Car Choice: Green couple seeks reliable family car

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Shelley Castle has two young children and a partner who needs an automatic car following a motorbike accident. She is looking for something cheap to run and maintain that produces low emissions (her family votes Green) and is safe. A four-door hatchback with loads of storage space would be ideal, and financially they probably need to buy a second-hand car. Her partner is after a vehicle that is about a year old as he is reluctant to pack up his trusty old Audi. Shelley just wants a silver car that won't break down.

Shelley Castle has two young children and a partner who needs an automatic car following a motorbike accident. She is looking for something cheap to run and maintain that produces low emissions (her family votes Green) and is safe. A four-door hatchback with loads of storage space would be ideal, and financially they probably need to buy a second-hand car. Her partner is after a vehicle that is about a year old as he is reluctant to pack up his trusty old Audi. Shelley just wants a silver car that won't break down.

Shelley has the classic family car buyer's dilemma, and her choice of potential models has never been bigger. Her choice will depend on her priorities, and the first one should be accommodating her family. The children may be small now, but as they grow a standard hatchback may not be big enough.

It has never been more important to test drive a range of vehicles and Shelley may find that the latest generation of compact people-carriers is the answer, with lots of seating flexibility and cubbyholes. She would be right to consider vehicles that are at least one year old, which will save her a significant amount on the cost of a new vehicle. Safety is also important.

Smaller cars not only cost less, they are more fuel-efficient and produce less CO2, which will fit with Shelley's political ideals. There is no reason why she should not consider a miniature hatchback like a Nissan Micra, and wait a few years to buy something bigger as the children grow.

A car for the head

I think Shelley should think small if she wants to save the planet, and that means going for the Micra. It scores four stars in the Euro NCAP crash-tests, although the basic 1.0E does not have any side airbags.

Shelly's best choice would probably by the 1.2 or 1.4 petrol engine, or the low-emission diesel. Around town the Micra is certainly nippy, and both the petrol and diesel plants return between 50 and 60mpg. The Micra is at its happiest at moderate speeds and has lots of grip and light steering, while inside its refinement levels are impressive. It is also surprisingly quiet on the motorway.

Inside the driver has lots of space and an excellent driving position - all-round visibility is great and the controls fall easily to hand. Up front there is plenty of room, although in the back the Micra's lack of headroom can be a problem for taller passengers. The rear seat slides forward, which obviously boosts boot space but cuts down on available knee room.

At the car supermarket Motorpoint I found a one-year-old, well-equipped 1.4SVE that had done 11,000 miles for just £7,499.

A car for the heart

If Shelley wants a car that has an even lower environmental impact then she should consider the Toyota Prius hybrid, whose two engines (one petrol, one electric) produce just 104g of CO2 per kilometre.

Unfortunately the Prius is pricey when new, and there are not a lot in circulation. Older models do have a hatchback, and also have the benefit of doing nearly 60 miles to the gallon. Add to this the promise of Toyota reliability and excellent build-quality, and the Prius is an excellent choice.

Returning to Motorpoint, I found a MkI Prius 1.6 diesel (CO2 129 g/km) registered in 2004 and in Shelley's favourite colour, silver, for £9,599. The same vehicle would have cost almost £16,000 when new.

Another possibility is the Ford Focus C-Max. It is ideally suited to four people, offering them tons of space and clever storage options. With a four-star crash-test rating and a full complement of airbags, the C-Max is a well built vehicle and can be picked up for reasonable prices.

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 number, and details of the type of vehicle in which you are interested.

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