Car Choice: As good as it gets

For a practical family car built in Europe, look to Volvo or Ford, and consider a small estate rather than a people carrier, says James Ruppert
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Steve Jones is 44 and is looking for a second family car, whose main purpose is the mum-taxi-run for three kids in different schools (about 10,000 miles a year). It needs to be spacious for the five of them and will need to cope with some weekends away.

They don't want to spend more than £3,500 and their priority is a vehicle that is cheap to run and insure; but Steve reckons that being pleasant to drive would be nice too. The Jones family has a preference for Euro-brands, as they don't want to buy a Far Eastern model.

This is a problem. When I am asked for a good-value reliable car, my default response is, buy Japanese. The statistics back me up, as the latest www.reliabilityindex.co.uk survey, based on real breakdowns and repair bills, has a top 10 full of Japanese cars. At number one is the Honda Accord, and other family cars are the Subaru Forester, Toyota RAV 4, Honda CRV, Mitsubishi Carisma, Honda Civic and Nissan Almera. But Steve isn't interested in those.

If Steve wants to stick to a vehicle made in Europe, the highest entrant is at number 17 - the Jaguar X-Type. This is not the most practical or cheapest to buy and run option. Slightly better is the Volvo S40 at 19 and the estate version V40 at 21. In the middle is the new Mini.

I'll have to recommend a Volvo. As a second car it does not have to be huge, especially for the school run and occasional weekend mini-break, so I see no reason to go down the compact people carrier route.

A CAR FOR THE HEAD

On the reliability index facts it has to be a Volvo. For some reason the S40, which is the saloon, is slightly less bother than the V40, which is the estate. I reckon that the added practicality of the estate would make much more sense.

A small Volvo estate is certainly a good thing with its traditional virtues of solidity and safety. Not surprisingly it scored four stars in the Euro NCAP crash tests, has an impressive side-impact protection system, a full complement of air bags, seat-belt pre-tensioners and ABS brakes on every model since it was launched in 1996.

The styling is neat enough, but as with most Volvos it still looks better as an estate and made the most sense with a V40 badge on the back.

Compared with other so-called lifestyle estates it is genuinely versatile. It drives well enough considering what it is up against - BMW and Audis. There is an absolutely massive choice, with at least 10 engines, not including upgrades, and a bewildering combination of trim packages. The can be great value because with high mileages it is possible to pay below £1,000, but £3,000 puts plenty of 1999 and 2000 examples within reach. At £3,500 I found several year 2000 examples with 1.8 engines and lots of extras.

A CAR FOR THE HEART

The depressing thing about the reliability index is that certain vehicles you think would finish higher seem to struggle, so a Volkswagen Golf comes in at 46, whereas a Ford Focus, which I have a lot of time for, is a lowly 54. Never mind. If Steve wants a car that is practical, but also OK to drive, then the Focus would make a good a choice. There are plenty around and it should prove a very cost effective car to run. Although the hatchback is the most familiar model, Steve ought to consider the estate, which has a decent amount of room in the back and makes real sense for five.

The Focus is as good a small family car as you can get. It boasts a Ford's low running costs, but also real style and substance in performance and handling. The Focus does it all and at a keen price as ex-company cars fill up the supermarket sites. With £3,000 to spend, year 2000 estates are easy enough to find at dealers with a warranty. Better to go for lower mile 1.6 and 1.8 petrols than overpriced and usually six-figure-mileage diesels that may have had a hard life.

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 telephone number, as well as full details of the type of vehicle in which you are interested - and why - and an idea of your budget.

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