Car Choice: A touch of maturity

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Phillip Hewitt currently has a 1990 BMW 320i. He loves it but thinks it is time for a change. He does less than 10,000 miles a year, mostly around town, and does not need lots of room, but it must be reliable and cheap to run. He wants to spend £4,000 to £6,000 and likes the idea of a mid-Nineties six-cylinder BMW. He did not like the Audi A4 four-cylinder but likes the V6. To confuse matters, he has also considered a Jaguar XJ6 and also the Nissan 200SX.

Phillip has great taste - the 320i BMW is a wonderful car. I know because I used to have one. I faced the same dilemma in that most cars built in the Nineties do not match the solidity and build quality of vehicles from that era.

I would not recommend a Jaguar XJ6, especially one that cheap; it will be storing up problems. I went for a Saab - which you either love or loathe. They are cheap and well-equipped and Phillip can easily afford mid-Nineties 900 models which come with a powerful V6 engine and automatic gearbox.

The Audi A4 is a good car which is often better built than a BMW. However, it is criticised for having a firm ride and, like the Saab, is front-wheel-drive only, which means less sporty handling, compared with the BMW. What Phillip needs is comfort and smooth performance, probably through an automatic gearbox. A bit of style wouldn't go amiss either, and among the many options, let's state the obvious first.

A car for the head

It has to be a BMW again. The next-generation 3-Series was not as well-built as Phillip's, although matters did improve after a few dodgy years. Again, he should have a six-cylinder car for smoothness and an automatic gearbox. As he does not need the room, the coupe model is ideal and still looks stylish.

A scan through the classified ads turned up a 325 automatic from 1994. It has one previous owner and a full service history, and the Mercedes specialist selling it only wanted £3,450, which seemed like very good value. A 320i version from the same year and with a similarly complete BMW history was on sale at a specialist for £2,695, so there are plenty of bargains.

If Phillip wants to think about something bigger, then he is right to consider the BMW 5-Series, which will last forever. The older shape E34 model is very cheap and the bigger-engined six-cylinder and V8 models are giveaways. A 1996 530i V8 with a full history and every imaginable extra was £4,995 (it cost £36k new), but depreciation is steep, so the smaller coupe is still the better buy.

A car for the heart

Certainly the Nissan 200SX is worth considering and offers a sporty drive, reliability and shopping-run efficiency when required. There are not many good ones around as they seem to have gone out of mainstream fashion very quickly, but the good news is that there is a fabulously enthusiastic club, www.sxoc.com. You may even find a really nice, one-owner 200SX. The original buyer profile was mature, mild-mannered and affluent, so no boy racers.

Really original 200SXs are great buys. The bodywork should have an exemplary fit and finish -- any deviation means it has been in an accident. Otherwise there is only likely to be the odd stone chip to spoil the view.

The engine is tough with no real weaknesses, so a blown turbo will be easy to spot with lots of smoke. The tyres can take a hammering and are a good guide to how it has been looked after. Kerbed and chipped alloys are not a good sign, either. If it looks rough, it probably is. The best news is that Phillip won't pay more than £3,000 for one in immaculate condition.

*CAR CHOICE: Please write to Car Choice, Features, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, or e-mail James Ruppert at carchoice@independent.co.uk giving your age, address and contact number, and details of the type of vehicle you are interested in.

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