Nigel Hutson works for Vauxhall, where he gets a new model every nine months and only has to put diesel in it. This scheme costs him £195 a month, but the car has to be returned in perfect condition and often sorting out the little scratches and dings costs him a fortune.

Nigel covers 600 miles a month and has a full no-claims, thanks to an old Ford Granada that he runs. He wants a well-equipped estate car, but would need to borrow £5,500. He is drawn to Vauxhalls, but is tempted by a Ford Mondeo as a friend of his works at a main dealer and can get reduced-rate servicing. What should he do?

My first reaction is that if his current Ford Granada is running well, why borrow all that money just to do 600 miles a month? That's my fault for being Bangernomically inclined and I accept that Nigel wants something different, or at least new to him. The Granny won't be worth a lot, although it may have a part-exchange value.

Because the mileage he covers is on the low side, he should consider a higher mileage motor. In real terms he will spend less money and, provided there is a full service history and at least one major overhaul before he buys, Nigel will have a car that potentially will last into six figures. I have bought cars at 80,000 and 115,000 and never had a major problem with them.

This plan makes better financial sense than repaying a loan. If he still needs cash then visiting a high-street lender is recommended - the competition between banks, supermarkets, motoring groups and insurance companies has never been fiercer. He must compare loans based on the annual percentage rate, but it is the figures for the total cost of the loan which is the most important.

A car for the head

My default choice for an estate car, especially a cheap one, would be that it is Japanese. If all Nigel wants is reliability and equipment then a trawl through the classifieds turns up Toyota Avensis and Nissan Primera models that are all below £4,000, with high specifications and reputations for never breaking down very much.

If Nigel wants character though, then the automatic estate choice has to be a Volvo. The 850 model is good-looking, tough, spacious and great value. You can pick up a 2.0 GLT from the mid-Nineties for just £1,000, but it will have a huge mileage.

If you want a model with a Volvo history then £3,500 is the going rate - and that usually means you will be buying a well cared-for SE model with air conditioning.

A well-known specialist like PGI (01252 710410) has models starting at £3,999, and can provide a four-year guarantee and 10,000-mile service. They only use Volvo parts, so what Nigel will be buying is a superbly presented estate that looks the part and ultimately will be easier to resell if his future requirements change. If Nigel likes the idea of the 850 he can also trade up to its successor, the V70, for around £4,995.

A car for the heart

If Nigel has some Ford connections, then maybe he should exploit them and because he has owned a Granada he knows that Ford are tough, reliable and cheap to run.

The great thing about the Mondeo is that it is also well-equipped and great to drive. He could go for the old shape model and a 1.8LX on a P-registration plate is only around £1,200. If he fancies the new shape model, then £4,995 buys a 2.0 Zetec with 86,000 miles on the clock.

If he wants to stick to Vauxhalls, then the Vectra is an option. I found a 2.0 GLSi that was four years old for £2,999. It is a comfortable car, but I would actually recommend that Nigel goes for the much larger Vauxhall Omega estate.

Here is a full-size estate car that was built in Germany to impressively high standards. The load area is huge and the majority of them are very highly equipped, especially in CD trim. The cheapest models have the V6 petrol engines, but the 2.2 four-cylinder unit is powerful enough. Certainly at £5,000 Nigel would have the pick of 2001 models with 70,000 miles. Alternatively, a mid-Nineties 2.0CD is just £1,500.

*CAR CHOICE: Please write to Motoring, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, or e-mail carchoice@independent.co.uk, giving your age, address, telephone number, and details of the vehicle in which you are interested.

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