A sporty automatic, with four doors, for £5,500? OK, that's a toughie, but James Ruppert looked far and wide

Sheraz Arif doesn't believe that the car that would match his requirements and budget (which is £5,500), actually exists. It has to be automatic, as his wife has an automatic licence only. They used to be a two-car household, with a much-loved Mitsubishi FTO for him and a Renault Clio Etoile for her. They are down to the Clio, but ideally they would like something that's quick and handles well, with four doors and a decent specification.

Sheraz may well be right that the perfect car for him hasn't actually been built yet - and the fact that his budget only runs to a used car adds to the difficulty.

However, in the past few years the variety of models and the possible specification options have become almost endless. And all that choice filters down to the used car market within a few years, so we can all take advantage, but at much lower prices.

I know Sheraz has set his sights high, because he tells me that if money were no object it would have to be a Mazda RX8 or a Mini Cooper S. Certainly, sporty cars and automatic gearboxes don't always go together.

Interestingly, though, his Mitsubishi FTO, which was available largely as an import from Japan, was fitted with an automatic gearbox as an option, although that car was never available in the UK.

In fact, many sporty Japanese cars, including the Mazda MX5, can be bought with automatic gearboxes from import specialists, so that has to be an option for him. But we would need to find a more practical four-door car from Japan.

First, though, we should look at some sensible options that come from a little bit closer to home.

A CAR FOR THE HEAD

I would be inclined to direct Sheraz towards a late 1990s Audi A4. Here is a classy, fabulously well-built car that has a good sporty image and a decent turn of speed. Not everyone likes the firm ride, but that is part of the sporty set-up and a test drive may well convince Sheraz that this is the right car.

The A4 is fairly compact, which means that it won't be too daunting to drive after the pint-sized Clio. I believe Sheraz and his wife will love the high-quality interior, which will make them feel very special. They also won't be paying the premium prices Mercedes and BMW cars often attract.

His main choice is going to be what engine to go for. Within his budget, the 1.8-litre turbo engine is the most affordable, but it is also possible to buy a 2.0-litre petrol unit and even a six-cylinder in 2.4 or 2.8 versions.

It depends whether Sheraz wants lots of power or good economy. If it's the latter, some high-mileage (about 100,000) diesel engines are also available in the marketplace. He's certain to like the climate control that's standard on SE models and the level of safety equipment.

A CAR FOR THE HEART

It has to be the Subaru Impreza Turbo. This car is not as well finished inside as an Audi, but Sheraz will appreciate the grip and poise of this barely civilised rally machine, whose four-wheel-drive system glues it to the road whatever the surface and weather conditions.

The saloon has been the most popular model, although there has been a hatchback version, called Sportwagon. It is similar in size to a VW Golf, just a tad bigger. The trouble is that no Impreza has ever been available in the UK with an automatic gearbox. In Japan, though, it was an option, so I reckon Sheraz should consider an import. I found one, a 1997 model at £5,000 from a specialist importer.

There is a much higher turnover of cars in Japan because of stringent testing requirements, and cars there tend to be looked after better. This means that Sheraz can buy a high-specification, low-mile immaculate example for less than he imagines. There are lots of import companies that may be able to get him a model that also matches his requirements as regards colour and specification.

Sheraz has owned an import before, so he knows the insurance will be higher. And he needs to find a parts supplier and a servicing garage he can trust.

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