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Top used commuter car picks

Here are five used, easy-to-keep commuter vehicles that can mollify your petro-card bills and let you continue making payments on that all-brick semi in Vaughan.
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Now that the laws of nature have righted themselves and a litre of gasoline costs more than a bottle of water, it may be time to rethink what you drive to work.

With the advent of cheap oil after World War II, we North Americans spread ourselves out on the land, relying on automobiles to compress time and distance between destinations.

For decades suburban sprawl was held up as the model for modern living. Now, it looks like suburbia may be holding us up.

If it’s dawning on you that you don’t need a two-tonne, four-wheel-drive behemoth to transport yourself and one briefcase to downtown Toronto, then good on you. Admitting you have an addiction to oil is the first step to recovery.

Here are five used, easy-to-keep commuter vehicles that can mollify your petro-card bills and let you continue making payments on that all-brick semi in Vaughan.

Note there are no exotic hybrid-technology cars on this list, not even pricey German diesels that are frightfully expensive to repair. Just good little cars – all under $10,000 – with their environmental halos intact.

1995-2001 Suzuki Swift/Chevrolet Metro/Pontiac Firefly (6.4-7.8 litres/100 km)

These Ingersoll, Ont.-built transportation pods resided at the top of Canada’s Energuide fuel-consumption charts, at least until the smarty-pants hybrids came along.

The Suzuki is a three-door hatchback only; the GM-badged models added a tiny four-door sedan with a trunk. If their diminutive size scares you, take comfort in the fact they all have dual airbags and meet stringent North American crash-impact standards.

Power comes from a 55-hp 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine or a 1.3-litre four banger. Avoid the lumpy three-cylinder unless you’re strictly driving in the city; the motor is just too harsh for highway travel.

The 79-hp four is better, but it’s still noisy and the car’s ride is bucky, darty at speed. This is old technology: there’s just two valves beavering away per cylinder, and the automatic transmission has three forward gears, not four.

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

And you can’t beat the gas mileage unless you invest far, far more in a turbo-diesel or hybrid – which is not so Smart.

2000-2001 Toyota Echo (7.0-7.4 litres/100 km)

At first glance, the Echo appeared to be an oddball replacement for the tried-and-true Tercel. Small but tall and perched on skinny tires, it seemed like it might tip in a stiff breeze.

But Canadians have come to adore the Echo with its trim exterior dimensions and trick tall cabin inside. Its upright chairs provide easy access and better sightlines. The centre-mounted instrument panel takes some getting used to, but after a while it’s as natural as the metric system (okay, more so).

The Echo is propelled by a sophisticated 1.5-litre DOHC four cylinder that puts out 108 welcome horsepower, 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 its 16 valves and variable valve timing (VVT-i). Toyota didn’t cut any corners with its entry-level car.

Available as a two- or four-door sedan (the hatchback came later), the Echo doesn’t make you feel like you’re in a penalty box. Toyota’s legendary build quality is baked right in – it’s actually made in Japan – which is why it hasn’t depreciated much.

1996-2000 Honda Civic (7.6-8.7 litres/100 km)

Miserly gas consumption is just one reason the Civic is a perennial Canadian favourite. Available as a four-door sedan, two-door coupe and classic three-door hatchback, the Civic is a polished jewel of a small car.

Like Tylenol, the 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine comes 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.

Some believe the 1996-00 models represent the zenith of the Civic nation, since the present generation exhibited some cost-cutting changes that hurt the ride and noise levels.

Civics telegraph an incredible lightness of being; even the switchgear clicks and moves with surgical precision. For this you pay a premium, but you’ll be rewarded for years to come.

So what’s not to like? The low-slung seats are a pain for older folks, the lack of features in all but the EX/Si models gets some getting used to, and you may experience the indignation of having yours stolen. Take it as a compliment to your good taste.

1996-2002 Suzuki Esteem (7.6-8.6 litres/100 km)

Here’s another motorcycle maker that has shown the world how to build frugal cars. Unfortunately, the Esteem slipped into the country virtually unnoticed and never sold in big numbers.

It appears to have the recipe right — an all-aluminum DOHC1.6-litre four sending 98 horses to the front wheels through a five-speed manual or four-speed auto transmission – along with anonymous Asian-car styling.

While specifying tidy dimensions outside, Suzuki was able to carve out a roomy interior with upright seats and good headroom. Originally available only as a four-door sedan, a spacious wagon arrived in 1998 – a rarity in this class.

Despite the maker’s best efforts, however, the Japanese-built Esteem was judged to be less refined in terms of ride, noise and powertrain smoothness compared to rivals such as the Civic and Corolla.

Regardless, it knows how to squeeze the most out of a litre of gas and for that let’s give thanks (don’t bother with the bigger 1.8-litre motor unless you want an automatic-equipped wagon). The Esteem’s relative obscurity also means you can negotiate a favourable price.

1996-2002 Saturn SL/SL1 (8.0-8.8 litres/100 km)

At last, a born and bred American car that can make the most out of a finite resource.

The Saturn SL is the bare-bones base model (manual transmission and no power steering!), while the SL1 offers an optional automatic and other goodies.

The S-series also came as a coupe (SC) and wagon (SW), the former adding a unique third side door in 1999 to improve access to the cramped back seat.

Other than Saturn’s clever polymer body panels (watch it: the hood, roof and trunk lid are steel, so don’t be whacking them with a baseball bat to impress your friends), the car is entirely conventional.

A noisy 1.9-litre SOHC four-cylinder engine powers the fuel-sipping versions of these models, good for 100 hp. Inside, the furnishings are Spartan and the seats are mounted way too close to the floor.

The SL1 doesn’t lavish luxuries upon its driver and passengers. It does only one thing well: saving gas, especially on the highway, due to its tall gearing. If you have a long-distance commute, this is your tool.

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