Sometimes, public transport just can't hack it - but changing to a car needn't cost the earth

Dave Simpson has decided to give up commuting by train, and will drive instead. His journey by public transport took two, or even two-and-a-half hours, while by car it would take just an hour. He has changed jobs and needs to travel 30 miles from home by car to Isleworth, west London, so he needs a car that is capable of dealing with the M4's traffic horrors.

Dave's requirements are that the car should be economical and cheap to run, and, ideally, eco-friendly. Budget-wise, he could stretch to £10,000, but would prefer to spend less. His season ticket worked out at more than £200 a month, but Dave suspects that he's going to have to start paying more.

Dave would like a reliable vehicle that can double as family transport to back up his Vauxhall Zafira. Controversially (for some of our readers), he has concluded that travelling by car is going to be quicker and much less hassle than the public-transport option. I'm sure that Dave, having commuted by train for 10 years, is in the best position to make that call. Sometimes, public transport really doesn't make sense, and isn't convenient.

It's still a (relatively) free country, so let's try to help Dave find a practical vehicle that's cheap to run, a combination that is what just about everyone wants from a car that they use every day. I certainly think it will be possible to get something well below £10,000. In fact, I reckon that less than £5,000 should secure a tidy vehicle that's about five years old and cheap to run.

I would like to think that it would be possible to run a car for about £200 a month, inclusive of insurance and depreciation, and maybe some of the fuel and servicing costs too. So, nothing particularly interesting or extravagant, just a simple, solid hatchback.

A CAR FOR THE HEAD

Thousands of taxi drivers can't be wrong, and the old-generation Nissan Primera makes a great and fantastically durable buy. On the smoothish motorways on which Dave will be travelling every day, the Primera would deliver a very comfortable ride.

The cars were well-equipped (only the basic entry-level models were, well, basic), and most of them have air-conditioning and remote locking. Also, for safety, the higher-spec models not only have ABS brakes, but also side airbags.

There is plenty of room for children at the back, with the five-door hatches having a particularly large boot. On the way to work, then, Dave will enjoy the drive, although the refinement levels are not that great. Much better, though, is the reliability - hardly anything ever goes wrong with these models.

There is a wide range of petrol and diesel engines to choose from. The 1.8 petrol isn't bad and it manages 38mpg, but if Dave can find a tidy 2.0TD diesel, then he could nudge that up to 43mpg. The values of these mass-market fleet cars are always low, which means that he could pick up a real bargain. A 2.0 TD SE from 2001, for example, from a dealer, will be about £3,700 with a warranty included.

A CAR FOR THE HEART

It's all about price and practicality, but the Citroën Xsara has suffered from being a very underrated hatchback. It is actually a comfortable and entertaining car to drive, and it has decent rear space for children, and a surprisingly large boot. There is also loads of head- and legroom, while the load bay is flat and square. So, the Xsara ticks all the boxes as a second-string family car.

As a driving experience, the Xsara will be very good for Dave. Although the plastics inside are a bit tacky, the controls are laid out well. There's two-way adjustment for the steering wheel, and the higher-specification models have seat-height adjustment, so Dave should have no trouble getting comfortable on his daily commute.

Then there's the economy issue. Dave should aim for the excellent HDi diesel engines; the 2.0 HDi 110bhp returns 54mpg, overall. As for running costs, they should be containable, and the durability is pretty good. A friend of mine has actually bought a five-year-old example with 270,000 miles on the clock, which is quite remarkable.

But Dave wouldn't need to buy such a tired example. For £2,000, he will get a well-equipped Xsara, complete with air conditioning and a CD-player - perfect for whiling away the hours during those inevitable M4 jams.

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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