FIVE ALTERNATIVE FIRST CARS FOR REAL WORLD BUDGETS
Your first set of wheels should be affordable, but it shouldn't be embarrassing.
It's one of the most exciting things you can experience. You've had the lessons, the interminable hours of plodding around housing estates in a dreary hatchback, the hundreds upon hundreds of practice parallel parking manoeuvres (usually right in front my driveway when I want to go out, thanks). You've even done the stupid theory test with it's idiotic 'Hazard Perception' video, and now the examiner has put down his clipboard, turned to you and uttered the words that you've been longing to hear.
"Congratulations, you've passed your driving test."
You're thrilled. You've worked hard, practiced and now it's all paid off. You've got your passport to freedom, and when you get home your Mum and Dad are standing by the garage door, beaming with pride and brandishing the keys to some horrendous cackbox like the one pictured below.
The Suzuki Celery. So dull that the most exciting description the people who made it could think of was "Global A-segment model"...
Yep, it's a crushingly dull, indescribably ugly potting shed with sofa wheels nailed on. The 0.1 litre engine is less powerful than the Somalian submarine fleet, it's got fewer toys than a bankrupt sex shop and most importantly of all the stereo system is so rubbish that all your tunes sound like Neil Armstrong broadcasting from the surface of the Moon.
Now I'm sure such a car is going to be safe in an accident, which your parents will be pleased about. I also have no doubts that it'll be cheap to insure and use literally no petrol at all. But let's face it. You don't want a car like this as your first set of wheels. Besides, when you actually look at the figures, even the weediest new car isn't that cheap. That Suzuki Cemetery for example, is £8000, and if you are a student that's a lot of cash. Actually, it's a lot of cash even if you're not.
So. What's to be done then? Well, I wondered if by ferreting about in the classifieds, I could find five cars suitable for a new driver that you wouldn't be embarrassed to be seen it. I set a budget of £4000, half what you'd need to stump up for the Suzuki. The cars I chose had to be in good condition, no rustbuckets or death-traps. They had to be feasible to insure for a young person for less than £1 million, and most importantly of all, they had to be cool enough to make your mates a bit jealous. Here we go then...
2005 Mercedes-Benz C160 Evolution Coupe - For the style conscious
I'm kicking things off here with a bit of a left-field choice. But think about it for a minute, imagine turning up at college and parking up next to your friends in their Fiestas and Micras in your very own Mercedes-Benz coupe.
Alright, so it's not exactly a C63, but this 2005 C160 Coupe is a top-spec 'Evo' model and has leather seats, the best looking alloy wheels, climate control, and the very necessary automatic gearbox (manual Mercedes' are just wrong). This is a later C-Coupe, and so shouldn't be blighted by the rust issues that affected the earlier cars. The 122 horsepower engine offers a decent blend of performance and economy.
You might be thinking "What about the insurance? I bet a Merc will cost a bomb at my age!" Granted, it won't be cheap. But that's why I've picked this car which even with just 79k miles on the clock is priced at just £2000, leaving two grand in the bank for your first years insurance!
2002 Mazda MX-5 Mk2 - For the JDM lovers
A predictable choice maybe, but what group of affordable motors would be complete without a Mazda MX-5? This 54,000 mile car looks great in black and even comes with the optional hard to for the winter. With the smaller 1.6 litre engine it'll still provide all the driving thrills the little Mazda is famed for, but the running costs will be easier for new drivers to stomach than the more powerful 1.8. Plus with only 110 horsepower as opposed to the 1.8's 140, the less experienced are less likely to find themselves oversteering into a hedge.
This MX-5 is currently up for £3490 with a current MOT and full service history. Convertibles are always cheaper in the winter, so snap one up while you can!
2000 Daihatsu Fourtrak 4x4 - For the green laners
I grew up in the countryside and as we all know, if you grow up in the countryside then by law your Dad must own a Land Rover. My old man did, and still does, rattle about in a shonky old 110 Defender and when the time came for me to learn to drive he and all his gnarled and wizened rural-dwelling, ale-drinking mates told me the same thing; "If you want to learn to drive, you'll need a car. If you want to learn to drive properly, you'll need an old Land Rover."
But there's a problem with that. Old Land Rovers are not what you'd call cheap. The most affordable one I could find on Auto Trader is well over our £4k budget. So here, I present to you the alternative. The Daihatsu Fourtrak.
Think of this as a cross between a Defender and a Land Cruiser and you won't be far off. You get the boxy, old school charm of the Landie, with rugged Japanese reliability. Plus unlike a RAV-4 or CR-V, these things are genuine contenders when the going gets muddy. With just 98 BHP from the 2.8 litre diesel engine, the performance is very Defender-esque as well i.e. slow. But hey, that isn't what these cars are about. Fourtraks aren't as common as they once were, but you can pick up a runner from around £1500 rising to around £3500 for a super clean car.
2009 Ford Fiesta Zetec-S - For the hot hatch fans
Fancy a hot hatch? I think we all did when we were 17. They're fast, they're cool, you can take your mates with you and they're small enough that you can easily fit though even the tightest of McDonalds drive-thru's.
Problem is, the insurance companies would rather you didn't have a hot hatch. So for a new driver, getting a quote for less than a million quid on something like a Ford Fiesta ST is nigh on impossible. Car makers like Ford aren't daft, they know there are plenty of people out there who'd love an ST, but are put off by the insurance costs. That's why cars like this Fiesta Zetec-S exist.
The main difference from the ST is that the 1.6 litre engine in this car goes without the turbocharger. Okay, so power is down from the 182 brake you get from an ST, but the 118 horses on offer here are more than enough to have some fun with, especially with a chassis as sweet as the Mk7 Fiesta has. Ford have a history of making some great drivers cars that don't necessarily need to have a million horsepower, remember the old Puma? This is very much in the same vein. This is also the most modern car in our line up, dating from 2009. But because there are so many Fiesta's on the market, prices are always competitive. This red 79k miler will set you back just £3790.
2002 Volvo V70 D5 Estate - For the abstract thinkers
Remember that Top Gear episode from years ago when Clarkson, Hammond and May were trying to find a great first car for a 17-year-old? Well if you do, you'll know that Jeremy chose an old Volvo 740 wagon, and here we have the modern equivalent.
Yeah, I know that most youngsters won't find the idea of a Volvo V70 estate particularly appealing. But lets just think about what you're getting here. This 2002 model has heated leather seats, cruise control, air conditioning, and whilst your mates are plodding around in their one-litre bean cans, you have a 163 horsepower five-cylinder turbodiesel powerhouse under the bonnet to destroy them at every set of lights.
Take it to festivals. Whilst your mates are shivering in a flimsy tent, you can fold down the seats and relax in the comfort of your leather-lined Swedish palace!
Alright, so the insurance might be a bit pricey, but the good news is that you can easily find a decent V70 for upwards of £1000. Still not cool?