11 used cars for £15k we’ve found this week
Fun, reliable and – coincidentally enough – entirely Japanese
Cars, in our experience, Are only ever a few months (or indeed miles) from needing some great stack of money spent on them. With, of course, a few exceptions: electric cars don’t seem to need much on a month-to-month basis, of course, and new cars (Jeeps, Land Rovers and Alfa Romeos aside) tend to do OK without constant tender ministrations. The only other exception to the rule? Well, Hondas.
Even among the legendarily dependable Japanese manufacturers (and Mitsubishi), Honda stands alone in terms of reliability. So even though the S2000 is tech-laden, high-revving and definitely getting on in years, it’s still unlikely to give you much in the way of trouble. As for everything else it gives you... well, we could be here all day, but here’s the cliff notes: six-speed manual, 62 miles of headroom, and 9,000rpm. Do it while you still can...Advertisement - Page continues below
Let’s say you find the S2000 a little obvious. OK, we’d argue – so is beer. But let’s say the S2000 is out for other reasons, besides obviousness – it’s too big, some crazy how, or you got snap oversteer in one and realised they’re not quite the kitten you thought they’d be. Let’s bring the whole situation back down from the black diamond runs to the kiddie slope with the Suzuki Cappuccino.
Not to say that it’s anything approaching boring, despite its miniscule displacement and bathtubs-are-bigger dimensions. This is what ‘throwing everything you’ve got’ looks like in miniature – beacoup features, in bijou proportions. We’re talking 50-50 weight distribution, turbocharging, four-valve heads, front-mid-engined layout, and a three-stage convertible top. You can go hardtop, targa top or full convertible as the mood strikes; the panels fit in the boot as well, so you can change your mind while out on the road. What a thing.
Also, the purchase price – and running costs as diminutive as the car itself – does give you the opportunity to spend the money on customisation. We’d paint the outside in a nice flat white, and maybe stretch to some leather upholstery... perhaps in mocha. As jokes go, that might have been a bit obvious.
Lexus SC400 / Toyota Soarer
By now, you could very well be thinking, ‘Small roadsters? Even smaller roadsters? Way to paint Japan’s automotive output with broad strokes, there, chief’. And if you are thinking exactly that, you owe us a coke or something.
But the point remains valid, and indeed more valid than the straw man we’ve created to illustrate our point: Japan’s car makers do quite a bit besides lilliputian convertibles. We’d be here all day listing them, so let’s do something novel and actually arrive at the point in decent time.
The Toyota Soarer is largely misunderstood, we think. In export markets, it was the Lexus SC400, which immediately signals that it’s for old fogeys every bit as well as its big, grand-touring proportions. And the most common versions came with a four-speed auto and the four-litre V8 from the Freemason-spec LS400.
But the Soarer’s chassis is broadly the same as the now-hallowed A80 Supra, and that V8 was actually set far enough back to make the much-less-loved Toyota front-mid-engined. Yes, it’s bigger and heavier, but it’s packed full of creature comforts and can seat four in proper comfort. In fact, it’s probably most accurate to imagine the Soarer as a Japanese Porsche 928, or BMW 840Ci.Advertisement - Page continues below
Mitsubishi 3000GT VR-4
Of course, it’s not just Toyota that had a go at the ruthlessly tech-heavy (and just generally heavy) grand tourer in the Nineties.
Mitsubishi, at least in the 1990s, was never one to let price, packaging or practicality get in the way of throwing as much technology as humanly possible at any given situation. So the 3000GT VR-4 (also known as the GTO or Stealth) got twin-turbocharging, complex all-wheel-drive system, active aerodynamics, four-wheel steering and adaptive suspension. As such, it weighed... let’s say enough. Yet with a gentleman’s agreement ‘280bhp’, it could somehow hang with a lighter R33 GT-R in a quarter-mile drag race. Now, we find it ungentlemanly to throw heavy accusations around lightly, so we’ll leave that where it is.
The fact is that for all its heft and histrionic levels of tech, the 3000GT was still... well, fat and weighed down with tech. The aftermarket for the 3000GT isn’t even close to what a Supra or Skyline owner enjoys, in case you were looking for four-figure power outputs. And besides, you’ll lunch the rather specific (and expensive) gearbox if you try.
What helps the 3000GT thrive is simple – or, more to the point, simplicity. Bin the active aero, adaptive suspension and four-wheel steering, then fit a set of coilovers and upgrade the brakes (bigger, thicker discs to soak up more heat before warping). After all, that’s basically what Mitsubishi did with the ‘MR’ version – and it’ll make that twin-turbo V6 feel like it has way more power than... er, ‘280bhp’.
Honda Integra Type R
Honestly, it’s probably our fault for sleeping on this one for so long. We know, we know – a lot of you didn’t. Feel contented, smug or schadenfreude as is appropriate. For the rest of us, we really should have known better.
Maybe it was because the regular Integra was the car you remember your high-school teacher driving, or because the R version looked good, rather than mad. Or maybe you were still caught up in that ‘front-drive is for the feeble’ nonsense that we were.
Well, that all changed when we drove the Integra Type R for the first time. Never, not in any super saloon, sports car or even supercar, have we felt a machine egg us on that much. The DC2 Type R was like a mechanical imp of the perverse at any moment, seemingly saying, ‘Hey, get lift-off oversteer on this roundabout!’, ‘Aw, don’t shift gears yet; there’s still another 1,000rpm to go!’, ‘OK, you pretty much have to pull the handbrake at some point or I’ll go mad’.
At this point, we probably have to point out that we don’t endorse dangerous driving by any stretch of the imagination and aren’t the least bit impressed when you do it. But if you’ve read the past few paragraphs and thought we were? Well, that’s probably our fault.
OK, we’ve spent entirely too long not talking about roadsters. Like, in general. Electric this, 1,200bhp that, supercar whatever.
Is it overcompensating, then, to reach for a miniscule, front-drive kei-car roadster, styled in a manner that just, ever so slightly, completely rips off the first-gen Audi TT? Erm, you be the judge on that one. We’re going to extol the virtues of a happy little convertible.
We’d say it’s at its happiest with the kei-correct 660cc turbo three-cylinder, but even with the 1.3 there’s more than enough to keep a smile on your dial. The roof, for instance, is a proper metal folding job for coupe levels of quiet with the roof up, while the metal gear knob, Momo steering wheel and leather seats make the cabin feel what marketers would describe as ‘premium’ and human beings would call ‘nice’.
As long as you don’t expect the Copen to be what it patently isn’t – large, fast or a proper sports car, there’s a huge amount of fun here. Moreover, it’s fun you can’t find with a large, fast, proper sports car.
Honda Civic Type R EP3
The current Civic Type R, like most hot hatches these days, is so incredibly capable that it’s become more of a distance-dismissing device than an entertaining drive.
For that, you’ll likely want something like the old EP3 Type R. And trust us when we say that you do want an EP3 Type R. While it’s absolutely capable of point-to-point performance, attempting a white-knuckled cross country dash in an EP3 is... well, missing the point. There’s 200bhp – that is, more than enough to have fun – but you have to pile on revs and work the close-ratio six-speed manual to get it. The EP3 Type R is the hot hatch you buy to experience the drive, not brag about how quickly you did it.Advertisement - Page continues below
Subaru WRX STi
Because, if you’re looking to brag about distance-covering... well, we’ve got you covered there as well. Or, rather, Subaru did, back in the glory days when people gave a modicum of notice to a fast Subaru.
For the budget we’re talking here, you don’t exactly have your pick of Subaru Tecnica International’s oeuvre, but there’s still a decent amount to choose from. For our money, regardless of what followed in its wake, we couldn’t go past the original, from back when Subaru was claiming consecutive World Rally titles.
Nissan Pulsar GTI-R
So, everyone grows up in different ways in different parts of the world. But see if this rings a bit of a bell from your childhood: people not ever, ever, shutting up about the SR20.
People would brag about the scalps their SR20-powered Silvia or 180SX had claimed, and would speak at length about how they were going to acquire and install the hallowed SR20DET to claim even bigger ones. You think LS swaps are old news? We’ve got news for you – in terms of sheer ‘shut up about it already’, the SR20DET was already out to pasture before the LS had even weaned.
We mention this because that described our formative car years to a T... or DET, if you will. And we were sick to death of the entire scene back when Papa Roach was (somehow) a thing. That is, right up until we rode in a GTI-R.
We can’t remember what mods our mate had done. We can’t remember the final power output. All we can remember is being absolutely, unequivocally terrified. But, we should add, not of the car – in fact, it was only because it did things that physics would probably ask the referee to double check that we’re able to relate this story to you now. From then on, we never looked down our nose at any engine swap, we never forgot what a monster the GTI-R could be, and we never rode in one again.Advertisement - Page continues below
You didn’t think we were going to fawn over tiny Japanese roadsters and neglect to mention the Honda Beat, did you? Oh no; that’s not how this system works.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Beat... well, there’s a whole history lesson there, but we’ll save that for now and hit all the important stops about what the Beat is today: slow, tiny and possessed of luggage space that even Ryanair would call a bridge too far. Oh, and it might be the first Honda we’ve ever heard of that has known issue with excess oil consumption.
As you might expect, this is all just preamble to the most important part: it’s absolutely brilliant. The reason it has no luggage space? There’s an engine in the back, just ahead of the rear axle. The naturally aspirated, 656cc three-cylinder has individual throttle bodies, an 8,500rpm redline and an engine note that makes a mockery of powerplants five times its size. And you can wind it out to the redline just about whenever you feel like it, given you’re only playing with about 60bhp – which doesn’t arrive until 8,100rpm. It’s so rare that what you have to do is what you want to do, isn’t it?
Mazda MX-5... and more
Did you think we were just going to pick 10 fun cars – 10 fun Japanese cars – and not include the Mazda MX-5? Well yeah, actually... we really considered it. The Toyota Crown Athlete estate was right here, waiting for its time to shine.
But with £15,000 to play with? We can do better than that.
It starts simply enough: going on your preferred secondhand car website and picking up the old MX-5 of your choice. Ours is the first-gen, because a) we still think it’s the prettiest, b) pop-up headlights, and c) for a bona fide classic, you can still pick them up so cheaply. At least in Britain, anyway.
From there, it’s actually not much harder: place a call to Rocketeer Cars, who’ll fit your freshly acquired MX-5 with a freshly rebuilt Ford Duratec V6. From the factory, the Duratec was a dark horse – a short stroke, 24-valve, quad-cam with an easy 240bhp from the factory. There’s more in it, if you ask Rocketeer nicely, but it’s probably enough in a car that weighs less than a tonne. And adding any more power would probably overwhelm the rest of the experience. And in a car that’s all about simplicity and balance... you see where we’re headed.