What Car?: The best used cars you can buy

Our expert opinion on the used car you should be buying in every class: the What Car? Used Car Awards for 2020...

With demand for used cars growing markedly this year, you’ll no doubt want to know which are the best buys.

Used Car of the Year 2020

That’s where the What Car? annual used car awards come in…

Many people have cottoned on to the fact that buying used can offer you most of what buying new can but at a greatly reduced cost. Meanwhile, others are looking for cars at the cheaper end of the market, with the aim of reducing their dependence on public transport in the wake of Covid-19.

The first thing to consider is what makes a good car. Simply put, a good car is one that fulfils its intended brief, so whether it’s an SUV or a coupé, it should do what it says on the tin, and it should do it better than its closest competitors.

Reliability is crucial, and we rely heavily on the data from our own What Car? Reliability Survey when choosing our winners. Also, all the cars we recommend have to be easy to get hold of, with plenty of models on the market and with a wide choice of engines and trims.

Marry all these factors and you’ll have the makings of a great used car. It’ll be more than just cheap; it’ll also be good to drive, comfortable to ride in and affordable to run. Let’s take a look at our favourite in every class:

CONVERTIBLE: Mercedes-Benz E-Class Cabriolet (2017-present)

Mercedes-Benz E-Class Cabriolet

If you want a four-seat convertible of rare elegance and subtle suavity, the E-Class Cabriolet is nigh on unbeatable. For starters, it looks and feels very much the premium product, being stylish and plush and solidly constructed. It also provides effortless performance with any of the various engine options under the bonnet.

Added to that, it’s superbly refined with the roof up or down and has a comfortable and extremely classy interior that could probably sell the car to you in the showroom before you’ve even turned a wheel.

CONVERTIBLE: Mercedes-Benz E-Class Cabriolet (2017-present)

Mercedes-Benz E-Class Cabriolet dashboard

All told, it’s a lot of car for the money. At its price point, it saw off such notable rivals as the Audi A5 Cabriolet and the BMW 6 Series Convertible, being better to drive and more refined than the former and younger and more agile than the latter. And in the end, it beat both the BMW 2 Series and 4 Series convertibles to the overall prize this year by virtue of its superior refinement and better all-round value.

We’d look for the efficient E220d model in well-furnished AMG Line trim. It’s a terrific car to take out on a sunny day.

Runners-up: BMW 4 Series Convertible (2013-present), BMW 2 Series Convertible (2014-present)

COUPE: Audi TT (2014-present)

Audi TT (2014-present)

The Audi TT is no stranger to a What Car? award; it’s one of the most successful cars of all time in that respect, whether as a new car or a used one. In fact, this is the fourth year in a row it’s carried off our Used Coupé of the Year trophy.

It isn’t surprising. Buy one used and you get to enjoy all the good features this third-generation TT has always offered – its agility, that lovely interior, the range of refined and punchy engines and its delightful performance – but at a greatly reduced price.

COUPE: Audi TT (2014-present)

Audi TT interior

It looks neat, too, and it’s a thrill to drive, with this being enough to edge it ahead of the BMW 4 Series Gran Coupé in what is a diverse and hard-fought category. Its greater affordability eases it ahead of the Jaguar F-Type, too; it’s less than half the price, but way more than half the fun.

Its build quality, inside and out, is rock-solid, and this means buying an older example is something you can do without fear. Our favourite version is the 2.0 TFSI in well-equipped Sport trim, and you can pick up a 2015 car with an average mileage for less than £15,000.

Runners-up: BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe (2014-present), Jaguar F-Type V6 S (2013-present)

ELECTRIC CAR: Nissan Leaf (40 kWh)(2018-present)

Nissan Leaf front three quarters

Although the choice of electric cars on sale is growing all the time, many of them still aren’t what you’d call cheap. However, our top used electric car combines all the practicality of a family hatchback with a smooth, near-silent driving experience, and all for a price that’s within reach of the many, not the few.

You can pick up a year-old example of the second-generation Leaf, with a standard 40kWh battery and in our recommended N-Connecta trim, for around £22,000. We reckon it represents much better value for money than the excellent but pricey Jaguar I-Pace, and its bigger battery gives it greater usability than the rival Volkswagen e-Golf. It’s more reliable than the Renault Zoe, too, and is more polished than the budget-priced MG ZS EV.

ELECTRIC CAR: Nissan Leaf (40 kWh)(2018-present)

Nissan Leaf dashboard

The first-generation Leaf deserves a mention – it’s a great way to switch to electric motoring on a modest budget – but its successor is better to drive and has a considerably longer range, even beating some much more expensive models. With such all-round talent, it deserves to be our overall category winner.

RUNNERS-UP: Nissan Leaf (2011-2018), Jaguar I-Pace (2018-present)

ESTATE: BMW 5 Series Touring (2017-present)

BMW 5 Series Touring front three quarters

There’s probably no such thing as the ultimate all-round car, because people have varying needs and wants, but we’ve always thought if you had to pick just one, it’d be the 5 Series Touring.

Simply put, it takes all we love about the 5 Series saloon – the wonderful driving manners, the comfort, the classy and well-appointed interior with its brilliant infotainment system – and adds in an extra dose of practicality, thanks to its huge and easily accessible boot. For most people, it’s all the car they’ll ever need.

ESTATE: BMW 5 Series Touring (2017-present)

BMW 5 Series interior

It beat all other cars at this price point, including a previous winner in the shape of the Mercedes-Benz E-Class Estate, by virtue of being better to drive and nicer to be in, and it sees off the other price point winners from Skoda and Volkswagen by offering that bit more all-round ability and then adding in that tempting opulence.

That you can pick up a two-year-old example of our favourite version, the refined and efficient 520d in well-equipped SE trim, while saving yourself around £15k on the price of a new one makes it outstanding value, too.

RUNNERS-UP: Skoda Octavia Estate (2013-2020), Volkswagen Passat Estate (2015-present)

EXECUTIVE CAR: Audi A4 (2015-present)

Audi A4 driving

There’s no shortage of executive saloon bargains in this price bracket – we could have picked the previous-generation BMW 3 Series, for example, or the current Mercedes-Benz C-Class – but neither of those cars is as well rounded as our winner. The Audi A4 is wonderfully refined, more so than the Skoda Superb, and it also offers reasonable running costs, a fantastic array of driver assistance technology and one of the highest-quality interiors you’ll find anywhere, all attributes that led us to name it as our Car of the Year when it was new.

EXECUTIVE CAR: Audi A4 (2015-present)

Audi A4 interior

For around £14,000, you’ll have your pick of smooth petrol or frugal diesel-engined A4s, and our advice is to team the 2.0 TDI diesel engine with Sport trim. This gives you more supportive seats than SE trim and a far more comfortable ride than the range-topping S line models, with their lowered sports suspension.

That you can now buy a car as good as the A4 for such little money makes this one of 2021’s used car bargains and ultimately seals its victory over the more expensive 3 Series in our top price point.

RUNNERS-UP: Skoda Superb (2016-present), BMW 3 Series (2019-present)

FAMILY CAR: Skoda Octavia (2013-2019)

Skoda Octavia front cornering

Many believe that an enormous SUV is what you need if you want a big boot. However, in all our testing, the 2021 used family car award-winning Skoda Octavia has only been beaten in the suitcase test by the gargantuan BMW X7, a vehicle that costs £75,000 new. By contrast, a year-old Octavia can be found for a mere £15,000 without much effort.

In fact, it represents better used value now than ever before, given that the introduction of a new version has caused values of this model to take a tumble.

FAMILY CAR: Skoda Octavia (2013-2019)

Skoda Octavia interior

As for why it deserves the overall class win over the Seat Leon and Vauxhall Astra, if being vastly more practical wasn’t enough of a reason, the Octavia’s engines are much more refined than the Astra’s and its steering is more precise. With its softer suspension, it’s more relaxing to travel in than the relatively firm Leon, too.

Finally, in our preferred SE trim, with the 1.5-litre petrol engine, the Octavia beats the equivalent Leon for reliability, thus comprehensively proving the Octavia to be the used family car of choice.

RUNNERS-UP: Seat Leon (2013-2019), Vauxhall Astra (2015-present)

FAMILY SUV: Seat Ateca (2016-present)

Seat Ateca

You only have to look at what the Ateca has overcome to realise why it deserves to triumph. It’s competing in one of the most hotly contested classes, at a price point packed with bargain buys, yet it still manages to beat far more expensive family SUVs.

The Ateca is extremely agile, with minimal body lean and precise steering. It’s genuinely fun to drive, and that isn’t something you can say about its Kia Sportage and Nissan Qashqai rivals.

FAMILY SUV: Seat Ateca (2016-present)

Seat Ateca interior

Don’t think that this agility forces you to put up with a punishing ride, either. Instead, the Ateca is best described as well controlled, which means it won’t make the kids feel car sick by bouncing and swaying around over bumps.

It’s family-friendly inside, too, with a sturdy build and loads of space. Plus, there’s no need to hunt around for one of the pricier trims to get a car with lots of equipment. In short, a well-equipped, efficient 2017 Ateca 1.4 TSI 150 SE – around £13,000 - will cost you much less than a newer Skoda Karoq or Volkswagen Tiguan but is every bit as good as those two and just as practical.

RUNNERS-UP: Skoda Karoq (2017-present), Volkswagen Tiguan (2016-present)

HOT HATCH: BMW M140i (2016-2019)

BMW M140i front

The BMW M135i is a previous winner of this award, but we’ve now reached the point where the even faster M140i can be bought used for less than £18,000. And what made the M140i so great when it was new holds just as true today.

The driving experience centres around the car’s brawny six-cylinder engine. That may sound like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but it pulls like a locomotive and delivers a soundtrack that the four-cylinder Audi S3 and Volkswagen Golf R simply can’t get close to matching.

HOT HATCH: BMW M140i (2016-2019)

BMW M140i interior

True, both of these rivals will corner at least as quickly, but the M140i is more fun. Its steering lets you place the front wheels exactly where you want, and you can feel the car moving around you when you get back on the power, which sounds scary but is actually thrilling. Being a BMW, it also has quality materials inside, plus there’s space for four and the ride is supple.

The M140i can even top 35mpg in real-world use, so it offers a better balance of driving thrills, everyday usability and value than a used Fiesta ST or Civic Type R.

RUNNERS-UP: Ford Fiesta (2013-2017), Honda Civic Type R (2017-present)

HYBRID: Hyundai Ioniq (2017-present)

Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid front three quarters

We’d all like to be doing our bit for the environment, but investing in green technology always costs money. Fortunately, as you can see, there are some fantastic used hybrid cars that’ll save you a fortune by buying used.

Our winner, the 2018 Hyundai Ioniq, beats its Toyota Prius rival, not least because you can find a much newer Ioniq for the same money (under £15,000). It’s very nearly as fuel-efficient, too, and better to drive, because it has a conventional six-speed automatic gearbox in place of the Prius’s rev-happy CVT.

HYBRID: Hyundai Ioniq (2017-present)

Hyundai Ioniq interior

In addition, you’ll still have three years’ warranty left on a two-year-old Ioniq. That it should beat the BMW 530e and Volvo XC90 T8 is remarkable. Each of these plug-in hybrids makes a worthy case for itself, and both can travel much farther on electricity – saving precious petrol – than a conventional hybrid like the Ioniq can.

If you don’t keep their batteries charged, though, they’ll return worse fuel economy than a regular diesel, and that’s no good for your bank balance. Because of all that, and how much cheaper it is than either, the Ioniq takes the win.

RUNNERS-UP: Volvo XC90 T8 (2015-present), BMW 530e (2017-present)

LARGE SUV: Volvo XC60 (2017-present)

Volvo XC60 front

The current-shape XC60 echoes the upmarket look and feel of its luxury SUV stablemate, the XC90, yet it’s several thousand pounds cheaper. Our favourite model, the D4 Momentum, is more affordable than the hybrid options, and its 2.0-litre diesel engine is powerful enough to haul a family around with ease. It’s generously kitted out, too, and refuelling it won’t break the bank.

The XC60 may not be the last word in driver appeal, but its Scandinavian-inspired interior is classy and cosseting. And, being a Volvo, there’s a raft of safety kit as standard. For less than £25,000 you can buy a 2017 XC60; this represents superb value, given that it’s the very latest generation of this large SUV. The same cash spent on a Audi Q5 or BMW X3 will only secure an example of the previous version of either.

LARGE SUV: Volvo XC60 (2017-present)

Volvo XC60 interior

Its combination of luxury, refinement and strong safety credentials give the XC60 the edge over the Q5 and Skoda Kodiaq for the overall victory in this category. As a premium, current-shape large SUV, it’s a bit of a bargain.

RUNNERS-UP: Skoda Kodiaq (2017-present), Audi Q5 (2017-present)

LUXURY CAR: Audi A8 (2017-present)

Audi A8 Saloon Sport 50 TDI quattro

Usually, cars from the upper echelon of this category miss out on victory, because justifying the price gulf between them and cheaper alternatives is too hard. Not this time, though. The Audi A8 may be in our top price bracket, but two-year-old examples can be found for less than a new entry-level BMW 5 Series – spectacular value for money indeed.

Given that we’re talking about the latest model, safety kit is a match for the Volvo S90’s. However, the S90 has a fidgety ride around town, whereas the air suspension on the A8 allows you to glide over bumps at any speed.

LUXURY CAR: Audi A8 (2017-present)

Used Audi A8 Saloon (17-present)

The A8 is even quieter and smoother than a Mercedes-Benz S-Class at a cruise, while the 282bhp 3.0-litre diesel engine in our favourite 50 TDI model is powerful, refined and efficient. In fact, the A8 won’t cost you a great deal more to run than the smaller 5 Series.

Even in our chosen ‘entry-level’ form, the A8 has more than enough toys to keep most people happy, while it has a higher-quality interior than the S-Class. All in all, the A8 is the most cosseting luxury car around.

RUNNERS-UP: Volvo S90 (2016-present), BMW 5 Series (2017-present)

LUXURY SUV: Audi Q7 (2015-present)

Audi Q7 front cornering - 67-plate car

Last year, the Audi Q7 won its price point in this category but not the overall award. This year, however, its sheer value is simply too good to ignore. With £35,000 to spend on a used luxury SUV, your choices include the likes of the BMW X6, Porsche Cayenne and Range Rover Velar. As good as those cars are, though, none is as versatile as the Q7.

Whether you’re going on a family holiday or tackling the school run, the Q7 will take you there in comfort and style. It rides better than the Volvo XC90 and offers more leg room for rear passengers than the BMW X5, and opting for our recommended SE trim gives you dual-zone climate control, sat-nav and xenon headlights as standard.

LUXURY SUV: Audi Q7 (2015-present)

Audi Q7 - interior

Go for the higher-powered 3.0 TDI 272 diesel engine and you’ll enjoy great performance mixed with sensible running costs and fantastic refinement. The Q7 is our favourite luxury SUV as a new car, but if anything it’s even better used, because pre-facelift models have a more user-friendly infotainment system and a smoother automatic gearbox.

RUNNERS-UP: Volvo XC90 (2015-present), BMW X5 (2019-present)

MPV: Citroën Grand C4 Spacetourer (2018-present)

Citroën Grand C4 Spacetourer 1.2 Puretech 130 Touch Edition

If ever there was a car designed for families that love to play I-Spy, the Citroën Grand C4 Spacetourer would be it. Why? Well, its big windows, panoramic windscreen and slim pillars put the scenery at centre stage. It should also be a hit with anyone looking for good value, because you can get a year-old example of our favoured 1.5 BlueHDI 130 Feel model for less than £15,000.

The Grand C4 Spacetourer sees off the Volkswagen Touran in this price bracket because its interior is more welcoming than its rather dour rival’s, plus you can get a newer car for the same money.

MPV: Citroën Grand C4 Spacetourer (2018-present)

Citroën Grand C4 Spacetourer 1.2 Puretech 130 Touch Edition - interior

So, how does it beat the Ford Galaxy, last year’s category winner? Well, although the Galaxy is better to drive, this year’s What Car? Reliability Survey suggests the Grand C4 Spacetourer is the more dependable choice. It’s cheaper at the same age, too.

The Grand C4 Spacetourer also has the edge over the smaller, cheaper Citroën C4 Picasso, thanks to its additional third-row seats. Although they’re small, the can come in very handy when extra guests join the party.

RUNNERS-UP: Citroën C4 Picasso (2013-2018), Ford Galaxy (2015-present)

PERFORMANCE: Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio (2016-present)

2016 Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio review

It takes a lot of front to compete in the performance car ring, not least when you’re up against such heavyweights as the ironclad Audi RS5, wantonly aggressive Mercedes-AMG C63 and balletic BMW M3. But even in the face of such an onslaught, the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio is our favourite.

Much of its appeal comes from its 503bhp twin-turbo 2.9-litre V6 engine, which delivers electrifying performance. And unlike in the M3, you don’t have to be going flat out to enjoy its sharp, beautifully balanced handling, which is emphasised by ultra-quick, responsive steering.

PERFORMANCE: Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio (2016-present)

Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio (2016-present) - interior

We reckon a two-year-old Giulia is something of a sweet spot, saving you more than a third over the original price. That’s a bargain when you consider that it can seat four in comfort, has a decent-sized boot and rides astonishingly well, making it easier to live with than an RS5 or a C63.

Compared with the other price point winners, the Giulia is more rewarding to drive than the Mercedes-AMG C43 and better value than the E63. In performance car terms, nothing else can touch it.

RUNNERS-UP: Mercedes-AMG C43 (2015-present), Mercedes-AMG E63 (2016-present)

SMALL CAR: Skoda Fabia (2015-present)

Skoda Fabia S 1.0 MPI 60PS

It’s three in a row for the Skoda Fabia; it won in this category last year and the year before, too. So let’s not beat about the bush: used small cars simply don’t come any more complete, or more reasonably priced, than the Fabia. Not only is it spacious, good to drive and easy to manoeuvre around town, but the Fabia also has that typical Skoda sense of solidity and a strong reliability record.

A budget of £8000 will get you behind the wheel of a three-year-old Fabia with the excellent 94bhp 1.0 TSI petrol engine, which has enough power for town and motorway driving alike, and in well-equipped SE trim, with its air-con and 6.5in touchscreen infotainment system.

SMALL CAR: Skoda Fabia (2015-present)

Skoda Fabia interior

It’s worth spending the extra money over the Ford Fiesta, because you’ll not only get a newer car but also one with a bigger boot and a more up-to-date infotainment system. Meanwhile, the Fabia trumps the Volkswagen Polo for value. For not far off half its new price, you’ll be buying a car that blends many of the individual skills of its rivals in a single well-rounded package.

RUNNERS-UP: Ford Fiesta (2008-2017), Volkswagen Polo (2017-present)

SMALL SUV: Seat Arona (2018-present)

Seat Arona 2019 RHD front right tracking

With so many small SUV offerings bolstering the used car market, you’re spoilt for choice at any price point, but the Seat Arona really stands out from the crowd.

For starters, it has a finely judged ride and handling balance that makes it fun to drive without sacrificing comfort. Its interior may not be as classy as that of the posh Audi Q2, but it’s just as well screwed together and matches the Q2 for equipment in like-for-like trim. It also has a capacious boot to keep young families happy.

SMALL SUV: Seat Arona (2018-present)

Seat Arona - interior

The Arona sees off the Suzuki Vitara and Hyundai Kona at this price point because it has a more upmarket interior than the former and is much better to drive than the latter.

In the battle for overall honours in this category, the Arona gets the nod over the Q2 because it’s newer and significantly cheaper to buy, while it’s much better to drive and more sophisticated than the Renault Captur. Shop for a 1.0 TSI 95 SE Technology model for the best combination of efficiency, price and kit; you’ll find a two-year-old example for comfortably less than £12,000.

RUNNERS-UP: Renault Captur (2013-2019), Audi Q2 (2016-present)

SPORTS CAR: Porsche Cayman (2013-2016)

Porsche Cayman

Every so often, a car comes along that is so far ahead of the competition that you’re left wondering how long it will take for other brands to catch up. In the case of the previous-generation Porsche Cayman, we’re still waiting.

With its playful handling, sonorous six-cylinder engine and snickity six-speed manual gearbox (a brilliant automatic is also available), the ‘981’ Cayman still delivers a driving experience that makes you wonder why you’d ever need to step up to a 911. It may not be as quick point to point as the newer, current Cayman, but the 2.7-litre flat six sounds much sweeter than the new model’s rather rough four-cylinder engine.

SPORTS CAR: Porsche Cayman (2013-2016)

Porsche Cayman (2013-2016) - interior

At this price point, a 2015 Cayman not only holds more appeal than its successor but also sees off newer contenders such as the Audi TT, BMW Z4 and Mercedes-Benz SLC, because it’s so much more rewarding to drive.

And, as was the case last year, it’s an obvious overall winner in this category, given that it’s more dynamically adept than the Mazda MX-5 and more grin-inducing than the BMW i8.

RUNNERS-UP: Mazda MX-5 (2015-present), BMW i8 (2014-present)

VALUE CAR: Hyundai i10 (2014-2019)

Hyundai i10 1.2 SE auto

Numerous studies suggest that the majority of commuters in big cities will reconsider their use of public transport after Covid-19, meaning the inexpensive city car has never been more relevant than it is now. So our decision to name the Hyundai i10 as the best used city car doesn’t come lightly.

If money is of the utmost importance to you, our lowest price point winner – the Suzuki Celerio – is still a great shout, but we reckon the jump to the i10 is worth making, because you get a much more refined car with a better Euro NCAP safety rating. And although the latest Kia Picanto is practical and good to drive and represents a significant saving over a brand new version, it can’t beat the i10 for sheer value.

VALUE CAR: Hyundai i10 (2014-2019)

Hyundai i10 2015 dashboard

For around £6000, you can find a 2017 i10 in well-equipped SE trim, with an economical 1.0-litre engine or a more gutsy 1.2 for easier motorway work. In addition, you’ll still have a few years’ worth of manufacturer’s warranty cover left, further strengthening the i10’s case for being the best used city car you can buy today.

RUNNERS-UP: Suzuki Celerio (2015-2019), Kia Picanto (2017-present)

OVERALL WINNER: Seat Ateca (2016-present)

Seat Ateca Studio 2020

This may have been a year like no other, due to the coronavirus pandemic, but one thing remained refreshingly familiar: picking just one used car champion from our list of category winners was as difficult a task as ever.

We were hugely impressed with the classy and capable Audi A4 in the executive car class, for example, while the evergreen Skoda Octavia is a great family car that is always an extremely tempting used buy. And who could resist the red-blooded Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio, a terrific car that scooped up the performance car category for the second year running?

But in the end, overall victory went to the Seat Ateca. Here is an immensely likeable family SUV that can now be bought for less than half what you’d spend to buy one new. None of the other category winners could match the Ateca’s combination of practicality, driving fun and excellent value for money. One of our favourite new family SUVs is even more recommendable as a used buy, and we have no hesitation in awarding it the top gong this year.

APPROVED USED CAR SCHEME: DS

APPROVED USED CAR SCHEME: DS

It’s a victory to the DS Certified scheme for the second year in a row, and it’s perhaps not surprising, because it still provides a truly excellent level of cover that few other schemes come close to matching. For starters, there’s a rare 24-month warranty available for cars up to four years old that have done less than 50,000 miles. There’s also an extensive 120-point mechanical check, two years’ worth of DS Assistance EU and UK breakdown recovery, a full history and mileage check on every car sold, free MOT test cover and a 30-day/1000-mile exchange programme. On top of that, buyers can access a number of premium services via automatic membership of the DS Only You club, including a 24/7 helpline, valeting and DS car rental.

What’s more, if you’re buying a car between four and seven years old with up to 100,000 miles on the clock, you can take advantage of a 12-month warranty with breakdown recovery and the same pre-sale checks, DS Only You membership, MOT test cover and exchange policy that you get if you buy a newer car.

With so much on offer, especially to those looking to buy an older car, we’re delighted to give top honours to the DS scheme once again.

RUNNERS-UP: Kia, BMW/Mini

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