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Wednesday 30th November
Top Gear Advice

10 pretty awesome, near-new cars for less than a Toyota Yaris

Still in warranty, available today and actually kind of awesome to own. So, all the money in the world, right? Let’s find out

Hyundai i30N Top Gear
  1. Yaris, but not the fun one

    The tenth best-selling car in Britain last year was the Toyota Yaris. Is it just us that’s disappointed by that?

    OK, so it’s a very practical little thing, built by a company which has decided that its hill to die on is reliability. It has a small three-cylinder engine that, when teamed with standard-fit mild hybrid assistance, will yield 50mpg without issue. It’ll reach motorway speeds without causing a multi-car pile-up and the standard CVT gearbox makes it much easier to drive for those without the ability or inclination to use a third pedal.

    But is this really what we’re striving for in this country? Surely, there’s some explanation in fleet sales or rental cars, or an ageing population or some Day of the Triffids thing where people aren’t blinded but merely cowed into a ‘that’ll do’ mindset. In any case, the fact is that more than 20,000 people found themselves behind the wheel of a brand-new Yaris.

    So that got us thinking. Which is always dangerous, of course, but hear us out on this one. If people are swayed by the safety, technology, warranty, low-emission-zone compliance and so on of new cars, it’s surely worth finding 10 cars that are a) almost new, b) at least as technologically advanced as a new Yaris, and c) have at least encountered the concept of awesomeness at some point. Somehow, we came out of it with some of the most practical advice we’ve ever offered. And yeah, we understand if you’re disappointed.

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  2. Peugeot 308 GTI

    Peugeot 308 GTI

    We’re still not entirely sure why the 308 GTI doesn’t seem to get the same sort of love and reverence as other modern hot hatches.

    It’s not like we’re comparing it to hot hatches from days gone by, which arrive on a turgid wave of nostalgia that washes away any number of valid arguments. We’re talking about a properly lightweight, exclusively front-drive and thoroughly French hot hatch, a car that’s happy to be every bit as wild as you feel like, and will egg you on like the high school friend your parents liked the least. But when it’s time to relax back into a cruise, it never really gives the impression that you’re missing out on anything.

    It takes proper, committed buffoonery to reach the 308’s limits, at least on a dry road. Anything less than full Watch This mode will offer little more than gaffer-tape grip and some mild to medium bewilderment as your brain catches up with the fact that you’re already out of the corner it thought, by rights, you should still be in.

    Should you find wet, leaf-strewn or poorly-surfaced road (now where could you possibly find such a thing in this country), traction becomes the limiting factor for the race-spec Alcon brakes, mechanical limited-slip diff and stiff suspension. Weighing just 1,315kg – 100kg less than the other hilarious hot hatch of the bunch, the i30N – is a superlative achievement for handling, acceleration and economy. But the piper comes calling for his paycheque in terms of absolute traction: more downward force on a tyre increases the amount of traction from that tyre. That’s the entire reason why aerodynamic downforce is a thing.

    The upshot is that if you really try it on in the wet, the 308 is more of a handful than something like a Golf GTI. For people like us, that’s a good thing; just like a valve amp generally sounds its best as it crests the limits of its clean headroom, a car generally feels the best as it reaches and breaches the limits of traction.

    And if all of this hasn’t sold you on it, let’s try the one way that always seems to: rarity. So. Ahem. Did we mention that Peugeot won’t be making another 308 GTI?

  3. BMW M140i

    BMW M140i

    Look, we’ve been over this. If the concept of a small, rear-drive BMW with a 350bhp straight six and a six-speed manual doesn’t do it for you... well, you might have legitimately been shopping for a Yaris and thought that we were actually in the business of dispensing legitimate and considered advice. Well, sorry for wasting your time and all that.

    OK, so de gustibus non est disputandum, different strokes for different folks and however else you might like to intimate that your preference is your prerogative, the fact is that we can’t even conceive of a world in which the lustre of something new wins any kind of argument against something that’s basically new and also, like we said, a small rear-drive car with a straight six, built by the company who’s made a specialty of just that recipe for about half a century.

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  4. Peugeot 508

    Peugeot 508

    The majority of the time, our recommendations in articles like these go along the lines of ‘life is short. It may be shorter in a TVR, but it’ll be a damn sight more interesting than the SUV you were looking to buy'.

    And we understand that this rates somewhere between ‘bet your life savings on red’ and ‘you could probably survive that jump’ as advice you’d need a moment to consider, at best. So instead of doing our regular imp of the perverse act, let’s instead try to be something approaching that ‘sensible’ thing we keep hearing so much about.

    OK, so it’s a big French saloon, which does rather puncture any notions of sense and sensibility (other wafty novels about British landed gentry are available), but we’re still talking about a four-door saloon with a big, Skoda-style liftback, all kinds of safety kit, efficient engines and surprisingly decent resale values. And this is boring enough to basically guarantee practicality.

    The good news is that, practical as it might actually be, 508 feels as though your life isn’t dictated by practicality. Obviously, feelings are rather personal, but to us it felt modern, luxurious, stylish, refined and ultimately really likeable. Notice we never said sporty, athletic or any other simile thereof – this is still a French saloon, after all, and its job is to insulate you from the vicissitudes of modern driving, whether or not it has 225bhp and can do 155mph.

    The 508, then, is a car that’s as sensible as a Presbyterian elder and stylish enough for him to break the 10th commandment. It’s comfy enough to sit for as long as a Rodin sculpture and luxurious enough to look forward to the prospect.

  5. BMW 530e

    BMW 530e

    You know what? This practicality lark isn’t as bad as all that. Let’s find a few more gems that pass the Sensible Significant Other test and still offer something in the way of driver reward.

    Now, if we’re talking about driver rewards in otherwise sensible cars, it really is just a matter of time before we get to the BMW 5 Series. And that goes double for the current 5er, which must be the most fuss-free executive saloon in the business, yet also one of the most enjoyable.

    Not saying that a 2.0-litre hybrid Beemer is going to deliver the same kind of entertainment that an M5 Competition will. But when we say ‘kind’, we don’t just mean amount; you enjoy the normal 5 Series in a completely different way to the performance offerings. You know that feeling you get when you’re just enjoying driving, but it’s not down to any particular sensation of speed or feedback from the car? That’s the 5 Series way. It’s a car you just enjoy loping around in, revelling in its comfort, its accuracy and that almost ineffable sensation that you get from driving a good car. It’s the kind of thing your parents (or their parents) would just sum up as ‘nice’.

    It’s even a hybrid that’ll do 30 miles – that’s more than four times the average trip in the UK – on a charge, so you can charge the 12kWh battery overnight and stop raiding your bank account for petrol and cruise through ultra-low emissions zones without breaking a sweat. Then, when it’s time for a cross-continental trip that’d have you cursing the Yaris and every decision in your life that led you to drive it, you can just settle in for a calming cruise. As our parents would say, nice.

  6. Jaguar XE

    Jaguar XE

    While the 5 Series is indeed nice, something else it’s gotten over the past few generations is large. And modern cities, roads and parking spaces tend not to favour the larger car. So. For the modern cosmopolitan, a 5 Series might be a bit too big to comfortably (or happily) wield around city streets. And if you’re not comfy and happy in a newish 5 Series, something has gone more than a little wrong.

    Step forward then, Jaguar XE. It’s front-engined, rear-drive, made from aluminium, and has double wishbone suspension up front with multilink in the rear. If that all reads like the XE might be a proper little sports saloon, you’re exactly right. Find the right one – i.e. with a petrol engine and without the optional all-wheel drive – and you’ll sneak in under 1.5 tonnes (not a bad figure at all for a modern four-door), which does go some way to explaining why it’s one of the best-handling saloons on sale today. That light weight also means that a 250bhp four-cylinder is enough to fling the XE (and you, unless something’s gone horribly wrong) from zero to 60 in little more than six seconds, and smooth modern bodywork ensures a top speed of 155mph, should you ever find yourself on a private runway. These things happen all the time, people.

    And crucially, the XE is the right size for cities. Yes, this does mean less space than a 5 Series. But you were looking at a Yaris, so maybe don’t make a fuss.

  7. Skoda Octavia vRS

    Skoda Octavia vRS

    OK, one last properly sensible pick (or at least our approximation thereof) before we go back to hot hatchbacks and such. But then hot hatches are generally pretty sensible too. In fact, every single car on this list is... hm. One moment, please. We’re just going to check if we have, in fact, turned old.

    Short answer: yes. Long answer... is mostly unpublishable anguish.

    Moving on. As bona fide old people, we can now embrace the whole ‘Sensible Car with Just Enough in the Way of Interest so that You Don’t Die Inside Long Before Your Outsides Catch Up’ market. Although we’re pretty sure most people just call them fast estates, which does seem a mite catchier.

    And funny we should mention that we’re going to do hot hatches after this one, given that the Octavia vRS recipe is to bolt Volkswagen Group hot hatch bits in a mid-size wagon, add an amphitheatre’s worth of space, then finish with a winged arrow badge on the bonnet. Y’know, so that everyone who buys one will have to explain what it is and that no, it’s not a rooster in profile.

    Unfortunately, putting the drivetrain from a smaller car into a larger one is pretty much the opposite of the tried and tested go-faster formula. And if nothing else, the Octavia vRS is actually a fairly scientific way to measure the effects of weight, size, polar moment of inertia and centre of gravity against the Golf GTI from which it gets its mechanicals. Y’know, if you’re into that sort of thing. Not saying it’s slow or woolly or anything, just that Colin Chapman wasn’t having a laugh when he said, “adding power makes you faster on the straights. Subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere".

    The pick of the litter here is the vRS 245, which adds another soupçon of power that’s not terribly important and an electronically controlled diff, which is. Limited slip differentials are the secret sauce for all front-drive cars, granting more stability and control pretty much everywhere as well as better traction into, through and out of corners. This last bit might be something to test out without your family on board, mind. For one thing, they’re extra weight.

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  8. Volkswagen Golf GTI Performance

    Volkswagen Golf GTI Performance

    If we were to soft-pedal things about as much as a man with a nail through his foot and a 10-mile bike ride to the hospital, the new Golf GTI is... perhaps not the instant success of its predecessor. To be entirely fair, that’d be a tall order at the best of times, considering just how well VW did with the Mk7.5 Golf GTI.

    If the Mk5 proved VW could still nail the formula it pretty much perfected with the original GTI, the Mk6 proved that even tiny changes to the recipe can ruin it and the Mk7 proved VW could learn from its mistakes, the Mk7.5 seemed to be a tacit admission from Wolfsburg that it knew when to leave well enough alone. A bit of a power bump, the newer seven-speed DSG gearbox and a facelifted interior is about as far as changes went – and indeed needed to go. The Mk7.5 is the GTI that fought the hardest to keep its place as the hot hatch that fits best into everyday life, and it earned every bit.

    Of course, you might be wondering just how much your average Yaris shopper will care about the minutiae of a German hot hatchback they weren’t even considering. But we look at it the same way as people who don’t floss (as in between your teeth, kids), go to the doctor or exercise. You’re only hurting yourself if you don’t learn about how much better your life could be.

  9. Seat Leon Cupra 290

    Seat Leon Cupra 290

    OK, so we’ve seen what Golf GTI running gear in a bigger car can do, and what Golf GTI running gear can do... in a Golf GTI. Fascinating.

    Anywho, let’s have a look at what Golf GTI running gear looks like, if it were in a Spanish hatchback... and also had about as much power as the Golf R. Now things get interesting.

    And by ‘interesting’, of course, we mean ‘wheelspin up to fourth gear in the wet’, should you turn off the electronic minders and go for a full-throttle start. When nearly 300bhp is going through the front axle only, and you’re slinging all the weight to the back under hard acceleration... physics is still a thing, as much as modern machinery tries to subvert it.

    The upside of this much power – and two-wheel drive – is a car that needs the most from you to get the most from it, especially in less-than-ideal conditions. But if you’re the kind of person who finds satisfaction in mastery – we could relate if we ever mastered anything – this is a car that’ll reward your time and efforts in spades. And maybe even other suits, too. We were always partial to clubs, ourselves.

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  10. Mini John Cooper Works

    Mini John Cooper Works

    Do it once, do it properly. Buy once, cry once. Stop prevaricating and just spend the damn money, you wholly miserable miser.

    There are a few reasons why at least two out of these three sayings exist. The obvious is to buy something of decent quality that will last, rather than cheap tat, of course. But another is down to who we are at our core.

    Human nature, such as it is, drives us to never be satisfied. It’s what got us down from the trees and led us to do all the things that have had questionable net benefit for the world, but it doesn’t half suck when we find something we want and then find we can’t have it.

    And when you know full well that the top-tier Mini is not only the fastest and most feature-laden but also the most fun... well. For what other reason are you buying a modern Mini? The oodles of storage space? The peerless reliability? Because you’re about to have a family?

    But, thanks to depreciation, the lifeline for any number of those who sit in the gutter and gaze at the stars, the most fun version of a car built pretty much entirely for fun can be yours for the same price as a base-model Yaris. Which we’ll refrain from casting aspersions on, but we imagine you’ve probably reached the same conclusion we have.

  11. Hyundai i30N

    Hyundai i30N

    As you might expect, we get asked which car to buy on a fairly regular occasion. And we’re only slightly embittered by the fact that no one’s really asking for advice, only confirmation of the idea they already had... which was to buy some SUV or another. And so, after years of our professional recommendations being taken onboard about as often as passengers on the Titanic, we’ve now distilled our response to a simple, ‘get a Golf’. That advice – easily delivered, easily defensible and easily ignored – has been working for us since the halcyon day in 2008 when we first gave it.  

    But in the face of each new bit of competition, the Golf gets a little harder to defend as an answer to the ‘What car should I buy?’ question. Those who’ve read this entire article will note that it’s still not indefensible by any stretch of the imagination, just perhaps not the slam-dunk it used to be.

    The problem, if we can call it such, is that Hyundai pretty much came out of nowhere with its i30N. Hundy delivered a hot hatch that had on-paper stats and real-world performance to mix with the established players in the Second Golden Age of Hot Hatchbacks, yet had its own identifiable (and enjoyable) character and offered more entertainment at any given speed than any of its competition. So if you wanted a hot hatch that traded the last skerrick of polish for an inordinately better time scuffing up tyres, you’d pick the i30N.

    Or you could of course ignore all of this advice (again), spend a little more and get a brand-new Hyundai i20N...

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