10 awesome cars for one-tenth the price of a new Ford Puma
They paved paradise and made it a crossover. Time for a grassroots response
As much as it might not seem it these days, our permanently damp little island is actually an everlasting fount of used-car bargains. In fact, the most common refrain in the Facebook comments on articles like these (aside from ‘these people have no idea what they’re talking about’, of course) is to ask us where exactly we found such and such a car for such a scant amount. Do we have special contacts, perhaps, or a secret line on the last extant bargains in the used-car universe?
Er, no. The fact is that we’re about as ensconced in the secondhand-car scene as we are in the trap scene; to build these lists, we make sure these cars are available on popular used-car sites (unpopular used-car sites are also available) and employ some lateral thinking and TG maths until the whole thing resembles some kind of sense. Sometimes surprisingly good sense, which surprises us as much as you.
But the whole show is predicated on the fact that cars as bargainous as these are readily available to the British buying public. It’s a mystery only outdone by the fact that, when confronted with such gobsmacking value, people bother buying new cars at all.
To wit, the Ford Puma crossover-type-thing was the eighth best-selling car in the UK last year, despite the fact that the cheapest one costs £23,145. An eerily specific amount of money, you might well think, but also quite the chunk of change.
For said chunk, you get a 120bhp 1.0-litre turbo petrol engine, six-speed manual gearbox and mild hybrid assistance (ask your waiter if you want something spicier), which will get you at least 40 miles per gallon, even if you cane it. You’ll also get useful additions like power windows and mirrors, climate control and a boot with a separate bit for muddy things. And then a whole heap of useless additions, but that’s modern cars for you.
And again, we’re talking about the thick end of 25 grand here, and we’ve already demonstrated just how much you can get for that kind of money. But these days, ‘that kind of money’ is harder to come by than a happy newspaper headline. So how about 10 cars for just a tenth of that price? Can we possibly find cars that offer useful power options, decent fuel economy and at least some version (or perversion) of awesomeness for less than £2,315?
Um, maybe? Let’s find out.Advertisement - Page continues below
Seat Leon Cupra Mk1
Even as recently as five years ago, finding a good £2,300 hot hatch would have been a much easier task. But as we could replace the main clause of the previous sentence with just about anything these days – ‘afford a house’, ‘fly overseas’, ‘live without constant existential dread’ and so on – let’s instead focus on the positive. With as little as £2,300, it’s entirely possible to buy a five-door hot hatch with all the creature comforts anyone actually needs, powered by a high-revving, 20-valve four-cylinder that’ll deliver 180bhp when you want it and many miles per gallon when you don’t.
The Mk1 Cupra is the same basic car as the Mk4 Volkswagen Golf GTI, which doesn’t sound like a particularly strong argument in the Seat’s favour. But then the person writing this article is the same basic human being as Chris Hemsworth – tall, Australian and in his thirties – which does make a particularly strong argument for how much details matter.
‘Do more with less’. Show us a single person in the modern workforce who hasn’t been on the receiving end of this sentiment. You might not have heard it verbatim, but we’ll tip a crisp £5 note (hey, money’s tight all over) that you’ve laboured under its auspices all the same. Ever worked somewhere that’s had a ‘hiring freeze’ and had to pick up the slack? Busted your gut in the ‘gig economy’ despite never being a musician in the first place? Watched your office head count dwindle as quickly as promotion prospects? Exactly. The reality of ‘do more with less’ isn’t doing more with less; it’s wanting more for less. And making people wring themselves dry to make up the shortfall.
Clearly, this is the wrong way to go about business and indeed life in general. So what’s the right way? Glad you asked. Well, we asked, because we’re writing and that’s how rhetorical questions work. So, glad we asked.
In any case, let’s answer this perplexing modern quandary by way of a perfect example: the Daihatsu Copen. It is a tiny little Kei car. The swept volume of its entire engine is less than a single cylinder in the AMG 6.2-litre V8. It seats just two and only if both of them got picked last for basketball in high school. And yet you get a proper metal folding roof, as many power options as the national grid, a manual gearbox, rear-wheel drive and 40mpg. The small engine helps, of course, but even with a heavy steel folding roof, the Copen still only weighs a bit over 800kg. And thanks to its scant weight, 70bhp is more than enough to have the kind of fun that’s commensurate with its toy-like dimensions.
So there’s our argument, in a nutshell. Don’t do more with less. Get more with less.Advertisement - Page continues below
Timing is everything.
The difference between a good baseball pitch and a foul ball is just seven milliseconds. The gap between a green light and a launch in the NHRA is rarely more than 0.1 seconds. The amount of time between someone spilling their pint and a barfly shouting ‘Wheeeeey’ has never exceeded half a second. And timing matters in the car world, too.
Imagine if Audi released the A2 today. It’s a city car, yet it’s made from expensive aluminium. It’s optimised for slippery aerodynamics, but it can carry four in comfort and stow their gear without issue. It’s a city car, but it’ll happily sit at UK motorway speeds for as long as you feel like. Oh, and the 1.2 diesel will do 90 miles per gallon.
Yes, that’s 90mpg, and yes, that’s reserved for the special miser version, but the sub-900kg weight, slippery bodywork and small engines mean that 50mpg is on the table, regardless of which version you buy. If there is a car that suits today’s climate any more than the A2, it’s a) going to be electric and b) cost a comparative bomb compared to the absurdly low money we found A2s going for.
The A2 combines basic amenities and lavish materials, minimal proportions and maximum space, simple ideas and complex engineering. It’s a blend of contradictions that make more sense now than they ever have. And you can buy one today for a tenth of the price of a new Ford Puma.
Timing really is everything.
These days, we’ve come to terms with the fact that a great many things are simply out of reach. When commodities become luxuries, it stands to reason that luxuries become unobtainable.
So when even regular cars have prices that make a mockery of your budget, your dreams of a mid-engined sports car fold themselves into a pipe and head to the very far end of it. Or do they?
For just a tenth the cost of a base-model crossover, you can buy a lightweight, mid-engined, rear-drive convertible from one of the world’s preeminent car manufacturers. Yes, it can only be the third-gen Toyota MR2, a car for a generation who looked to the stars while sitting in the gutter.
The MR2 suffers the denigrations you’d expect – poor man’s Lotus, cut-price Boxster and so on – but this is a car that bettered the Elise (and the MX-5, Fiat Barchetta and MG F) in contemporary group tests, only falling short of the basically peerless Boxster. Possibly because of the latter’s six-cylinder engine.
But we’re reliably informed that if you’re willing to accept a 60kg weight penalty, a 300bhp, 3.5-litre Toyota V6 fits in the MR2’s engine bay just fine. So that means a 1,035kg, 300bhp mid-engined roadster, for less than ten grand all in. We’ve heard worse ideas.
Mini Cooper S
No, not the original. But then you kind of knew that already. We’re talking about the original one of the non-original Cooper S and the non-original non-original Cooper S. Simple.
So, if you’ve managed to parse what we’ve just said without exploding in frustration, you might have the disposition to buy and run an R53 or R56 Mini Cooper S, which... are not bywords for reliability. It takes quite a bit of careful attention to keep either safe from self-destruction. And, being a specialist BMW product, quite a bit of cash.
The later R53s are better than the early ones, but the best faff-to-fun ratio is probably going to be the R56, which does away with the characterful (and costly) supercharged engine for a PSA 1.6 turbo. The ride comfort, build quality and interior trim is also a bit nicer, there’s more space and you’ll get more miles per gallon. But, as is the way of things, you do have to miss out on that wonderful supercharged engine, better handling and more involving experience.
We don’t often get bogged down on maintenance concerns around here, mostly because we’re complete suckers for cut-price fun but also because it’s generally pretty boring. But just in case you actually take us at our word on these articles (a terrifying prospect), do your research and know what you’re getting into. Or just pick the next car...
Frankly, it’s absurd that it took us this long to get here. But then the MX-5 is such a mainstay in the pantheon of ‘great cars without great expense’ that we almost don’t have to.
After 30 years of reliably providing satisfying servings from the same recipe, the MX-5 has proved itself well beyond its remit. It is, objectively, a small roadster. But what it can do – and what it can offer in the process – makes a mockery of such a limited definition.
Depending on your will and your whims, the MX-5 is just about anything you want. Club racer. Autocrosser. Rally car. Weekend cruiser. As for Top Gear’s experiences with the MX-5... well. We raced a greyhound, dune-bashed across the Syrian Desert and drove to the far end of Alaska. Really, pick an idea and chances are an MX-5 will take you there.
And yes, it's not the quickest thing in the world. But it's the experience, however long it takes you to get where you’re going.Advertisement - Page continues below
Audi TT quattro
As words go, ‘designer’ is something of a chameleon. Put it before ‘handbag’ and it’s a sign of faultless style and unfaltering expense. Put it after ‘graphic’ and you can almost guarantee selvedge denim and a vinyl collection. Put it next to ‘drug’ and it evokes the kind of stuff you see in Layer Cake.
A certain Top Gear presenter once took exceptional exception to what he thought was a clear-cut case of style over substance. Cue a dress-up montage and some style advice from Trinny Woodall. Yep, totally timeless references there. But we digress.
The point is that looking down on something because it’s stylish has something of a bitter taste to it. The fact is that the TT quattro drives perfectly well, with the large caveat that the first cars exhibited some... interesting behaviour at higher speeds. But after a recall, that was all sorted out, and the TT went on being a car that was absolutely fine to drive and fantastic to look at.
Now think about how many times you’ve implored your family and friends to buy a car that’s cheaper, or handles better, or isn’t yet another jumped-up crossover monstrosity of a kind that’s creating an entire generation of dot-ball second-hand cars in the future. OK, that last one might just be us. The point is that a great many people rate aesthetics and ambience higher than performance or parsimony. And the original TT is an awesome example of what that line of thinking can produce.
Renaultsport Megane 225
Yeah, this one shocked us as well, to be honest. A hot hatch, from the country that invented them and the company that’s produced some of the best ever, for less than three rolls of Downing Street wallpaper. The mind boggles.
OK fine, it’s not the TG award-winning car that replaced it. It’s going to be an ask to find many in this price range that aren’t supposed to be either scrapped or given back to their rightful owners. But this is a Renaultsport Megane, people. For comparative peanuts. A hot hatch that’ll do 0-60 in 6.5 seconds, reach more than 140mph and attack corners like they spilled its pint. Surely this is worth £2,300 and some legwork.
Make sure to get a post-update car (i.e. late 2005 onwards), which improved the power steering, ditched the unnatural brake assist and allowed the ESP to be turned all the way off. Our next move would be to gut the interior and build some kind of cut-price homage to the R26R pictured here. But we won’t be shocked if you decide against it.Advertisement - Page continues below
MG ZR 160
No, really. We promise we’re not being fatuous or facetious or farcical or any word that starts with ‘f’ and ends with us taking the Mickey Bliss.
By the turn of the millennium, ol’ Rover could just as easily have been called Old Yeller. We’d had some incredible moments – the Land Rover, Range Rover, P5B, JET1 and so on – but it was nearing the part where we took it around the back, wiped away our tears and put it out of its misery.
BMW had bought the Rover Group for a reported £800 million in 1994, despite the fact Rover wasn’t making money and previous owners British Aerospace had a) bought it for less than a fifth of that price only six years earlier, and b) had invested about thrippence in it since then. And, quelle surprise, it haemorrhaged money until finally pulling the pin in 2000. The so-called Phoenix Group claimed the ashes of Rover and MG (apparently for a tenner) and tried to make a go of it.
This go included a little car called the MG ZR, which was a hot-hatch version of the Rover 25, itself an update of the mid-Nineties Rover 200. And the Nineties Rover 200 carried over parts from the Eighties Rover 200, as well as the rear suspension from an Austin Maestro. Not exactly auspicious beginnings.
But then the people at Rover were practised veterans at building Champagne cars for Tesco Cava money. And, without any corporate dictum demanding their cars be as pillow-soft as an Ed Sheeran song and just as appealing, they got out the MG badge and sorted the Rover 25 with some new sporty trainers – on a shoestring budget, of course.
And somehow, it worked. The ZR sold like the very hottest of hotcakes, likely thanks to its bargain price as much as its high-revving, twin-cam, all-aluminium engine, five-speed manual, big brakes and beefed-up suspension. The ZR 160 model is the top of the tree, too, with 160bhp (go figure), a top speed of 131mph and the huge 11.1-inch brakes to get you back down to a more civilised velocity. It’s a proper old-school hot hatch – if one with proper old-school rough edges. That said, we’d take a leaf out of the old Rover playbook (now there’s something we never thought we’d write) and do a few cheap upgrades here and there – some proper low bucket seats up front to fix the silly perches it came with from the factory, a deep-dish steering wheel to get around the lack of adjustability and some... let’s say ‘preventative’ additions to the K-Series engine.
Do that, and an MG ZR 160 – a late-stage Rover product, developed on the cheap by a company moments from bankruptcy – is an awesome car for your £2,300. Yes, really.
So, who saw this coming a mile away? Thought you might.
Like the new Puma, it’s based on a Fiesta. Like the new Puma, it’s made to ride the zeitgeist like a wave. And like the new Puma, it had any number of handwringers worried that it’d end up as some vitiated version of the Fiesta it was based on.
But unlike the new Puma, it’s a happy little coupe with styling that couldn’t be any more 1997 if the Backstreet Boys sang about it. Unlike the new Puma, the old one also got its own unique engine – a Yamaha-fettled, VVT-equipped 1.7-litre four-cylinder, with more power and displacement than anything offered in the contemporary Fiesta. And unlike the new Puma, the original handled as well as a Peugeot 106 GTi – one of the all-time great hot hatchbacks, if perhaps also one of the most overlooked.
You’ll also get a big boot, as many creature comforts as you actually need and the possibility of 40mpg in regular driving. Little wonder it was Top Gear TV’s car of the Year in 1997. And what made it great in the late Nineties for the equivalent of £27,000 in today’s money makes it absolutely awesome for £2,300. And if you have the opportunity to drive one home for a comparative pittance and still buy a new Puma? Well, someone saw you coming a mile away.