If diesel cars are picked, they have "new wave" diesel engines that produce considerably fewer exhaust pollutants than the smoky engines fitted to older cars. All new petrol cars sold now must have catalytic converters, which reduce exhaust pollution by about 90 per cent. They are the main reason why total pollutants from cars have fallen by 25 per cent or so since 1992 - the year before catalysts became compulsory.
Starting at the bottom - in both size and price - is the Fiat Cinquecento Sporting (45.3mpg), the only really small car on sale that is any good. (The Mini, while undoubtedly fun, is too old, too cramped, and too noisy.) The Cinquecento Sporting looks cheeky, and is a hoot to drive, offering an immediacy and a sharpness that set it apart from all bigger cars. Its smallness also makes it a terrific city car.
Ford is the car maker that has improved most in the past few years. The one-time disseminator of dullards from Dagenham has been transformed. None is more intriguing than the Ka (47.9mpg), the style statement that has some substance. Its handling, steering and general responsiveness put it at a level above the usual small hatch, and its styling makes it stand out on the street. It is a like-it-or-loathe-it car, rather like a Paul Smith suit (I still can't come to terms with the tail), but it is certainly different.
Still with Ford, the new Puma coupe (38.2mpg) makes the list thanks to its musical, energetic yet frugal new engine, and to its sharp handling. OK, it's not as tough and macho as Steve McQueen's old Mustang, despite what the TV ads say, but it is the perfect new-age coupe: economical, yet fun.
Escort-sized family hatches used to be almost universally dull (and not all that economical, either), but there are some good ones just now. The five-door Peugeot 306 XSi (37.7mpg) is the sweetest-driving of all medium- sized hatches, owing to Peugeot's magical suspension qualities (soft ride, sharp handling). As with all Peugeots, the 306 looks good, too. The 2- litre engine is the weak link - the French are hopeless at building petrol motors - but it is tolerably economical and the performance (122mph top speed, 0-60mph in 9.2 seconds) is almost sports-car good.
Talking of sports cars, we have two. The Lotus Elise (39.4mpg) proves that good sports cars do not have to be multi-cylinder, fire-breathing behemoths. The Elise gets its considerable performance from a minimalist body, rather than a massive engine. The light weight helps braking and steering feel, as well as straight-line driving, and helps to make the driver feel "at one" with the car. It also helps the fuel economy, for, even more than engine size and vehicle length, weight contributes to gas guzzling.
Heavier, slower but just as likeable is the MGF (41.3mpg). Easily the best car that Rover makes, the MGF is also proving one of the company's biggest successes, winning over buyers in Europe, Japan and Australia. It drives in a beautifully fluent manner and the open roof is a cinch to put up or down. Pity MGFs are now so ubiquitous in Britain's more affluent areas. To some, their styling is also too bland and innocuous. (Some blokes also find them a bit girlie.) Still, they are fabulous to drive, reliable and economical.
The diesel versus petrol ecology argument still rages. As a general rule, petrol cars use more fuel and therefore produce more carbon dioxide, the non-toxic gas that is associated with the greenhouse effect, and diesel cars (which tend to be more economical) produce more of the toxins that are associated with respiratory difficulties. In small cars, the best bet is still probably an efficient, catalysed petrol engine. But for bigger cars, the economy improvement offered by diesel is compelling.
The 110bhp 1.9-litre turbodiesel engine fitted both to the Volkswagen Passat (53.3mpg) and the Audi A6 (49.6mpg) is one of the world's best. It is not as fast or quite as smooth as the petrol equivalent, but it is not all that far behind - and it is miles more frugal. The Passat is a handsome, roomy, beautifully built car - all round, it is now the world's best family saloon, outranking the latest Ford Mondeo and Peugeot 406. If your budget is bigger, and you want a larger, more prestigious car, the new A6 is unbeatable: slightly quirky in appearance, as well made as a Rolex, and great to drive. I would buy one over the BMW 5-series or the Mercedes E-class.
For cheaper family motoring, it is hard to go past the new Renault Scenic 1.9 dT (40.9mpg), the five-seater, one-box Renault that walked off with last year's European Car of the Year award. The French may not make good petrol engines, but they make great diesels. The turbodiesel Scenic moves along sweetly and offers terrific comfort and versatility for the typical British family. But if you want one, it is best to wait a few months: a better turbodiesel motor, featuring direct injection, is imminent.
If the Scenic is not quite big enough for your people-carrying needs, try a VW Sharan tdi (41.5mpg). It uses the same turbodiesel motor as the Passat and A6, and is such a well-made, likeable and civilised seven- seater. You can order a similar car with a Seat badge (the Alhambra) or a Ford moniker (the Galaxy), but there is probably a bit more kudos in owning a Volkswagen. Besides, the Sharan uses a slightly better motor than the (also VW-sourced) turbodiesel currently fitted to the Galaxy.Reuse content