Currently reading: The best first cars for enthusiasts
If you’re a petrolhead looking to stand out without paying through the nose for insurance, check out this list

Are you a petrolhead? Are you looking to take your first steps onto the motoring ladder? If so, our list of the best first cars should be your bible.

Well maybe not the bible. But certainly something to study to ensure that your first motor offers plenty of driver involvement, is stylish enough to play your music in and is cheap to insure.

Unlike other lists you might find on Google, ours is for used cars. In other words, stuff you can actually afford to buy.

We’ve pored over the classifieds and run more insurance quotes than we care to remember to put together this definitive guide.

Each car has a unique selling point to mark it out from the other slabs of metal in your average car park. From stylish superminis to hot hatches, there’s a good option here for everyone.

And if you have a bit more money to play with, try our best used cars for enthusiasts article.

Best first cars

1. Mini 3dr Hatch (2006-2013)

The Mini may be one of the most iconic cars in the world, but it also comes with a bit of exclusivity.

No fewer than 13 trim levels were available with a list of colour combinations and options form so extensive that it looked like a child’s Christmas wishlist. This means that no two Minis are likely to be the same, giving you a slice of car-park cachet.

This generation was birthed with the code ‘R56’ – ‘R’ standing for Rover. That doesn’t mean it uses any Rover bits, however, because this endlessly configurable hatchback was reliable with strong build quality and is now available for sensible money, with fully ULEZ-compliant petrol engines no matter which year you pick. Plus, it's in insurance group 17. 

Six engines were offered, ranging from a 1.4-litre petrol to a 2.0-litre diesel. While the diesels are a bit gravelly, they don't detract from the fact that this is a reliable, fun-loving hatch that turns on a 5p piece and is instantly recognisable.

Problems? Practicality is quite poor and some cars have developed gearbox issues after living hard lives; just make sure to listen out for gearbox whine on the test drive.

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2. Toyota Yaris T Sport (2001-2005)

This car was so typically Japanese and one of the last words in unconventional motoring.

When the regular Toyota Yaris arrived, it became Car of the Year thanks to its novel attention to detail, which means the flagship T Sport was built on bedrock foundations.

Less solid are its looks: it hasn't aged quite as well as some others on this list. But it does have some exterior touches to make it look both interesting and endearingly odd at the same time.

Much like the interior, then. The air vents are like pastry cutters, there are huge pockets carved into the dashboard to store your clutter and where you'd expect to see an instrument binnacle there's just plastic, because it has been moved to the left a bit (of course it has!).

By contrast, the engine wasn’t that weird: it's a 1.5-litre atmo petrol. But it was one of the first to have variable valve timing, which enabled it to push out 103bhp and attain a 0-62mph time of 9.0sec. Power was sent to the front wheels via a five-speed manual - the only transmission on offer.

3. Fiat Panda 100HP

Picture a Fiat Panda driver and you’ll probably think of a jolly pensioner on their way to pick up the week’s milk and bread. But your nan’s shopping cart this is not.

In true hot hatch tradition, Fiat transplanted the 1.4-litre dual-overhead-cam from the then-new Grande Punto into its tiddly city car and eked an extra 5bhp out of it, for a total output of 99bhp.

That gives it a surprising turn of pace in real-world conditions because the car weighs a scant 975kg and it has a six-speed gearbox to keep the revs up. 

Its cheeky character is backed by the reworked styling, with an expansive Audi-style front grille, flared arches at each corner, and a dinky spoiler at the back. 

These were remarkably good value for money on the second-hand market for years but have recently achieved cult status so values are climbing. Expect to pay anywhere between £1000 and £6000, with restoration candidates on the lower end and low-mileage collectors’ cars on the higher.

Insurance is rated at group 11, making it one of the most affordable sporty cars to run as a first-timer.

But heed this warning: you need to buy one very carefully, as the number of bespoke parts on the 100HP can make it a nightmare when things go wrong. The rear beam axle, for example, is liable to rust and snap around the springs. It wasn’t used on any other car, and Fiat didn’t build very many 100HPs, so finding a replacement is tricky.

Likewise, you’ll want to be protective of the bodywork. The bumpers are made from recycled plastic so can be tricky to repair – some body shops will outright refuse to attempt a fix – and replacements cost around £400 each on the second-hand market.

But get a good ’un and you’ll own one of the most charismatic small cars of the past 20 years, which you can fully exploit without risking your licence or safety.

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4. Suzuki Swift Sport (2006-2011)

You might not realise it, but the Suzuki Swift Sport is probably one of the archetypical hot hatchbacks - just like the Peugeot 205 GTi or Ford Escort XR3i.

They all have one thing in common: they're normal hatchbacks with a small amount of spice to give them a tasty kick. The Swift Sport, for example, has a 1.6-litre engine and produces 125bhp. It dispatches 62mph in 8.9sec and has a top speed just shy of 124mph. 

Fairly reserved figures, then – but remember that it weighs just 1.1 tonnes, which makes for a hugely attractive power-to-weight ratio if you've just passed your test and need to convince the insurers you know how to drive a car.

The price of used examples is equally reserved, both to buy and when you're going through the insurers. Being in group 23, it's in a slightly higher group than others on this list, but it's still at the lower end.

5. Ford Fiesta Zetec S (2008-2017)

The Ford Fiesta was always going to make this list. It doesn't matter which spec, which year or which price you get one for: beneath a pretty handsome shell lies a fine-handling chassis by which the competition was historically judged for nearly 50 years. You could even go so far as to call it the Porsche 911 of superminis.

The best part is that you can pick one up for pennies. You should, however, buy carefully. Some cars will have been tastelessly modified, and steer clear of cars that look ragged and neglected because you will probably end up paying for more in maintenance than you did for the car.

The very fact that they're favoured by anyone from those who like to drive quickly to those who can't drive at all means insurance costs can get quite steep if you modify them, particularly in expensive areas such as London.

Choosing a car isn't so complicated, because there are loads of examples to go around. The most common engine available is the 120bhp 1.6-litre petrol, which pushes it to 62mph in a little under 10sec with a snappy five-speed gearbox.

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6. Citroën C2 VTR (2003-2009)

The C2 VTR certainly looks the part of a hot hatch with its squat, bulldog-like stance and sharp-edged bodykit.

The spec is promising as well. Early VTRs pack a 1.6-litre four-pot that pushes 108bhp through the front wheels, dispatching the 0-62mph sprint in a respectable 10.9sec. The tyres are fatter, the suspension stiffer and the steering quicker too, making full use of the C2’s lightweight chassis.

This all makes for a pretty nippy package – if not one that's as fun as the Saxo VTR that preceded it. That's because the C2’s lifeless steering and laggy Sensodrive automated manual gearbox ultimately limit driver engagement.

Yet what makes the C2 VTR such a compelling option is the relatively low cost of insurance. The 1.6-litre VTR sits in group 13, while the much wheezier 61bhp 1.1-litre version is down in group three.

C2s are cheap to buy too, with asking prices for 1.6-litre VTRs hovering around £1000-£3000.

We’d also recommend seeking out an example of the C2 GT, which was a bona fide homologation special for the World Rally Championship.

It swapped the tragic Sensodrive ’box for a proper manual shift, and shaved 28kg off the VTR’s kerb weight. It’s a full 1.4sec quicker to 62mph, yet remains in insurance group 13. The only problem? Just 2500 were made, so they’re much harder to track down today.

7. Renault Twingo GT (2008-2014)

The Renaultsport Twingo is often hailed as one of the finest junior hot hatches ever, but it’s the slightly milder GT that you might want to turn your attention to as a new driver.

That’s because the GT sits in insurance group 17 rather than the RS’s 20, making it a slightly more realistic prospect for your first car.

It’s quite nippy too, with a turbocharged 1.2-litre petrol engine sending 99bhp through the front wheels in normal use. Stamp on the throttle in second, third or fourth gear, though, and it’ll overboost for up to a minute at a time, yielding 104bhp.

The Twingo GT is a light car, at 980kg, so it accelerates with surprising verve and handles decently in spite of its soft suspension set-up.

Around £2000 is enough to get you into a decent GT that hasn’t been to the moon and back, making it exceptional value for money in the current car market.

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8. Citroën Saxo VTR (1997-2003)

Sure, it’s a throwback to the bygone days of stuffing superminis with more ’woofer than Crufts, but the Citroën Saxo VTR still stacks up as one of the best entry points to performance motoring.

It has an older version of the 1.6-litre four-pot found in the C2 VTR, pushing out 90bhp. That might not sound very powerful, but it’s only got about 900kg of metal to cart around, so feels surprisingly potent on the open road.

This also plays in its favour in the twisties, where the Saxo can provide an entire education in lift-off oversteer.

Just beware that safety isn’t the car’s strong suit. It was rated at just two stars for occupant protection by Euro NCAP back in 2000, and anti-lock brakes weren’t standard on the VTR either.

You should also buy very carefully. The Saxo was a modder’s favourite back in the day, so plenty were fitted with questionable modifications – and you’ll have to declare any such changes to your insurer, likely incurring considerable costs.

They’re also plenty old enough to suffer from rust. Common problem areas are the rear axle, sills and wheel arches, but give the whole car a thorough check to be on the safe side.

Prices range from £2000 for a leggy car to £7000 and beyond for the best-preserved examples. The Saxo’s well on its way to modern classic status, though, so values are rising fast.

9. Citroën C1 (2005-2014)

Now, which self-respecting enthusiast is going to turn down such competition and plump for the no-frills, boggo Citroën that looks as interesting as bathwater and uses technology developed in tandem with the Gregorian calendar?

Well, those exact reasons are why you should buy one. Think of it as a blank sheet of paper – a cheery starting point for what could become anything you want, from a low-rider to a reliable tool for the uni commute. Or even a race car.

You can buy a conversion kit from a specialist site for £3700 that allows you to convert your bichon frisé into a track-ready pitbull. They look great if they've been modded well and don't cost a fortune to fix, because you won't need to spend that much on buying one in the first place.

It’s also slow, with just one litre of engine capacity. But what you lose on swings, you gain on roundabouts. It’s a joyous car to drive – playful, unintimidating and ready to take a beating.

It can be picked up for even less money than the Fiesta above, and insurance is just as cheap, because it's in group three - one of the lowest on this list.

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10. Volkswagen Up (2012-2016)

This joins our list in the same vein as the C1: it's cheap both to buy and insure, and there are hundreds available for your picking and choosing.

But that doesn't mean it isn't interesting. It has charm. Character. Kudos, even.

Designed by Walter de Silva, once design boss at Alfa Romeo, the Up is one of those rare occurrences of a cheap car made desirable not through its badge but by clever engineering.

It has one of the longest wheelbases in its class and the wheels are pushed right out to the far corners, which means it handles with verve and is spacious inside. You can easily fit four adults in it and still get a spare wheel under the boot.

It's not just cleverly packaged either: its 1.0-litre engine sounds fantastic, despite being comedically slow. It was offered in two states of tune: 59bhp and 74bhp.

But that leisurely pace can be a fun factor in its own right, and you get the by-product of cheap running costs. It's in group two for insurance, it achieves more than 50mpg and spare parts are available like iron on Mars.

Murray Scullion

Murray Scullion
Title: Digital editor

Murray has been a journalist for more than a decade. During that time he’s written for magazines, newspapers and websites, but he now finds himself as Autocar’s digital editor.

He leads the output of the website and contributes to all other digital aspects, including the social media channels, podcasts and videos. During his time he has reviewed cars ranging from £50 - £500,000, including Austin Allegros and Ferrari 812 Superfasts. He has also interviewed F1 megastars, knows his PCPs from his HPs and has written, researched and experimented with behavioural surplus and driverless technology.

Murray graduated from the University of Derby with a BA in Journalism in 2014 and has previously written for Classic Car Weekly, Modern Classics Magazine,, and CAR Magazine, as well as

Jonathan Bryce

Jonathan Bryce
Title: Editorial Assistant

Jonathan is an editorial assistant working with Autocar. He has held this position since March 2024, having previously studied at the University of Glasgow before moving to London to become an editorial apprentice and pursue a career in motoring journalism. 

His role at work involves writing news stories, travelling to launch events and interviewing some of the industry's most influential executives, writing used car reviews and used car advice articles, updating and uploading articles for the Autocar website and making sure they are optimised for search engines, and regularly appearing on Autocar's social media channels including Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube.

Charlie Martin

Charlie Martin Autocar
Title: Editorial Assistant, Autocar

As a reporter, Charlie plays a key role in setting the news agenda for the automotive industry. He joined Autocar in July 2022 after a nine-month stint as an apprentice with sister publication, What Car?. He's previously contributed to The Intercooler, and placed second in Hagerty’s 2019 Young Writer competition with a feature on the MG Metro 6R4

He is the proud owner of a Fiat Panda 100HP, and hopes to one day add a lightweight sports car like an Alpine A110 or a Lotus Elise S1 to his collection.

Join the debate

Add a comment…
russ13b 11 April 2024

MX-5, or, something the person's actually interested in, it doesn't necessarily have to be fast etc, could be a classic VW or Fiat 500 etc.

ianp55 11 April 2024

Problem is that most insurance companies won't insure a young driver with many of the cars on this list and if by chance they did the cost of the annual premium with probably be more than the value of the car, What this article should be advising them to buy are cars with the lowest insurance group build up a few years no claims get more experience on the road before buying somthing more powerful. 

NickS 13 March 2024

I would add the previous gen Mazda 2 that is light, has an amazing gearbox (same as the NC MX5) comes with plenty of safety kit and is more reliable than any of the cars in this list.