i tried the hyundia and kia route for abit. the price of the timing belts and frequent interval of changes really killed it for me. That and alot of the parts are dealer only.
i liked the cavalier but around here its near impossible to find one that isnt rusted out. even the newest ones all had rust around the fenders. I did find the saturn to be very close to a cavilier in terms of driving and economy. either car would be a good choice though i never did see many manual cavaliers. both cars have timing chains to. i just did a complete brake job on the saturn. all 4 rotors and pads were about 75 bucks. cheapest brake job i ever did. most of its parts tend to fall into that cheap catagory.
the cavaliers have the 2.2 liter as the saturns (I think) have a 1.9 liter.
my cavalier is yielding around the 35 mark and I have seen as high as 37 during the summer. it is also ~13 years old and is getting ready to turn over 206K miles. you can do better mileage wise with a stick but I am doing that with an auto trans.
cavs in my area are pretty cheap. I have really considered getting rid of mine for a newer model but can't bring myself to get rid of a good running car regardless of (odometer) mileage.
the design of the saturn engines is different as most burn oil but it is a known problem and it isn't seals or anything. I have been told it has to do with piston design and the rings. most just keep extra oil in the car and live with it. they last a really long time too and get better mileage than cavs that I have seen.
good luck in your search.
Be the change you wish to see in the world
I have a '97 Escort wagon actually I own 4 Escorts and my mom is giving the '94 Escort that my dad used as his daily driver before his death which will make 5, but anyway getting back to the subject my '97 wagon has a 5 speed manual tranny and I can get about 32-34 mpg driving in combined city/highway driving if I watch traffic situations and keep the speed at 55 or below. If you have a good bit of highway driving you should be able to do better. I have got as high as 49.85 mpg on it driving with the c/c set at 55 on the interstate, but that was on a cool summer day when no a/c was needed, but I've driven under the same conditions with the a/c before and got 44-45 mpg. I've found the Escorts to be pretty reliable and most replacement parts for them are pretty cheap. Another thing good about the Escort over lots of other smaller cars is that it has a non interference engine which will do no engine damage in the event that the timing belt ever breaks. I've had 2 timing belts break on my '88 Escort Pony over the years I've owned it and both times I just lined up the timing marks and put a new belt on and it was ready to go again. It currently has 513K miles on the original 1.9L engine and 4 speed manual tranny without any rebuilds. So guess which car I suggest!!!! The Escorts are also pretty easy cars to work on if you do your own mechanical work. The main things that don't last well on the Escorts are the outer tie rod ends, but you can buy new ones at Auto Zone with a lifetime warranty pretty cheap. I think for the '88 they are about $12-$15 each, but mine have been lifetime warranty for years so I just take the old parts back and get new ones when they wear out and they are simple to change.
I would say a Ford Aspire would be a good one to seek.
Cost me $900 (After replacing the tires and fixing the A/C. Before that it was $700)
And I'm averaging about 39 MPG with it, city/highway mix. The 1997 was OBDII compliant.
The Aspire was the third highest MPG car you could get in the 90's, behind the Geo Metro and the Civic VX. The problem with the Metro is you can't find one with a stick and A/C. The problem with the VX, you can't find one for less than $2k.
My best friend's dad had a Metro with a stick and a/c. He used it as a commuter car, and after about 200,000 miles he junked it because it needed about $500 in repairs, and at the time he didn't feel the car was worth putting that much money into. It still ran well though - he drove it to the junkyard.
I know that I was looking all over the place for a metro with a stick and A/C, and none of the examples were anything close to good condition, or anywhere close at all. They are just so rare. Almost all the A/C metros had an auto, and almost all the Stick metros had no A/C.
I wouldn't go with a Metro anyway. Too small. I've got to have 4 doors at least and it's got to be comfortable (which is why AC is a requirement.) If all I wanted was pure MPG and I didn't care about comfort or safety, I have a motorcycle that can get 50+ MPG even if I ride it hard. 30 - 35 mpg in mixed driving is perfectly acceptable to me because that's still double the 14 - 17 I get in my 4runner.