Look for examples with decent service history as the Ford’s engine, which was codeveloped with Yamaha, is very finickity about the oil used and requires a cambelt change every five years or 80,000 miles. Alternatively, you could consider the Citroën Xsara VTS.
Porsche 924 (77-88)
A lot of people give the junior Porsche a hard time but, if you can live with the “That’s not a Porsche” comments you’re in for a treat. The 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine in the early models produces 123bhp, helping the 924 get from 0-62mph in less than 10 seconds, and is durable and easy to work on.
Parts are generally inexpensive, so don’t discount an example needing a little work, but do look for any signs of corrosion, damage or general neglect. Make sure the car in question starts easily when hot too, as the Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection system can develop problems here. If you look hard enough you might find a serviceable example of the more potent 924S or 944; we’d rather a presentable early 924 than a tired 924S or 944, however.
BMW 3-series (1991-1999)
The E36 generation of 3-series is a popular choice for those seeking an engaging used car. It offers decent handling, an enjoyable rear-wheel drive layout, a range of decent engines and stout build quality. There are plenty of new and used parts around, and comprehensive aftermarket support too, so maintaining and uprating it to suit your tastes is easy.
For £1000 you’ll be able to pick up a decent 318iS, with a lively four-cylinder engine, or a clean six-cylinder 325i or 328i. Besides the usual wear and tear, look carefully for any signs of corrosion. You can get the 3-series in cabriolet, coupé, saloon and estate forms too, so there's something for most.
Fiat Coupé (95-00)
With sharp Chris Bangle-penned styling and the option of a warbling five-cylinder engine, there’s a lot to like about the Fiat Coupé. Despite what you might expect they’re a reliable choice too. For £1000 you’re best off opting for the naturally aspirated 16v or 20v model, that latter of which is capable of 0-62mph in as little as 8.4sec.
You can find turbo models for under £1k, but they may require a lot of titivation and could trash your budget – so buy with open eyes. Don’t overlook the four-cylinder turbo models either, they can be just as fun. If you’re struggling to find a Fiat Coupé, have a look for the similar Alfa GTV instead.
Jaguar XJ (94-03)
Want a luxury car with a bit of a punch? A Jaguar XJ, preferably with the 4.0-litre straight-six engine, should fit the bill nicely. After all, there are definite bargains to be had out there. Earlier in the year we bought one for £500, flogged it senseless, got 141mph out of it and then dispatched it to go around the Nürburgring - which it did.
Whatever we did, it kept on ticking – and it was a delight to drive and suprisingly useful, with room for four and a large boot. Finding a good example can be tricky, so don’t be afraid to expand your search to include the likes of BMW’s E34 5-series, the Lexus LS400 and the Mercedes-Benz E-class.
Mazda MX-5 (90-05)
It would be a crime to compile a list of inexpensive fun cars and fail to mention the Mazda MX-5. They’re light, nimble and easy to work on. For around £1000 you should be able to pick up a tidy example but, as with many of the other cars here, look carefully for signs of corrosion and neglect.
Early 1.6 models put out 115bhp and are capable of 0-60mph in around 8.6sec. They're brilliant fun to drive, and a clean example is worth choosing over a tattier 1.8-litre model. Steer clear of less powerful '95-on 1.6s, however. MX-5s badged ‘Eunos’ are imported, but still well worthy of consideration. If you need a little more badge appeal and aren't as fussed with the driving experience, you could consider the BMW Z3 instead.
Toyota MR2 (90-00)
Toyota’s Midship Runabout Two-seater was launched in 1990. It’s one of the few mid-engined coupes you can get for less than £1000, and majors on reliability. The MR2 is a usable and engaging car too, thanks to its comfortable, relatively spacious interior and lively 16-valve engine.
Toyota claimed that, when new, the naturally aspirated MR2 would sprint from 0-60mph in 7.7sec and reach 137mph. Keep an eye out for examples free from corrosion and with decent service history, particularly making note of any cambelt changes. If you prefer your engine to be in the right place, however, you could dig around for a Mk3 Supra. Good ones will be difficult to come by for £1000, though.
Jeep Cherokee (93-01)
If you want a car that’ll deal with anything, go for a 4.0-litre Jeep Cherokee. Besides being renowned for their durability, a good example is a genuinely rewarding car to live with. The only catch is fuel consumption; expect to average no better than 20mpg. If you’re only doing short trips though, this should prove tolerable.
Besides having a powerful engine and a flexible four-wheel-drive system, XJs have comfortable and relatively refined cabins, are easy to drive, feature plenty of kit and have a surprisingly small footprint. Good examples are hard to come by, as most are run into the ground, so look for low-mileage cosseted ‘Limited’ models. One that’s been cared for should feel tight, precise, responsive and smooth. Despite what you might expect, they’re also surprisingly fun to drive.
Subaru Impreza (93-01)
You'll find a deluge of non-turbo Subaru Imprezas around for £1000, but that's like having a bacon sandwich without the bacon. Or the sandwich. Scour the classifieds and you'll turn up some serviceable early Turbo 2000 models, predictably replete with a turbocharger and - more notably - the legend-making all-wheel-drive system.
Buying what transpires to be a fully functional Impreza, most likely in estate form, at this price point is no mean feat. So, be prepared to crawl all over any potential purchase. Look for oil leaks, headgasket issues, listen for rattles and check everything that moves, switches or seals. Alternatively, you might find it easier to find a more practical - although not quite as stylish - Subaru Forester.
Peugeot 205 GTi (1984-1994)
The indomitable hot hatchback of the '80s - and yes, you can still just about pick them up for £1000. Few cars are as thoroughly enjoyable to drive as the 205, and good examples are a relatively rare and increasingly valuable commodity.
Most at this price point will be the 1.6-litre versions, but don't be disappointed by that fact - they're still spritely, dispatching the 0-60mph sprint in less than 9.0sec. Just make sure the shell's in good condition, as the mechanicals are easy to repair or uprate. Like others here, inexpensive classic insurance is also an option, helping keep costs down. If you're looking for a more modern alternative, consider an early Honda Civic with a VTEC engine.
Saab 9000 (85-98)
A sensible, practical and inexpensive saloon with some refined Swedish style. In standard naturally aspirated form they'll soldier on for hundreds of thousands of miles with just routine maintenance, and they're a good shout if you just want something nondescript, comfortable and inexpensive to abandon in a train station car park.
The turbocharged variants are where things get interesting, however. Saab offered both 2.0-litre and 2.3-litre variants, and most are easily tuned to produce considerably more power. Rust can be an issue, and it's worth checking everything still works, but there are no timing belts to worry about. Stick to the manual versions if you can, as these are more durable.
Clio 172 (01-05)
Admittedly £1000 is getting close to the bottom of the barrel for a Clio Renaultsport 172; trawl the classifieds extensively and you should be able to track down a serviceable example, however The 172's 2.0-litre engine puts out 166bhp, which is sent through the front wheels via a five-speed transmission.
Besides being capable of 0-62mph in 7.1sec, the Clio 172 is a genuinely enjoyable car to drive. If you're looking for something entertaining, manageable, not overly costly to run and sensibly sized, the 172 fits the bill neatly. If you can't find one, try looking for the slightly more restrained Peugeot 306 GTi-6.
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