THE BARGAIN BASEMENT: 5 FUN CARS FOR LESS THAN £1000!
Something that motoring writers are all too often accused of, and to be honest, guilty of, is being a bit detached from reality when it comes to the cost of the cars they write about. I'll hold my hand up now and admit that I'm as bad as anyone else. I'll spend the day tooling around in someone else's RS4 and walk away from it going "Wow! I can't believe this car is only £80,000!" And everyone else will say "Shut up you idiot."
Okay, so not everyone is going to be buying the latest fast Audi, but even the 'cheapest' of new performance cars such as the Volkswagen up! GTI will set you back over £14,000, which make no mistake, is a huge amount of money. Of course, the rise of car financing in recent years has helped to make new cars more affordable. But what about the people who, perhaps through no fault of their own, can't get approved for finance? Or the people who would simply rather own their cars outright?
With that in mind, I took a look at what's on offer for a petrolhead at the most affordable end of the used car market. I set myself three rules: 1. The car must be advertised for £1000 or less, 2. The car must have a valid MOT so it can be legally driven in the UK, and 3. The car must be able to be driven and used straight away, so no non-runners or project cars in a million pieces.
So, with the rules in place I set off into the classifieds to search for five cars that would appeal to the enthusiast on a tight budget. Here's what I found!
2001 Toyota MR-2 Roadster - £990
Every single list of 'affordable' cars ever written seems to feature the Mazda MX-5. Now there's no denying that the Mazda is a lovely thing to drive, there's also no denying that early MX-5's do love to rust away in some rather surprising places. So, with that in mind how about one of it's deadliest rivals from the early 00's instead? The third-generation Toyota MR-2 was a total departure from the much-loved sleek coupe that it replaced, looking more like a Boxster that had been shrunk on Microsoft Paint.
It might not be as iconic a sports car as the Mazda, but look what you get for the money! A rear-drive sports car with the engine in the middle, a short-throw six-speed manual gearbox, and a roof that folds away in a flash. The 1.8 litre naturally aspirated engine is taken from the contemporary Celica and is good for 140 BHP, meaning 0-60 is dispatched in a respectable 7.9 seconds, top speed is 130 MPH.
Alright, so we can see a few scrapes on the bodywork of this example, and the ad mentions there is no service history. But the mileage is low at just 76k and Toyota reliability is of course the stuff of legend. Not a bad start!
1997 Peugeot 406 3.0 V6 - £695
I'll be honest with you. I had lined up a lovely Skoda Octavia vRS to slot in here. It was an absolute belter, full history, low miles and a bit of light fettling to pump that 20 valve turbo motor up to over 200 horsepower. Cushty.
But then, whilst I was trawling through the second-hand ads, I came across this total gem. A car so rare that I had started to wonder if I had imagined driving one many years ago.
This Peugeot 406 may look like the most boring car you have ever set eyes on, but that my friends is all part of it's appeal. Back in the 90's, whilst Ford, Vauxhall, Rover and everyone else went about fitting their family saloons with BTCC-style spoilers, mesh grilles, and 34-inch alloys. Peugeot simply plucked the 3.0 litre 24-valve V6 from their pretty Pininfarina-designed coupe, and dropped it into the 406 saloon.
The 406 was always a nice car to drive, from back when Peugeot really knew what they were doing with a chassis. But the V6 was on another level. Despite being endowed with a lusty 210 BHP, where a Mondeo V6 managed a paltry 168, there was little in the way of torque-steer. Just a creamy-smooth wave of power, sublime steering and the comfiest ride this side of a sedan chair. We rave about the 106, 205 and 306 GTi's and this 406 is just as good as it's smaller siblings.
According to howmanyleft.com there are just 48 manual Peugeot 406 V6's on the roads of Britain today. That makes this car less common than a Ferrari F12tdf, of which there are 61. All for less than 700 quid. Suck on that Gordon Ramsay.
2001 MG ZR 160 - £900
Come on, who doesn't love a hot hatchback? The MG name may be a shadow of it's former self, slapped unceremoniously onto the noses of some of the shonkiest tat to arrive on these shores since Proton went west. But even in it's dying days, and with a budget of about £3, the old MG could still produce something rather special when they tried, and this ZR 160 is the proof.
The ZR, for those not in the know, was in essence a spiced-up version of the Rover 25 that your Granny drove to church on Sundays. But this was much more than a big rims and bodykit special. The chassis and suspension was given a makeover by the MG X-Power racing team, the brakes were taken from the MGF Trophy Roadster and so was the engine, a 160 BHP VVT screamer derived from the K-Series motor that not only powered MG's of the time, but the Lotus Elise too.
On the inside there was no getting away from the fact that this was a fairly ancient car, even by the standards of 2001, when this early ZR was made, it was dated. But who needs soft-touch plastics when you can hit 60 in just 7.4 seconds? It wasn't just the performance either, where the contemporary Golf GTi was soft, the MG was nimble and agile. Where the Focus ST170 was lethargic, the MG would rev willingly, with a VTEC-style surge when it was fully lit.
Alright, it isn't quite up there with the Clio 182 or Civic Type R as best hot hatch of the time. But it gets bloody close, and for £900, that's good enough.
2000 Mercedes-Benz S320 CDI - £995
Looking for something a little more luxurious? Well, if you're feeling brave try this on for size. This Mercedes S-Class would have set its original owner back over £50,000 but thanks to the magic of depreciation, this 18 year old model can be yours for less than a fiftieth of that.
It isn't even a stupidly thirsty V8 either, you're looking at a fully loaded 320 CDI, with the 197 BHP V6 turbo diesel engine and five-speed auto 'box it'll do both 144 MPH and 35 MPG, although probably not at the same time.
It's probably worthwhile pointing out that this is a complex car, even by modern standards. It has air suspension, heated and ventilated seats, sat nav, and even an electrically-operated rear window blind. So the spectre of big maintenance bills is one that will loom large over any used S-Class owner. But when it's working, and they do tend to be pretty reliable, you'll be living the champagne lifestyle for Tesco Value lemonade money.
1998 Jeep Cherokee 4.0 LTD 4x4 - £695
As they say in some TV show I've never watched, "Winter is coming." And with that in mind, our list wouldn't be complete without a rough 'n' tumble SUV. There are plenty of four wheel drive cars out there for well under our £1k budget, but in a sea of ratty Freelanders and dreary CR-V's only one really spoke to me.
I don't really go in for Jeeps. The current range is nothing to write home about and when people start talking to me about Willys MB's I'm afraid I start to nod off. For some reason though, I really do quite like the early Cherokee, and this one looks to be a little beauty.
I do mean 'little' as well, this model of Cherokee is far more compact than you might think. It's also surprisingly car-like to drive compared to it's rivals at the time. With a 190 horsepower four-litre straight six up front, you won't be winning many economy awards, but you will at least be able to keep up on the motorway without deafening yourself. It can cope in the rough stuff too, with full time 4WD and a low range gearbox. It's no show pony.
And yes, I know it has a big dent in the front wing, but it's probably more aerodynamic that way.