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
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Here 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 cheaper ones are out there – we found a 2001 runner for £1250.
BMW 540i V8
The second rear-wheel drive machine on this list, but this time in the shape of a tourer, the 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. Most examples won't sport less than 100k miles, so be careful.
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 silver 2002 3.0 ST-200 which looked like fun for £695 and with 130,000 miles. It came with cruise control, leather seats 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 a manual example in two-door body format with an respectably low 73,000 miles, six months MOT, partial service history and good specification, all for £490 – however, most examples start at around £1000, but with a bit of perseverance and a keen eye many can be found for around our £800 recommended 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 2001 at £795. A trade sale with 90k miles, a heap of paperwork and 10 months MOT.
Hyundai Santa Fe
Think of it as 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 2004 TD 2.0 at £990 in black with 71K 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 2006 2.0 SE with an 11 month MOT, partial service history, full leather interior and cruise control, all for £895. And if you really keep your eyes open, you may come across one of the coveted 2.7-litre V6 variants...
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 109k mile 2002 SE with partial service history and 10 months MOT for £995 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 1997 example with 11 months MOT, full leather interior and just a few nicks on the bodywork, all for £670.
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 1997 1.8 i Executive with just 62,000 miles and part service history, all for £895. Remember though, higher mileage variants will command far lower prices.
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 1.6-litre Elegance with 92k miles and six months MOT. All for £825.
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.
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 2000 car with 60,000 miles for £399: 10 months MOT, part service history and very clean inside.
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, black 1997 2.0 i with full leather interior and MOT with just 104,000 miles on the clock seems good value at £595.
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 2004 1.6 S we found had alloy wheels, a very clean interior and just 61k miles, all £750– 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 80,000 miles for just £650 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 2003 with part service history, long MOT and a reasonable 124,000 miles on the clock. Just £495 was the asking price, but most go for the £800 mark.
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 2002 1.8i with 86k miles and a lot of kit for £695.
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 2005 2.4 D5 automatic with 10 months MOT, heated front seats, cruise control and automatic wipers for just £895. And if you ever had any doubt whether Volvo's can hack the miles, this one's barely run in with 303,900 miles on the clock!
However there are many lower mileage options out there for not much more cash.
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 2000 example with 135k miles, just two owners and sporting a tasteful turquoise colour scheme came to £1400.
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