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Five more interesting used cars you should be buying

We just got word that you’re all buying boring hatchbacks. Come on... live a little

  1. So, the latest used car sale figures are out. And, frankly, the results are a little disappointing. No one, it seems, is buying interesting second-hand cars. Isn’t that the whole point of the second-hand market – expensive cars that depreciate until we, the great unwashed, can get our grubby mitts on them and be ruined by the costs of servicing and upkeep? It’s probably the most-fulfilled dream in the Top Gear office. 

    It’s not that we’re entirely keen to advocate the hyper-capitalist ideal of happiness through purchasing. It’s more that we want to riff on (or rip off – you tell us) the Marie Kondo-esque idea of doing away with the banal and everyday items as much as possible and embrace a very small – and purposefully curated – list of joyful objects.

    Think about it this way: modern life has many appurtenances that are necessary, yet bring us little to no joy. Using your washing machine, for instance, tends not to be a life-affirming experience, and making toast while bleary-eyed and steeling yourself for the day ahead is unlikely to instil a sense of joy and wellbeing. 

    But we’ve long held the belief that, in specific cases (like the car), it’s entirely possible for ownership to be a rewarding and genuinely joyful experience. It’s a harder path to take than the ‘see thing, buy thing, use thing and throw thing away’ mentality that props up any number of consumer product retailers (i.e. stores), but we’re adamant that the rewards are worth it. 

    And, to repeat ourselves a bit, your time here is limited. When you work, you’re trading away your time for money. So it stands to reason that everything you ever buy costs more than the number on the sales sticker – it also costs an irrecoverable amount of your time. Now, considering the true cost of everything you buy, doesn’t it make sense to extract the largest amount of pleasure and satisfaction you possibly can? And, not to stray from the point too severely, but when was the last time you were truly silly? That, dear friends, is its own reward. 

    So, let’s address the four-wheeled elephant in the room – your boring car-buying habits. 

    It may not be you specifically. You might have an interesting second-hand car and, if so, tell us about it so we can live vicariously. Even so, you’re in the minority. Case in point – the five top-selling used cars of the last three months are the Ford Fiesta and Focus, Vauxhall Corsa and Astra and the VW Golf. And the most-popular colour choices are black, silver, blue, grey and white. Not exactly pushing the boat out, are we?

    Sure, the Fiesta and Golf are fine cars and hard to fault, and it’s entirely possible to have fun with them on a twisty back road. But we’re talking about more than intermittent fun, had every other month when you get the time to find a quiet back road for a spot of sporty driving. We’re talking about everyday joy – whether you’re stuck in it in traffic, looking at it or merely thinking about it, tucked away in your garage, while you fill out TPS reports. 

    So, being the thoroughly helpful consumer advocates that we’ve always been (even if you live on Guam!), we’ve decided to make a few simple suggestions to help you find your own joyful objects. None of them’ll break the bank (to buy, anyway; servicing is another story) and all are a damn sight more interesting than a grey Vauxhall Astra. We’ve also decided to get scientific with it, breaking each car down by how it delivers joy. Yeah, science!

  2. Subaru WRX STI

    Low-hanging fruit, or just a very cherry idea? You tell us. 

    Visual joy: 5/10

    It’s not exactly a looker, this thing, either inside or out. There’s a certain brutish (or is that yobbish?) charm to the exterior and a very basic plastic interior.  

    Tactile joy: 5/10

    Everything tends to work, but there’s no joy to be found in flicking a switch or grabbing a door pull. The gearbox and pedals are a tactile joy however, as are the boy-racer seats. Embrace the iridescent colours. Do it.

    Driving joy: 9/10

    If you can pull off the devil-may-care attitude that’s necessary to drive this every day, there’s a thuggish charm to proceedings. The STI is a car that seems capable of sticking its chin out and telling someone to jog on, leaving them in a barrage of warbling exhaust notes and chittering turbo whooshes before they can stutter out any kind of retort. 

    It is also, when the mood strikes, exceptionally brisk on almost any surface you care to traverse. 

    Joy factor: 6.3/10

    OK, it’s not going to make you want to caress it, but the STI is about what it does and how it makes you feel. And, if you’re not a fan of Scoobies, there’s always the Mitsi Evo…

  3. TVR Chimaera

    Yeah, it’ll probably break. And? 

    Visual joy: 7/10

    Is it the best-looking TVR ever? No, of course it isn’t. That distinction has to go the Sagaris or the T350. That said, it’s certainly not the ugliest one, either, and it’s easy to buy one for less than £15,000. That means fewer hours behind a desk, on a phone or standing by the printer. And that leaves money free for other joyful things! See, once the ball is rolling? 

    Tactile joy: 7/10

    It’s hand-built, so take that into consideration. But the leather and walnut combos are quite something, and the cabin ambience makes up for the parts-bin air vents and aftermarket-style stereo. Also, because it’s a ragtop, there’s the sheer tactile joy of being a part of your environment as you move through it. Ask a motorcyclist what we’re on about if you’re not already nodding sagely.

    Driving joy: 8/10

    How you derive pleasure, and indeed joy, is a very personal thing. Some people get it from putting melted wax on themselves or dressing up like My First Pony. We’re not here to judge.

    Back to the point. We find that the most pleasurable way to drive a car is in the midst of heroic oversteer, balancing the whole affair on the throttle, through near-uncontrollable fits of laughter. The TVR Chimaera delivers in this regard. Some would say it over-delivers. We’re not here to judge.

    In any case, extracting a perfect powerslide from a Chimaera earns you many man points, and might even work as an epitaph: “Here lies a hero. He held a slide in a Chimaera this one time. He also had a family and such.”

    But, even when you’re not driving like a hooligan, the TVR is an event – manual gearbox, much power and infinite headroom. And what’s better than that?

    Oh, and we should point out that we always enjoy our heroic oversteer under controlled conditions and never where getting it wrong will cause anyone but us any grief. Do likewise. 

    Joy factor: 7.3

    Now we’re talking. Rear-drive, low-volume sportscars for the win! See also: Ginetta, Jensen, Lotus…

    And let’s not forget (if your budget allows) that the Cerbera, Tuscan and T350 are all available for less than £30,000. And they might be even more joyful. 

  4. Jaguar XJR

    Ever wanted to look like a Guy Ritchie gangster? Now’s your Charles Dance, innit?

    Visual joy: 8/10

    Just look at it. Has there ever been another car that so wonderfully encompassed the old-school aristocratic ideals and new school of exceptionally hard knocks? Get it in black-on-black for the full effect. 

    Tactile joy: 9/10

    This is where the Jaaaaag shines; everything that isn’t a switch or a screen is made from dead cow or dead tree. And it is among this gruesome confluence of death that you sit, daydreaming about a life as a modern-day Kray and just how many blubbering snitches the voluminous boot can hold. Just us?

    Driving joy: 8/10

    Yeah, we said eight. There’s real joy in wafting in luxuriant comfort, entirely removed from the maelstrom of humanity that courses around you. Also, who in their right mind would cut Brick Top off in traffic? You’d get fed to the pigs, Errol. 

    And let’s not overlook the fact that this brooding bulldog of a car takes less than five seconds to go from nought to 62. Outrun that, you jam rolls.  

    Joy factor: 8.3/10

    Hey, we’re really getting somewhere. All the speed, attitude and comfort you could ever ask for. Well, almost…

  5. Bentley Continental GT

    Oh yes, we’re going strong now. Liverpool FC Express, coming through…

    Visual joy: 7/10

    The Conti GT’s looks have aged exceptionally well, inside and out. Yes, the modern car is more rakish and will age even better, but it’s still a very expensive proposition. Inside, which is where you tend to sit – unless you’re in the middle of a rap video  – is especially nice. The GT started life as an exceptionally expensive car, filled with premium details and materials, and it still shows.

    Tactile joy: 9/10

    Like we said, premium materials. Say what you will about footballers or VW Group involvement; the GT remains a luxurious place to spend your time. The touchpoints and switchgear are proper gentleman-spec. You’ll feel like a boss. Do kids still say that?

    Driving joy: 8/10 

    We’d say the driving experience is more imperious and comfortable than visceral and engaging. That said, there’s the small matter of a 6.0-litre, twin-turbo W12. And who doesn’t want that in their life? Joyless curmudgeons, that’s who.

    Joy factor: 8/10

    And you can get it all for £20,000 or less. Smashing. 

  6. Caterham Seven

    Visual joy: 5/10

    Ever heard the phrase ‘de gustibus non est disputandum’? It’s a fancy Latin way of saying ‘in matters of taste, there can be no dispute’. Basically, if like it, great. If not, make like Obi Wan and move along. 

    Tactile joy: 7/10

    Sure, there’s not a lot to get your hands on in a Caterham, but everything serves a very useful purpose and almost everything is a joy to use – especially the accelerator and steering wheel. But they belong under the next heading…

    Driving joy: 10/10

    If you value driving to the exclusion of everything else, this is your car. If you feel that leather, wood, creature comforts and electronics are distractions from the essence of driving, this is your car. If you want to know what it feels like to mainline pure, distilled driving, this is your car. 

    Joy factor: 7.3

    On numbers, the Caterham’s behind. But then, if you care about numbers, the Caterham’s not for you anyway. Nor is the Lotus Elise, for that matter. But god they’re good.

  7. A classic car

    Yes, a great many classic cars have been effectively taken off the market by speculators, with prices inflated to the point of ridiculousness. But think about what speculators are looking for – rare, unique and in-demand. Counter this by snapping up the last few that have mostly avoided the exponential price hikes by being too common, or the wrong model, or just temporarily overlooked for more profitable things that start with ‘nine’ and end in ‘eleven’. Just off the top of our heads, we’d point to the Alfa Romeo GT Junior 1600, BMW 635CSi, Citroen DS, Lancia Fulvia, and Porsche 928 – all available for less than £20,000.

    Visual joy: 10/10

    We’re talking about some of the prettiest cars in existence here. These cars are from the era when car design grabbed you by the gizzards and knocked the wind out of you, when shapes were suggestive to the point of indecency and designers were household names. 

    Tactile joy: 9/10

    OK, some bits might be rough around the edges, and, if you want an object lesson in how much better plastics are these days, look to the 1980s. But, especially in cars like the Lancia Fulvia and early Citroen DSes, every switch, lever and button your fingers land on is worthy of its own five-minute frisson session. And there’s something about he smell of old leather…

    Driving joy: 9/10

    Ever heard that horrible workplace phrase, “managing expectations”? It’s a hateful bit of corporate-speak that needs to burn on the same pyre as “it is what it is” and “I’ll touch base with you later”.  But when it comes to classic cars, it starts to make sense. Expecting a car from the 1960s to be as comfortable, or quiet, or fast as its modern equivalent is a great way to be disappointed. 

    To understand classic cars, understand the notion that it’s not so much what classic cars deliver, as much as how they deliver it. And a lot of that understanding comes from getting behind the wheel and realising just how much you have to put into driving. Gear changes are pre-planned affairs, with gentle and precise guidance, not a thoughtless shove from one ratio to another. You squeeze the brakes gradually – and often end up shoving them with all your might. You feed the power in gradually, feeling by the seat of your pants how much grip you have. Put succinctly, every journey is an event.

    Joy factor: 9.3

    Yes, it’s the highest number here. There’s no reward without risk, however – ask anyone with a classic car how much time they spend either broken down or fixing their pride and joy. 

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