Currently reading: James Ruppert: Best second-hand city cars on a budget
Well-used runabouts are often the cheapest cars in the classifieds, and they're not all superminis

I write this just a couple of days before World Car-Free Day. I’ll give it a miss again. Not living in a city means many of us miss all the celebrations and can avoid the increasingly absurd restrictions, road closures and cycle lanes that are springing up all over the place.

With that in mind, what’s the ideal affordable city car these days? It needs to be cheap to buy and run, small and able to take a dent. So before they all get banned, let’s bag a petrol-powered shopper.

Italy has had the city car formula right for decades, so let’s start with a Fiat. I did find a privately advertised 2000/W-plate Punto 1.2 ELX that seemed very tidy indeed for £400. It had a very good history to account for its 79,000 miles and, as the seller made clear, it starts first time. The advert was an honest one that identified a mystery creaking sound and surplus oil around the head, which could signal future issues.

Instead of the characterful Fiat, a better-value and tougher buy would be a Daewoo Kalos. Remember those? Stay with me on this one. This is a 2005 1.2 Xtra Cool, which, as the name suggests, has air-con. It’s a dealer part-exchange with 58,000 miles, remote locking and power steering, so basically the perfect city car. No dents yet, and all for £595.

Here’s the proof that this isn’t just what’s practical in the city but also what’s cool: how about a first-generation three-door Toyota RAV4? I didn’t expect to see one of these in the classifieds, but a 1999 2.0 GX looked rather perky in red. It had four previous owners and offered some retro fun for just £1495. This SUV’s height helps to see further in those jams, while its tall suspension should cope with all those potholes. Not only that, but it has an automatic gearbox, too, so will cope even better with the joy of stop-start urban traffic. These can get rusty, though, so be careful.

I was tempted to indulge in some luxury, because being parked on the comfy sofa of an old Mercedes-Benz S-Class for hours at a time is always an option. But let’s be sensible with a Renault Twingo.

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I picked out a 2010 example that had been standing for a while – a 1.6 Renault Sport with 93,000 miles and a subtext that suggested it has been neglected. It needed an MOT, too, so at just £1600 it obviously wanted a bit of sorting out first. It was ULEZ-compliant and maybe would take just a few hundred quid to become city-worthy.

Imagine all the fun you could have when back on the open road to fully celebrate Car-Free Day in 2021.

Tales from Ruppert's Garage

Porsche Cayenne, mileage - 108,304: Go over a bump – and there are loads of them to choose from around where we live – and the Flying Pig blinks. By which I mean the nearside dipped beam can turn off, because the headlight unit works loose just enough to break a connection. It only needs a tiny shove to make it light up again, so I’ve had a fiddle with the clever nut you twist to release the whole unit. No idea if I found its gripping sweet spot or not; only time – and other drivers – will tell.

Reader's ride

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Hyundai Terracan: Many thanks this week to Stuart, who is more than happy to show us his latest purchase.

“I give you the Hyundai Terracan,” he says. “Bought for £3500 two weeks ago from Mark Taylor Specialist Vehicles in Keighley. It was Mark’s own car and is immaculate, having been undersealed by Rustmaster a few years ago. It’s a four-cylinder 2.9-litre diesel with 163bhp and has done 85,000 miles. I wanted an auto but the manual is so light that it’s a joy to use, and I’m getting more than 33mpg. It has new Yokohama Geolanders on 16in wheels, so the ride is excellent, and it has been serviced fastidiously. This was engineered when Hyundai was trying to break into Europe with larger cars, and it shows. A real keeper.”

Readers' questions

Question: I’ve got my eye on an older car, but it doesn’t have much history and the seller has had it only a few months. Should I take my £9000 elsewhere? Tom Buxton, Hertfordshire

Answer: You would kick yourself if you walked away from a solid, desirable car just because of some missing paperwork. If the V5 document, MOT certificate and receipts for any recent big jobs are present and correct, and you conduct a thorough inspection of the underside and mechanicals, there’s little to fear at that money. For extra peace of mind, take a qualified mechanic with you to look at the car, and be sure to check its mileage against previous MOT test results at gov.uk/check-mot-history. FP

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Question: I own a 2009 Toyota Prius. It’s a 250,000- mile ex-taxi and I’ve noticed a sharp drop in MPG recently. What can I do? Nikki Osborne, via email

Answer: Hybrid traction batteries, just like standard 12V car batteries, deteriorate over time, meaning the engine has to work harder than usual. Prius batteries are known to age well, but your car has lived a tough life and it sounds like it’s time for a replacement. A Toyota dealer will replace the battery for about £1200, but it would be sensible to have a diagnosis done by an appropriately qualified technician first. FP

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si73 13 October 2020

Sorry but how you think Tom

Sorry but how you think Tom Buxton from Hertfordshire has little to fear at that money I don't know, losing £9000 on a dud is a lot of money to lose, so I'd suggest you have a lot to fear. I'd suggest an AA or RAC inspection as well as checking the MOT history to ensure it hasn't been carrying advisories for ages.