On the downside, the driving position is distinctly non-sporty and head gasket headaches, while not quite as prevalent as folklore suggest, are pricey to fix properly. Finally, avoid the Stepspeed autos. Shift buttons on the steering wheel aren’t nearly as much fun as they sound.
For Great value, usable and fun. Loads to pick from.
Against Needs a bit of looking after
2 - Ford StreetKa (2003-2006)
The convertible variant of Ford’s littlest, cheapest car has an oddly premium air that is very much at odds with the prices you’ll pay. All models come with alloys, remote central locking and CD players but they were built away from the main Ford production lines and feel considerably more solid than a standard Ka.
These well-proportioned tiny two-seaters surprisingly sharp to drive. The 1.6-litre engine is a bit wheezy and has a bit of a thirst for such a modest motor, but it’s tough and easy to look after. At this price, you get a genuine choice of cars available, so be picky. If you can find a Winter version, it comes with a hard top and heated seats making it a good year-round prospect too.
For Plenty about, pretty and cheap
Against Engines are a bit lacklustre
3 - Mazda MX-5 MK2 (1998-2005)
The MX-5 is a byword for cheap, fun open-top motoring and perhaps nothing does a better job of blending affordability with a genuinely engaging drive. Certainly at the pocket money level we are operating at here.
The MK2 version of the little Mazda added a welcome bit of extra comfort and plush over the first generation model, without significantly dulling the driving experience, and that it is why we favour it here. There are loads to choose from although spend a bit of time looking for one that has not been savaged by rust. Also avoid crudely modified cars, of which there are many, too because mucking about with the suspension quickly ruins the well sorted standard ride and handling.
For Great to drive
Against Lacks the charisma of Mk1
4 - MR2 Mk2 (2000-2007)
Prices for the dinky, sharp-edged first-generation MR2 are now firmly out of budget, but later MR2 models are in scope. The Mk2 model is fine, but more targa than roadster, but the handsome Mk3 fits the bill. Designed to take on the MX-5, the Mk3 looks great, handles nicely and is as reliable as you’d expect any Toyota to be.
Downsides are few and criticising it for questionable practicality when it has so much else going for it seems a bit harsh but an MX-5 is pack and live with on a weekend away. Avoid the automated manual gearboxes in favour of the slick-shifting manual and look for evidence of any prospect having disappeared through a hedge. The mid-engined layout makes it a handful in the wet.
For Handsome, reliable
Against MX-5 is more practical and fun
5 - BMW Z3 (1996 - 2002)
Getting premium badges at pocket money prices is often a bad idea, but the idea of getting into a BMW Z3 for such silly money is massively appealing. If you want a genuinely invigorating drive however, you might want to look elsewhere. Whether in 115 or 140bhp versions, the tough 1.9-litre four-pot doesn’t really deliver the sort of shove that you’d hope a Beemer might.
The more purposeful 2.8-litre versions are not really found on the sort of uber budget we are operating with here, and if they are, should probably be avoided. That said, the Z3 looks great, has a very pleasing cabin, and providing you are happy to cruise around in style, rather than clip every apex, there is a lot to like.
For Badge, cabin and looks Against Sedate drive
6 - Mercedes SLK (1996-2004)
The SLK is pretty grown up compared to the other cars here, with a complex folding steel roof, supercharger and a nicely screwed together, stylish interior.
The problem is that the SLK never really wormed its way into the hearts of car enthusiasts, seen as a tool for posing than performance. If you are happy to waft about and enjoy the sunshine however, that’s no real hardship and the majority of people who see you in a drop top Merc will not believe you can get one for such modest money. A good SLK is a lot of roadster for the cash, but keep a little reserve of pennies to one side for patching up a potentially pricey problem or two.
For Great badge, looks expensive Against Not the sharpest drive
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