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Five fab fuel-sippers for $5,000

Here are five lightweight, front-drive cars powered by conventional four-cylinder engines reputed for their miserly fuel consumption.

Hybrids may get great gas mileage, but it takes the equivalent of 38,000 litres of gasoline to manufacture a Toyota Prius. In terms of carbon dioxide release, you would have to drive that Prius about 75,000 kilometres before the savings compensated for the manufacture of the actual vehicle.

Instead, purchase a pre-owned car and the carbon debt has already been paid by the previous owner. It’s one less new car that has to be put together and transported across the continent or the ocean to your driveway.

Old economy cars have suddenly become fashionable environmental statements.

Here are five lightweight, front-drive cars powered by conventional four-cylinder engines reputed for their miserly fuel consumption. And, given the tough financial times we now face, we’ve kept the purchase price at around $5,000.

2001—02 Nissan Sentra

Fuel rating: 6.1 L to 8.6 L/100 km

The Nissan Sentra hasn’t won the same rabid fan base as the Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla, which is ideal because prices are soft and there are plenty of seven-year-old Sentras on the market ripe for the picking.

The base engine is a 1.8-litre DOHC four making 126 hp and 129 lb.-ft. of torque. Nissan’s 145-hp, 2.0-litre four was available briefly in the SE model. Avoid the troublesome 2.5-litre four found in some ’02 models.

Inside, the Sentra offers posh levels of refinement and furnishings not typically found in an econobox. The two-tone dashboard is an uncommon touch in this segment, and the seats are plump and comfy. It’s been called the Buick of small cars.

Maybe it’s too much of a good thing. The big seats cut into legroom, especially in back. Headroom is also compromised. On the other hand, the Sentra won accolades for its quiet composure.

Not quite as bulletproof as its main competitors, the Sentra is known for its recalls involving ECM foam insulation and crank-position sensors. Reports of mass airflow sensor failures and bad window regulators have also circulated.

2000 Toyota Echo

Fuel rating: 7.0 L to 7.4 L/100 km

To be honest, it’s hard finding an Echo under the $5,000 target price that doesn’t have much less than 200,000 km on the clock. People who own this odd-looking fuel miser love it to pieces and won’t part with it easily.

The Echo is adored for its trim exterior dimensions and trick cabin inside. Its upright chairs provide easy access and good sightlines. The centre-mounted instrument panel is quirky at first (and second) glance, but owners assure us it doesn’t take long to acclimatize.

The Echo is propelled by a sophisticated DOHC 1.5-litre four cylinder that puts out 108 hp, hooked up to either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. The motor has enough zoot to pull this sedan with some authority, thanks to Toyota’s variable valve timing (VVT-i).

Toyota’s legendary build quality is baked right into the two- or four-door sedan, assembled in Japan. There are no known problems to speak of.

On the downside, the Echo doesn’t exactly coddle its occupants with luxury features. Owners miss the extravagance of a clock, a centre armrest, intermittent wipers, a tachometer and power locks.

1999—2000 Honda Civic

Fuel rating: 5.8 to 8.7 L/100 km

Canada’s favourite car was available as a four-door sedan, two-door coupe and classic three-door hatchback in the 1990s. Some believe the 1996-2000 models represent the zenith of the Civic nation, they were that good.

Like Buffalo wings, the 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine came in various strengths – 108 hp, 115 hp, 127 hp and 160 hp – depending on the valve-timing system (VTEC). Even the base engine provides good acceleration while returning excellent fuel economy.

Civics retain their value, so finding one for five grand invariably means getting one with plenty of kilometres on it (otherwise, examine for evidence of body repairs).

This generation of Civics is very reliable, but there are a few things to look for: CV joints and boots are weak links; the distributor and igniter may leave you stranded (the latter was the subject of a recall); and mufflers tend to rot more quickly than usual.

The low-slung seats are a pain for older folks, the lack of features in all but the EX/Si models takes some getting used to and you may suffer the indignity of having your Civic stolen. Take it as a compliment on your good taste in cars.

1999—2001 Suzuki Swift/Chevrolet Metro/Pontiac Firefly

Fuel rating: 4.9 to 7.8 L/100 km

When the redesigned Suzuki Swift arrived in the fall of 1994, it looked like a car from the future. Tiny and bulbous, it resembled something Jane Jetson would take to the space mall.

The Suzuki is a three-door hatchback only; the GM-badged models added two more doors and a traditional trunk. All models have dual airbags and meet stringent North American crash-impact standards.

Power comes from a 1.3-litre four-banger that makes just 79 hp. There’s also a lumpy 55 hp 1.0-litre three-cylinder that’s just too harsh for highway travel and should be avoided.

Despite the car’s spacey look, this is old technology: the optional automatic transmission has three forward gears, not four, and the ride is choppy and noisy at speed. The interior is small and cramped, though the hatchback opens up to big cargo space when the back seat is folded.

Among their redeeming features are their easy-to-park size, great gas mileage and minimal maintenance. These cars are tougher than their size and cute faces suggest.

Built in Ontario, the Swift/Metro/Firefly triplets are susceptible to warped brake rotors and their air conditioners have been known to fail. Otherwise, driving doesn’t get much cheaper than this.

1998—2000 Toyota Corolla

Fuel rating: 5.6 to 8.0 L/100 km

What do the streets of Manchester, Mogadishu, Manila and Milton have in common? You’ll find Toyota Corollas on all of them. There’s a reason the Corolla is the bestselling car ever: it runs and runs, and it burns precious little fuel while doing so.

All models use the same bulletproof 1.8-litre four cylinder, good for 120 hp (it gained 5 hp in 2000). A five-speed manual shift was standard, while a three-speed automatic transmission was optional on the base VE model. The CE and LE models got a four-speed slushbox.

Available only as a four-door sedan, it’s nicely finished inside with tight seams and good-quality materials. The rear seat is a little on the cramped side.

There’s absolutely nothing stylish about the Corolla – its presence can charitably be described as inconspicuous – but it goes about its business with quiet competence and rarely asks anything of the owner.

Due to its universal appeal, this utilitarian sedan doesn’t linger long on car lots, so expect to pay about $5,000 even for a 10-year-old model.

PHOTOS: Five fuel-sippers for $5,000

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