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Car choices, car choices... Part 1

The desire for fuel economy, ride quality and comfort

By Julian Edgar

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What do you buy when in the last month you've briefly new-car-test-driven everything from a Skoda Superb to a Camry Hybrid, from a Citroen C5 to a Prius?

And furthermore, have also considered in used cars an old Jaguar XJ8, an FPV Falcon and a 5 year old diesel Mercedes?

And you’re still confused?

I don't think I've ever had so many difficulties in picking a car. On one day I think 'super economy'; on another day that goes out the window and instead I am thinking 'performance'. Then that goes out of favour and instead it's all about comfort.

In a family that already has a few other cars, the need is this: to be able to take me to work and back two or three days a week over largely poor to indifferent rural Australian roads, often in the dark - a trip of around 150 kilometres a day.

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My current 1.9 turbo diesel Skoda Roomster does this with excellent fuel economy (around 5.2 litres/100 on average), with plenty of space, and - with the huge HID Narvas I've fitted - lots of night vision as well.

But outright comfort and refinement are not high, with plenty of NVH and some steering wheel kickback from the bigger wheels and tyres needed to clear the larger front brakes that I’ve fitted.

In short, in the Roomster the trip is rather more wearing than it really should be.

But to beat the fuel economy of the Roomster is difficult - no, not in the standard government test but in reality over these roads and at these speeds. 

And to even just match the fuel economy, but in a car at once better riding and more luxurious (and so quieter), becomes a hard ask. In fact, is the desired combination of comfort, ride and fuel economy even possible at under fifty thousand Australian dollars?

Testing, testing

So what cars to assess? Initially, it all seemed so easy….

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I’d previously driven a Camry Hybrid and found it roomy, refined, lifeless and with (relatively for a hybrid) unimpressive fuel economy. But that was the older model.

The current model has more power and is said to be more involving of the driver. It costs about $42,000. The government test fuel economy of the car is 5.2 litres/100km and the 0-100 km/h time is claimed to be 8.0 seconds.

And how was the current model?  Again: roomy, refined and lifeless.

And perhaps more critically, yet again the fuel economy was simply not very impressive. In fact, to go further, I can see almost no reason that you’d select a Camry Hybrid over a similar-size diesel sedan that would have better driving dynamics and at least match it for fuel economy.

So what sort of diesel sedan then? Perhaps a Skoda Superb?

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The diesel Superb, a factory demonstrator priced at around $50,000 (but cheaper ones are available), was hugely roomy and had decent fuel economy (better in litres/100km over the same test route than the hybrid Camry). The way the rear boot of what is ostensibly a sedan can also be opened as a huge hatch makes the versatility of the Superb very attractive.  Add respected Volkswagen mechanicals to a great body design – and well, it’s a very effective approach already known to us through the Roomster.

But there is something that really puts me off the Superb. A local resident has a Superb – and has now multiple times punctured tyres and bent alloy wheels on our rough roads.

The Superb uses a Volkswagen diesel – so what about simply buying a Volkswagen?

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I next drove the manual Bluemotion Golf, the most frugal mid-size car in the current Volkswagen range.

At $29,000 it was cheap, had good seats… but was just a car. There was nothing particularly impressive in any aspect – and the way the windscreen wipers stopped each time the engine auto-restarted at traffic lights was a bit off-putting.  

To be really persuasive, this car would have had to have got just scintillating fuel economy – and despite the government test figure of 3.8 litres/100km, on my test drive I couldn’t see it being remotely near this… in fact, it was no better than my Roomster.

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The Citroen C5 diesel? I had such high hopes of this car. Consider: advanced electronic/hydraulic suspension, a government test fuel economy of 6.8 litres/100, roomy and well equipped. Similar in price to the Skoda Superb, but with potentially a much better ride quality.

But my hopes were dashed from the moment the salesman started the engine. Talk about being coarse at idle – I think my modified Roomster diesel has a rather rough engine at idle, but the C5 was much worse.

And the Citroen’s ride? Gosh – what have they done with what should actually be an extraordinarily effective system? The ride was awful - lots of sharp vertical movements from the low profile tyres... all the time mixed with a nauseating wallow. And ‘nauseating’ quite literally – both my wife and son felt car-sick during the 45 minute drive.

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The new compact Prius C? It’s been getting very good reviews and looked to be a package that could well suit someone doing a single-person commute. At around $30,000 for the I-Tech model, it’s also low in price.

But for this size of car and with the hybrid complexity, I'd expect fuel economy maybe 20 per cent better than I achieved in my test drive. Look, it was OK – and for a city-only car where you’re often stuck in traffic, would perhaps have made a more persuasive case.

But after driving it, I couldn’t see myself doing lots of daily kays in one, that’s for sure.

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And what of the Prius - the full-size one?

I have a soft spot for the Prius – it’s a car that I think is one of the most significant models ever built. I’ve also owned a Prius – a grey market NHW10 model, the very first Prius.

And I think that in terms of economy, refinement and luxury, the current I-Tech is highly convincing. With radar cruise control (a feature that would be very useful for me, and one found on almost no cars of this price), a very mature hybrid system and excellent interior packaging, it has a lot going for it… let down by a harsh ride (those darn low profile tyres) and hard, flat seats.

Those comments refer to the current model; the slightly earlier model uses higher profile tyres but is otherwise much the same in equipment and performance. I test drove one of these cars in used form, and the impact harshness from the tyres was improved – but the seats were still pretty awful.

So what next?

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The Falcon four cylinder turbo? I've been to the Ford dealer three times now, but each time I keep rebelling at the last minute - is it the Falcon's new, ugly nose or is it the downmarket interior? If only the Falcon was sold with an economical diesel – then I (and I wonder how many others?) would certainly have test-driven one by now.

Having experienced the (lack of) reliability and abysmal build quality of two Peugeots, I now refuse to buy anything with that badge; and the Honda hybrids all seem to be going backwards in their fuel economy without any offsetting advantages.

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A much depreciated Honda Legend that's a few years old? I wonder what open-road fuel economy it would get from its slippery body and 3.5 litre V6? The fuel economy would certainly be worse than the diesels I’ve test-driven but then again, the Legend is also the only active all-wheel drive among those I’ve considered.

Or maybe just throw fuel economy to the wind and buy a ten year old Jaguar V8? Or what about an auto Honda NSX – after all, they’re about the same money and when I last drove one, I found the comfort and ride quality very good for a sporting car…

It's all very confusing!

Next issue: driving a diesel Mercedes, a Lexus LS430….and a Jaguar XJR!

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