Moving away from manual gears need not send your fuel consumption soaring. James Ruppert helps our readers make the shift

Automatic cars are in demand. First, Neil and Sandra Collins want to know which small autos represent the best value for money. They need to make the change from a manual for health reasons, but reckon that most automatics will guzzle gas wickedly on their mainly urban journeys.

Meanwhile, Susan Lander is looking for a reliable, small automatic car for her mother who has just had a hip operation and is finding a manual difficult to drive. Susan's mum covers short journeys, and she can spend up to £5,000.

So here we have the same question coming in from two sets of readers who have both decided that, for health reasons, going automatic will make things easier for them. Trouble is, everyone is worried that an automatic will be heavy on fuel.

That was certainly the case with the automatic gearboxes of 20 or so years ago, which had only three forward gears, no sophisticated electronics and inefficient engines. Technology has moved on a great deal since then. These days, you can buy a diesel with an automatic gearbox - unheard of a few years ago. And there are now semi-automatic gearboxes and those clever constantly variable transmissions.

Perhaps all this technology does get needlessly complicated, but the good news is that the fuel consumption of many small automatics is only a few mpg adrift of their manual counterparts. Indeed, the software controlling modern automatic gearboxes can be much cleverer than we are, changing gear at the optimum moment and being far more economical than we will ever be.

The cleverest gearboxes of all are the DSG (direct shift gearbox) boxes found on some performance Audis, which anticipate which gear is needed. That's a bit of a digression, because the brief here is to find a good-value, small automatic that will be cheap to own and run.

A CAR FOR THE HEAD

There are plenty of options for a small, economical hatchback, but based on recent experience and feedback from Independent readers, we might need to question some of those scarcely believable economy claims. The Fiat Panda figured in the discussions.

Indeed, the Panda is available with an automatic gearbox as an option, but that £700 option isn't taken up by many. The number of sale is quite small, but I did find several 1.2-litre petrol automatics on sale below £5,000. Here's a car that's great around town and on the open road. Front-seat occupants will be fine, and for such a small car it feels very spacious.

Driving a Panda is enjoyable and pressing a switch to get extra-light steering to sneak into a parking space has to be a great idea. The 1.2-litre probably is the better option.

The Panda isn't quick, but the promised 50mpg should be delivered and I would only deduct a few extra mpg to allow for a heavier right foot and the automatic gearbox. Servicing costs are low, and the insurance group is just two. I truly believe that this car would suit Neil and Sandra, and Susan's mum, who may appreciate the extra practicality of five doors.

A CAR FOR THE HEART

When it comes to cute economical cars, there's only one; the Smart ForTwo. This initially came with a semi-automatic - or clutchless - manual transmission. To be honest, it wasn't that smooth, but after 2002 matters improved.

Essentially, this system means there's no need for a clutch pedal. Trouble is, the gear lever still has to be moved, which may not be ideal. Later models can be bought with the Softouch transmission, which is fully automatic.

I'm assuming here that Susan's mum and Neil and Sandra are all happy with a two-seat car. In most cases, that is all any of us really needs. In specification terms, the Pure and Passion models have more standard kit and it is possible to get useful items such as air conditioning. There is no shortage of safety kit, though, with many clever electronic devices such as traction control and stability control to stop the car falling over. Full-size driver and passenger airbags, ABS brakes, a safety-cell reinforced steel frame and side impact struts are all reassuring.

Best of all, though, the tiny 600cc turboed Mercedes engine should return 60mpg. Smarts equipped with the fully automatic Softouch system start at about £3,500.

CAR CHOICE

Please write to Car Choice, Features, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, or e-mail James Ruppert at carchoice@independent.co.uk, giving your age, address and contact telephone number, as well as details of the type of vehicle in which you are interested as well as your budget.

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