Car Choice: 'I'd like a cheap reliable runner'

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Jonathan Martin is 25 and is looking to buy his first car.

Jonathan Martin is 25 and is looking to buy his first car. He does not have a no-claims bonus, so is looking for something with a small engine and low insurance group. His main priority is reliability, although it must also have plenty of legroom in the front. He has a budget of around £1,500. He is unsure whether to look at private deals or garages.

First, some good news - Jonathan is over 25, and insurance companies class this as a lower-risk age-group and thus drop their premiums. What counts against him is his lack of insurance record. It is important to build up several years' no-claims bonus, and Jonathan realises that this can only be achieved by running a modest car.

When buying a car, it is important to take into account what its insurance group is. Insurers prefer mainstream models that are easy and cheap to fix. Just as important, though, is the level of insurance required, and with a £1,500 vehicle it need be no more than third party.

As Jonathan only does a modest number of miles each year, he should restrict himself and ask his insurer for a limited-milage policy. Equally, garaging the car overnight and offering to pay a higher excess all help to reduce the premium.

Jonathan rightly highlights the problem of where to buy a cheap vehicle. The car trade may make a smaller profit on these, but companies still have a legal obligation to ensure that the car is roadworthy and must put right any faults existing at the time of purchase. When buying privately, £100 spent on a used car check has to be money well spent.

A CAR FOR THE HEAD

I would not want to buy a car on insurance group alon, and Jonathan stresses that he wants reliability.

According to Warranty Direct and its real-world used car survey, the most reliable car over the last decade has been the Nissan Micra. It has a build quality that gives small cars a good name, and above all it is cheap to run and easy to drive. Not everyone likes its styling, but the Micra pioneered the high cabin look that is now so popular and gives the interior such a light and airy feel. Although the 1.0 is small, it is perfectly capable and very quiet.

For buyers who plan on taking the Micra out of the city, the 1.3 would be the better engine to have. Inside, its specifications are not that generous. The 1998 models have more character and better handling than earlier Micras, but are just out of budget.

A CAR FOR THE HEART

The VW Polo has a reputation as a reliable small car, but it is also expensive. Volkswagen has done buyers a favour though by making a Polo with a Spanish badge in the shape of the Seat Ibiza, which is a very impressive small car.

The 1.0 MpiE model has a lowly group-2 insurance, yet is spacious and fun to drive and in recent years has gained a reputation for being reliable and practical. Its fuel-consumption figures are excellent - over 40mpg for petrol models while the diesels manage a healthy 50 to 60mpg. Inside the Ibiza is pure VW Polo - smart and spacious with a welcome dash of trim colour.

Unfortunately the Ibiza's ride quality is less like its German cousin's, but the seats are comfortable and in practical terms it has a generous boot.

Finding an Ibiza is not always as easy as a Polo, but it should be cheaper and is likely to be a slightly later model, possibly from the mid-1990s. Its running costs will be on the low side and it is easily looked after by a local garage.

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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