Car Choice: Tough with character

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Roger Chapman wants help to pick a new car. For the past 10 years he has driven a a 2.8 Audi Coupe, but it is getting too expensive. He dislikes autos and turbos, hates diesel and thinks the supposed benefits of front-wheel drive are a con trick propagated by manufacturers.

Roger Chapman wants help to pick a new car. For the past 10 years he has driven a a 2.8 Audi Coupe, but it is getting too expensive. He dislikes autos and turbos, hates diesel and thinks the supposed benefits of front-wheel drive are a con trick propagated by manufacturers.

He needs ABS, performance and handling are important, as is a speed of 0 to 60 in under 10 seconds. On the matter of size, current dimensions are as much as his garage can cope with, but he needs a reasonable-sized boot and room for a dog might be desirable too, so that rules out two-seaters. He would prefer a UK-built car, and Fiats are completely off the menu; his one and only new-car purchase (a Fiat X1-9) was an unmitigated disaster. Is the Subaru Impreza his only choice? As his annual mileage is limited he would prefer a two to three-year-old high-mileage car to a new one and doesn't want to exceed £15,000.

One important point that Roger makes is how difficult it is to buy a car with rear-wheel drive. He may have a point that front-wheel drive has been a bit of a con. On small cars it makes packaging sense to free up lots of room inside, but with larger and sporting cars it may well be a cost issue.

A car is more controllable at speed and as road testers will tell you, it is possible to steer with the throttle and do clever things like power slides. Fundamentally you can tell the difference between a front- and rear-drive; however, modern performance cars are better than ever at coping with lots of power through the front wheels and it has become an enjoyable characteristic of the car.

Four-wheel drive has certainly become the favoured way of getting the most amount of power transferred to the road in the safest way. Modern four-wheel-drive cars can be driven on the limit and there is less chance of falling off the road.

A car for the head

Roger is right in identifying Subaru, but maybe he has overlooked the better and more subtle model in the shape of the Subaru Legacy. This is probably one of the most underrated cars on sale. It has a characterful engine note because of the flat "boxer" arrangement of the engine. There is a 2.0-litre model, but the 2.5-litre models accelerates to 60mph under Roger's requirement of 10 seconds. Slightly more urgent is the 3.0 H6 model, which has 200bhp. Four-wheel drive is permanent and that again is part of the car's unique character and contributes to its competence in all road conditions. Recently the Legacy has been revamped, but the previous generations have been very good at proving they are tough and reliable.

However, the model from 1998 to 2003 is well-equipped and even though Roger's budget is up to £15,000, there is no need for him to spend anywhere near that. His only important decision is whether to choose a saloon or estate. Both have enough room for his dog but the less desirable saloon will be cheaper. In the classifieds we found a 2001 2.0 GL estate at £8,250 and a 1999 saloon for just over £5,000.

A car for the heart

I don't know why Roger hasn't mentioned BMW and Mercedes, two of the leading manufacturers and essentially the only ones to stick largely with rear-wheel drive for their premium-priced, upmarket model ranges. I know Roger wanted a UK-built car, but unless he buys a classic car or waits for the Rover MG 75V8 to depreciate, the choice is limited.

If he thinks BMW and Mercedes are too arrogant, there is a Japanese alternative in the Lexus. Their smallest IS200 model is a compact saloon that has the spirit of the early BMW 3-Series. It is superbly built, with a six-cylinder engine and rear-wheel drive. The 2.0-litre engine should be perfectly adequate for Roger. The front seats are very comfortable and there is plenty of room for his dog. Values for this model have been very firm for some time, but as the model is now five years old it is possible to pay a reasonable amount for a car with a full-service history. A model registered in 2000 and sold with a warranty, ideally in comprehensive SE specification, will be under £10,000.

* 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 you are interested in.

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