Which Car? 'Something small, smart, and sporty?'

Andrew Johnson works in publishing and lives in London. He wants a new small BMW, say a 3-series compact, but it spooked by the "arrogant" attitude BMW drivers have. He lives alone so does not need an enormous amount of space, but he would like a smart, reliable, small, sporting saloon for £15,000 to £20,000. He has nothing against modern turbo-diesels or LPG power. What do you recommend?

Andrew Johnson understands the modern car market all to well; it is simply a question of image. Never mind the abilities, or the styling of the car in question, it is the badge that is often the deciding factor.

It is what that badge stands for which is important. In some cases the badge is a guarantee of reliability (essentially every Japanese make), or quality (again you have Japanese, but into the mix comes a premium German brand such as Audi).

But some marques have a problem. For instance, Jaguar means sporty, but it also means old; they have not quite managed to appeal to the aspirational young professionals. Mercedes seems to have model in every sector from the pint sized Smart to the missile-shaped supercar SLR McLaren and in some respects they suffered because of this lack of focus.

Of course, success breeds envy and even arrogance, which explains why so many car buyers are turned off by the thought of buying a BMW. That is a shame because most of their products really are the ultimate driving machines, so the trick is to buy a sporting car will ability, image and that is good value. Mr Johnson's most important choice is crucial, new or used?

A car for the heart

If he was willing to consider the small BMW Compact, and a Mercedes coupé, then he ought to think about a proper performance car icon in the distinctive shape of the Porsche 911. Mr Johnson might be worried about arrogant 911 owners, but this is a car he can be truly passionate about.

Obviously, it will not be a brand-new 911, but the build quality is such that a 14-year-old example is barely run in. Not only that, depreciation is not much of an issue with a 911 provided Mr Johnson looks after it.

Within his budget, he is looking at the revised 964 model from 1989 to 1993 which had a larger 3.6-litre engine. The Carrera 4 version also had four-wheel drive and ABS brakes, and for the novice 911 drivers that is probably the safest model to start with.

A rear engine always meant uneven weight distribution, which could catch out the unwary, but the C4 can help all drivers cope. For £17,500 to £20,000, Mr Johnson should be able to buy one with a full service history. Ideally, he should go to a specialist or buy from an enthusiastic member of the Porsche Club of Great Britain.

A car for the head

The right image for Mr Johnson is probably Saab. Apparently, Saab owners are richer, more sophisticated and generally nicer than the rest of us and we do not appear to mind. Saabs have a unique image by combining safety and performance. Although the prices for the 1.8t Linear are £18,995, Mr Johnson might not think that the handsome Saab looks sporty enough, but it is a spacious saloon with reasonably brisk performance.

Then again, Mr Johnson could drive the same car as the present world rally champion. Petter Solberg drove sideways to victory in a Subaru Impreza Turbo. The one you can buy in showroom trim is an impressive enough package with turbo power, four wheel drive and a 0-60mph time of 5.7 seconds.

This is a truly practical supercar that costs just £19,995, and in image terms the Impreza is also the real deal as a consistent rally winner. What might have been just another Japanese saloon is transformed by its competition associations and just the right number of bulges and wings.

Driving one makes every journey special with a distinctive throb from the engine and tremendous road holding. It is also solidly built and has an impressive reliability record.

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