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Here is one company that has pressed forward to take a lead in electric plug-in car design, more detail of which is contained later in this feature.

At Nissan the options for ultra-economy remain with the Micra and the Tiida. Neither product has really taken the market by storm, although both are pleasant and functional. Interestingly the more "out there' styling of the Micra hasn't precluded it from being on the purchase list of the older buyer Capable, well built and competitively priced, it's unfortunately nothing special and is due for upgrade. Tiida only just squeezes in at 7.6 1/1 OOkms, Its electric plug-In Leaf hasn't yet quite made it to market,

Over to France and manufacturer Peugeot is currently readjusting its product range with upgrades and replacement models. It was this car maker that was largely responsible for the early growth period of diesel engined smaller cars on our market and it remains a manufacturer of cars with flair and innovative design. A little more effort is needed here before it will become an award contender.

Citroen is probably one step ahead of Peugeot at present although there's every likelihood the gap will close. Excellent but not exceptional product means Citroen becomes a brand enthusiasts regular purchase, much In the same way as Inspector Maigret made his decision for the Citroen Traction Avant.

Volvo may be going through a mid-life crisis at present with a change of ownership from Ford to that of a new Chinese parent Geely. But that's no reason to overlook its great product range that has really redefined where this company ranks In the Australian market

In the quest for ECOcar of the Year we drove the Volvo S40 extensively and came away in the firm belief that the more you drive it, the more you like It, Spend a week driving this highly versatile Swede and you'll be convinced of its advantages.

Sharing the same 2.0 litre diesel four cylinder and six-speed automated manual transmission with Ford's Focus, you might expect it to be a very similar car to drive. You'd be totally wrong.

The Volvo ride and handling is on a totally higher plain than that of Its Ford relation. The engine feels different, the AMT transmission works perfectly and way the Volvo corners, brakes and accelerates make this sedan one of the absolute nicest on the market. Steering control is via an electro-hydraulic system and it's direct, sharp and delightful.

The 0-100 km/h acceleration time Is under 10 seconds and with dynamic stability control, traction control, anti-dive, anti-lift function, a multi-link independent rear suspension, ABS and EBD it's not only Impressive, it imbues a higher safety standard on its driver and occupants than we've experienced in any other vehicle in this class.

Fuel efficiency is not quite outstanding at 6.0 l/100kms but with a new 1.6 litre just heading onto availability in our market it could be enough to lift sales and appeal yet further It doesn't make ECOcar of the year this time around, but it Is certainly a car to consider.

Holden's latest entry into this competitive world is the Cruze diesel. As mentioned in the four car comparison in this issue, the Cruze offers a lot, but also brings with it certain shortcomings that hold it from attaining top spot. It remains a good all round package with much to commend it.

Volkswagen's Golf has been winning awards left, right and centre and, like you, we've read glowing reports on Its design, fuel efficiency and engine and transmission. But, unlike many of our motoring media colleagues, at ECOcar we don't think the Golf Is sufficiently outstanding to leapfrog Into first place. Golf nearly makes the top notch but in our view it just falls a little short.

Can that car be yet another Volkswagen, this time the new Polo? With all the build quality and reputation of VW and with superbly economical engines the "Mini-Golf" certainly impresses all that drive It and It ticks a lot of the boxes for selection criteria.

Although the engineering ability Is unquestionably good, the Polo just doesn't provide the "Wow Factor" that we are looking for to make a stand out performer. Polo is capable, functional and well designed. The DSG transmission in our opinion still has major shortcomings In stop/start heavy traffic plus It's overly expensive to purchase, service and maintain. It's also our view that the current pitch of the Polo TV ad campaign is not going to assist the Polo in gaining a marketing edge. Rather than projecting its attributes of economy and efficiency to potential customers, It's a totally wasted effort that fails to get any eco message across to the consumer.

Skoda's products are actually more Interesting than those of VW, even though they share the same parent. Perhaps the Czechs are a little more resistant to the tight German structures placed on vehicle design, but for whatever the reason, the Octavla and Superb are worthy contenders. But at the final roll out, close enough isn't necessarily good enough.

In mentioning Toyota we must pay tribute to the company that more than any other has pursued the advantages of hybrid technology and stayed with the project as it gained expertise and ability. With a stated goal of producing a hybrid version of every model in Its order book It's been a tremendous drive through the development process to the point today where the Camry hybrid is manufactured in Australia. Where Prlus started the trip, the Camry continues.

But while Toyota undoubtedly deserves its reputation for reliability, dependability and low cost of ownership, along the way It has missed out when it comes to providing ground breaking technology. The hybrid drive system can be extremely beneficial for some road users and virtually irrelevant for others, dependent on the type of driving completed. Toyota's designers need some new enthusiasm to add driving fun to its portfolio. Once they remember that driving Is something to enjoy and not to endure they'll be unbeatable.

And now to the electric option.

Mitsubishi's IMIEV Is a plug-In hybrid that's due to hit the showrooms of Australia shortly, bringing electric motoring to the masses. And it brings with it an overwhelming series of reasons as to why it could be a worthy winner.

This zero pollutant offers precise ride and handling around town with interior space for four adults, very good access and egress, zippy performance and plenty of headroom. ^

The technology provides for enough range to suit the metropolis, enough power and performance to satisfy any urban commuter and when you're not driving It will earn revenue by selling Its electricity back to the grid for use in peak demand times. >

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