also as a sedan. The well-equipped NZ-new hatch offers good room for its size, good performance and an even 5.0 litres per 100km overall.
From about $27,000
Among non-hybrids, Ford's perky Fiesta ECOnetic is the current frugality champ at just 3.7 litres per 100km overall, but it's too new to have a used market.
It lists from $30,990, has a decent 1.6-litre diesel engine, and would be our recommendation if Carl wanted to buy new.
Although all vehicles on our list are worthy, we're going to be conservative and recommend the Corolla; it's such a good all-rounder and there are dealers all over the place if something goes wrong.
On the other hand, the Mini is hard to resist if you want lots of fun.
Figuring it out
All fuel consumption figures quoted here are official ones, obtained in laboratory conditions. They're valid for comparing one car with another, but you won't necessarily get the same figures in actual driving; they'll probably be worse. And remember, fuel economy worsens - often significantly - during urban driving.