Motoring: A class apart: the cream of the used-car lot

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The Independent Online
The days are longer, the weather warmer and, above all, the showrooms and forecourts of the nation are getting busier. It's that time of the year when the motor trade gets excited as used-car buyers emerge from winter hibernation. Trouble is, the used-car market has never been bigger, busier or more confusing. So here is our guide to the most affordable and sensible cars in their class - used cars that will hold their value, be utterly reliable and yet still be interesting to own and exhilarating to drive ...

SMALL HATCHBACK

Fiat Punto. Once upon a time a Fiat only made sense as a used buy because it was cheap. Unfortunately they were also unreliable. Not so the Punto which, on its 1994 launch, was acclaimed as a thoroughly modern small hatchback. Three years on these early cars are still solid and fault-free, fun to drive and, in SX form, well equipped. Prices start at just over pounds 3,000 for a high mileage 55 S, but pounds 5,000 buys a 1994 75 SX, or a 55 S 5-door. Runners up - Renault Clio, Nissan Micra.

MID-SIZE HATCHBACK

Renault 19. The 19 looks uninspiring and performance is average, but that is not the point. In the highly competitive hatchback market, owners want a reliable slogger, and the 19 is it. The car's lack of charisma has dented values - making them great bargains, especially as the revised Phase 11 models were well equipped and better built. Prices for the later Phase 11 models is pounds 3,000, pounds 4,000 for a 1993 RL and pounds 6,000 for a '94 RT. Runners up: Citroen ZX, Volkswagen Golf.

FAMILY SALOON/HATCH

Ford Mondeo. You might hate reps as they hog the motorway centre lane, but if it wasn't for them you would not have great cars like the Mondeo. It is refined, the engines are strong and the interior very comfortable. The bottom line is cheap prices because of oversupply to company fleets. Add to that the fact there is a Ford dealer on every corner and buyers can't go wrong. Prices start at pounds 4,000 for the 1.6; pounds 5,000 for a '94 l.8LX, or pounds 6,000 for a 2.0i GLX. Runners up: Nissan Primera, Citroen Xantia.

LARGE CAR

Vauxhall Omega. This is BMW and Mercedes big-car comfort and build quality at Vauxhall prices. Big cars don't come much roomier than this: the boot is huge and the seats very comfortable. For those that can afford it, the V6 versions have a useful amount of performance. Because this is a company fleet favourite there are lots around and the prices are reasonable: pounds 7,000 is the starting point for a '94 2.0 GLS, pounds 8,000 for the CD version 2.5 V6 at pounds 9,000. Runners up: Ford Granada, Rover 800.

ESTATE CAR

Volvo 850. Could there be any other estate but a Volvo? Well yes, every manufacturer has caught up, but Volvo has always understood that you need a low, flat cargo deck and huge load capacity. The 850 is all that plus personality - a Volvo first. This is no tank, but a charismatic and quick estate which is not cheap to buy used, but you can be confident it will last forever. Although costly, the quality of the cars will be very high. Prices start at pounds 10,000 for a 1993 example, pounds 12,000 for a GLT from '94. Runners up: Vauxhall Carlton, Citroen BX.

SMALL PRESTIGE

BMW 318. The 3 series has been the executive benchmark for the past decade. The 318 is fun to drive, has a comfortable interior, but cramped rear seating, and has containable running costs. Early examples suffered build quality problems, which have since been ironed out. It is now possible to haggle for the yuppies' old favourite: pounds 7,000 buys a 1991 example with a high mileage. An SE from 1993 will be pounds 10,000 and a '95 automatic pounds 15,000. Runners up: Mercedes 190, Audi 80.

LARGE PRESTIGE

Mercedes 300 Series. There are cheaper, better equipped and faster luxury cars, but none have the three-pointed star on the bonnet. What is now the E class was once the 200/300 Series - arguably the best saloon they ever built. The body styling is ageless, which it has to be because a 300 can last well into the next millennium. The arrival of the new model has helped to depreciate prices to affordable levels: 300Es start at just under pounds 8,000 for an '87 model to pounds 17,000 for a '92. Runners up: BMW 7 Series, Jaguar XJ4.0.

SPORTS CAR

Mazda MX5.This is the car that triggered the roadster revival and it's still going strong. Like British sports cars of old, it is full of character and fun ... but it won't break down. Demand always outstrips supply, so prices are very firm, making it almost a blue-chip investment: the beauty is that once you have had your fun it will be easy to re-sell. Prices don't go lower than pounds 8,000 for a seven-year-old example, up to about pounds 12,000 for a '94 model. Runners up: Volkswagen Corrado, Porsche 944.

FOUR-WHEEL DRIVE

Chrysler Cherokee. This is the four-wheel drive which has taken the UK by storm and it is easy to see why. The Cherokee is small in off-road terms and, with a 4.0 litre engine, is no slug on the tarmac. High levels of equipment and car-like performance have endeared it to thousands. Build quality and reliability so far have proved to be excellent. Used prices are therefore high. The 2.5 litre-engined Cherokee starts at pounds 10,000; 4.0 litre at pounds 12,000, Diesel pounds 14,000. Runners up: Mitsubishi Shogun, Isuzu Trooper.

PEOPLE CARRIER

Renault Espace. The original people carrier is still the best. A very stylish package which does not drive or look like a van. With all the seats occupied, luggage space is limited and Renault build quality always slightly suspect, but overall a reliable and desirable vehicle. The revised model from 1991 is the best. Because everyone wants an Espace there are some bargains among the RXE models. Arrival of the new Espace will make the old one a touch cheaper, starting at pounds 8,000 for an RN. Runners up: Mitsubishi Spacewagon, Toyota Previa.

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