It’s a bit of an urban myth that smaller cars are always the most economical. In fact, fuel economy is a combination of several factors and it depends on how you use your vehicle.

Small cars

A car that has a larger engine isn’t always less economical. For example, earlier models of the Toyota Prius Hybrid initially had 1.5-litre engines back in 2015, but they’re now fitted with 1.8-litre engines, which are actually more economical due to improvements in technology. Vehicles continue to improve with innovative design, and the technology behind cars plays a large part in determining how economical it really is.

Nowadays, manufacturers create a vehicle to meet the needs of a specific market so it’s important to understand what you are actually buying.

Smaller vehicles with engines between 1.0-1.3 litres are designed for getting about town, for example, the Mitsubishi Mirage and Kia Picanto. These small hatches are perfect for economical city running and are lightweight, giving them surprisingly good acceleration. On open roads, however, these pocket rockets often have to work their engines fairly hard to maintain 100km/h, meaning heavy fuel consumption despite their compact size. Additionally, there’s little power in reserve for maintaining hill-climbing speeds or passing slower traffic.

To save on costs, small vehicles also tend to have smaller braking systems, incorporate simpler drum brake systems on the rear and sometimes they may have simplified beam axle suspension to reduce costs, too. While this is well-suited for city driving, these systems are often pushed too far when on the open road and, if they’re used for an extended time, can become overworked. Basically, unless the majority of your driving is done in urban environments, then these cars might not be the smartest choice for long distance driving on the open road.

Medium-sized cars

For those of us who are more likely to drive outside of built-up areas, a medium sized vehicle could be a much better option. Medium-sized cars such as the Honda HRV, Toyota Corolla and Mitsubishi ASX are good, economical choices. These models have good levels of power, safety and reliability, meaning they’re more suited to drivers who enjoy a variety of driving locations. The engines in these cars typically run at a relatively lower rpm than smaller cars and their gear boxes are better suited to a range of both highway and city use.

Larger cars

While larger cars aren’t the most practical within cities, they are great for the open road. Generally, they have great safety features and provide lots of comfort, but inevitably the engines tend to be quite large and increase the overall weight of the vehicle.

If you spend more of your time in urban driving environments than on the open road, having a large car will end up costing you more money and, unless you require a car with a bit of extra space, there’s really no benefit to owning a large vehicle. The servicing bills can also be slightly higher for large cars, as they sometimes have larger six-cylinder engines to take care of, rather than the traditional four or three cylinders.

Is a hybrid for me?

If you want to go to the next level of fuel savings, you should definitely consider moving into the hybrid world, which has had huge growth over the last year as Kiwis contemplate fuel saving alternatives with the likes of the Kia Niro, Hyundai IONIQ, or some of Toyota’s models, like the new Yaris, C-HR and Corolla. Hybrids are well suited to busy city traffic and make the most of the fuel you have, hence why they are so popular with taxi drivers. Hybrids are available across a range of different vehicle sizes.

Make your own mind up

When choosing an economical car for use on New Zealand roads, first of all it’s always a good idea to determine where and when you will be using the car. Once you have determined its purpose, you can then consider other factors during your search such as servicing costs.

It’s really important to consider all aspects of a vehicle to truly determine if it will be economical to run. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that smaller cars are always going to be the answer.

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