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Seven top all-round performers

And we've contrived a formula for our picks of sub-$40,000 cars that considers these factors:

* Economy — the claimed fuel consumption in combined conditions and likely running costs, based in part on the NRMA's annually compiled data.

* Practicality — size, number of seats and doors, and boot space.

* Value — purchase price, standard gear and quality.

* Image — a bit subjective, but even a practical purchase isn't without an emotional quotient.

* Driving — derived from CARSguide's on-road experiences.
Each criterion is marked out of five points for a combined score out of 25.


Honda Jazz GLi

5.7-litres per 100km
Economy > 5
Practicality > 4
Value > 4
Image > 3
Driving > 3
Score > 19/25


WITH a claimed fuel consumption of 5.7 litres per 100km in the manual exceeded by only 0.1 in the CVT auto, there is for once almost no (economic) argument in favour of shifting for yourself.

The manual, though, will make the most of the uber-frugal 1.3-litre petrol engine. Hondas are not the cheapest cars to repair, but they offer highly competitive passenger safety levels married to reliability and quality that tops international surveys.

The Jazz is a great device that can carry two adults, three kids and luggage.


Mazda 6

MZR-CD hatch

$38,090 MZR-CD
5.9 litres per 100km
Economy > 5
Practicality > 4
Value > 4
Image > 3
Driving > 4
Score > 20/25


THE mid-size Mazda embarrasses more expensive and supposedly more prestigious European cars.

The addition of two (manual only) diesel models adds another dimension to the range.

At $35,205, the wagon is the less expensive, but with leather trim and fixtures comparable to the Luxury level Mazda 6 petrol model, the hatch is a stylish and unique departure.

The only hatch of this size on the market, it's the preferred 6 shape.

And its lusher interior would come to the fore when exploiting the Mazda's posited maximum range of 1250km.

Already the best drive in its class, the diesel 6s exert an allure appreciated by Those Who Know while running on a sip from an oily bowser.

The obvious sedan alternative is Volkwagen's Jetta.


Suzuki Swift Sport

7.5 litres per 100km
Economy > 3
Practicality > 3
Value > 4
Image > 3
Driving > 4
Score > 17/25


A GTI model is en route, but for now the 1.6-litre petrol Sport is the one for frugal fun.
Standard gear, even in the $15,990 S model, is superb, running to dual front airbags, ABS and steering wheel button activated six-stacker CD and trip computer.
If the steering leaves something to be desired, it's hard not to enjoy this two-plus-two hatch, one that punches way above its 1100kg kerb weight.


Volkswagen Polo

Match TDI

5.0-litres per 100km
Economy > 5
Practicality > 4
Value > 3
Image > 4
Driving > 3
Score > 19/25

DESPITE the "handicap" of coming as a manual only, the cheapest diesel available in Australia accounts for some 30 per cent of Polos sold here - something not unrelated to a potential range in the vicinity of 1000km on one tank.

A Tardis that can seat four adults, or two adults and three young children, the five-door hatch is a more than respectable performer due to a punchy 1.9-litre turbo diesel that leaves all Polos bar the smart GTI model in its wake.

The German badge lends a bit of cachet in a field of Japanese and Korean entrants.


Hyundai Santa Fe


7.6 litres per 100km
Economy > 4.5
Practicality > 5
Value > 5
Image > 1
Driving > 2.5
Score > 18/25


WE'VE busted the $40K mark here, but what other relatively affordable SUV could fare so well in Overlander magazine's vehicle of the year and carry seven punters in urban comfort?

You can get into a petrol V6 five-seater Santa Fe for as little as $35,990, but the doughty diesel seven-seater is the best buy.

You won't get a better third row of seats without paying mad money. A tight turning circle enhances every day driving and big towing torque makes for recreational enabled weekends. If the Santa Fe scores low for image, that's because some people still can't get past the badge. That's their loss.


Honda CR-V

from $31,990
10.0 litres per 100km
Economy > 3.5
Practicality > 5
Value > 4
Image > 3
Driving > 3
Score > 18.5/25


YES, that is a double digit claimed petrol consumption. Nor is it the cheapest urban shopping trolley.

But though heavier and slightly thirstier than its predecessor, the new generation CR-V is just about perfect for its purpose.

As with those other Hondas named here, it's suffused with the refinement and quality and the unchallenging nature that make Hondas such a no-brainer buy.


Honda Civic Hybrid

5.2 litres per 100km
Economy > 5
Practicality > 3
Value > 4
Image > 3
Driving > 2.5
Score > 17.5/25


WHILE not quite as miserly as that other compact petrol-electric car, Toyota's Prius, the hybrid Honda is vastly less expensive and at least looks like a car.

The savings with a hybrid are accrued not only when it is running and the electric motor assists, but mainly when the vehicle is stationary and the petrol engine switches off, leaving it all to electricity.
If it's an unremarkable drive, it does what it says on the label with the assurance of Honda quality into the bargain.

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