Six roadsters you can have on your driveway for pocket-money prices.
25 January 2015

The weather is grim, but the nights are drawing out and Spring is on the way. It’s the ideal time to treat yourself to a cut-price roadster before prices, and the weather start to heat up. Here are our favourites.

1 - MG TF (2002-2006)

Mid-engined motoring does not come much cheaper than the MG TF (unless you go for the even cheaper MGF which preceded it). Given that the price difference between the two isn't that great however, we’d definitely opt for the later car. The TF has conventional steel springs rather than the hydraulic set up of the earlier cars, which helps make the MG TF a sharper, if harsher, drive than the car it replaced. It also has a four-star Euro NCAP crash rating, which is impressive for an open-top car that’s into its second decade.

The TF was the best selling two seater sports car for years, and as a result, supply is good and prices are low. There are very scruffy examples around for hundreds of pounds, but shabby ones should be ignored as good cars aren’t much more expensive and well sorted cars are available for our budget. All the manual gearbox models drive well, but the most fun is to be had from the 1.8-litre 160bhp version which gives the TF a reasonable turn of pace. The TF is surprisingly civilised too, with a spacious cabin and usable (if oddly shaped) boot.

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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Our Verdict

Mazda MX-5 2005-2015

The Mazda MX-5 is still great fun, and more grown up

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Comments
2

25 January 2015
...as a serial MX5 owner I'd like to recommend getting one of these. Mechanically they are faultless. After ten+ years of owning them, both MK1 and MK2, apart from consumables I have never had a problem with any of them. That said, rust is a killer and if you are in the market for one, carefully check the rear arches and front chassis rails for rot. If you could find one, go for a UK spec, rot free MK1. Good examples are becoming rare and prices are beginning to creep up. Given the choice of all the cars listed above, I'd still go for the MX5. BMW and SLK tempting but potential for big bills would worry me. MR2 probably closest to the Mazda but I've never been keen on the looks of them plus you can get a push chair in the boot of the Mazda. MG and Ka I wouldn't entertain on any level. A friend of mine has had both and they were rubbish, the MG particularly. We will be selling our black '99 1.6 MX5 in the summer and hopefully stepping up to an early MK3 as we hope the values of these will drop below £4k due to the new model being launched. Oh, and anyone who tells you that you have a hairdressers car has never driven one. Let them have a go on some twisty roads and tell them you paid a grand for it. They will soon change their mind.

26 January 2015
MR2 - like the Celica, be wary of VVTi engines from the early 2000s - these can sludge up with oil consumption issues, remedy is a new engine.

Alfa Spider - these can be had for cheap, look stunning and more modern than their 90s heritage. Look out for electrical damage, wishbones / suspension bushes, timing belt changed recently, low exhaust damage.

Alternatively, Dhaihatsu Copens if you shop around for an early model, or Smart Roadsters if you can find a bargain.

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