Eileen Feeney is being very helpful to her neighbour who is in her early 70s and now needs a small automatic car.

Eileen Feeney is being very helpful to her neighbour who is in her early 70s and now needs a small automatic car. The budget is £3,000 with a possible stretch to £3,500, but so far Eileen has struggled to find a suitable car. She wonders about how useful it would be for a professional to check the used car before purchase, having gone to look at several cars and not being happy with what she has seen.

Eileen is a good neighbour to have and is certainly right to be cautious about the cars she has viewed with her friend. It is dangerous out there and because Eileen has got good common sense she has avoided buying a bad car.

Indeed, Eileen brilliantly illustrates the importance of taking a neutral friend with you when buying any car - and they don't need to have any mechanical knowledge. The problem is that we can all get carried away when buying a car and hearts start to overrule heads as you get excited by the car you always promised yourself. A friend won't be emotionally involved and may spot things that your rose tinted specs hide.

When you do find a car that both you and your friend agree on, the next step is to call in the professionals. I believe that getting an expert engineer is the answer, which is why I set up the only nationwide garage-based, used-car checks network. Of course, there are many independent and national companies offering inspection services; interestingly, the AA have just announced that they are no longer offering used car inspections. The cost of the inspection is tiny compared to the amount that can be saved and trouble avoided.

A car for the head

I believe there are good enough cars out there at the price and I looked at Autotrader magazine for Eileen's area to see what I could come up with. For a truly reliable car, Eileen has to steer her friend towards Japanese makes.

One car I found was a Daihatsu Charade - a silly name for a car, but it should be taken more seriously. A 1998 model with just 29,000 miles on the clock, it also had air conditioning and two previous owners. There was a full service history, too. Daihatsus like this have an above-average reliability rating. Fuel economy is certainly good and even with the larger 1.5 engine and an automatic gearbox, it should still manage around 40mpg.

A better-known model is a Honda Civic. Again, reliability is excellent, but it also has a more upmarket image although this should not matter. Most are three-door models, but I spotted a 1.5-litre four-door model with air conditioning and a full service history for just £1,295. This was a private sale and the seller had owned it for more than five years. It may be on the large side, but I guarantee that Eileen's friend will find it very easy to drive.

A car for the heart

If Eileen's friend loved her Corsa, then she will probably want another. I managed to find a 1995 1.4LS at a dealer. It had covered just 29,000 miles in the hands of just one presumably careful owner. It has power steering and a full MOT, too, and cost just £2,195. It seemed like great value to me but the reliability will be nowhere near that of a Japanese model; perhaps Eileen's friend would want a change?

There are some very similar cars to the Corsa - small hatchbacks that are cheap to run with bags of character. A 1995 Renault Clio 1.4 RT with 50,000 miles was on sale at a dealer with three months' warranty. It cost £1,750 and Eileen's friend should appreciate the airy interior. A Clio is nice to drive with above-average levels of comfort and refinement. Again, reliability could be an issue with this model as minor electrical niggles and poor starting could spoil the ownership experience. Again, Eileen has to insist on getting the car professionally checked. However, spending below the £3,000 budget always means that if repairs are needed throughout the year then there should be funds available to cover it.

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