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Buying Britain’s most popular cars

The story of ten of the best-selling UK cars (and how to bag a good one)

  • What can you say about the best-selling car in the UK that hasn’t already been said? Not much, we’re afraid, unless you’re willing to just make stuff up on the spot. Did you know the Fiesta was designed by Dudley Moore? Or that David Gilmour famously keeps a Fiesta inside his recording studio on the Astoria? 

    Transparently false tidbits aside, the Fiesta remains the top dog because of the things you already know – it’s the best-looking, most-refined and best-handling car in its class (and some others, now that we think of it). It hasn’t always been the case since the first Fiesta’s debut back in 1976, but it’s been the case for more than a decade, so it won’t be hard to pick a good one. 

    The pick, predictably, is the ST, the playful puppy of the Fiesta range. Which, given that the name means ‘party’ in Spanish, is exactly as much fun as it sounds. Really. Get one. 

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  • Ah, Vauxhall. The proudly British brand that was owned by the Americans since the Twenties and has now been sold to the French. And the new Corsa is built in Spain. Um. Hm. 

    In any case, it matters little to the thousands of Britons who buy Corsas year in, year out, since the boxy original made its debut back in the 1980s as the Vauxhall Nova. From 1993, though, it’s been the Corsa, and has been second only to the Fiesta in sales and... well, most other things, to be honest. 

    But the newest one (i.e. the French one) is actually one of the best Corsas to date. And, helpfully, they’re not exactly the price of a house in Holland Park, either – just check out how reasonable a high-spec one is from this line-up.


  • Usually, being first is what matters – if you come up with something that changes everything, the first in really is the best dressed. So how well-dressed does someone else’s version have to be to completely blow your version out of the water? Oh, somewhere around about Volkswagen Golf will do it – it wasn’t the first hatchback, but it’s hard not to say it’ll be remembered that way.

    The Golf is special – it fits in just about anywhere, does just about everything and is liked by just about everyone. It’s an oddly classless machine, at ease with both plutocrat and proletariat, and remains at the tippety toppest of mind when you think of a car you’d recommend to friends and family. 

    The apotheosis of the Golf’s near-chameleonic ability to be all things to all people is the GTI. In a reserved jet black with the still-fabulous tartan seats, it will basically sort out your one-car garage. And there are a few for sale here…  

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  • Is it just us, or is it weird to think of a time when the Focus didn’t exist? Well, 22 years (and counting) at the forefront of the hatchback game has a lot to do with that. And, much like its arch-rival, the Golf, it’s woven itself into the warp and weft of daily life to the point where you can’t imagine a scenario where there’s not a Focus.

    Where the Golf has an edge in classlessness and a kind of egalitarian luxury, the Focus is the one to pick for handling. And it’s been that way since 1998, when the Golf was in its midlife crisis years, and the Focus’s sharp styling and sharper handling saw it claim quite a few more sales than Volkswagen was going to take lying down. 

    In fact, it’s not too hard to draw a line between the arrival of the Focus and the returning fortunes of the Golf – the MkIV came out one year before the Focus was on sale; the MkV came out after. You see what we’re getting at. 

    As great as pretty much every Focus is, the most ardent admiration is reserved for one Focus: the RS. There are a few for sale here among its more reserved peers… 

  • Mercedes really tried to do something different with the A-Class back in 1999 – getting all the space of a family car in the footprint of a supermini. And yeah, its narrowness and lanky height did make it look a touch ungainly, and... sort of topple over if you ever needed to swerve around, say, an elk. Obviously, Merc fixed the ailments of the original and kept it on sale for years. But, when it came time to replace its avant-garde original, Mercedes did as BMW would with its think-differently hatch a few years hence: capitulated entirely and gave us a regular hatchback. 

    And, as much as we love outside-the-box thinking, the new A-Class was just vastly better. Especially the AMG A45, which reset all expectations on the sort of power and performance you could get from a small engine in a small hatchback. Also, have you noticed how cheap second-hand ones are getting these days?

  • Wail and gnash your teeth as seems appropriate to you, but there’s no denying that the car that invented the class has continued to dominate it to this day. Oh, and the class it’s dominating? Still growing like crazy and taking big bites out of every other class around it. It’s good to be King, no?

    A big part of the Qashqai’s charm is its affordability and availability – with about 30,000 new ones selling every year, it’s easy to find a great second-hand Qashqai to suit - it's worth digging around for an upspec Tekna, with the turbo petrol engine and a manual gearbox. But you’re free to choose something worse, if that’s your thing. 

  • When the new Mini debuted back at the turn of the millennium – to thoroughly misquote the best Mini-related movie of all time – it blew everyone’s bloody doors off. But how could it not? There’s no arguing with proportions as perfect as those, not to mention styling that’s faithful to the original without slipping into pastiche and modern enough to easily hold its own in the top-tier hatchback market. Which is probably why it continues to sell like proverbial hot cakes.

    And the one to pick is, predictably, brisk enough to take said hot cakes and deliver them somewhere very far away before they’d even had a chance to cool. It’s the Mini John Cooper Works, of course, the combination of enough big names from yesteryear to be worthy of a misty-eyed retrospective. 

    It's not hard to love the old shape from and the whine from the supercharged 1.6L engine, so worth looking out for a limited-edition GP edition

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  • Why is it, exactly, that Volkswagen named its hatchbacks after sports generally played by people who work with hedge funds? First the Golf, then the Polo? Madness. 

    Or it would be, if that were even vaguely true. Back when the Golf and Polo were introduced, VW was quite the fan of naming its cars after winds. The Golf? Gulfstream. The Polo? Polar winds. Simple as that. 

    And, with the Golf growing in both proportions and aspirations from the original, the Polo stepped into the breach to make sure Volkswagen had a little hatch in its line-up. Kind of like how, when the Polo grew, the Up stepped in.

    Now it's worth trying and find a GTI from the lineup here… Can you blame us? 


  • Petrolhead diehards might hate reviving the hallowed Puma name as a crossover, but you can’t really fault anything else about the new, hiked-up and family-ified Ford. Like the original, the new Puma is based on the perennially popular Fiesta. And, like the original article, it’s been thoroughly reworked to suit what the people want. 

    Back in the Nineties, it was a sleek coupe built purely for fun; now it’s a crossover that outdoes itself trying to be practical. What that says about what has happened to humanity as a species since the 1990s is probably something worth looking into at some point, but, if you’re looking for a small crossover that just happens to be based on the most popular car in the UK, you’re in luck. 

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  • 2004, BMW touted its rear-drive hatch as a cut above the competition, purely because of... well, being a rear-drive BMW – as much driving nirvana as you can distil into a vaguely affordable road-going car. And that was great... right up until a BMW study found that 80 per cent of the 1 Series drivers surveyed thought their car was front-wheel-drive. Cue the sad trombone.

    For the new one, then, BMW fell in line and used the lighter, more space efficient front-drive platform that roughly every other hatchback uses. The result? A sales bonanza. 

    But, being the purists (read: terrible dinner guests) that we are, we’d purists will still try and plump for a rear-drive model, with a manual gearbox and all the other delights that’ll soon be off the table. Oh, and just for the fun of it, a turbocharged straight-six. Have a look at what’s for sale here… 

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