I will no doubt be castigated again for my parochial, archaic American viewpoint. Some of us do not consider the absolute utmost in fuel economy to be the top selling point. If I were planning to spend most of my time on a high-speed road such as the Motorway, I'd be looking for a larger, heavier, sturdier car than any econobox. While crashes are less frequent on those types of road, when they do occur they tend to be more violent because of the higher speeds.
Given the amount of money you say you have, you are not going to be buying the latest and greatest of anything. I'd be running what we here call a life-cycle cost analysis. I'd be factoring in such things as purchase cost, insurance cost, taxes of whatever sort you have there, fuel cost, maintenance costs, and so on.
I'm not going to comment on Diesel versus petrol, primarily to avoid flak from a strong Diesel proponent hereon. Suffice it to say I bought a gasoline powered vehicle. And while it might be considered bashing, a French or Italian vehicle would be way down on my list.
You're entitled to your opinion Charon, but the UK, and most of Europe is very different to the US. Europe has been making small cars for decades, they are pretty good at it now, you can expect all the performance, safety and refinement now that you used to only get in larger cars. Most of the small cars get 5/5 stars for safety, the new Jeep Compass only got 2/5 although I appreciate the safety tests are different. On the subject of safety, as you say, accidents on UK Motorways are rare, of the almost 3000 people killed on UK roads every year (40% of those being motocyclists) only around 135 are killed on Motorways.
And for someone who travels alot on the motorway, diesel is better for long distance travelling, and would be cheaper to run in the long term in respect to economy, maintenance, tax insurance etc.
As I have said before, Europe leads the way in small economical cars because of high fuel prices. They have been made at least since car manufacture became possible after WWII, and in response to the demands of buyers have been made safer and more luxurious. Fuel prices are (relatively) low in the USA, so small cars don't sell well. As CAFE standards take hold cars become smaller and more efficient, and the public moves away from them in droves toward SUVs and pickup trucks. The buyers speak.
A few days ago there was a spot on our Public Radio station about economical diesels, along with wondering why they "aren't available in the USA." The simple answer is that they don't sell. I don't know of any French imports, and about the only Italian imports are such as Ferrari. Now of course with the Fiat/Chrysler merger we are seeing the Fiat 500, which is also a slow seller. From Germany we get VW, Audi (owned by VW), BMW, and Mercedes. Except for VW none have major market shares, largely because they are seen as high-priced luxury cars. None sell many diesels, even of their market share.
For whatever reasons, diesel fuel is more expensive here than gasoline (petrol). The Federal tax is higher on diesel, for one thing. Diesels are usually more economical, although in seriously cold weather they have their drawbacks. It is usually harder to find diesel fuel, too, probably because diesel cars are fairly unusual. A person driving a diesel VW feels a little intimidated mixing with the 18-wheelers at a truck stop.
They dont sell because 1. There arent enough available on the US market, and those that are probably are not advertised 2. Many Americans, yourself included perhaps, have a very old fashioned attitude overflowing with sceptism in regards to diesels 3. As you say, fuel prices are low in the US so environmental benefits aside, saving money every year by cutting fuel costs is not a priority for most people in the US.
You also have to remember that some towns, villages and settlements here date back several thousands of years, buildings may have changed and expanded but the road layouts remain as they were long before cars existed. Small. cars will always be more popular here where streets are very narrow and parking spaces are hard to come by.
I have recently been considering switching to a diesel car, I worked out it would save me roughly £1500, thats around $2500 a year on fuel, tax and insurance. Over a decade thats $25,000, quite a big saving. I only do around 8000 miles a year, so the savings would be even higher for people who do a lot of miles.
Between three years in England, four in the Netherlands, two in Turkey (technically Asia), and one in Greece I think I am reasonably familiar with road conditions there. I also know about the fuel prices, although as an American serviceman we got ration cards for cheaper fuel. I admit my time there was decades ago.
Some time ago I got into a discussion on another forum, with a person who felt that the Prius was the be-all and end-all of economical cars. At that time I had a '94 Pontiac Sunbird, which had averaged about 29 miles per US gallon for tens of thousands of miles. I ran the numbers using the trade-in value of the Sunbird toward purchase of a Prius, using my known mpg and the EPA estimate of the mpg on the Prius. Figuring maintenance and insurance as a wash, and ignoring the higher taxes on the Prius, it would have taken me over 400,000 miles of driving to break even. Here in Nebraska we don't have so-called carbon taxes - the annual tax is based on the resale value of the vehicle. Except that the Sunbird got rear-ended and totalled by a lady in a Prius, I'd probably still be driving it. In fact, it was totalled for almost unnoticeable body damage, and its new owner is quite happy with it.
I had been trying to sell it anyway, because the driver's seat was so shaped as to be giving me back problems. As it was, the damage estimate was about $4300; the car's book retail was $2500. The insurance company told me the salvage value was $450. I took the $2500 less the $450 and donated the car to the local school for their shop kids to work on. They insisted on paying me the salvage value, then sold the car after they played with it for $995 to one of the students. Win - win. The profit they made went into their Power Drive program, which is sponsored by Omaha Public Power District and is a program where students build and then race electric cars.
By the way, the title never left my hands until the school got it, so the title is "clean" and not marked that the car was totalled. The new buyer was told, though.