20 bargain bangers you can depend on
Of the compromises you’re willing to accept when buying used, reliability shouldn’t be one of them. We’ve pored through the classifieds to find bargain bangers that won’t fail you.....
Not everyone can afford a new car.
Nor can everyone even afford a used car that’s a few years old. Many people just need some plain cheap wheels to get around and to get to work.
Trouble is, with age comes wear and tear, repair bills and breakdowns, right? Not always. If you haven’t much cash to spend, we reckon this lot could give you some trouble-free motoring for buttons.
Editors’ note: The prices listed are estimates based on examples in a decent overall condition
You get a proper six-cylinder 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 you may have to travel for a decent price. You’ll struggle to duck below the £1500 mark for a decent example, but cheap ones are out there – we found a 2003 runner for £695.
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BMW 540i V8
A 540i offers M-like performance at a fraction of the cost and the same amount of subtlety. 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 so be thorough when viewing as these aren't always easily spotted and can land buyers with hefty repair bills.
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 2002 2.5 Zetec S which looked like fun for £690 and with 150,000 miles. It came with cruise control, a heated windscreen and air-con.
One of the first proper soft-roaders, the HR-V has always shone with its futuristic Evoque-ish styling and charming character.
We found an automatic example in two-door body format with an astonishingly low 50,000 miles, a years MOT, full service history and just one owner from new, all for £900 – however, higher mileage examples can be found for well below our recommended £600 mark.
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 and a distinctive ‘streamlined’ design.
There aren’t many in circulation now, but we stumbled across a 2.0 SE Sport from 2002 at £650. A trade sale with 150k miles, a whole heap of paperwork and six months MOT.
Hyundai Santa Fe
Think of it was 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.
Crankshaft sensor failure can happen; overall, though, they rack up big mileages without serious complaint. A 2005 2.4 CDX at £895 in silver with 95k 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 pretty 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 trade seller with a full-fat 2004 2.7 V6. For £995 you will not only look good but have the power to back up the aesthetics. But remember, 1.6- and 2.0-litre models can be found for much cheaper.
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 95,000 mile 2002 SE with a full history and 12 months MOT for £900 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. Availability has 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 1999 example with an MOT (albeit an MOT for an unspecified amount of time), full leather interior and just a few nicks on the bodywork, all for £600.
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 1999 1.5 LXi with just 78,000 miles and part service history, and for just 250 quid!
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 to make it even more sensible.
A lot of people know how good they are, which is why most that are up for sale right now cost around a grand. But for just under that we found a tidy looking 2.0-litre Sport with 91k miles and a full years MOT.
However, many of the 1.6-litre petrol models can be had for much less.
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 2001 2.4 GDi at £995. It had a new MOT, part service history and decent tyres.
Nissan Micra 1.0
Forget compromised and overly priced Smarts, what you need is one of these driving-school specials in the shape of a 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 anywhere near the claimed 47mpg (then again in a car of this age we doubt you’d get close to it anyway). We found a 2002 car with 116k miles for £320: immaculate inside a sunroof and central locking.
A 900, or even a later 9-3, is a proper four-seat cabriolet at a giveaway price. There are often lots of niggles to deal with, but the core of these cars is pretty tough. A rather disengaged driving experience, but it looks great. Coil packs can expire but are easy to fix.
A tidy looking, bright yellow 1997 2.3 SE with full leather interior and MOT with just 90,000 miles on the clock seems good value at £850. Nothing mentioned about service history though…you would have to be brave.
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-litre 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 2001 1.6 S we found had alloy wheels, a very clean interior and just 67k miles, all £895 – not bad.
Suzuki Wagon R
This edged out a Toyota Yaris because it offers micro-MPV practicality. The mechanicals are excellent, the seating position makes it easy to get in and out of 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 2003 1.3 GL S with power steering, alloy wheels and electric windows with a decent length MOT and 107k miles for just £590 like we did.
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 we found a tidy looking model from 2004 with full service history, one owner from new a long MOT and with a reasonable 100,000 miles on the clock. £790 was the asking price.
Vauxhall Astra Convertible
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 2006 1.8i with 75k miles and a lot of kit including air-con and climate control for £900.
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 2004 2.4 D5 automatic at £650 with 126k 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
Not the sharpest handler, nor the most charismatic badge, but it’ll do 155mph and remains seriously cheap. This Volvo is a reliable old thing; suspension, ABS issues and electric window malfunctions happen, but no biggies.
A 2001 example with a gigantic 219k miles and the same owner for the last 16 years came to £950. It also features four nearly new tyres.