Paul Wells is a nurse who owns an M-registered Volvo 440. The head gasket is going after 104,000 miles, and he'd like a new hatchback. He's undecided between the Kia Picanto and the Suzuki Alto. What should he do?

Firstly I would want to know why Paul is downsizing from a small family car to a micro-sized hatchback. Is it price? The Alto comes in at £5,999 and the Picanto £5,495, but I would like to remind Paul that you should never buy any vehicle based solely on price. The Alto has reliability and interior space going for it, but the equipment is sparse and there little else to recommend it.

Instead, for £5,999 Paul might like to consider a second-hand vehicle that is similar in size to his current 440, but light years ahead in terms of just about everything. So a second-hand Ford Focus ought to be high on his shopping list. However, I fully understand the lure of a brand new vehicle, especially if Paul plans to keep it for a good few years.

Recently on this page we have highly recommended the Kia Picanto, which represents brilliant value for money and also has impressive levels of equipment. Paul should certainly consider a Kia, as the 1.0 GS is great value, although £1,000 more would buy a 1.1LX with air conditioning. This is a good time, though, to review exactly what £6,000 could buy you.

A CAR FOR THE HEAD

At £5,995 it is impossible to overlook the Daihatsu Charade, although Paul will have to put up with three doors on the 1.0 EL to stay within budget. The five-door version costs £6,795, and even with a discount won't fall below £6K.

This does not cause a problem though, because the three-door version remains a roomy car with its large, wide-opening doors and front seats that tilt and slide forwards. It is also a safe car with its ABS brakes (which stop the car skidding under braking) and EBD (Electronic Brake Distribution, which helps out under emergency braking), along with twin airbags as standard. Best of all, Daihatsu builds very robust cars so there should not be any reliability issues, and in pure economy terms the small three-cylinder engine returns 58.9mpg. As for driving, Paul will find that the gear change is light and the engine quite lively, which makes it great around town.

Inside, the Charade is very spacious and Paul will sit comfortably high with impressive amounts of head, leg and elbow room. Unfortunately the boot is not huge, but it will take the weekly shop and the rear seats also split and fold.

A CAR FOR THE HEART

If Paul wants something truly loveable then he should consider the Fiat Panda. There is, though, the minor technicality that prices start at £6,295. Despite this, there are widely available discounts that should take the price, especially via a broker, to £5,700 or less. That would buy a 1.1 Active, which even has electric front windows.

I have friends who bought this most basic model and they could not be happier. Here is a car that is great both around town and out on the open road. It drives like a grown-up car, soaking up bumps and being generally well refined. Front seat occupants are fine and for such a small car it feels very spacious. The 1.2-litre engine is probably the better option, but the 1.1 is certainly adequate. The Panda is not quick, but the 50 miles to the gallon Paul should get overall should please him.

Servicing costs are low, too, and the insurance group goes no higher than three. If Paul needs flexibility then he can order the optional sliding rear seat, which turns the adequate boot area into a more than adequate one. The Panda was crowned Car of Year for 2004 and marks Fiat's return to their core strength, building great little cars.

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.

Search for used cars

Comments