Days of affordable driving may be numbered

PREPARE NOW: Most families spend more money on fuel for their vehicles than they do on energy for their home.
PREPARE NOW: Most families spend more money on fuel for their vehicles than they do on energy for their home.

What would it take to trade your beloved gas-guzzling V8 for a fuel-efficient hatchback, hybrid or even a scooter?

Kiwis paid through the nose at the petrol pump this year, with prices peaking at a record $2.23 per litre in August, sparking the question of whether the time is right to reassess the car you drive.

AA PetrolWatch's Mark Stockdale has gazed into the crystal ball, and he's got more bad news for petrolheads.

"It can only get worse from here."

There's good reason for being such a negative Nellie.

The kiwi dollar has floated around historic highs recently. Exporters and some politicians might have had a good moan, but it's also allowed us to buy foreign oil on the cheap.

If and when the exchange rate sinks again, that buffer against high prices will evaporate like petrol fumes on a hot day.

Plus the global economy is recovering. The world is hungry for oil and energy resources, but there's none of the cheap stuff left. Supply won't keep pace with demand - not at today's prices, anyway.

The days of driving a big car or ute without having to worry about being bankrupted during the weekly fill-up may be numbered.

"Motorists really need to be preparing now," says Stockdale. "We've got a window of opportunity to plan. That means thinking ahead to what is the next car that we buy?"

There's a big financial incentive in doing so. According to the government's Energywise consumer programme, most families spend more money on fuel for their vehicles than they do on energy for their home.

Let's take the stereotypical seven-seater "Ponsonby tractor" with a 3-litre engine, most often found tooling around inner city suburbs and hot shopping spots.

A large SUV burns through about 12 litres of petrol for every 100km driven. Based on a pump price of $2.10 a litre and the industry-accepted average driving distance of 14,000km, that adds up to roughly $3500 a year.

It's unsurprising given the two biggest factors affecting fuel consumption are the size of the vehicle and the grunt of the engine.

How much could you save by trading down to more modest set of wheels?

Medium car

Standard family sedans get through about 6-10 litres of petrol for every 100km, with a lot of variation between models.

Taking the midpoint, that works out to about $2300 a year and an annual saving of $1200 on your SUV. That's the cost of your warrant, registration, and maybe even insurance covered each year.

Light car

Titchy little cars sacrifice size and status for major fuel savings.

A light car like a Nissan March or Suzuki hatch can consume as little as 5-6 litres per 100km, or roughly $1700 per year.

This downsize more than halves your annual fuel outgoings from a SUV and saves you about $1800.

Motorbike or scooter

Most bigger motorbikes use as much gas as small cars, with the added disadvantage of not being able to carry passengers and having to be scraped off the road after a crash.

But many smaller bikes and scooters can run on the smell of an oily rag.

A 49cc moped, for example, consumes as little as 2 litres per 100km, for a paltry $600 annual bill. 

Even a 200cc Vespa with a bit of grunt - technically classed as a motorbike - claims 4.8 litres for each 100km, which works out to just $1400 a year.

However, long-time scooter enthusiast and publisher of Scoot NZ Jess Corbett says fuel economy doesn't have too much influence on most people's decision.

She says a lot of new scooter owners didn't have vehicles beforehand, and are often motivated by convenience, ease of parking and an alternative to catching the bus.

Others try out a scooter temporarily before returning to their cars, or two-car families sometimes downsize one of the vehicles.

"Not many people actually get rid of their cars completely, because they're dependent on them," says Corbett.

Walk or cycle

You're not going to be biking or walking 14,000km a year, so this one is a bit of a sop to the green brigade.

Nevertheless, a household with a car for every family member might be able to save a whole lot by making little Jimmy walk to the shops when mum's not home.

Stockdale does think people will start looking at alternative transport modes -including public transport- as they become more feasible.

"In the past, people have thought nothing to live an hour away from work. Is that really practical?" he asks. 

Size isn't everything

In the 2009 fuel efficiency ratings published by Energywise there were dramatic differences within each category of vehicle sizes.

Take medium SUVs for example, which spanned all the way from the worst recorded rating of 13.2 litres per 100km to a parsimonious 5.8 litres.

Given the best SUVs use far less gas than a little old clanger, perhaps they don't deserve their thirsty reputation.

The message from the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority, which runs Energywise, is that you should buy a car that's fit for purpose.

"We're not trying to tell you to squeeze into a tiny car," says Terry Collins, the EECA's general manager of products.

"You can get the car you want, but still save up to a third of your energy costs just by buying smartly."

For example, big hybrid-type cars and inline diesels give excellent fuel economy despite their bulk.

Modern petrol engines have come a long way from the clangers of yesteryear too, with computer-controlled motors vastly reducing fuel consumption.

Navigate by the stars

Luckily it's never been easier to compare fuel efficiency between cars.

Displaying a fuel economy label is a mandatory requirement at the point of sale these days, says Collins.

The labels feature a star rating from one to six, and give an indication of gas prices for a year.

The ratings are universal across all vehicle types, so three or four is going to be pretty good for a big car, ute or SUV.

Even if sellers are flicking a car off on Trade Me they're theoretically meant to display the info.

If they don't, you can simply plug in the license plate number here and the fuel efficiency rating will pop up.

Energywise also has a tool which lets you to play around with vehicle types and models to see which ones give the most bang for buck.

The only step left is to work out the most fuel efficient vehicle you can afford to buy that will still be fit for purpose.

It seems like many New Zealanders are starting to make better decisions anyway- probably driven by their wallets.

"We've seen a shift in buyer behaviour and a shift to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars," says Stockdale.

"We certainly have moved away from the days when people tended to buy the car they needed for their holidays - which was the big 6-cylinder family sedan - and then drive it to work."

And yet SUVs were still the top-selling vehicle type last year, cornering almost 30 per cent of market share.

That might not be such a worry - as long as savvy car buyers look at the rating stars first.