Ten awesome cars for half the cost of a new Mini
This whole ‘these cars for that money’ thing. What if we mixed it up a bit?
We begin this article with something of a problem. No, it’s not that our suggestions for great cars tend to be heeded about as often as Italian speed limits. And it’s not that our bank accounts don’t hold the thousands of pounds necessary to follow our own advice. It’s that – not for the first time – numbers are, well... confounding us. Allow us to explain.
The official sales figures for the UK put the Vauxhall Corsa first in 2021, the Tesla Model 3 second, and just plain ‘Mini’ third. Not the Mini hatch, or the Clubman, or indeed the massive Countryman, but just ‘Mini’. Clearly, getting to the bottom of this called for someone with a keen eye, strong will and steadfast journalistic rigour. Someone who’s not afraid to get their hands dirty to dig up the truth. Someone who’ll hold anyone to account, regardless of the size of their bank account. And if this sounds like you, feel free to look into it.
We figured that what’s generally the best and cheapest car in Mini’s range would be the best-selling one, an assumption that was backed up by the fact that we’ve never seen a Mini Clubman in the wild, and have never wanted to see a Countryman.
Unfortunately, neatly sidestepping that pothole plunged us into a punji pit: the cheapest Mini hatch costs £17,405 before options, just £25 more than the cheapest Vauxhall Corsa. And we’ve already picked 10 awesome cars for less than that.
Yes, we know that an un-optioned Mini is up there with tachyons, dark matter and productive Twitter arguments in terms of being theoretically possible but as-yet unobserved. So we could fudge the numbers and go from there. But this is Top Gear, where we leave maths and morning tea entirely separate, and baulk at the idea of doing things by halves. Which is precisely why we’ve decided to do this article by half.
Well, kind of. We know great cars abound for £17,400, but how about half that – what brilliant cars can you buy for half the price of the cheapest, un-optioned Mini hatchback? That’s just £8,700, for anyone who’s as easily overwhelmed by maths as we are. And yet look at what it can get you...Advertisement - Page continues below
Subaru WRX estate
OK, let’s get the obvious out of the way first – if you arrive somewhere in a WRX wagon, no one’s going to think a poet laureate is about to emerge. But who’s really itching for that to happen anyways? Poetry is just music without the beat. And beat poetry can just go ahead and get it in the neck. Yes, we’re taking pot shots at Kerouac now. What we feel we might also be doing is digressing a touch, so, like Kerouac, let’s get this thing on the road. But unlike Kerouac, let’s try to make it even remotely interesting. OK, done now. Got it out of our system.
The WRX estate is the kind of car that is so easy to rationalise to yourself – seating for five, space for luggage, all-wheel drive, rally-proven dependability, Japanese reliability and so on – and so difficult to rationalise to your significant other, who’ll only see bonnet scoops and aggressive bodywork, and only hear burbling exhausts and what sounds like a homing pigeon under the bonnet.
But, as the shortest TG alumnus ably proved, these stylistic indelicacies are rendered immaterial by the sheer ability of the WRX. Dig up TG TV’s Africa special and watch the little Subie that could surmount just about everything it encountered with ease – roads made entirely of mud, actual scrubland and the... less than tender ministrations of one Richard Hammond. Chances are it’ll do just fine for anything you have in mind.
MkV Golf R32
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the greater number of cylinders a car has, the more interesting your average gearhead will find it. It is also generally acknowledged that said gearhead would rather use the works of Jane Austen as a wheel chock than an opening paragraph, but we’re in danger of digressing again.
In pure numerical terms, the R32 is worse than the later Golf R – weight, the balance of that weight, performance, fuel consumption and so on – but, as with most loveable machinery, the Golf R32’s talents, and victory, sit outside the margins of mathematics.
It’s not as fast as the R. So what? Unless your weekend isn’t complete until you’ve donned your Sparco and dodged the Armco, shaved tenths until they’re bald and mimed enough dabs of oppo that Troy Queef is considering legal action, the R32 is every bit as much as you need. You show us someone outside the R32’s performance envelope on a public road and we’ll show you someone who deserves a visit from the constabulary.
The R32 is a case-in-point reminder that numerical dominance does not denote greatness. Attila the Hun reportedly had a million-strong army, but we would suggest that he wasn’t exactly the greatest human being ever.
And if the idea of a hatchback – 3.2-litre V6 and all – just smacks of too much practicality, you can get the same basic car in the Audi TT V6, for the same basic money. Or, if you’re a particular fan of the all-wheel-drive, 3.2-litre V6 setup, you could buy both for the cost of a single poverty-spec Mini hatch.
Or, if you’re absolutely all about the 3.2-litre V6, all-wheel-drive thing but don't want something German, you still have an answer, even within this comparatively meagre budget: the Alfa Romeo Brera V6.Advertisement - Page continues below
A very special Land Rover
Fun fact: cars that are more than 40 years old are ULEZ-exempt in London. Another fun fact: you can buy a Land Rover that comfortably surpasses the 40-year requirement for less than half the cost of a brand-new bare-bones Mini.
And while we’re spitting in the face of 2022 with all these facts that are fun, rather than infuriating, we’d like to inform you that this very moderate sum can buy you a fair range of 40-year-plus Land Rovers, and also a bona fide piece of British history.
Not exactly headline history though, we must admit. See, the Land Rover Lightweight (also known as the Air Portable) was designed – or perhaps more accurately redesigned – to be conveyed to battlefields on regular-width pallets on a train, in the back of a cargo plane or, best of all, dangled at the end of a rope and towed by helicopter. But then it was put into service from 1968 to 1984, so that meant the Land Rover Air Portable did not support the British Armed Forces in WWII, as the Jeep did.
The practical upshot of this relative lack of fame (or indeed infamy) is that classic, true military-spec Land Rovers – with all the off-road ability and Tonka-tough engineering that this entails – are available for less than half the price of a new Mini. And won’t set you back a pretty penny to drive through London, either.
Granted, the one you’ll get for your money won’t be in the same nick as this pristine prototype owned by Land Rover itself, but when you’ve got something made to be tough, half the joy of having it is testing just how tough. Now there’s a fun fact.
Original Fiat Panda 4x4
The problem with judging cars by the usual metrics – performance, size, luxuries, style and technology – is that you run the risk of overlooking some truly stellar cars whose only crime was an absence of headline figures.
Fiat’s original Panda 4x4 exemplifies this very situation. It’s not fast. It’s not big. Luxuries didn’t extend as far as a tachometer, to give you some idea of the interior fitout. Its styling is minimal, almost to the point of being unnoticed. Tech involves solid axles, leaf springs... and a 4x4 system from the company that builds Merc G-Wagens.
And this gives you some idea of the ‘behind the curtain’ greatness of the Panda 4x4. It was made to be cheap, but – unlike so much in modern life – it was made to be cheap for the customer as much as the supplier. First gear, for example, was incredibly short; this saved money, weight and complexity over fitting the low-range transfer case that’s du jour in basically every proper off-road vehicle. So building it cost less, buying it cost less, and running it cost less. It was an object lesson in both lateral thinking and fitness for purpose, and it’s just a fraction of the clever ideas that made the Panda 4x4 such a... well, clever little car.
The styling, too, while easily overlooked, is actually some of Giugiaro’s finest work. To give a designer a blank sheet of paper and a space-frame supercar to clothe is one thing; to ask them to fit everything a person could reasonably need within 12 feet of length and five feet of width is something else entirely. So the simple design and diminutive dimensions hide a flat floor for extra interior space, flat glass for lighter, interchangeable windows, and a clever rear seat that can be a bed, seat, cargo barrier or absent from the car entirely in a matter of minutes. Thanks to clever tweaks at the design stage, it was also more aerodynamic than you’d ever give its blocky proportions credit for.
Now, as befits a 40-year-old Italian car whose entire purpose is getting the... er, ‘stuffing’ kicked out of it, the supply side of original Panda 4x4s is very quickly being overtaken by demand. If you want an absolute minter, you’re looking at five figures’ worth of Pounds Sterling – still comfortably less than a bog-standard Mini, but more than our allowed amount. So if that’s where things sit now, you can imagine where decent £8,000 Panda 4x4s will go next.
What, exactly, was the Toyota Sera? A product of the Japanese economic miracle? A JDM-only curio? The most-interesting car to ever be spun off the Toyota Starlet platform? Well, yes – depending on your opinion of the hilarious little Starlet GT Turbo.
From a more practical standpoint, the Sera is a wonderful way to cure a Vitamin D deficiency, thanks to a full boot-to-bonnet glass canopy, topped off with doors wild enough that they apparently influenced the McLaren F1.
From a performance standpoint, you’re looking at 110bhp or thereabouts, front-wheel drive and standard-fare torsion beam rear axle. Not exactly shattering the mould, then. But, like the Panda, it’s the little things that add up. Like an inversion of ‘death by 1000 cuts’, the wider track, 7,900rpm redline, excellent five-speed manual and customised suspension meant that long before the big-ticket items like the dihedral doors – or stereo that created soundscapes by bouncing sound waves off the glass roof – the Sera felt special.
Honda Civic Type R EP3
Let’s say you want something that blends Japanese idiosyncrasy, optimism and overengineering, but don’t want the hassle of importing a Japan-only car. Or perhaps you live in the kind of place that’s hot enough to turn anything with that much glass into little more than a rolling bain-marie.
Luckily, even if you’re hassle-averse or indeed Australian, there is still hope in the form of the Honda Civic Type R. Unlike the Sera, the Type R was officially sold outside Japan’s borders, so – unlike the Sera – there’s actually a decent reserve of Type Rs floating around. Not literally, of course. Light as they might be, that would be absurd.
To say the Type R feels special in the way the Sera does would be a lie bold enough to pass muster in parliament, but the Type R isn’t any less special. Where the Sera’s unique glasshouse and incredible stereo create a special ambience, driving the Type R the way it’s intended creates a special experience. So if you want to drive at regular commuting speeds and feel special, the Sera fits that bill better. But if the question is how to derive satisfaction from the operation of controls, from the feeling through the steering, and from driving that borders on antisocial – then downright annexes it – the EP3 Civic Type R is an exceptional answer.Advertisement - Page continues below
Okay, let’s say you want something that blends idiosyncrasy and optimism, and aren’t so fussed on that whole ‘overengineering’ thing? Stand by, because we’ve just blown the klaxon that summons Mitsubishi.
Even among the crop of wilfully and wonderfully individual Japanese manufacturers, there’s still one that stands alone – one that eschews the notion that Japanese cars have to be as reliable as the tides and need servicing as often as your average beach. And that rarefied air is reserved solely for Mitsubishi. Also reserved for Mitsubishi is any number of gallons of oil with which to top up their two-stroke-rivalling V6s. Speaking from some experience here.
But, should you find (or rebuild) a Mitsu V6 with working PCV valves, gaskets, seals and valve guides, you’ll find that even within Mitsubishi, a bit of overengineering snuck past the keeper. With a bit of extra love, attention and money, then a bit more, and then a whole heap more, there’s no reason a Mitsubishi V6 can’t soldier on past 300,000 miles and little – beside those pesky valve guides – to stop it doing half a million.
So, why are we talking about the reliability of defunct V6 engines from the ‘Huh... they still exist?’ of Japanese automotive manufacturing? Well, the picture might be something of a giveaway.
Yes, it’s the Delica, home to the very recently maligned V6, a proper 4x4 system and more space than a Star Wars box set. For half the price of a little city car, you could have a home away from home, regardless of how far said home away from home is from your regular home, or the terrain necessary to get your home away from home... away from your home. Glad we got that sorted out.
Back when we had full heads of hair and were filled with optimism for the future, we went to the launch of the then-new Audi S5. For the launch, Audi had mapped out a drive route which took us on a wealth of narrow, twisty roads.
What we didn’t expect was just how effortlessly the S5 made that journey. In fact, the most difficult part of the whole trip was deciding whether it was devouring the road or simply dismissing it. If anything, the S5’s softer suspension and overall gentler nature made it an even better cross-country car than the RS5, whose stagecoach-size wheels and diamond-hard suspension would have had us wrestling it back from road contours and pressure ridges.
What this unfortunately first-person anecdote reveals, apart from an ego the size of a whale (or indeed Wales), is that for half the cost of a little pseudo-British hatchback, you can forgo the pretense of parochialism and buy something equally German but exceptionally more capable at taking you, three passengers and your things down any given road with nearly mystifying ease. Oh, and Audi’s 4.2-litre V8, in case you needed a bit more convincing.Advertisement - Page continues below
That the Porsche Boxster is a sports car bargain is perhaps not the most closely guarded secret of all time. In fact, if it were a secret, it’d fall somewhere between the speed of light and the speed of a WhatsApp group in terms of how quickly it was unearthed.
But unlike a whodunit, there’s nothing to say something obvious can’t be great as well. Otherwise you’d have to penalise cars like the MX-5, Land Cruiser, S2000, Clio Sport and scores of others – and indeed the Porsche Boxster.
The Boxster’s a bit of a weird one – it’s a car that was brilliant and popular, then somehow despised for it. Is it because it was less expensive than a 911, so it was therefore somehow a cheap knock-off? Was it the fried-egg headlights? That the engine wasn’t in the back? The convertible bodystyle and its role as the basis of a not-insignificant proportion of car-based misogyny? That people seem to have an innate need to put things down in order to prop themselves up?
As much as we’d love to explore what motivates people to be horrible to each other, we never actually did get around to finishing that anthropology degree. Or in fact starting it. So let’s set the matter to the side with a hand-wave in the order of ‘what separates from animals is the ability to transcend our base instincts; what separates good and bad people is our inclination to do so’ and talk about the practical results of whatever brought on all this Boxster hate.
And the result is that eight grand will easily get you a Porsche-built sports car with a sonorous flat-six engine, manual gearbox and the same basic interior as the vaunted 911. When it’s a nice day, you can revel in 62 miles of headroom; when it isn’t, it’s an easy job to put the roof back up and, crucially, it’ll actually keep the rain out. It rewards good driving, tolerates bad driving and is undiluted enough to tell you the difference through the steering wheel. It is, in fact, an undeniably talented and popular sports car. And like anyone talented and popular, there’s always going to be haters.
Mercedes SL R129
In exchange for your hard-earned, you can take home a bona fide high point in Mercedes manufacturing. And that, in case you’re not already well aware, is saying something. It’s a technological powerhouse from an era where adding new tech was almost always a good thing, with styling from Bruno Sacco at the height of his powers and mechanicals from Mercedes at a time when overengineering was as commonplace as breakfast. Or breathing.
For this sort of coin, you’re likely looking at 280s and 320s. However, if the stars align, you would have something very interesting to look at through a telescope. On the other hand, with a bit of work and a hard nose, you could even nab a 500 SL.