- The Washington Times - Friday, September 22, 2000

It's easy to spend a lot of money on a new car these days, and there are about 200 cars today in the United States from which to choose.

But what if you want something simple, inexpensive and easy to maintain, just to get around in whether it's for a short trip (like a commute to the train station/boat landing/airport), an around-town runabout or a "trainer" car for a teen-ager?

Few people can afford, or are willing to spend, $20,000 or more for such a vehicle. Happily, there are alternatives besides buying a used car, which could mean just taking over someone else's vehicular headache.

If out-of-pocket dollars are the hallmark by which you will decide your purchase, the following automobiles have the less expensive MSRP (that's dealer lingo for "manufacturer's suggested retail price").

They list from about $8,600 to $11,700 for the base no-frills model, not always easy (or desirable) to find.

Lowest of the low is the Daewoo Lanos. Then come, in alphabetical order:

• Chevrolet Metro

• Daewoo Nubira

• Honda Civic

• Hyundai Accent

• Kia Sephia

• Mitsubishi Mirage

• Nissan Sentra

• Saturn SL1

• Suzuki Swift

• Toyota Echo

It surely has to be more than an accident that all of these cars save one, the Saturn, come from the Orient, where small streets, limited turf and the high cost of fuel have propelled Asian manufacturers to be leaders in small-car technology and production.

Saturn, on the other hand, was designed in the United States and is also made here with close to 100 percent U.S. parts.

The Chevrolet Metro, while boasting an American marque, is in fact built by Suzuki, which has long been Japan's top minicar company. Metros soon may be available only to rental-car companies. The Metro could be the best deal on the market now as dealers seek to flush their remaining stock by offering a rebate of as much as $1,500 on an already quite inexpensive car.

Of all of these, the Swift and the Metro have the smallest turning circle (31.5 feet), the Echo has the best rated mileage (34/41 city/ highway), the Saturn is the quickest (0-60 in 8.4 seconds), and the Daewoo Lano stops the fastest from 60 mph (126 feet).

What are your new-car choices at the lower end of the market if fuel efficiency is your overriding criteria? Note that some of these fuel-efficient cars, such as the Honda Insight, cost considerably more than the market's least expensive vehicles. The Insight, for example, has a base price of $18,800.

With fuel economy as your ultimate standard, at the top of the list is this hybrid from Honda, the reason being that the Insight is part electric and part internal combustion powered. Electric motors at each wheel supplement the small gas engine for acceleration and on steep grades.

Then come VW Golf (diesel), VW New Beetle (diesel), VW Jetta (diesel), Chevrolet Metro, Suzuki Swift, Honda Civic, Mitsubishi Mirage, Suzuki Esteem and Saturn S.

The diesels, while great economy fuel performers, may not be so great in the acceleration department, and finding a station near home may be impossible. And in general, these are not "performance" cars when it comes to getting quickly off the mark nor were they intended to be. But they are very solid, fuel-efficient transportation.

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