Man-Shun Poon is 18, and has moved to London from Canada to study law. He has driven in Canada for three years and has completed his UK driver training. He wants to carry on running vintage Jaguars and is considering classics pre-1973, avoiding road tax. He expects to drive 800 miles a year in central London and to the countryside at weekends. His budget is £1,800 a year on insurance, £1,000 on maintenance and £8,000 to buy.

This is a fascinating question, not least because Man-Shun is horrified by the insurance situation. Under normal circumstances the sort of cars he is aiming for would be covered under a cherished, or classic car scheme, which permits low mileage and comprehensive cover. Man-Shun is 18, and simply won't be eligible. Although older cars are rarely used and often well looked after – resulting in premiums that can be little more than £100 a year – Man-Shun's age is a barrier and he will struggle to get cover at all, even for £1,800. Then there is his decision to buy a classic car. Old cars rot, they need looking after and they thrive on exercise, so just 800 miles a year may not be enough. Man-Shun mentioned a Morgan, which is a lovely car, but its wooden frame needs looking after and that means garaged – not easy or cheap in central London. So my proposal is that Man-Shun avoids classic cars. Saving road tax because a car is pre-1973 is irrelevant here, he needs a small, insurable city car that is reliable and cheap to run. And there is no need to spend as much as £8,000.

A car for the head

The Ford Ka is brilliant. The ride is superb and the handling agile and responsive. It's fun to drive. This should appeal to Man-Shun, who wanted something interesting. But it is also slow. The 1.3 engine is old technology, which can be traced back to '70s Fords, but it has been reworked to behave in a smooth, refined manner. That slowness though is good for insurance, it is in group 2 and is cheap to run. The Ka is interesting to look at, too. Described as "New Edge" by designer types in 1996, it still looks fresh and distinctive. This is the spiritual replacement for the Mini and, while not quite as lovable, it is practical and largely reliable. As a Ford it is cheap to fix, which Man-Shun will come to appreciate. There are lots of Kas to choose from and he could pay from £500 to several thousand for the latest examples produced last year. I say spend £3,000, get a half decent one, but not so new that it is a worry when parked in the City.

A car for the heart

Man-Shun was not bothered about practicality, just needing a distinctive set of wheels to use at the weekends. It would help if it was eye-catching and a Smart would fit the bill. For some it is much more than a means of transport, as the cute Smart taps into the emotional side of car ownership, as a surf to owner websites soon proves. Swap stories, pet names and body panels with like-minded Smarties. The Smart, though, isn't just a social club with a groovy mascot, it delivers as a small car. And as a used small car it is very affordable. From the Pure model upwards the Smart delivers as a city-centre assault vehicle with that 600cc turboed Mercedes engine returning around 60mpg. It is safe too, with clever devices such as electronic traction and electronic stability controls. Full-size driver and passenger airbags, ABS brakes, "Tridion" safety cell-reinforced steel frame and integrated side impact struts are also reassuring. A Passion model with air conditioning, automatic Softouch transmission and alloy wheels is always going to get the most attention, but Man-Shun should not overlook the back-to-basics Pure and the almost sporty Pulse.

Please write to Car Choice, Features, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, or email James Ruppert at carchoice@independent.co.uk, giving your age, address and phone number, details of the type of vehicle in which you are interested, and your budget.

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