Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Five of the best: city cars for under £4,000

As the streets get more crowded and the sky dirtier, small cars get more popular. Here are the top five city dwellers for those not on City bonus money.
SMMT sales figures for September 2009 have shown a general shift towards smaller, more efficient cars. That's no surprise given we're all more eco-aware these days, but it's also an indication that city cars are getting better and better, cramming more space into smaller shells than ever; some of them aren't far short of packaging miracles.

It used to be the case that the city car was the choice for those who secretly wanted something bigger. Now, small is the new big - and that's great because smaller means more affordable. So, we've set ourselves a £4,000 budget and gone about finding the best proper city cars we can find. Cars that you won't be ashamed to rock up to the golf course in, or whatever other cliché you can think of that represents big cars and old money.

Volkswagen Lupo, Not so loopy
The VW Lupo remains the perfect way of getting plenty of badge prestige for little money, despite being an obvious platform sharing exercise with sister car the SEAT Arosa. It was replaced by the Fox, which despite being bigger and more refined, arguably dispensed with all the cute character than made the Lupo so appealing. It was conceived as a littler version of the ever-bloating Polo, and while it doesn't quite have the quality we expect of a VW it is of course built to last. And the 1.6-litre GTI is a proper pocket rocket.

Obviously it's not on sale new any more, but having been discontinued in 2005 there are plenty of decent examples to be had for well under our £4,000 budget. It's a VW, so residuals are solid which means that a decent GTI version is still out of our budget, believe it or not. So, we'd opt for a late 1.4-litre in Sport guise, which cost £10,500 when new and comes with alloy wheels, front fog lights and a cool central tailpipe. The 100bhp engine gets the car to 60mph in ten seconds exactly, but it's so small and low that things feel altogether faster from the inside - and that's what really matters

Fiat Panda, A bit of an animal
The beauty of the Panda is its utilitarian coolness - and the fact it's so cheap. Released in 2003, the Panda was something of a revelation because, as opposed to its forebear, it was spacious, modern and really good to drive. It has stood the test of time too, because it still stands tall (literally) among much newer competition - even that from within the ranks in the form of the Fiat 500.

It's available in petrol and diesel guises, the latter a smooth and frugal 1.3-litre MultiJet, but unless you need all that torque for lugging a family of four fatties, we'd say keep it basic with our choice: a 1.1-litre petrol model in Active spec. In that case it will be easy to find an example from 2005 with low mileage for under £4k. It won't be massively well equipped (you'll have to make do with plastic wheel trims), but that's still a lot of space and cool for the money.

Ford Ka, City socialite
The original Ford Ka's place in city car legend was cemented with the arrival of the current version; the new Ka isn't a bad car, but it's regarded by many (us included) as having none of the character that marked out its predecessor as special. Don't be fooled though, cars have moved on since the Ka's 1996 launch: step into an original now and it feels cramped and cheap.

But that doesn't stop it being great, because despite what BMW would have you believe, the Ford nailed the 'go-kart handling' thing well before the new MINI did. There's something raw and uniquely involving about the Ka, and its tiny footprint makes it an ideal city car for those who don't really need that much space. In terms of buying one, anything pre-2007 should be within the reach of a punter with four grand in their pocket and a bit of self-belief. There are absolutely loads of them about, so go for the newest, most well equipped, lowest mileage 1.3-litre petrol you can find, and haggle for the best price. Don't accept anything less than a minter, as someone in the trade might say.

Mini, City car czar

BMW era MINIs haven't quite dropped below the £4k mark yet, even for 2001 examples, but like the Ka earlier on this list, there's a strong case for the original even though the update is in every respect the better, more modern car. (Angry emails to the usual address please, original Mini owners.)

You've heard the gushing talk about the original Mini's cult status and all encompassing greatness before - especially given the whole 50th anniversary thing - so we won't go over old ground here. So, what can be had for £4k? Well, the Mini is a bona fide classic, and an aged one at that, so there's a huge swell of rubbish to sift through for every good example. Our budget should be enough to buy a car in good fettle and capable of running nicely as a day-to-day city dweller. But as ever, if you're not au fait with all things mechanical, take someone who is when you're looking otherwise you could spend more time under the car than in it. Re-builds can be a good option, but we refer to the previous sentence to make sure you're buying into quality workmanship

Renault Twingo, French fancy
Mini-schmini! If you really want to stand out in your city car - and tell the world you've got skills behind the wheel - buy an original Renault Twingo. It wasn't brought to the UK officially and is only available in left hand drive - so you'll need your wits about you during the crowded rush hour - but you'll be unique among other road users. Score.

Now, you may well be thinking 'oh my, that's an ugly car.' And you'd be right, it is, but it's also really clever, still - despite being a stroppy teenager now, having been born in 1992. It's still in production in Columbia too, despite being replaced by the Twingo we see in Renault showrooms today. Nearly 2.5 million of them have been made so far and counting. Its sliding rear bench seat means drivers can choose either more boot or rear leg space depending on need, and it went through a couple of facelifts during production, so the cabins of later cars look relatively modern even today. There aren't many around, but used examples often crop up, plenty of them very well looked after by owners with the smarts to import something different. All cars get power from four-cylinder petrol engines of 1.1-litre or 1.2-litre capacity.


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