Time to shift up a gear ...

Admit it. That tatty Mini or rusty old Renault was fine in your student days, but you've moved on. You've got two grand to spend - and anything boring is out of the question. Farah Alkhalisi gives a steer
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It starts insidiously, buying brand-names in the supermarket instead of own-label, replacing the lava lamp with something minimal from Habitat, the Bob-Marley-with-big-spliff poster giving way to an abstract print in a clip frame. When clothes come from Jigsaw rather than Oxfam, that's when the truth dawns; student days are over and it's time to start projecting the image of a Grown Up.

The new job may not pay as much as you'd hoped for, but it's still more money than a (lack of) grant. Quietly forgetting all those idealistic anti-consumerist beliefs argued so ardently at the Nelson Mandela Bar not so long ago, you are now aiming for a good flat, good clothes - and a good car.

The Beetle with flowers on the side somehow doesn't seem quite right now; or the rusty Renault 5, ropey Mk I Fiesta, tatty Mini, 2CV or any of the old heaps seen littering campus car parks up and down the country (OK, there were rich students whose Daddy bought them a brand new Clio or Cinquecento, but let's forget them). Now, you need something with more of an adult image; something you could give workmates a lift home in and not be embarrassed; something that says "I've moved on in life but I'm not yet boring".

The sort of student who always had essays in on time, never crept into a lecture late or with a hangover, and revised in the library on Saturday evenings will probably by now have a pension sorted out, and an installment plan on a new Citroen Saxo, Nissan Micra, Peugeot 106 or something equally small, sensibly economical and singularly unimaginative.

For those with student loans still unpaid, and perhaps without a permanent contract to feel secure in, paying for a second-hand car upfront within a cheap overdraft or modest loan is probably a better idea.

So what can you get for around two grand that shouldn't break down too much, offers decent performance, looks as if you earn more than you actually do, but doesn't sacrifice all that individuality cultivated so hard over the past three years?

The key is to go for quality rather than age. A car which was well made and well designed in its time should have aged better than a newer bargain basement model. Make sure you buy the best example you can afford; it could achieve classic status soon and end up as a wise investment!

The sensible option

VW Golf Mk 11 1600 CL: 5-door hatchback 1988 E/F : pounds 2,000

A reliable, robust and durable vehicle which won't go out of fashion, even if it's not an up-to-the- minute trend-setting statement. Not as flashy and less attractive to thieves than the GTi. Check for: oil leaks from head gasket; juddering brakes; heavy front tyre wear; tappet noise. Insurance: pounds 170 (male), pounds 155 (female).

The sportier option

VW Scirocco 1800 GTX: 3-door coupe 1985 B/C : pounds 2,000

Based on the Golf but sleeker and speedier.

Check for: oil leaks; overheating; heavy front tyre wear; noisy camshaft; sticky gear change; slipping clutch. Insurance: pounds 225 (male), pounds 187 (female).

The quietly stylish option

Saab 900i: 1985cc 3-door hatchback 1987 D/ E :

pounds 1,700

Solidly built with unique styling, yet not ostentatious.

Scandinavian design is very big right now; this is the vehicle to suggest "yes, I have a minimalist white/monochrome loft apartment". Avoid the Turbo unless you are prepared to pay heavily for insurance and servicing.

Check for: worn suspension and brakes; gear selection problems; noisy engine; fluid leaks. Insurance: pounds 198 (male), pounds 174 (female).

The retro option

Ford Capri MK 1 1600 GT 1969-74 : pounds 2,000.

Especially for those going into the arts/media, this quintessential boy- racer sports car is now the ultimate in postmodern irony.

Check for: Everything - it's nearly 30 years old, after all. Insurance: pounds 136 (male or female).

The classic option

Reliant Scimitar GTE SE5: 2994cc 1968-74: pounds 2,500

A less obvious British choice than the MGB or Triumph Spitfire, this Ford-engined, fibreglass-bodied sports car was a cheap challenger to the E-type Jag. As this affordable classic shows, there was once more to Reliant than three-wheelers. High insurance costs are offset by tax exemption for pre-1973 models.

Check for: Poorly repaired bodyshell damage; dodgy electrics; tired suspension; smoky or noisy high-mileage engines.

Insurance: pounds 265 (male), pounds 215 (female).

On the road

Prices taken from Parker's Car Price Guide and Parker's Older CarPrice Guide. Prices quoted are for average condition vehicles, with valid MOT, correctly maintained and with no major defects. Some minor wear or tear is to be expected but should not affect the roadworthiness of the vehicle.

All insurance quotes are Third Party, Fire and Theft only, based on a 24-year-old graduate working in publishing, living in an average risk area, with 6 years no claims bonus and a clean licence. Actual quotations will vary according to location and driving record. Quotations kindly supplied by Chesham Insurance Services.

Farah Alkhalisi works for Parker's Car Price Guide