Neil Constantine-Smith and family have a P-reg Astra "arctic" 1.6 as a second car, which has been very reliable. Recently, however, Neil and his wife both injured their backs, and they do not find the Astra's seats very supportive, so they are looking to trade in the Astra for a car with better seats.

They do like the seats in their Passat. But Neil also wants a car with more height so they don't have to bend so much when putting the children in and out. They want air conditioning, and their budget is £3,000.

Neil mentioned to me that he liked the idea of a Mercedes A-Class, but was worried about reliability. Well, I think he should be more worried about finding one within his budget. I really don't think he will get one he can afford; even an entry-level 1998 A140 Classic with 130,000 miles on the clock would be at least £3,200, and even then, being the poverty specification, it won't have air-con.

Certainly, Neil is on the right track to be looking for small people-carriers, which are inherently much easier to get in and out of. He might have to consider a brand that is less mainstream than the Vauxhall.

As ever, we are back to the old reader problem of bad backs and rubbish seats. As a general principle, the more expensive the car is when new, the better the support and quality of the seats. That's pretty obvious, and sometimes it is possible (with a little modification of the seat runners) to put almost any seat in any car. So, in my opinion, the best standard seats you'll find were fitted to any Saab vehicle in the past 20 years - and these can probably be bought for about £50 a set from a salvage yard. They may have lumbar supports and may even come with heating elements that you can splice into your own car's wiring loom.

A CAR FOR THE HEAD

If Neil appreciated the reliability of his Vauxhall, then why not have another one? It will be smaller than an Astra, but the available space is used very well indeed. The vehicle is called the Agila.

This is actually Vauxhall's version of the identical Suzuki Wagon R. It is small but spacious, with an airy cabin that is very versatile. The rear seats fold flat to increase load space, and they can create a double bed if you really want one. The specification of the Suzuki was always a bit more generous than the Vauxhall, but what Neil has to look out for is air conditioning, which was always a cost option.

Arguably, both the Agila and Wagon R were the best of this micro-MPV breed, because they were both larger than their rivals. They are undemanding to drive, although the driving position and the seats aresomething that only Neil and his wife can decide on. One model to avoid is the 1.0-litre, which is sluggish, so at the very least go for the 1.2 Vauxhall or 1.3 Suzuki model. As for prices, £2,900 buys a year-2000 1.2 Agila with 50,000 miles.

A CAR FOR THE HEART

I really want to recommend the Daewoo Matiz. A few years ago, What Car? magazine rated it as one of the most comfortable small cars on the market after carrying out exhaustive ergonomic tests. That's good enough for me, but the problem is that the engine is a puny 800cc. Air conditioning was only optional.

Alternatively, I'd go for the Daihatsu YRV - a car hardly anyone's heard of. It has interesting styling, considerably better than the usual shrunken bread-van look. There's plenty of space inside, with a sliding rear seat that allows you to decide on more or less leg or luggage room. The rear seats can be folded completely flat to shift stuff when required.

Under the bonnet is a Toyota-supplied 1.3-litre engine that's usually found in a Yaris - it's very lively and reliable. There is a good level of standard equipment, but the Premium Pack model is the one to go for, with its ABS brakes and air conditioning. It is probably built better than an old A-Class and it will certainly be much better value. Ideally, a 2001 example will be around Neil's budget of £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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