Currently reading: Britain's Best Affordable Driver's Car 2021
Which new car offers the most driver appeal on a real-world budget? Our road test team heads to Scotland to find out

How much fun can you have within a budget? That’s the idea of this test. It’s Britain’s Best Affordable Driver’s Car, our annual assessment of the more attainable yet great-to-drive cars launched during the past 12 months, taken to some of the greatest roads we know.

The idea of ‘budget’ is a movable one, depending on what has just been launched. This year, because the Volkswagen Golf R, BMW 128ti and Cupra Leon 300 have all arrived – serious hatches every one of ’em – we’ve upped our cap to £40,000.

But there are more affordable cars, too: Ford’s Puma ST, a hot crossover, comes in at under £30,000 and the Hyundai i20 N looks every inch a hot hatch bargain in this company, costing less than £25,000.

Then there’s our wildcard; the one it’s not really fair to put up against the rest because, well, for one it’s not entirely new, and two, it doesn’t have to consider, like the other cars do, the daily commute, the weekly shop or the reality of a role as family transport.

But the chance to have a Caterham Super Seven 1600 around, even if only as an affordable driver’s car benchmark, is rarely one to miss when the location is as good as this. And so to Scotland.

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Crikey, it’s spectacular up here. It’s not often that our choice of location overshadows the stars of our show, but for this year’s two-day BBADC shootout we have to take a moment on arrival to drink in our surroundings. The schlep up from the south has been a long one, but we quickly realise it’s very much worth the effort from our elevated position just down the road from the Scottish ski resort of Glenshee.

Mountains tower over us while streams cascade down their rocky sides and feed the meandering Shee Water river way below, snaking alongside which is the main reason we stuck our pin in this part of the map and made the epic trek north: the Old Military Road. Tracing its roots back to 1749, this sinuous stretch is one of the last of British Army General Wade’s routes that criss-cross this corner of the country, designed to move soldiers and artillery around more effectively in the aftermath of the Jacobite rebellion of 1715.

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These days it’s still host to some serious firepower, but of the internal combustion variety. This is one of the UK’s best driving roads, its relentless mix of wicked crests, compressions and corners ready to bite the unwary driver as viciously as the midges that are ever present at this time of year. It’s a truly testing stretch of Tarmac, and it has the capability to pick apart our contenders with ruthless disregard for reputation.

Of course, the cars; we’d almost forgotten about those. Once again we’ve gathered together the best-value driver’s cars of the year, none of them breaches our £40,000 limit and each is just a tasty PCP deal and a few hundred quid per month away from securing your name on its V5.

Not for the first time, there’s a hot hatch-flavoured theme to our six-car line-up. Each, however, has a very different take on the pocket rocket recipe: we’ve got front-wheel drive and total traction, manual and self-shifting gearboxes, three- and four-cylinder engines. We’ve even got an entrant from a company infused to the core with driver’s car DNA but which is making its first foray into the fast family five-door class. So in no particular order, that’s the Hyundai i20 N, Volkswagen Golf R, Cupra Leon 300 and BMW 128ti.

We’ve also got a pair of outliers, in the form of the archetypal back-to-basics sports car that is the Caterham Super Seven and, a first for BBADC, a compact crossover. No, really. In fact, let’s start with the Ford Puma ST, because it’s the car that turned out to be the most divisive of our sextet, ultimately causing as many smiles as it did scratched heads.

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The go-faster Ford has featured in these pages before, but it’s always worth a refresher. Essentially a wider, longer and taller Fiesta ST, it packs the same characterful 197bhp turbocharged 1.5-litre triple and six-speed manual gearbox (it’s a weird world we live in when one of the few cars here to have a three-pedal layout is a mini SUV), and because this is a Performance Pack example, it also gets the Quaife limited-slip differential.

Get going in the Puma and at first it all feels just a little too try-hard, as if it’s desperately attempting to overcompensate for high-riding, rugged visuals that suggest it should be plying its trade on the gnarly landscape existing either side of our Tarmac test route.

As legendary rallyist Roger Clark once noted, you need an ‘arse like a parrot’ to squeeze into heavily bolstered Recaros such as the Puma has. Its low-speed ride is unrelentingly firm, the brakes are grabby, the steering is nervously darty and that torquey three-pot motor is always gurgling away, goading you into getting a move on and indulging its appetite for free-revving energy.

Get the hammer down and the Puma improves. With some load working through the suspension and more being asked of the Michelins, the Ford begins to flow, picking apart these undulating roads with an up-and-at-’em enthusiasm. It’s a little lazier and heftier than a Fiesta, but that doesn’t stop it being one of the most biddable machines here. It rotates quickly into corners and your chosen line can be trimmed or widened easily with a lift or prod of the throttle. Seriously, no other front driver here is as adjustable – and this an SUV, don’t forget.

Road tester Richard Lane and I come away with a fondness for the Ford, forgiving the occasionally wayward ADHD attitude and its stiff-legged intransigence over bumpier stretches because it has such an infectious appetite for fun. Others are less understanding. The Matts, Prior and Saunders, aren’t as enthused. “The steering is just that bit too reactive and busy,” points out Prior. “When the car is at its most entertaining, you feel like you’re wrestling it down the road over camber and bump; it’s just not quite composed enough, for me.”

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Okay, how about something a little more grown-up? Enter the BMW 128ti. The German firm’s first crack at a hot hatchback definitely looks the part. With its garish red stripes and subtle body-kit addenda, it stands out almost as much as the arresting visuals of the Mean Greenfinished Ford, and certainly much more than the under-the-radar Golf R and veritably incognito Cupra.

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The 128ti certainly feels hot-hatchy when you get going. Its 261bhp turbocharged 2.0-litre has a zingy and elastic delivery, while the Torsen front differential is terrific traction but not so tightly wound that the steering becomes heavy-handed. Drive at seven-tenths and the ride has a nicely judged firmness that suggests a cast-iron control for when speeds get serious, plus you sit snug and low like you do in the firm’s rear-wheel-drive offerings.

Push harder, however, and the 128ti’s case for being crowned our king crumbles. Yes, the steering has typically BMW meaty weighting and connection, but it’s also slow, so it requires the most arm-twirling to get the nose pointing at an apex. And while others here manage to bring their rear axles into play, the BMW’s undriven wheels seem happy to simply follow the fronts, as if their only job is to keep the back of the car off the ground. And the passive dampers struggle when you’re really attacking the twistier sections, with their initial tight control giving way to a looseness that saps confidence.

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Another layer of driver interaction is peeled away by the standard eight-speed automatic transmission, which lacks the snappy shifts of the dual-clutch ’box-equipped rivals. While the other cars here up their game when asked probing questions, the BMW seems all at sea. Saunders nails it when he says: “It’s hard to work out exactly what kind of hot hatchback it’s supposed to be, and it doesn’t quite come together convincingly however you seek to define it.”

There should be less trouble marking the cards of our monozygotic MQB twins: the Golf and the Leon. Both are established practitioners of the fast hatch art and both come with a back catalogue of hits that mean you know exactly what you’re getting. Well, almost. Truth is, the Volkswagen Group gene pool appears to be getting more mixed up than ever, and some of the usual certainties have evaporated.

Last year we had a Golf GTI that had acquired an uncharacteristically hard edge, while this year it’s a Cupra that has gone the other way, gaining an easy-going everyday mien that’s more GTI than even the GTI. With its adaptive dampers at their most accommodating and the seven-speed DSG ’box shuffling ratios with the speedy smoothness of a casino croupier, the Cupra is more sybaritic executive saloon than sharp-edged slayer of secondaries.

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Ramp up the drive modes, taking in Sport before getting to Cupra, and you’ll find the Leon is devastatingly quick across the ground, and over the gut-churning rollercoaster section of road at the bottom of our test route, it has a sense of on-limit control and composure that the BMW simply can’t match. There’s also a satisfying balance as the front and rear axles take a near-equal share of the cornering forces, while direction changes come with the flick-flack accuracy of an elite gymnast.

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And yet despite this impressive poise and pace, it always feels like it’s holding you at arm’s length – and the lifeless steering is the main culprit. “Very one-dimensional,” mused Lane after an exhaustive blast up and down the mountain. “The steering differs in character from the suspension, and it’s more of a quick hatchback than a real hot one. Agile, but it doesn’t excite or engage.”

Are we on for a repeat performance with the Golf, then? On first acquaintance, yes. For starters, in its most basic guise (we’ve gone for a non-Performance Pack example and deleted Drift Mode in an effort to bring the VW in on budget), the R appears a little undernourished, its 18in wheels looking lost in the Mk8’s larger arches. And after time in the Leon, the VW feels eerily familiar: your muscle memory helps you find the Golf’s identically placed start button and stubby gear-lever without looking.

Like the Leon, the R is a car that can slip easily into your life (the clamour for its keys for the 500-mile drive home was intense), and day to day it feels as hassle-free as a 1.0-litre Life. Yet it’s also decisively the quickest point-to-pointer here. Yes, having the most power helps (316bhp), plus it has four-wheel-drive peace of mind that allows you to go hard and early on the throttle knowing that not an ounce of accelerative force will be wasted.

There are rewards if you go looking for them. Squeeze the brake hard and late on corner entry and there’s that sense of the Golf on its tippy toes, the rear going just light enough to let you know it’s ready to rotate this way or that. There’s some nice heft to the steering, too, and while it’s still not the most free and easy with the to-and-fro, it’s imbued with enough feel to make things interesting.

The problem is that it takes some effort to cut through the initial indifference to find the VW’s hard-partying alter ego, as a wide-eyed Illya Verpraet confirmed once he had got used to the car’s crushing pace. “You need to go a bit too quickly to really unlock its true character,” the road tester said. “That is undoubtedly part of its appeal to many, but it’s a shame that the very balanced chassis will remain hidden most of the time.”

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One car that hides nothing is the Hyundai, which looks a little like the class clown after the buttoned-down, sober-suited Golf. From its powder blue paint, red trim inserts and grab-handle rear spoiler to the endless driver configuration options and TFT dials that display a ring of fire around the rev counter as you change modes (yes, really), the Korean contender is almost unashamedly garish.

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Drive the i20 N and you soon realise it doesn’t need the look-at-me chintz and overwrought technological gewgaws, because they distract from what is a stonkingly good small hatch. Melding the seriousness of the VW with a dose of the Puma’s sense of mischief, the Hyundai comes alive when uncorked on a road like this.

For such a compact car with a relatively lowly price, it feels awfully grown-up at first. Saunders summed it up succinctly when he said the Hyundai has a “mini-Type R vibe”. The steering is perhaps a little too hefty in its most extreme setting, but it’s quick and precise, giving fast and tenacious turn-in.

There’s also terrific mid-corner balance and spectacular body control, with the Hyundai always feeling hunkered down no matter how testing the topography. You can feel through the seat just how much grip you have and which end of the car is working hardest. It’s not as expressive as the pendulous Puma, but you can subtly play with the i20’s angle of attack before getting on the throttle and feeling its mechanical limited-slip diff hauling you cleanly and quickly out of the corner.

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“Engaging, likes to turn, and is well capable while doing it,” pondered Prior. “Less hyperactive than the Fiesta but pretty much as much fun. Finally, a proper hot hatchback again.”

The more time you spend in the i20 N, the more you learn and the more you enjoy. Yes, the ride is borderline too stiff for daily use, and the 201bhp four-pot could do with more of the Ford’s effervescence, but these feel like tweaks for a facelift, not fatal flaws. Hyundai may not have a rich hot hatch history, but it’s clearly learning fast.

If it’s tradition and decades-deep heritage you’re looking for, the Caterham takes some beating. This Super Seven edition has a distinctly 1970s swagger, thanks to its long front wings, delicate Minilite wheels, lashings of chrome trim and rather twee wood-rimmed steering wheel. Depending on your point of view, it either looks cracking or contrived, but the one thing we all agree on is that, once you’re on the move, no car lifts spirits like a Seven.

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With this retro-themed version it’s the engine that gets you first, its carburettor-aping throttle bodies giving a gloriously guttural, Ford BDA-tinged induction roar.

There’s also a camminess to the delivery that means it only clears its throat and begins to go hard once the tacho swings beyond 4000rpm, meaning you have to get busy with the snickety five-speed ’box to really make progress, despite the Seven being pretty much as quick as you would ever need on the road.

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It feels beautifully damped, too. There’s an occasional crashiness, but overall you’re both comfortable and completely keyed into the surface, while the garrulous and wristy-quick steering keeps fingertips in direct communication with Tarmac. This all helps the Seven flow down the road as it slices through corners with little to no inertia, the skinny tyres (175-section at the front, 185s at the rear) transitioning so gently from grip to slip that you instinctively know by just how much the car’s exquisite balance can be exploited. It’s absorbing, exciting and utterly addictive.

As Caterham first-timer Verpraet put it: “It’s the only car here that made me grin from ear to ear from the moment I slid inside to when I crawled out. It’s a bit of a shock how direct and short-travel all the controls are, like all the driving sensations you expect are amplified beyond proportion, requiring you to recalibrate your inputs. Maybe not for every day, but what an experience.”

Ultimately, this particular example isn’t the best of the Caterham breed. It really requires the more muscular 152bhp 1.6-litre engine from the 310, the tauter R chassis, a limited-slip diff and the narrow S3 body to become a true super Seven but, as Prior put it, “even a not-bad Caterham is bloody brilliant”. It’s emphatically the best driver’s car here, the one that has your heart racing and synapses snapping every time you hit the starter.

Yet, as is explained at the link below, it can’t win, and neither can it really be included in the results: its focus is too narrow and its everyday compromises too restrictive, even in ‘practical’ wide-body SV form like this one. Prior drove it all the way there and back without serious complaint, but I bet his ears are still ringing even now. You could use a Seven every day (and you should), but you would need to be fairly committed, like a Lycra-clad cyclist or leather-bound biker. So for that reason it has to be considered a dynamic benchmark rather than full-on contestant.

On the plus side, the Seven’s honourable decision to step aside paves the way for a truly deserving winner. You’ll have to turn the page to find out what it is, but let’s just say that it literally fits the bill of Britain’s Best Affordable Driver’s car better than all its rivals here, plus it was one of the few whose driver-delighting talents truly distracted us from our epic surroundings.

James Disdale

James Disdale
Title: Special correspondent

James is a special correspondent for Autocar, which means he turns his hand to pretty much anything, including delivering first drive verdicts, gathering together group tests, formulating features and keeping topped-up with the latest news and reviews. He also co-hosts the odd podcast and occasional video with Autocar’s esteemed Editor-at-large, Matt Prior.

For more than a decade and a half James has been writing about cars, in which time he has driven pretty much everything from humble hatchbacks to the highest of high performance machines. Having started his automotive career on, ahem, another weekly automotive magazine, he rose through the ranks and spent many years running that title’s road test desk. This was followed by a stint doing the same job for monthly title, evo, before starting a freelance career in 2019. The less said about his wilderness, post-university years selling mobile phones and insurance, the better.

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soldi 29 August 2021

Where's the GR Yaris?  Available for well below the £40k cap.

Andrew1 28 August 2021
Not including the 308 GTI is truly daft and biased. As usual.