As an ‘E46’, this is the last of the pretty ones. You get a proper six-pot petrol and a lovely turbine sound. There is a decent amount of space and in the company car park even an old BMW still has a certain amount of kudos.
Prices have been firming for these so, as with the Lancer, we had to go as far as Scotland to find a £625 saloon. The brakes and wings had been changed and the gearbox overhauled. “Perfect for drifting,” says the seller, though, which is a worry.
BMW 540i V8
A 540i offers M-like performance at a fraction of the cost and the same amount of subtlety. To most, an ‘E34’ will seem like just another old BMW, but it will crack 150mph, which is what you would expect of a super-saloon.
Suspension parts and rot are going to be the major issues. We found a 1994 540i Touring with an impressive 230,000 miles for £1500. That’s a banger, all right – and a future classic.
The Mondeo has been one of the most practical stuff-shifters for several model generations. Mk3s from the Noughties are great. Make sure the previous owner has spent a bit on the suspension bushes and done all the engine belts – so a big fat service history is good.
Probably best to buy a 1.8 Zetec, then, except that we saw a rather sporty-looking black 2001 2.5 Zetec S which looked like fun for £599 and 140,000 miles. It comes with cruise control, a heated windscreen and has been owned by the same chap for eight years.
Most SUVs are soft-roaders these days, so why not get a proper soft-roader in the first place? We have always adored the futuristic styling of the HR-V, which has shades of the Evoque about it. We found a proper 4x4 example in pretty two-door format – it was only £589 with 120,000 miles, and very smart looking in black.
Reassuringly, the lucky buyer will get a full MOT on sale and a rather comprehensive spec sheet. Even if only half of it works, it’s still worth buying.
The Stream followed the Shuttle, and had in common with it a terrible name. Put that aside, though, because the Stream really won’t let you down. Any used Honda is a very safe used car bet, of course, but this one also has seven seats.
There aren’t many in circulation now, but we managed to stumble across a 2.0 SE Sport from 2001 at £685. A dealer sale with 130k miles, there was a £300 saving on the sticker price. Bargain.
HYUNDAI SANTA FE
A Discovery 2 without the disappointing breakdowns. If all you need is a vehicle to stick the dog in and do the mad school run when there is inclement weather, the Santa Fe is your ride. Not a pretty sight, but who cares?
Crankshaft sensor failure can happen; overall, though, they rack up big mileages without serious complaint. A 2004 2.4 CDX at £589 in silver with a reasonable 116k mileage seems fair money for such a tidy example.
We can’t believe how many cheap Ford Pumas are around, but they are rusting away. Better to find one of these prettier Coupés from 2002. You might want to resist it, but you would be wrong.
Hyundai didn’t get to where it is today without building highly reliable motors, and they’re super-cheap right now. Indeed, we found a private seller with a full-fat 2002 2.7 V6. There are a few minor items to sort (new wipers, some tyres), but it looks great and at £590 is hard to go wrong.
LEXUS GS 300
A GS 300 will rack up the miles and not break down, and with a six-cylinder engine powering the rear wheels, it should be good to drive. The timing chains need doing at 90k miles, and the air-con may leak into the footwell.
We found a 188,000-mile 1998 SE with a full history that looks very tidy indeed.
LEXUS LS 400
Lexus’s big battleship is something of a legend (no, not a Legend – that was a Honda). The LS has been the quintessential bargain barge for years and is almost impossible to kill.Availabilityhas been going down, though, and prices creeping up.
Nothing usually goes wrong but, if it does, it will cost a fortune. Suspension can be the culprit. We did find a 1997 example with five good tyres and a recent service, all for £800, and it has supposedly never broken down. Buy one.
You may have forgotten all about it, but it’s worth remembering what an unburstable family banger the 323 was, and still is. Most were bought privately and seem to still be immaculately intact. No common faults, just consumables like tyres and exhausts.
We would prefer the earlier, cooler, pop- up-headlight model, but our heads were turned by a 2004 1.6 GXi with almost a year’s MOT. The £490 price tag sounds stiff, but this has an alarm, air-con, electric mirrors and just 106k miles.
One of the non-charisma Mitsubishis, to rekindle a bad old pun. The reliability stats, though, seem to speak for themselves; these are utterly unbreakable daily hacks. Add the estate rear end for even more sensibility.
A lot of people know how good they are, which is why most that are up for sale right now cost around a grand. So we ended up in Scotland looking at a pokey 2005 2.0 Sport at £500. With new shocks, bushes and tyres, it’s worth the long trip.
MITSUBISHI SPACE WAGON
For a while, we fancied a Grandis which, at least, does not look like a shipping container with windows. But they are pricey and still quite leggy. If you can live with the looks, though, the old-school Space Wagon is of course faultlessly reliable.
We did have to sift through some iffy imports with body kits and automatic gearboxes but eventually found a tidy 1999 2.0 GLXi at £790. It had a recent cambelt, water pump and service and came with a year’s MOT.
NISSAN MICRA 1.0
We really should be looking at funky Smarts, but they’re compromised and overly complex. What you need is one of these driving-school specials in the shape of a K11 Micra. They are now hundreds of pounds and dozens seem to live on quite happily.
They can be killed by rust and the throttle body disintegrates – when that happens, you won’t get the claimed 47mpg. We found a 1999 car with 110k miles for £300: immaculate inside, with air-con, sunroof and, incredibly, rear parking sensors.
A 900, or even a later 9-3, is a proper grown-up cabriolet at a giveaway price. There are often lots of niggles to deal with, but the core of these cars is pretty tough. An interestingly flaccid driving experience, but it looks great. Coil packs can expire but are easy to fix.
A tidy, black 2000 2.0 T SE with leather and a large amount of service history to cover 107k miles seems great value at £575, with no problems highlighted by the dealer. Worth the risk.
An alternative to a Focus that is fun to drive and tough enough. There are a bunch of engines to choose from and right now the 1.6 petrol is the best compromise – although, if you can stretch to a 1.8, do.
Faulty coil pack and plugs can stop them starting but are an easy enough fix from the VW parts bin. The 2005 1.6 S we found had 100k miles at £600 with history, two keys and air-con.
SUZUKI WAGON R
This edged out a Toyota Yaris because it offers micro-MPV practicality. The running gear is excellent, the seating position is OAP-friendly and there is a ton of space in the boot or inside with the seats folded – and it’s cheaper than its Vauxhall Agila relative.
Low- mileage neglect means brakes and suspension often need attention. So find a 2001 1.3 GL with a year’s MOT and 77k miles for £475 like we did. It even has a one-month dealer warranty.
How we miss the Celica. The modern GT86 is a very different beast, but the Celica still has a sharpness to it that is very endearing. Mostly, though, it is a Toyota, and that means day-in, day-out reliability, although it can burn oil.
Avoid anything that the tuning brigade has gone anywhere near. Online at Pistonheads we found a solid 2002 example with a substantial 177,000 miles. At £595, this example comes with a sunroof, leather and climate control, which all seem to work.
VAUXHALL ASTRA CONVERTIBLE
Yes, it’s an Astra, but the Convertible should never be underestimated. Here is a working-class drop-top that will tear around all day long like an old Astramax van. The roof can give you a bit of grief if it goes on the blink, so make sure you check that.
We came across a rather wonderful looker, a 2005 1.8i with 136k miles and a lot of kit including electric heated mirrors and climate control. Let’s just call it a Bertone and hope nobody notices, eh?
VOLVO S80 PAY: £450
The S80 is often overlooked and underrated, which explains why it is so cheap. The spec is sky high and the petrol engines are very dependable. Most issues relate to the automatic gearbox, suspension (it’s a heavy car) and ABS warning lights.
We found a 1999 2.4 manual at £490 with 130k miles, a full history and most of the MOT. There are a lot of buying options; most are automatic and the miles fluctuate wildly, from 100k to 200k, so shop around. An S80 will barge the distance, mind you.
VOLVO C70 T5
Who needs a Polestar when you can have an achingly pretty C70 T5? Not the sharpest handler, nor the most charismatic badge, but it’ll do 155mph and remains seriously cheap. The Volvo is a reliable old thing; suspension, ABS issues and electric window malfunctions happen, but no biggies.
A 1999 example with 152k miles from a seller who describes it as ‘fast’ is just £950. Recent new brakes and a new back box too, so it has been looked after.