Ten of the best used cars you can buy for less than £30k
Want top-tier sports cars, classics and game-changers, all for Fiesta ST money? Of course you do
Much like a person who’s making their romantic partner cross-eyed, if you have 30 grand to spend on a car, you’re in a pretty good position.
After all, brand-new MX-5s, Fiesta STs and i20Ns are all available for less than 30 grand. So if you’re the sort to consider these and still decide to head to the second-hand market, it’s clear you’re looking for something pretty special, without too many concerns about sensibility, practicality or manufacturer’s warranty. And that’s the kind of consumer advice that, frankly, Top Gear is uniquely qualified to give. So let’s dive in.Advertisement - Page continues below
More than air-cooled 911s, more than 105-chassis Alfas, more than even Bitcoin when it was still going for £500 a coin, the Fulvia is what we most wish we’d bought when it was still affordable. Of course, one Bitcoin is now worth something like three Fulvias, so perhaps that would have worked out anyways.
But we digress. The point is that the Fulvia remains one of the prettiest shapes ever created by man, and it’s backed up by pre-Fiat Lancia engineering (i.e. near-pathological). This is a car that claimed the World Rally Championship, yet its timeless style means it’s equally comfortable on a Soho side street. And somehow, the prices still haven’t gone entirely doolally... yet. Although we’re wondering how long that’ll be the case if we keep harping on about its greatness.
Porsche 911 Carrera S (997)
OK, we’re calling it: this is the perfect modern 911. You heard us.
Of course, if you’re the sort that wears race boots to the office, you’ll chuckle into your gilet that we didn’t pick a GT3 or 911R. And we wish you many more happy years of Finasteride and wondering why no one cares how expensive your Navitimer was.
For the rest of us, the 997 Carrera S is a spot so sweet, there should be Hallmark cards about it. With an easy (and generally conservatively rated) 355 to 380bhp from a naturally aspirated 3.8-litre flat six, rear-drive, hydraulic power steering, a six-speed manual and the major kinks of the 996 worked out (hello, IMS bearing), the 997 C2S is everything a 911 should be. That is, absurdly practical and eminently reliable, yet a proper sports car that’s able to overtake with ease on the straights and keep all but the best honest in the curves.
And, unlike the harder-core versions – GT3, GT3 RS et al – there’s pliancy in the suspension for masochism-free daily driving, as well as higher ride height for fewer wince-inducing moments on potholes and road imperfections. Perhaps most importantly, the limits are lower than the motorsport-ready versions. This might sound like a drawback – after all, more is more, right? – but it’s actually the missing ingredient in so many cars. Headline figures are just that – numbers that make for impressive headlines. Being able to match the car’s abilities and actually get it to put in an effort is the most rewarding way to drive. It’s kind of like a really nice guitar amplifier – buying a 100-watt Marshall, Orange or Hiwatt feels like a good idea, but finding opportunities to get them into their zone are about as sparse as decent Steven Seagal movies. In amps and sports cars, getting something that’s worse on paper is almost always the way to get something better in the real world. So get a 997 Carrera S. And a five-watt valve amplifier.Advertisement - Page continues below
TVR Tuscan Speed Six
A cleverer person than we are once said that bad decisions make for good stories. And this brief introduction brings us directly to the TVR Tuscan Speed Six. A car without airbags, ABS or traction control, but with a 400-odd horsepower straight six motivating just 1,100kg of steel space frame, fibreglass and mildly petrified driver.
Can we, in good conscience, recommend a car that regards ubiquitous safety features like ABS and airbags with the same sort of disdain that Scorcese has for Marvel movies? Well, yes. That’s what we’re currently in the process of doing. And no, it’s not just a caveat emptor handwave, either – if you buy a Speed Six, you will need to set aside an amount for running costs for both you and the car. The Speed Six engine is of TVR’s own creation, so it has TVR levels of dependability. With that said, there are a few engineers who’ve managed to fix the foibles of the original motor to turn the Speed Six-equipped Tuscan into a decently reliable machine, without losing any of the raw insanity that made them so entertaining in the first place.
But remember when we said “for both you and your car”? You really should; it was only a paragraph ago. And we really, really meant it. When your safety – or lack thereof – is entirely up to you, then you had better make sure you’re entirely ready to take that on. And that means proper driver training. Because a TVR will help you find the limits of control, and your ability, faster than anything else you’ve ever driven. And, because it’s a 400bhp TVR, you’ll likely be going quite fast when you find them.
Even after more than six decades, the DS remains the exemplar for forward-thinking design, engineering, and... hell, thought. To see what is and work within that framework is practical. To see what is as nothing more than a platform to get to what could be is a recipe for either disaster or genius. Luckily, in the case of the DS, it’s the latter, creating a car that still embarrasses brand-new machinery with its packaging and engineering – to say nothing of its style.
And yes, saying the DS is beautiful is like saying you enjoy sunsets and spa baths, but when a car’s styling transcends literal generations, it’s fair to say the DS has earned its place as a byword for beauty, no?
Tesla Model S
And if we’re going to talk about forward thinking, we’re going to have to talk about the electric-powered elephant in the room. Yes, for less than 30 grand, you can have the car that changed everything, the thin end of the wedge rammed home by a surfeit of always-on power and supercar-shaming speed. The £30,000 budget restricts your choices to the Model S 85 at best, but that’s hardly a reason to turn your nose up. The 85 still has (funnily enough) an 85kWh battery, as opposed to the 100kWh or so on offer in the new ones, but that’s still enough for 250 miles of range and 0-62 in well under six seconds... in a large luxury four-door. No wonder this electric thing caught on.
But what if you’re not such a fan of big, heavy saloon cars? What if you want to explore the benefits that can only come to those who free themselves of frippery, technology and indeed mass of any considerable amount? For that – at least for a little while longer – you’re going to need petrol power. Not a great deal of it, mind, and delivered from a pint-sized engine in an equally tiny automobile.
And the second-hand Caterhams you can get for £30,000... immediately fail, given that their engines displace a frankly hideously oversized 2.0 litres, or nearly four pints. But, as most anyone in the Top Gear office will attest, four pints is generally the minimum required to have a decent time at the pub. Also, it’s worth pointing out that Top Gear does not in any way endorse or support the consumption of alcohol, apart from the fact that we monetarily support precisely that by buying the aforementioned number of pints at the local. Hm.
And for the love of anything you hold dear, do not have any amount of pints and then drive. Glad we sorted that out, then.
But, as ever, we digress. That Caterham name its creations based on their power-to-weight ratio gives you some indication of their intended use and the engineering used to... well, cater to that use. In terms of thrills per kilo (and even per Pound), it’s almost impossible to look past a Caterham – with the caveat, of course, that you can get a brand-new Caterham Seven 170 for £23,000.Advertisement - Page continues below
Maserati GranTurismo S
Well, that was a bit awkward, wasn’t it? recommending a second-hand car you could get a great example of brand new. Yes, a less-powerful one, and one that’s even turbocharged – just sacrilege – but a new ’un all the same. Let’s remedy that by indulging the very best thing to happen to impecunious gearheads since the invention of the automobile: depreciation.
Thanks to depreciation, Maserati’s best car in decades, with one of Maserati’s all-time great engines, is now within the reach of... well, not mortals. You still have £30,000 for a second-hand car, as opposed to the £3,000 the rest of us are working with. But still – should you find yourself in this ideal situation, you can turn it to your advantage with a 4.7-litre V8-powered grand tourer from an Italian company that’s figuratively dripping in history.
It’s the good one, too – without the silly single-clutch semi-auto gearbox, but with the bigger 4.7-litre V8. And the sound of the V8 is... well, it’s the kind of thing that yanks at your heartstrings to know that it’s never going to happen again, like finding a photo of an old partner that no amount of trying will ever get back.
For the engine alone, the GranTurismo S is worth it. The fact that you get the GT’s styling, comfort and supreme presence in the bargain must make it the deal of the century.
Oh, and if you prefer your GTs with more of a G&T disposition, you can get an Aston DB9 for the same money. NBD, right?
Mercedes C63 AMG Estate
And if we’re going to talk about all-time great engine notes, we’d be remiss in the least to not mention the AMG 6.2-litre V8. Hand-built by true engine masters (or meisters, if you absolutely must) in Germany to make extraordinary noises (and, y’know, power), AMG’s last naturally aspirated V8 was its absolute best. Sure, there was an even better version on offer in the SLS AMG, but that’s like looking down on Van Gogh’s Wheatfields under Thunderclouds because it’s not The Starry Night. It’s still a complete masterpiece – and, in the case of the AMG 6.2, even more thunderous.
And, much like the Maser (and indeed Enzo Ferrari’s famous sales pitch), you buy the C63 for the engine and you get the rest of the car for free. In this case, an entirely practical estate body in that sweet spot of late-2000s C-Class size. Big enough inside for the family, small enough outside to work in the city.
And, being an AMG, entirely quick enough to work as a troublingly fast cross-country tourer. That V8, remember, is of proper motorsports pedigree – as used in Mercedes’ endurance-racing cars. It’s quite literally made to cover distance at speed. Honest, officer.Advertisement - Page continues below
For 30 grand, your choices of Beemer are solid, to say the least. Want the only V8-powered M3 ever sold to the public? How about if that V8 was a proper race-spec engine, derived from the 5.0-litre V10 in the E60 M5?
Or you could have the true spiritual successor to the M3 in the M2 – a straight-six up front, manual gearbox in the middle, drive out the back, all wrapped up in a compact executive car package. Or what about one of the greatest M5s of all time, the 5.0-litre V8 E39 M5? All incredible choices for your £30,000.
But then there’s the proper power move – which, ironically, means settling for the least powerful car of the four: the BMW 850i. Prices have risen lately (name us a decent classic car that hasn’t), which has pushed the M Division-engined 850 CSi out of your price bracket, but the super-smooth V12 in the regular 850i is likely enough to soothe those wounds. And yes, the 850i makes less power than any of the other options on this list, but if 320bhp and a relentless surge from 90 to 130mph isn’t enough for you, that says much more about you than the car.
The 850i remains one of BMW’s best and most-recognisable designs, with a low nose, tiny kidney grille and pop-up headlights. Compare and contrast to any modern BMW and then mourn your loss. And don’t forget the pillarless windows, resulting in the perfect air gap from A-pillar to C-pillar in the very best hardtop style. Solid.
Land Rover 90 / Defender
And here we find ourselves with just one choice left to make, and serried ranks of worthy candidates jostling for position. Turbocharged, all-wheel-drive monsters in the form of the Evo X and Focus RS. The current-gen Civic Type R, which we named as Car of the Year in 2017 and still believe is one of the best hot hatches ever made. Proper British luxury leviathans in the Range Rover V8 Autobiography and Bentley Continental GT Speed.
At the risk of sounding a bit too ‘everyone gets a prize’, these are generally wonderful choices – particularly in the case of the Type R and Focus RS. So, which one takes the biscuit? Um, neither.
See, we’ve focused pretty heavily on road-going cars throughout this list, but there’s apparently a place called ‘off road’ that’s rather popular in certain sections of the community. And if you’re going to head off-road and shake yourself to bits, you may as well do it in a bona fide piece of history.
On the road, it’s as loud and useful as your average anti-vaxxer protest, but of course that’s never what it was made for. To see a broadly impassable section of the earth’s surface and then somehow manage to pass it anyway – that’s the open secret of the Land Rover, as much as they’re used around Knightsbridge.
For 30 grand, you can get a sterling example of the breed, too, so you’re free to use it on the exact sort of Landie you feel suits you. For us, it’s Land Rover’s own 2011 XTech special edition Defender 90, as it blends just enough new-school menace with the classic slab sides of the original – and, crucially, is new enough to offer decades of faithful service. But there really aren’t too many wrong answers here. Except for anything by Kahn, obviously.