A veterinary student seeks a car for future work, but space is the least of this new driver's problems, says James Ruppert

Kate Wheeler-Booth, 22, has one year left at university before she qualifies as a vet. She hasn't passed her driving test yet, but she's looking to buy her first car. Ideally, she wants a car that can be used once she starts work, so she needs a medium-sized car with a bit of space in the boot/back seat for all her veterinary paraphernalia. It must also have a good safety record. Her budget is £6,000-£7,000.

I don't want to upset Kate here, but there is a fairly major problem before we even get in to which car to buy and that's insurance. Those first few years after passing your test are expensive ones – not least because the premium stays high until you prove to the company that you are a safe and sensible member of the driving community.

Certainly, Kate's profession should help; indeed, she could ask the Royal Veterinary College if there are any special insurance schemes. Even so, Kate's age is a factor, as insurance companies prefer their customers to be over 25 years old. That might sound slightly irrational, as I know several 50-year-olds who should not be allowed on the road. It's a statistical thing, though, because the number of accidents in the sub-25 category is far higher than those who are older and wiser.

For that reason, it isn't just a case of finding a practical car; we also need to concentrate on finding a vehicle that will be cheap to insure. Then, after a few years of building up her no-claims bonus, Kate can move on to something better. So a smallish engine and low repair costs have to be the priority.

A car for the head

I propose that Kate spends below budget, so that she has some money held back to cover her insurance premium. This is unlikely to be less than a £1,000 for a new policyholder, so she needs to put a few thousand away.

Meanwhile, I can point her in the direction of a practical, cheap vehicle to run and, mostly importantly, to insure. That is a Vauxhall Astra estate; the old generation model was the best in its class and is now great value for money. Its boot is very large, but can be made even bigger by pushing the rear seats forward. It is a wide area, which means easy access, and the boot has a flat floor and a low sill, so getting the vet stuff or even animals inside won't be a problem. If Kate needs to get humans in, then three adults can be installed in the rear. I would recommend that Kate finds an estate with the 1.6 petrol, which will cope better with heavy loads, but there is also the1.7 diesel. The diesel should return over 50mpg, versus almost 40mpg with the petrol. They both share the same 4E insurance group. Sticking with the basic Envoy means that a 2004 example with 40,000 miles will be around £4,700 at a dealer.

A car for the heart

With its builders'-van overtones, Kate might not like the Astra, preferring instead the more middle-class values of a Golf. What she will get with a Golf estate is something that is nicely built, solid and safe, but not a thrilling drive or with the largest load bay. It is reasonable enough, though, and the rear seats can be tipped forward to allow more room for just a bit more clutter. The driving position can't really be faulted – both the seats and the steering wheel adjust easily.

As well as having loads of airbags and things to keep drivers and passengers safe, the security was pretty good on these models, making them harder to break in to. Kate needs to reassure her insurance company that she will remove her veterinary stuff at night, however. That may help reduce her premium and it is likely to be a concern for them, anyway.

If Kate is on call at night, however, she should appreciate the restful blue instrument lights and the overall classiness of the cabin. Group 4 insurance is reasonable on the 1.9SDi, which should also return around 54mpg, so the costs should be acceptable for Kate. Even better, £5,000 buys a 2003 example with just 30,000 miles.

Car choice

Please write to Car Choice, Features, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, or email James Ruppert at carchoice@independent.co.uk, giving your age, address and phone number, details of the type of vehicle in which you are interested and budget.

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