Car Choice: 'I want something that's small but big on fun'

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Pat Howell is very attached to a Peugeot 205XS, which she has owned for 14 years, since new.

Pat Howell is very attached to a Peugeot 205XS, which she has owned for 14 years, since new. She likes the small size, manoeuvrability, good visibility and, above all, the fact that it has been enormous fun to drive. She wants to replace it with something equally small, which is good both for short drives and for longer motorway journeys, is reliable, and costs from £15,000 to £17,000. As an advanced motorist, she finds her husband's Honda Civic feels like a tank. The idea of an MX5 appeals but a practical hatch might be better.

Less is so much more these days. As the restrictions on motoring freedom mount, the point of owning a car that is fast is virtually pointless, except on expensive track days. This means that smaller cars with great handling make much more sense and explains why we are in something of a golden age when it comes to the hot hatch. Pat, therefore, has a great choice of models.

At the tiny-tot end of the market, the Citroën C2 VTR is cheeky to look at and well equipped at just over £11,000 but the Formula 1-style paddle-shift gearbox blunts the performance.

The Fiat Stilo Abarth is overlooked but is excellent value. It has great character, with an unusual five-cylinder engine, but the steering is dull and the big discounts available - with savings of up to £2,000 - mean that resale value is very poor and it depreciates rapidly.

A Volkswagen Lupo Gti is fun at just over £13,000, but it is expensive for what it is, and even Pat may find it too small.

The Seat Ibiza FR is a great drive and good value at below £14,000. The most obvious choice, just within budget, would have to be the Mini Cooper S, but we don't do obvious at Car Choice..

A car for the head

Pat's husband obviously does not drive a Type R version of the Honda Civic , because that doesn't drive like a tank; and if she did drive one, she probably would want one. Here you have a state-of-the-art hot hatch, which combines almost 200bhp with superb handling. The engine is a wonderful piece of engineering that revs sweetly and works through a sporting six-speed gearbox. It can, therefore, be driven hard, but it will be soft and sedate in built-up traffic. Equally responsive is the handling, which is tuned to perfection, with plenty of grip.

Even so, this is a refined little car which will be happy to take you on a long journey without any wind noise, although there is certainly some tyre roar on the motorway. The driving position is good and overall the amount of room in a Type R is impressive. It works as a practical hatch, but there is only limited room for rear passengers.

Although the Type R is good value, not everything is standard; there are no side airbags and items such as air-conditioning are extra, so the basic price of £16,250 will rise by £1,000 for air. At least the Type R holds its value quite well, although insurance can be a little on the high side.

A car for the heart

A Mini Cooper S could certainly qualify here, and the fact that it retains most of its value makes it a sensible buy. Once you start adding equipment, however, the price climbs sky high. Also, those pesky Minis are everywhere, when actually one of the most powerful superminis rivals the Honda Civic Type R for entertainment and power.

The Renault Clio 182 is a great little car. The fact that it is probably just a bit too quick makes it all the more fun, as the handling falls short of the best in class. Never mind, because the engine sounds great and helps it get to 60mph in just over seven seconds.

At just £14,700, it is great value for money with its drilled aluminium pedals, leather or suede trim, metallic paint, CD-player and climate-control air-conditioning. Pat should ensure that she is comfy in the seat, though, because some find the seat adjustment is poor. She might also think that the cabin materials are not special enough, as some of the plastic trim seems rather cheap. Group 16 insurance is high, but not as high as the Type R in 17.

* 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.

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