Car Choice: Commuting? Perhaps it's time to think outside the hatch

Jennifer Arkell's first car, a Fiat Seicento, was written off after an accident. She wants a replacement that is a bit larger, but in an equally low insurance bracket. Jennifer, 27, has £4,000 to spend, though she could stretch this to £5,000 for the right car. She wants decent back-seat space for occasional passengers. She covers about 5,000 to 6,000 miles a year, mostly commuting, with a few motorway trips.

A car for the head

The Fiat Seicento is OK as a starter car, but leaves a lot to be desired as a daily hatchback, and the rear accommodation is marginal. We can do much better for Jennifer and all within £4,000. All she needs to agree to is a four door, which always makes life a lot easier if you plan on having some friends along for the ride. Indeed the Kia Picanto, which we have also recommended recently, was designed with passengers in mind, having larger wider opening doors. It's great value, cheap to run, and feels a lot more grown up than the Fiat. You could easily get a 2006 model for £4,000, which may still have some of the manufacturer's warranty left. Alternatively, if Jennifer wants to stick with the Fiat brand, the Panda would be an obvious choice. Depending on the model that Jennifer buys, there should be plenty of room in the back for two large adults, plus a decent boot space. Basic Active models have a fixed rear seat, but the better ones, Dynamic upwards, will split-fold, slide, and even recline. A 1.1 or 1.2 engine should be enough, even on the motorway. A 50mpg average is possible and £4,000 should get you a 2005 top-specification Eleganza with around 27,000 miles on the clock.

A car for the heart

One of the very best and most underrated small hatchbacks is the Mazda 2. It's actually big enough for a small family so Jennifer should find it very spacious and, as it is a Mazda, very reliable. It is based on a Ford Fiesta but is actually much more practical than that model. Inside, there's bags of usable space for everyone with tons of head and legroom both front and rear. It is actually possible because of the clever design to get three adults in the rear in some degree of comfort. Up front, Jennifer will find that the layout of the dashboard and the high-set driving position will mean she enjoys a relaxed and easy time either around town or on those rare motorway trips. The basic S will be the cheapest to run and insure and will only have remote locking and stereo buttons on the steering wheel as the most notable options. The smallest 1.25 petrol will return almost 45mpg and be slow, but still interesting to drive. I found a 2004 1.25 S in the classified ads with just 17,000 miles for £4,190. It was at a dealer, so it had a warranty back-up, and even came with air conditioning, quite rare on the base model.

Looking to buy?

Please write to Car Choice, Features, Independent on Sunday, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5HF or email James Ruppert at, giving your age, address and phone number, details of the type of vehicle in which you are interested and your budget.