Car Choice: Everything to play for

A smaller car that's just right for the bigger man? Oh, and it can't be a Renault. James Ruppert drives to the rescue
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Gordon Henderson drives a 1998 Renault Mégane Liberté which is "falling to bits". Most of his driving is commuting in and around Glasgow, and once or twice a year, there's a long-distance trip. Overall that's 8,000 miles a year and he is solo driver 90 per cent of the time.

Gordon says that parking is tight so the replacement for his car needs to be no bigger than the Mégane. However, Gordon admits he himself is pushing 250lbs, so a small car might not be practical. His budget is £4,000 and he could pay an extra £500 for the right car.

Gordon has given me a fantastically wide brief, which in theory could include just about any car. He tells me that he is not looking for anything particularly fancy, indeed his requirements are "It goes, it stops, it steers."

There is, however, one notable exception and I quote, "There's no way in hell I'm touching another Renault after the grief I've had with this one."

That's easy then, especially as Gordon also tells me that aesthetics is not an issue and that he would drive a box if it got him reliably from A to B.

Well, he should be relieved to hear that there are plenty of unfashionable vehicles around that will do the job. When a car is unfashionable that also means it will be great value. I guarantee Gordon's minimum requirement, power steering, won't be a problem.

As I constantly point out on this page, used cars have never been cheaper and actually £4,000-plus is a very decent budget. Gordon won't have to put up with cars that are about to expire either, as low mileages and full service histories are minimum requirements.

I also accept that the car needs to be large enough to be comfortable, but even smallish vehicles can have lots of driver and passenger space, but less than generous rear passenger accommodation which should not bother Gordon a bit.

A CAR FOR THE HEAD

When it comes to an anonymous vehicle, Gordon could not do better than to consider a Vauxhall Astra. It might be dreary to look at but it ticks an awful lot of boxes in Gordon's case. I am referring to the old model Astra which was discontinued in 2004 but was a brilliant small family car and measures up at 13ft 6ins, which is a whole inch shorter than Gordon's current Mégane.

The Astra is well equipped, delivers good fuel economy from the petrol engines and is very cheap to own. The insurance groups are low and parts and servicing costs are below average and any garage can fix them.

The interior is surprisingly spacious and when it was launched in 1998 had the most room in its class. I reckon that Gordon should be OK with that, and because he doesn't care about the car's design too much he won't mind the terminally dull cockpit. I think the 1.6-litre 16v engine offers decent performance and 38mpg.

With £4,000 to spend Gordon is spoilt for choice, and just a brief glance at the classifieds turned up a 2002 1.6 Comfort model with air conditioning on sale at a car supermarket. A similar car with fewer miles but a similar specification could be found at an independent car dealer, but was two years older. I won't go on because Gordon should just go out and buy one.

A CAR FOR THE HEART

This is difficult considering that Gordon doesn't think much about cars. Usually I would say buy a Toyota Corolla, which is two inches smaller than the Mégane and unlikely to ever break down. Certainly Gordon could try one of those.

There is, though, one model which has a sort of underdog and loveable character in the shape of an old Rover. The company may not be making them any more, but despite the bad publicity, they were well screwed together and pretty reliable. Provided Gordon has the car properly serviced he should not have a problem.

I recommend the Rover 25 model, which is a whole seven inches shorter than the Renault. I also think that Gordon should go for the three-door model, which will have a slightly larger front door - which means getting in and out of the vehicle should be a little easier for him.

The room in the back of a 25 was never huge anyway and it should not really matter to Gordon. What he should concentrate on is the price. With £4,000 he will get a low-mileage 2002 1.6-litre from a former MG Rover dealer with a warranty. I even found a private 2004 three-door model with just 11,000 miles for the same money, so there are plenty to choose from.

However they're not quite as cheap as they were; used MG Rover price levels have recovered since last year.

When it comes to spare parts, companies such as X-Part are working hard to secure a reliable supply.

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 in which you are interested and your budget.

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