Five grand isn't a lot of money; many new cars will lose at least that as soon as you take delivery.
Yet for this relatively trifling sum there's a vast array of great cars within reach, including sports cars, family hacks, luxury saloons and the odd 4x4. Admittedly you're in danger of getting your fingers burned with some of them but that's the fun of used car roulette isn't it? All of the cars we've picked for our £5k budget are advertised online so we haven't made anything up – everything here really is within reach…
Pictures are examples of models discussed
Abarth Grande Punto
2010 Grande Punto 1.4T
There are far more Abarth 500s about for under £5k than there are Grande Puntos, and we wouldn't steer you away from them. But the Grande Punto is more usable, much rarer and still a hoot to drive. For your money you get a 155bhp turbocharged 1.4-litre engine and subtle sporty styling that makes this hot supermini something of a wolf in sheep's clothing.
Alfa Romeo 159 Sportwagon
2011 159 2.0 JTDm
Just because you want a practical family carry-all you don't have to settle for something that looks interminably dull – and load luggers don't get any sexier than the Alfa Romeo 159. We couldn't find any petrol-engined 159s within our budget but there were plenty of diesels, the pick of which was a 170bhp 2.0 JTDm; a model that didn't arrive until towards the end of 159 production.
2003 A2 1.6 FSi Sport
The aluminium-bodied Audi A2 was ahead of its time and thanks to high production costs (which led to high list prices) it wasn't a success for Audi. Now a modern classic, many A2s are tired because they've been neglected, so this 58,000-mile car being sold privately was something of a find. With leather trim, heated seats and clearly cherished, we were sorely tempted by this one.
2008 A8 3.0 TDi SE quattro
An aluminium body, four-wheel drive, brilliant ergonomics and masses of equipment; what's not to like? The possible (probable?) big repair bills is the obvious thing, but the A8 is still a fabulous machine. The cheapest Audi A8 that we found was a 177,000-mile first-generation 4.2 quattro for just £1295, but for five grand you can have your pick of second-generation A8s. That brings the brilliant 3.0 TDi engine within reach, which means effortless cruising with excellent economy.
Audi TT Mk1
2004 TT 1.8T 225
You can secure a TT Mk1 for as little as £1000, but these are already collector's cars so why not buy something nice, look after it and enjoy what's likely to be free motoring? A £5k budget brings coupé or roadster TTs within reach, and either 1.8T or 3.2 V6 engines. Of the dozens of TTs we found for sale, our pick is an unmolested low-mileage 1.8T 225 coupé that offers year-round usability and reliability with economy and performance.
BMW 5 Series
2005 535d SE auto
Just about any 5 Series derivative is within reach if you've got five grand to spend; we even found a 550i and numerous 540is and 545is, all of them E60s. The only estates had around 200,000 miles on the clock, but if you're okay with a saloon there are 90,000-mile 535ds available from under £4000. That's buttons for a luxury family car with a 272bhp twin-turbo 3.0-litre straight-six.
BMW 7 Series
2006 730d Sport
The bigger they are the harder they fall. The 7 Series is BMW's biggest and most expensive, lavish saloon, but luxury cars depreciate badly and you can now pick up an E65 7 Series from just £2000. That's the ugly Chris Bangle-designed one, but in 2005 the avant garde styling was toned down. These later cars start at under £5000; for similar money you can even buy one of the long-wheelbase models which really does offer champagne motoring for lemonade money.
2004 Z4 2.2i SE
If you want some driving fun, a rear-wheel drive two-seater BMW roadster is a pretty good place to put your money – especially one with a straight-six engine. Only the 2.0-litre powerplant was a four-pot; the 2.2, 2.5 and 3.0-litre units got an extra pair of cylinders for extra muscle and a much-improved soundtrack. For ultimate go the 3.0-litre engine is the one to have but the significantly cheaper 2.2 provides the best balance of performance and economy.
2006 Crossfire coupé
If you don't want to risk the complexity of a first-generation Mercedes SLK roof mechanism but you like the idea of its 3.2-litre V6 engine, the Chrysler Crossfire might be just the job. Like the SLK upon which it's based, the Crossfire is no scalpel-sharp driver's tool but it's quick, intriguing and made to a higher standard than its reputation would have you believe – a reputation that means you get plenty for your money.
2010 CR-Z 1.5 Sport
An eco sports car might seem like a contradiction in terms, but there's plenty to like about this neat little petrol-electric coupé. Fun to drive, neatly styled and potentially very frugal, the CR-Z came with a 1.5-litre petrol engine backed up by a 14bhp electric motor that added an extra 57lb ft of torque to the mix. The result is a car that'll do 0-62mph in a fairly leisurely 10 seconds but cheap road tax and an easy 50mpg are the trade-offs. And with just 4292 CR-Zs sold in the UK, these Hondas are exclusive too.
2007 Legend 3.5 V6 EX
Creamy smooth 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine? Check. Lashings of standard kit including leather trim, heated seats and navigation? Check. Peerless reliability? Check. The Honda Legend is one of the most ironically named cars ever, as it's just about invisible, yet for five grand you can buy a low-mileage example of one of these four-wheel drive luxury expresses that'll give you years and years of painless service – apart from the annual road tax bill thanks to CO2 emissions of 273g/km.
Honda Civic Type R
2008 Civic Type R GT
You can buy a tidy EP3 Civic Type R for under £3000 but there are far more FN2 Type Rs about, plus there's a high-spec GT option which makes the car better suited to everyday use. Prices start at £3000 but an extra grand gets you into a really tidy example with less than 100,000 miles on the clock. In return you get a 197bhp slingshot that'll just keep going if it's looked after – plus the Civic is as family-friendly as they come.
1999 XJR 4.0
You won't get an X350-generation XJR for five grand and even X308s are hard to find – but they are out there. We turned up a scruffy 106,000-mile car for three grand, or there was a very tidy 113,000-miler for nearly twice as much (£5555). Both come with a 370bhp supercharged 4.0-litre V8 and will whisk you across continents without murmur; the key is to buy the best you can find and afford, and look after it, and you'll have a guaranteed collector's piece.
Mercedes-Benz SL (R129)
For more than six decades the Mercedes SL has been the perfect stylish cruiser and whereas they used to be seriously exclusive, there's no shortage of R129 (1989-2002) examples to choose from. The problem is that five grand is scraping the barrel so you'll have to settle for an entry-level (280SL) model or something with a massive mileage; we'd opt for a tidy 280SL as it's still got plenty of power for unhurried cruising. Lots of R129s are neglected, and while you can buy an R230 SL (2001-2011) for £5k, you're even more likely to get your fingers burned with one of those…
2002 CL55 AMG
There's a saying that the most expensive Mercedes is a cheap one. Cars that were 100 grand new and which now sell for 5% of their original price are often neglected and can be ruinously expensive to run. The C215-generation Merc is just such a machine, but they can also be very cheap and reliable to own if they've been looked after. If you're prepared to take the gamble go for it, especially when the prize is a 500bhp S-Class coupé with a supercharged 5.5-litre V8.
2004 350Z coupé
The cheapest 370Zs are still twice our budget here, but for five large ones you'll have your pick of 350Zs. Choose between manual or auto, coupé or roadster; we'll take a stick-shift coupé for our entire budget, and revel in its 276bhp fed to the rear wheels. The Nissan is a bit agricultural and really lacks refinement but with 0-60 taking about six seconds and a limited top speed of 155mph on the cards, the Z is the perfect cheap track day tool.
Porsche Boxster S (986)
2000 Boxster S 3.2
The car that saved Porsche from oblivion, the Boxster is the perfect driver's car in that it's fast, handles superbly, is practical and well made too – and even better, high sales volumes mean these mid-engined Porsches are plentiful and cheap. But if you buy badly you could be landed with some hefty bills, so you need to be seriously careful with your pre-purchase checks, but land a good one and you'll never look back.
Proton Satria GTi
2001 Satria 1.8 GTi
The regular Proton Satria has all the kitsch appeal of an Austin Maestro, but the GTi was touched by the magic hands of Lotus so it was an entirely different proposition. Enormous fun to drive with its sharp handling and punchy 1.8-litre engine, the Satria isn't lightning fast with just 132bhp, but drive one and you'll see that power isn't everything. Good Satria GTis are rare but they are out there.
Skoda Octavia vRS
2011 Octavia vRS 2.0 TFSi
The Skoda Octavia vRS is one of the greatest cars ever made. Really. It's fast, discrete, ultra-practical (whether you opt for a hatch or an estate) and eminently affordable. Available with 2.0-litre petrol or diesel engines (both of which are superb), we're plumping for the more free-revving petrol unit borrowed from the Golf GTi that serves up a healthy 197bhp. Try one out and you'll soon see why they're so popular as unmarked cars for the traffic police.
1998 Celica 2.0 GT convertible
Common sense would tell us to buy a Celica Mk7 coupé as they're plentiful, practical, quick and dependable. But when we saw a couple of these kitsch modern classics we decided to be a bit less predictable (and sensible). It might be oddly styled but the drop-top Celica is rare and should make a decent cruiser to soak up the sunshine. Five grand is probably hideously overpriced, but it's hard to know as there are so few about.
2005 MR2 1.8
The chances of getting your fingers burned with an MR2 Mk1 are high and it's much the same with Mk2s. The Mk3 isn't as bullet-proof as the Toyota badge on the nose would have you believe, but there are loads about within our budget and if you do your homework you can land a corker. But these mid-engined cars are madly impractical and can rust really badly, but buy something decent and you'll wonder why you didn't do it sooner.
Toyota Land Cruiser
2003 Land Cruiser 3.0 D-4D LC3
And now for something completely different. As the Australians say, if you want to go into the Outback you can take a Land Rover, but if you want to come back you should take a Toyota. Brilliant at towing and tackling rough terrain, the Land Cruiser sells in small numbers and retains its value because it's so brilliant, so five grand secures only an oldish high-mileage example. But if it's been looked after it'll still have plenty left to give.
1997 Calibra 2.5 V6 24v
We're dipping into modern classic territory again, but we make no apologies because of all the affordable cars produced in the 1990s the Vauxhall Calibra is one of those that still looks fabulous. Choose between four-cylinder or V6 models; there were autos, turbos – even a four-wheel drive edition. We've homed in on a two-owner low-mileage V6 example that's exactly as it left the factory – and all for less than four grand.
Volkswagen Lupo GTi
2003 Lupo 1.6 GTi
With early Golf GTis now out of reach for the impecunious, it's the hot Lupo that's stepped into the breach. They've been collectible for a while which is why prices have crept up; you'll pay at least £3000 for something decent. For £5k you can buy a really tidy Lupo GTi that hasn't been messed with (many have) and with a few choice options. Buy now before they go the same way as the Golf GTi Mk1 and Mk2.
2008 Phaeton 3.0 TDi V6 4Motion
If you don't wince at the idea of playing Russian roulette the Phaeton will be your kind of car. Incredibly well equipped, spacious and ultra-refined, the Phaeton was a VW vanity project that backfired, but as a used buy the Phaeton can represent spectacular value. The problem is that this massively complicated saloon can go wrong in a big way and at that point your £5k investment will suddenly seem like a very bad one. But if the odds are in your favour…
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