The contenders; photo by Frank Rizutti
The contenders; photo by Frank Rizutti. Click image to enlarge
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By Grant Yoxon

When we announced that we would once again run the 50-litre Challenge, the response from readers was very positive, but some asked, “Why compact cars? Why not mid-sized cars? Why not minivans?”

We didn’t choose compacts because they conveniently have a 50-litre fuel tank. We could have held a 45-litre challenge (sub-compacts) or a 65-litre challenge (mid-sized cars and compact SUVs).

We chose compacts because this class of vehicle represents a viable alternative for many families looking to save money on the purchase and ownership of a vehicle; lower purchase price, lower maintenance costs, lower insurance costs and lower fuel consumption all add up to more dollars in your pocket.

Compacts are also the hottest selling vehicles in Canada. In the first four months of 2008, manufacturers sold 136,484 compact cars in this country compared to 70,541 intermediates, 72,943 compact SUVs and 70,313 large pick-up trucks (source: Desrosiers).
Apparently many buyers find that a compact car is just right for the average Canadian family, and we would agree.

Last year we set out for Florida in a Toyota Matrix (basically the same as our Pontiac Vibe challenger) with four adults and all our stuff, and quite comfortably drove to Orlando and back. You can read about our adventure here.

We realize that not all families are the same: some are bigger and need bigger vehicles; and some family vehicles double as work vehicles. Some buyers just think they need a bigger vehicle because they occasionally carry five or more passengers, they need to haul a trailer on the family vacation, there is a boat in winter storage that needs to be towed to the cottage and back each spring and fall, or they believe they will be more comfortable in a larger vehicle.

The fact is that most people buy more vehicle than they need – and that goes for compact car buyers too. Does a single person or a couple really need a compact when a sub-compact will do just fine?

Rather than buy a large SUV because a boat must be moved twice a year, it makes more sense to buy a small car and rent the SUV when it is needed. You’ll save money and you’ll help the environment too.

When you really need to own a larger vehicle – primarily families with three or more children – there are things you can do to make sure you get the most fuel efficient vehicle for your needs.

  • Buy the four-cylinder model rather than the six-cylinder. Four-cylinder engines are a lot more powerful than they used to be and have more than enough power for safety, cargo carrying and multi-passenger use.

  • Consider a hybrid if it is available. Prices are coming down and incentives from the provincial and federal government make these vehicles more affordable. Consider also that a hybrid typically pollutes considerably less than a non-hybrid.

  • If comfort is a priority, consider a luxury compact or a hybrid luxury car – you can have your cake and eat it too.

  • Buy the smallest vehicle for your needs. Don’t base a buying decision on your extreme needs, but on your typical everyday needs.

  • Use fuel efficient driving techniques to reduce fuel consumption and pollution.

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