Top 10 petrol cars to buy instead of a diesel (updated)

Want to switch from diesel to petrol? Start here

FOR YEARS it’s been said that the “greenest” cars are diesel-powered. More fuel efficient and emitting less CO2, they are also fitted with special filters that trap harmful emissions from their engines.

But diesel’s reputation has plummeted. Research, first , found that the fuel is responsible for most of the pollution that can be attributed to 40,000 deaths per year in Britain.

The initial report, commissioned by Defra, the environment ministry, blamed diesel vehicles for a rise in nitrogen dioxide emissions and high levels of tiny toxic particulates that can pass through the lungs to enter every organ in the body. Although much of the pollution is down to buses, lorries and taxis, David Carslaw, of King’s College London, a co-author of the report, also blamed European legislators for failing to put in place robust and realistic emissions testing.

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“The key failure is that the European testing regime is too lenient and does not measure how vehicles perform when driven on real roads,” said Carslaw. “They all pass the test but our research shows that when driven on real roads they typically emit 4-5 times more than the tests suggest.”

Since the report’s release, Volkswagen has been caught cheating emissions tests in order to sell diesel cars in America. London is about to introduce a toxicity “T-charge” of £10 a day for older vehicles, which pollute far more than modern, cleaner engines, and other cities are to follow its lead.

Medical professionals have called for the government to remove diesel cars from Britain’s roads. And scientists have found that tiny particles in air pollution can and make them harder to treat with antibiotics.

All the while, improvements in technology have seen petrol-powered cars catch up diesels for cost-effectiveness.

“From an air quality point of view it is hard to find a major disadvantage with modern petrol cars”

Carslaw told Driving that air quality could still be improved if motorists switched from diesel to petrol-powered cars. “From an air quality point of view it is hard to find a major disadvantage with modern petrol cars. What most people would say is that petrol is worse than diesel for CO2 emissions. This is still true but even here, a small, modern petrol vehicle can be very low emitting, and will give diesel a run for its money.”

The higher purchase cost of some diesel cars threatens to make them redundant against a new generation of small, efficient, turbocharged petrol models. For example, the petrol-powered Ford Fiesta 1.0 Zetec costs £14,295 and returns 65.7mpg. A 1.5 TDCi diesel version of the Fiesta appears much more economical at 88.3mpg but it costs £2,000 more. It would take a staggering 12 years to make up the difference in the money you save on fuel, based on the UK average of 7,900 miles per year.

Depreciation is roughly the same, whichever type of engine you choose, according to Cap, a vehicle pricing company. So if now is the time to switch to petrol cars (assuming plug-in electric vehicles are not a realistic option for you yet), here are 10 that will give you just as much for your money as a diesel.


The best eco-friendly petrol-powered small cars


2017 Fiat Panda Easy 0.9 TwinAir 5dr, £11,245

  • Fuel economy 67.3mpg
  • CO2 99g/km
  • Road tax before April 1, 2017 Free
  • Road tax after April 1, 2017 £120 for first year, then £140

THE PANDA is, arguably, Fiat’s best car. It’s as unpretentious as an Italian mother’s homemade pasta and devoid of the retro dress sense of its 500 sibling. It also happens to be good to drive, can seat five at a pinch and parking this petite package is a doddle.

Of the new generation of small-capacity, turbocharged petrol engines, the Twin Air has received most criticism for failing to get close to its official fuel consumption figure. That’s because, with just two cylinders under the bonnet, it needs to be worked hard to make meaningful progress. All the same, it is economical and brimful of character, and proves cheap to insure and service.

There are some jaw-dropping deals to be had on , too, so it’s likely to prove even better value than its price suggests.

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2017 Ford Fiesta Zetec 1.0 80PS Start/Stop 3dr, £14,295

  • Fuel economy 65.7mpg
  • CO2 99g/km
  • Road tax before April 1, 2017 Free
  • Road tax after April 1, 2017 £120 for first year, then £140

FIRST, a word of warning. The Fiesta will be replaced by a new generation model, which goes on sale in July. But you know what? Don’t worry about it; the current model is such a cracking little thing that so long as you drive a hard bargain you’ll not be disappointed.

Some cars are more spacious inside, others have more up-to-date technology, some are safer – but none drive as well as the Fiesta, as Jeremy Clarkson finds with the Zetec S Red Edition. It’s eager and responsive, composed on long drives yet as a quick and agile as a motorcycle courier around town.

The three-cylinder, 80PS (79bhp) engine is no ball of fire. But it sounds pleasant enough and if need be you can opt for the more expensive, turbocharged EcoBoost version. But when the regular motor makes the car so cheap to buy and frugal to run, why bother?

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2017 Renault Clio Play TCe 90 Eco 5dr, £14,265

  • Fuel economy 67.3mpg
  • CO2 94g/km
  • Road tax before April 1, 2017 Free
  • Road tax after April 1, 2017 £120 for first year, then £140

WITH ITS chic dress sense and affordable prices, the Clio is as tempting as pavement table outside one of those utterly brilliant Parisian bistros that the locals never tell anyone else about.

Recently facelifted, this version of the Clio achieves its impressive fuel economy with the addition of the ECO pack, which brings taller gearing, low rolling resistance tyres and a lighter plastic tailgate. The turbocharged, three-cylinder engine is positively brimming with character compared to a hum-drum diesel, and the car rides, steers and handles with a surprisingly grow-up feel.

There’s also a healthy amount of space in the cabin, and the boot will hold more than a baguette or two. All in all, it’s a good package. Read our full review, here.

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2017 Audi A1 1.0 TFSI Sport 95PS Sportback, £17,465

  • Fuel economy 67.3mpg
  • CO2 97g/km
  • Road tax before April 1, 2017 Free
  • Road tax after April 1, 2017 £120 for first year, then £140

IF YOU want a small, affordable car that oozes big-car build quality and has a posh badge on its nose, look no further than the Audi A1. This pint-size Audi has brought thousands of new drivers to the German car maker’s showrooms, and the majority have left as owners of an A1.

What do they like? Probably the fact that the interior feels just as well made as that of a £130,000 R8. It’s also a good looking little hatchback, which stands out from the Fords, Hyundais, Kias and Renaults of this world.

But most of all, they’re attracted by the A1’s numbers. The three-cylinder, turbocharged petrol model is claimed to return up to 67mpg, and it’s so clean it’s exempt from road tax – until April, at least.

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The best eco-friendly petrol-powered family hatchbacks


2017 Volkswagen Golf S 1.4 TSI 125PS 5dr, £19,320

  • Fuel economy 54.3mpg
  • CO2 120g/km
  • Road tax before April 1, 2017 Free for first year, £30 thereafter
  • Road tax after April 1, 2017 £160 for first year, then £140

JEREMY Clarkson summed up the universal appeal of the Volkswagen Golf when reviewing it for Driving. “The Golf is a byword for everything you really need from a car. It’s the answer to every motoring question that’s been asked. You’re a young tearaway and you want something fun? Buy a Golf GTI. You’re a family man who needs a sensible second car? Buy a Golf diesel. You need to carry big loads? Buy a Golf estate. You’re a teacher and you want something cheap and reliable to get you to the classroom every morning? Buy a second-hand Golf. You really, really want to get cracking and you live in Zermatt? Buy a Golf R.”

You get the picture. It really is a Jack of all trades, and when fitted with the 1.4-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine, it manages to move at more than a snail’s enough pace when the family is aboard while sipping small amounts of petrol. An updated model will be in showrooms imminently, but even so, the Golf is a class-leading car.

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2017 Audi A3 1.4 TFSI SE Sportback, £22,595

  • Fuel economy 61.4mpg
  • CO2 107g/km
  • Road tax before April 1, 2017 Free for first year, £20 thereafter
  • Road tax after April 1, 2017 £140 per year

IF A Golf is something of a common sight in your eyes, try the Audi A3 Sportback. The five-door hatchback is equally practical, feels upmarket when you’re sitting in it and drives almost as well as the Golf. Its 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine will return up to 61mpg, and has a useful helping of pulling power low in the rev range – peaking at just 1,500rpm – to make for effortless progress.

As with the Golf, there are all sorts of engines, gearboxes and trim levels to pick from. But to our mind, the 1.4 SE in the five-door body makes for an ideal everyday car that should be a pleasure to live with.

Driving recently ran an extended test of an Audi A3 e-tron, and you can read all about our experiences here. It’s a lot more expensive than a diesel or, for that matter, a regular petrol-engined model. But when driven in EV (electric vehicle) mode, there are no local emissions, which may be appealing to some drivers.

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2017 Mini Cooper Clubman, £20,205

  • Fuel economy 55.4mpg
  • CO2 118g/km
  • Road tax before April 1, 2017 Free for first year, £30 thereafter
  • Road tax after April 1, 2017 £160 for first year, then £140

IF YOU subscribe to the view that most modern cars are boring, take a test drive of a Mini Cooper Clubman. It’s fun to drive, packed with personality, the interior design is positively daring compared with most family hatchbacks and it’s got as much back seat space as an Audi A3 Sportback or VW Golf.

The three-cylinder turbocharged engine puts a skip in the Clubman’s step, and the steering and roadholding and better than Minis of old, which tended to be too hyperactive for some drivers’ tastes.

The boot doors, which open outwards like barn doors, are controversial, but once you’ve tried them you’ll get the hang of them. And they make loading the weekly shop a whole lot more interesting.

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2017 Toyota Auris Active 1.8 VVT-I HybridSynergy Drive 5dr, £20,895

  • Fuel economy 80.7mpg
  • CO2 79g/km
  • Road tax before April 1, 2017 Free
  • Road tax after April 1, 2017 £90 for first year, then £130

WE WON’T try and kid you: the Toyota Auris is not the most exciting car in the world to look at, sit in or drive. But just look at that claimed fuel economy figure: 80.7mpg! It’s better than most diesel-powered hatchbacks. As ever, achieving such feats of frugality is no mean feat, but own an Auris and you’d have time to practice.

The hybrid powertrain consists of a 1.8-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine and a battery-powered electric motor that can propel the car up to 44mph before the petrol engine lends a hand.

It’s no niche model, either. In Europe, it has accounted for more than half the Auris models sold. And finally, it’s built in Britain, if that matters to you.

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The best eco-friendly petrol-powered SUVs


2017 Peugeot 3008 1.2 PureTech 130 Stop/Start Active, £23,195

  • Fuel economy 55.4mpg
  • CO2 117g/km
  • Road tax before April 1, 2017 Free for first year, £30 thereafter
  • Road tax after April 1, 2017 £160 for first year, then £140

AFTER TESTING the latest generation 3008, we concluded that Peugeot was right to have morphed it from a people carrier (MPV) to a faux-by-four, or SUV. It brings the car type du jour to the French car maker’s showrooms, and of its kind, this is a good ‘un.

The big surprise is its 1.2-litre petrol engine. In a five seat family SUV, you’d be forgiven for expecting it to struggle to pull the skin off a rice pudding. But the three-cylinder motor is eager as a puppy and brimming with character, yet refined, too. More importantly, its peak pulling power is developed at a low 1,750rpm, so it doesn’t need to be worked hard to make progress, meaning you’l stand a better chance of getting somewhere near its 55mpg combined fuel economy figure.

The ride is exceedingly comfortable in the tradition of the best French cars, and its cabin and notably its boot are much more accommodating than a Nissan Qashqai. Give it a try.

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2017 Mazda CX-5 2.0 SE-L Nav 5dr, £23,195

  • Fuel economy 47.1mpg
  • CO2 139g/km
  • Road tax before April 1, 2017 £130 a year
  • Road tax after April 1, 2017 £200 for first year, then £140

DRIVING likes the CX-5 for a simple reason: it feels good to drive. There’s a lot more to the family SUV than that, but when you distil everything down, that’s what makes one car stand head and shoulders above the rest.

There are four-wheel drive models available, but you know what? You probably don’t need it. Stick with a 2-litre, two-wheel drive petrol and you’ll have a sweet-handling car that is capable of returning up to 47mpg. Mazda’s Skyactive weight-reducing technology is the key here, with this 1,345kg SUV returning the kind of petrol economy that would have been unheard of a few years ago.

An all-new model will be coming to showrooms soon, so drive a hard bargain and we’re pretty sure you’ll enjoy the drive.

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