Attracted to an older quality car, but put off by the price? James Ruppert suggests models that won't break the bank

Lee Rae-Moir has always gone for an older quality car and is now keen to change her Audi 80 for something just as lovely. She is looking for a hatchback or estate, to accommodate equipment for her cleaning business. She fancies an Audi A3 but most seem too expensive. She has £3,000 to spend, but will stretch to £4,000 if pressed.

I'm glad to hear Lee likes an older quality car and most importantly does not want to pay too much for it, true Bangernomics spirit. The advantage of going for a quality car is that it will last longer, feel better to drive although fixing it will be more expensive.

However, as a serial buyer of old upmarket cars I've never had any ridiculous bills mainly because I try to buy the best example I can and then look after it. By buying at the bottom of the depreciation cycle, when I sell a few years later, I've only lost a minimal amount of money. The trouble is that some prestige badges can still attract prestige prices, especially for smaller vehicles like hatches.

As Lee may know the Audi A3 is nothing more than a posh Volkswagen Golf, or an upmarket Skoda Octavia. I take it that Lee would prefer a better badge and to that one we could consider Mercedes, BMW and I would argue Saab.

Normally low-prestige car prices are associated with very high mileages and large engines or wrong specifications, which means no air con, leather or alloy wheels. What Lee needs is both practicality and prestige and I reckon we can deliver a car she'll be proud to own and do business in.

A CAR FOR THE HEAD

Saab. Here it is the thinking person's BMW. Clever dicks will point to the fact that if you scratch the surface on a 9-3 you will find a Vauxhall Vectra. That's not unlike the Audi/Skoda situation of course and anyway Swedes are sexy. A previous model 9-3 in three- door coupe form would be perfect for Lee. When it comes to practicality the 9-3 has an absolutely massive boot and that's before the rear seats are folded forward. So if Lee has lots of cleaning materials they should fit in easily.

As a driving experience it will be comfier than the old Audi 80. The seats are great and the level of refinement is impressive with hardly any outside noise intruding into the cabin. The layout of the dashboard is logical and that helps driver concentration and there's the gimmicky night panel which switches off all the distracting instruments and illuminations when it gets dark.

The specifications are are always generous and ideally Lee should aim for an SE model. Certainly she couldn't own anything safer as standard equipment includes twin front and side airbags, ABS brakes, a three-point centre rear belt and anti-whiplash seats. In value-for-money terms they couldn't be cheaper. For £1,999 Lee has the pick of 1999 models with full histories although mileages will be around 100,000, but 70,000 mile is likely to be £2999.

A CAR FOR THE HEART

Before the new MINI the smallest BMW you could buy was a 3 series Compact. Critics reckoned it was a BMW built down to a price but the doors still shut with a satisfying clunk.

The front end was a proper 3 series, but the rear end was shorter, but it contained a tailgate which Lee could open and load all her stuff inside. It does all the usual hatchbacky things as the front seats folded forward to allow access to the rear. Then there was the 50/50 per cent split of the rear seat squab, just what the hatchback buyer ordered. Moreover, it was highly manoeuvrable was neutral in corners, with usefully precise steering and highly effective ABS assisted brakes. Changing gear was the usual delightful experience.

In comfort, safety and economy terms it amounted to a great BMW. The original 102bhp 316 Compact was even fairly brisk and could manage 117mph in top gear. An improved September 1996-on model is a better buy and a tidy 318Ti model from that year will be just over £2,000.

Spending right up to Lee's limit puts year 2000 examples within budget and a 316 Ti Compact will be the cheapest to run and most practical BMW she could buy.

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 details of the type of vehicle in which you are interested as well as your budget.

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