I'm sorry, does that sign say $1.40/litre? Argh! I'm getting this horrible shooting pain -- in my wallet!
So it was earlier this week as I refuelled my Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution tester, just prior to returning it. In many ways the Evo was one of the best cars I've ever driven (watch for an upcoming review soon), with mongoose-quick reflexes and ample turbocharged power. On the other hand, it swilled premium fuel like a glutton, almost as though somebody had drilled a hole in the fuel tank.
So there I stood, paying well over a buck-and-a-half a litre for premium, silently willing the pump to click off as the numbers on the display rolled relentlessly on, ceasing to resemble a fuel bill so much as the GDP of a small European nation. This is ridiculous, I thought; sure the Evo was a barrel of laughs, but was it worth the petroleum-based hangover?
No. It isn't, and here's why: Five of the best fuel-efficient, cheapskate runabouts that are still a hoot-and-a-half in the handling department.
It's fitting we start this reasonably-priced roundup with a Mazda: more than any other company, Mazda builds cars that are cheap thrills. Not to knock their build-quality either -- that's top notch -- just that Mazdas often provide a level of driving pleasure that's unmatched by the big-budget badges.
So it is with the diminutively cute Mazda2, which boasts a humble 100 horsepower 1.5-litre engine and a somewhat plain-jane interior. No matter, this car is within a few pounds of the original Miata, and every single one of those ponies under the hood is a friendly nag that nuzzles your palm and only nibbles at the fuel trough.
The '2 is an absolute blast to pilot, a real driver-focused car with great sightlines and fantastic steering. It's not that fast in a straight line, what with the teeny-tiny engine, but it corners with gumption and will put a grin on your face that's as big as the one on its grille.
THE HYUNDAI VELOSTER
It's time to stop talking about Hyundai in terms of how far they've come since a decade ago. Sure, were there an automotive award for Most Improved, the Korean company would be first in line; thing is, they're first in line anyways. For design, performance and technology, Hyundai's rapidly becoming a benchmark brand.
Here's their latest, though you're probably just starting to see them on the roads. It's called the Veloster, and as the name implies, it's a zippy little rig.
Lighter than a Mini Cooper, and equipped with a direct injection 1.6-litre engine that produces an impressive 138 h.p., the Veloster posts up some pretty lively performance figures for its class. But what is its class anyway?
With three asymmetrical doors, big alloy wheels and some very edgy styling, the Veloster is sort of a funky grand-tourer for the urban set. It's hip-and-happenin' with a full suite of impressive tech, and will get you noticed in a number of eye-searing shades of paint.
THE HONDA FIT
Quick, what's a synonym for "athletic"? That's right: Fit!
It's a, um, fitting name for Honda's hot little hatchback, which channels the spirit of the CRX much better than its more-stylish stablemate, the CR-Z. It's also more practical, with four doors and an enormous amount of trunk space with the seats folding flat into the floor.
You can cram a staggering amount of stuff into a Fit -- you'd think its DNA was part moving van -- but it's the way it drives that's the real treat. Like the Mazda2, it's got a small-displacement 1.5-litre engine that sips fuel. However, in true Honda fashion, this revvy little mill is a real screamer, and pumps out 117 h.p. with its i-VTEC valve-control system.
The Fit is equal amounts of fun in automatic or manual, and while it may overlap in cost with the Civic (its theoretical big brother), it's a more flexible car, and perhaps the better buy.
THE FIAT 500
Motoring pizzazz is not just about the driving dynamics. Sometimes you need to have something with a little curb appeal. This endearing ride will have you glancing fondly over your shoulder every time you park it. Ciao, bella!
The 500's underpinnings are from the rather prosaic Fiat Panda: a nice little car that's as boring as a pair of sensible shoes. Still, the Panda's best bits are its decent chassis and efficient 1.4-litre engine and the 500 makes good use of both.
What's more, it's a beautiful wee car, arguably more attention-getting than something far more expensive like an Aston-Martin. People smile at you when you're in a 500 -- and the 500 smiles back at them.
One caveat: the automatic transmission makes for a good cruiser, but the spirit of this car really demands the five-speed manual, preferably shifted at high r.p.m. while gesticulating wildly and shouting at everyone. Andiamo!
THE VOLKSWAGEN GOLF TDI
Here's the thing about a modern turbo-diesel engine. While you might see some pretty good numbers from any one of the preceding small gasoline engines, you'll have to nurse them along gently to get maximum economy. The diesel, on the other hand, couldn't care less how hard you are on the go pedal.
So it is with the Golf Tdi. At once you get that splendid Germanic handling feel that VWs are famous for, and in the next breath you also get miserly fuel economy, even if you drive with some spirit. It's good enough to have you wondering why more manufacturers don't bring over their diesel options.
One reason could possibly be cost: TDi models are at a price premium from the regular Golf. Still, it's an investment that pays back at the pump, particularly if you've got plenty of highway miles to cover on your commute.
Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column, or would be interested in having your car club featured, please contact him at email@example.com. Follow Brendan on Twitter: @brendan_mcaleer.