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Top used fuel sippers

Here are five dependable, cheap-to-keep used cars under $8,000 for people who want to spend their summer kicking it on the beach with their own wheels instead of borrowing dad's lame-ass Buick.
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Twenty-five years ago, your parents drove around Wasaga Beach in cramped Firebirds and oil-burning Mustangs, laying acrid rubber in front of the drive-in and pumping leaded regular like it was going out of style (and it was).

In contrast, today’s generation put their faith in reliable imports powered by sensible four cylinder engines. Added bling usually takes the form of massive rims, low-profile tires and a muffler the size of a sewer pipe.

As you get ready to work this summer, you may be contemplating your first car – used, naturally, ‘cause you’re smart enough not to buy into the depreciation trap, losing thousands of dollars in equity as soon as you drive out of the dealership.

Here are five dependable, cheap-to-keep used cars under $8,000 for people who want to spend their summer kicking it on the beach with their own wheels instead of borrowing dad’s lame-ass Buick.

Yeah, these cars are small because – let’s face it – where gas prices are going, you’ll look back on 89-cents-a-litre prices as a fond memory.

1996-2000 Honda Civic

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 gem 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 subsequent generations 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 to get out of, the lack of features in all but the EX/Si models gets some getting used to, and you may experience the indignation of having your Civic stolen. Take it as a compliment to your good taste.

1996-2002 Suzuki Esteem

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

Tell your friends you bought an Esteem and you can count on seeing blank stares.

It appears to have the recipe right — an all-aluminum DOHC 1.6-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 the best part is the Esteem’s relative obscurity means you can negotiate a very favourable price.

1996-2002 Saturn SL/SL1

Okay, we’ll admit we put a domestic car on the list for geo-political reasons. Poor, beleaguered General Motors.

In Saturn-speak, the 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 normal, even bland.

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 low-rent and the seats are mounted way down low. The SL1 doesn’t lavish luxuries upon its occupants.

It does only one thing well: saving gas, especially on the highway, due to its tall gearing. If you have a long way to work or class, this is your tool.

1999-2003 Mazda Protegé

Okay, this isn’t the most frugal small car around; it’s on our list because it’s a ball to drive.

While the Honda Civic has become more conservative and dull in recent years, the Protegé has muscled in to grab the Civic’s old mantle of best economy car for people who like driving.

DX and LX models have a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 105 horsepower (13 more than the old 1.5-liter), while the Miata’s 1.8-liter four, developing 122 hp, lives under the hood of the ES sedan. A bigger 130-hp 2.0-liter engine debuted in 2001.

Offering sportier manners than many of its econobox rivals, the Protegé leaves a favorable impression, though the tradeoff is a slightly stiffer ride and higher levels of engine, tire and wind noise.

On the plus side, these little cars are surprisingly roomy, owing to Mazda’s skill at magically finding interior space.

The Mazda5, a sporty hatchback added in 2002, has a bit of a cult following, which has kept prices high. Find an older ES instead. You won’t be sorry.

2000-2001 Toyota Echo

Pug ugly? Your momma. At first, 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 keel over 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 swimming buck-naked at camp (wait, forget I said that).

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 made in Japan – which is why it doesn’t depreciate much. Enjoy.

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