Best buys under £1,000

26 Mar, 2012 11:00am

A low budget doesn’t mean a low-quality car, as we pick out six stars for three figures

Mazda MX-5 (1996/135k miles)
Price: £999

Price when new: £17,350 | Model: MX-5 1.8i | Engine: 1.8-litre 4cyl, 131bhp
CO2/tax: 216g/km/£215 | Economy: 31mpg
Euro NCAP: N/A | Driver Power rating: N/A

Is it possible to have fun on a shoestring? You bet! The Mazda MX-5 is 22 years old, and the first official UK cars are now available for as little as £600 – which means you can enjoy wind-in-the-hair thrills for the price of a flat-screen TV. Of course, you need to use your head when buying any car at this price level, but the little Mazda makes more sense than most. Its modest power output means you’re unlikely to face a huge insurance bill, while maintenance won’t break the bank and brilliant build quality and impressive reliability help to minimise the risk of buying a dud. Even a tatty soft-top need not put you off, as aftermarket replacements are available from as little as £325. If you manage to find a half-decent MX-5, the rewards are worth the effort of trawling through the classifieds. Even with 100,000 miles on the clock you should still get to enjoy a car with sharp responses, an eager engine and a slick gearshift. And even real high-milers will put you closer to nature than a sensible hatchback or saloon.

Ford Fiesta (2002/40k miles)
Price: £999

Price when new: £9,215 | Model: 1.25 Freestyle | Engine: 1.25-litre 4cyl, 75bhp
CO2/tax: 161g/km/£165 | Economy: 40.9mpg
Euro NCAP: ★★★ | Driver Power rating: N/A

The Fiesta is one of the most successful cars ever in the UK, and the fourth-generation model was a welcome return to form for Ford. By totally re-engineering the supermini, the company put it back in contention for best-in-class status after years in the doldrums. The sweet 1.25-litre engine is the best option, delivering lively performance and reasonable running costs; steer clear of the ancient 1.3-litre if you can. At this price it’s worth looking for a Ghia model, which will come complete with air-conditioning.

Top tip: Used cars costing less than a £1,000 can be prone to breakdowns, and GEM Motoring Assist is the best recovery service, taking Driver Power honours for the last two years.

Toyota RAV4 (1994/100k miles)
Price: £999

Price when new: £16,090 | Model: GX | Engine: 2.0-litre 4cyl, 126bhp 
CO2/tax: 233g/km/£215 | Economy: 30.1mpg
Euro NCAP: N/A | Driver Power rating: N/A

Take one look at the current selection of crossover-style off-roaders in new car showrooms and it’s hard to imagine a time when they weren’t everywhere. However, they’re a relatively recent phenomenon. The RAV4 got the ball rolling for small 4x4s and the original model is still the best, combining old-school Toyota reliability with assured handling and a healthy dash of style. There’s no diesel, and five-doors are rare for our sub-£1,000 budget, but go online and you should find a high-mileage three-door at the right price.

Peugeot 406 Coupe (2000/90k)
Price: £995

Price when new: £22,540 | Model: SE | Engine: 2.0-litre 4cyl, 137bhp
CO2/tax: 197g/km/£215 | Economy: 34mpg
Euro NCAP: N/A | Driver Power rating: N/A

A used Peugeot for £1,000 sounds like a brave choice, but if you want a stylish machine you won’t do better than this. It’s easy to believe the myth that the Coupe’s gorgeous Pininfarina-penned looks were originally a design proposal for a cut-price Ferrari. Either way, a 2000 W-reg 2.0-litre petrol model with around 90,000 miles on the clock will now cost you £1,000. And if you don’t mind a car with a few more miles (and a greater thirst for unleaded), you could have the 210bhp 3.0-litre V6. Either will cost a grand, but look a million dollars.

Here’s what we drive…

James Disdale, deputy road test editor

"Regular readers will be familiar with my 1989 VW Golf GTI, which has appeared in the pages of Auto Express on numerous occasions. I’ve owned the eighties pocket rocket for more than a decade, but it’s now driven only on occasional weekends. Yet despite its age, the GTI is a delight. A poised chassis, eager performance and great reliability make it a fun and cost-effective modern classic."

Fiat Multipla (2000/100k miles)
Price: £950

Price when new: £14,715 | Model: 100 ELX | Engine: 1.6-litre 4cyl, 103bhp
CO2/tax: 205g/km/£260 | Economy: 32.8mpg
Euro NCAP: ★★★ Driver Power rating: N/A

Fiat has only just stopped selling the Multipla new, but while the looks have arguably improved over the years the interior is just as practical now as it was in 1999 when the car first appeared. Back then, its combination of goofy looks and Fiat badging equalled hefty depreciation, yet that makes it great value today. With two rows of three-abreast seats and a decent boot, the Multipla is incredibly versatile. It’s also surprisingly good to drive. The economical JTD diesel is out of reach for £1,000, but the perky 1.6-litre petrol is easily up to the job.

Skoda Octavia (1998/66k miles)
Price: £995

Price when new: £13,324 | Model: 1.6 GLXi | Engine: 1.6-litre 4cyl, 100bhp 
CO2/tax: 187g/km/£245 | Economy: 36.2mpg
Euro NCAP: ★★★★ | Driver Power rating: N/A

Skoda has been under VW Group control for more than 20 years, and the Octavia has probably done the most to raise the company’s profile. It’s easy to see why, as the original model still makes a lot of sense today. Its attractive prices, robust engines and spacious interior score plenty of points, and its popularity makes locating a good example easier than you’d think. At this price, you’ll be able to find an eager 1.6-litre petrol that’s done fewer than 70,000 miles. Watch out for old minicabs with huge mileages.