Car Choice: In search of the tops for reliability

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Mr Abdullah Edet Essien is 33 and is looking to buy a car by the middle of this year.

Mr Abdullah Edet Essien is 33 and is looking to buy a car by the middle of this year. His eclectic shortlist comprises a Honda Civic (or indeed any Honda) Daihatsu Charade, Toyota Corolla (and once again any Toyota will do) and a Volvo 480E or 440. His priorities are economy and reliability. What should he buy?

The first thing we note is that there is an odd collection of vehicles in Abdullah's list. There is the really quite tiny Daihatsu Charade, the ancient Volvo 440 and the frankly odd 480 coupé version.

The dull and worthy Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic are both from a rather different mould to the other vehicles, being "reliable" types. It is difficult to really work out whether Abdullah wants character or just plain old dependability. Certainly we agree that a car that does not break down and is also economical has to be a good thing.

At times like these, we usually refer to the Reliability Index ( www.reliabilityindex.co.uk). In terms of marques, Mazda is the tops overall but, model-by-model, the old Nissan Micra is the most reliable car you can buy.

However, perhaps against expectations, in the small family class of vehicle, it is the Ford Focus that comes top. Indeed, the Focus is rated the fifth most reliable car overall, with the Vauxhall Astra coming in at seventh. I would certainly agree and have repeatedly written here that just about any Japanese or Far Eastern car is almost guaranteed to be more reliable than just about anything else. Mechanically, a well looked after Corolla or Civic will certainly rack up a massive mileage.

Please note, though, that there are other reliability and customer satisfaction surveys, such as the JD Power one. In any case , let's consider two different buying options.

A CAR FOR THE HEAD

This would certainly be the Toyota Corolla, which is likely to be marginally cheaper than a Honda Civic and slightly cheaper to run. I'd go for the revised models from 1997 onwards, available as three- and five-door hatchbacks, saloon and estates, with a wide choice of petrol and diesel engines. The Corolla is fairly roomy inside, with plenty of handy storage space, although the boot space is only average.

Nevertheless, it is quiet, smooth and sharper to drive than previous models. At motorway speeds, it is solid and secure, though, which is all you really need in a car like this. The petrol engine units have decent power outputs which translate into respectable performance delivered smoothly and efficiently. Both the 1.3 and 1.6 need to be revved, while the six-speed 1.3 G6 is fun, but the slow 2.0-litre diesel is also noisy. The new generation of engines was more refined but they needed revving; the big improvement was always going to be the direct-injection diesel.

I would pick a practical five-door Liftback and go for the less ugly facelift models from 2000. The 1.6 VVTi is the better petrol unit for everyday use and a 40,000-mile GS model will be under £4,000 in perfect condition.

A CAR FOR THE HEART

Abdullah should consider the rather stylish-looking and, as we have seen, reliable Focus, which is around in large numbers and is a satisfying car to drive and own. On the practical level, it has a spacious and well designed cabin, which is a comfortable place to be. The cabin is certainly spacious and well laid out, with plenty of useful cubbyholes.

The seats are comfortable and there is enough legroom. A family of five can fit in easily and there is room for their luggage, too. Drivers enjoy a superbly good position, especially as the steering wheel adjusts for height and reach, while the controls are perfectly laid out.

Keen drivers will also enjoy living with a Focus because of the agile and responsive handling. It is always safe but fun - the perfect combination. The steering is light and precise, the Focus really is great on the open road or around town, and the smooth suspension provides a refined environment. There is also a good overall range of engines, with the1.6 and 1.8 Zetecs being especially lively.

Running costs are keen and an important part of the Focus's appeal. It is a safe car, too, which scored a maximum four-star rating (at the time) in the Euro NCAP crash tests. There are lots about and prices start below £3,000.

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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