Sales of new cars have been booming in recent years thanks to low interest rates, low-cost PCP payments, and the ever-constant pressure via advertising and social media to have the newest and shiniest car in the street.
Yet there is a different approach that neatly sidesteps depreciation, which is always going to be the single greatest cost in running any new car; while the figures vary from marque to marque, few mainstream cars are going to be worth much more than half of the price you paid for them after three years. For some, this is a price worth paying for the image they confer, the reliability they promise, and the satisfaction of experiencing that new-car smell every time you open the door.
Others take a different view, opting to spend their money on great holidays, fine dining, their family and their hobbies instead. For these people, image takes a second place to cash in the bank and, if you choose the right car, reliability doesn’t have to be an issue, either.
But you’ll need to choose carefully, which means buying what I like to think of as a cockroach car; while such a vehicle might not emulate its namesake in shrugging off a nuclear holocaust, some cars can survive multiple owners, moderate neglect, and the passage of time with impressive aplomb.
While most modern cars are stuffed full of electronics, sealed and unrepairable sub-components, and built-in obsolescence, you don’t have to go too far back in time to find something that’s reliable and easily fixed in the unlikely event that it goes wrong.
Here are my suggestions for cars that won’t break the bank or leave you stranded at the side of the road.
The luxury option
The first-generation Lexus LS400 from 1990-94, alongside its slightly newer sibling from between 1994 and 2000, are all but indestructible. Both variants are powered by a silky smooth 4-litre, V8 petrol engine mated to an automatic gearbox, a combination that gives effortless performance, massive reliability and an average fuel consumption figure of up to 30mpg on a run.
Only 30mpg? I hear you ask. Yes - but in the long-term, fuel consumption should be the least of your worries; the depreciation on a new car will dwarf even the most profligate of vehicles and if you’re still unconvinced, there are plenty of older LS400s out there running LPG, or liquid petroleum gas, which could almost halve your running costs.
There are also plenty of examples out there that have had only a couple of careful owners, largely because the people who own them are loathe to sell them once they discover just how comfortable, reliable and nice to drive they are. But, if you can prise one away from its owner you’ll be amazed at how modern they still feel, even after the passage of 20 years or more.
They’re laden with gadgets and gizmos too and, being a Toyota (Lexus is the premium brand in the Toyota line-up), all the bells and whistles will still work, too. While older Mercedes and BMWs might be a safe-ish bet, a carefully looked after Lexus is as reliable and solid as a bank vault door.
Of course, you’re looking for a car with a comprehensive service history, an unblemished MOT history (check online here), and a nice owner. Yes, that’s right; you only buy nice cars from nice people, so if you don‘t like the cut of their jib please walk away without so much as a backwards glance.
Other than that, it’s the usual old car stuff except you’ll probably get bored running through your usual checklist as it’ll be nothing but ticks. Don’t worry about the mileage too much either because I’d happily buy a carefully preserved car with 150,000 (or more) miles on the clock if everything else checks out OK.
Prices start at around £1,500 for the oldest cars and rise to almost £10,000 for the very best. Five-thousand pounds should get you something very respectable and you’ll get most of that back when the time comes to sell if as long as you’ve looked after it.
Not that you’re likely to want to sell it, obviously.
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The sensible solution
If you need an estate car then the Subaru Forester is the one to have. They’re as tough as the Lexus but with the added capacity of an estate body. They’ve got a brilliantly effective four-wheel-drive system too, which makes them almost unstoppable in mud, snow and ice.
The pick-of-the-bunch were built between 2002 and 2007, and you can choose between a 2-litre normally aspirated petrol engine and a 2-litre turbocharged version. Both are available with a manual or an automatic gearbox but the latter makes the car thirstier and slower than it needs to be. The automatic ‘box also sucks all the joy out of driving it too, so you’re better off sticking with a manual.
The turbo is very, very fast but very, very thirsty, but then the non-turbocharged car is slow and almost as thirsty so you might as well indulge yourself. How thirsty? Well, the standard car will eke a gallon over about 30 miles if you’re very careful while the turbo will do 20-25mpg depending on how enthusiastically it is being driven. Again, like the Lexus, try not to worry about the fuel consumption though; because repairs are infrequent and depreciation is almost non-existent, your overall running costs will still be reasonable.
Drawbacks, aside from the fuel consumption, are a lacklustre cabin and an indifferent dealer network. However, there are dozens of specialist garages across the land that will happily service and repair it for you at a fraction of the cost of using a Subaru main dealer.
They do tend to rust, so you’ll want to check carefully for corrosion (the online MOT history check is useful for this, too) but everything else is bulletproof. Again, prices start at £1,500 for something that needs a little TLC all the way up to £5,000 or more for something that wouldn’t look out of place on your country estate.
Country estate? Yes, because the Forester is utterly classless finding favour with farmers, countryside dwellers and the landed gentry with equal fervour.
Being canny with your cash needn’t automatically label you as a skinflint…
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For high days and holidays
The little Mazda MX-5, built between 1989 and 1997 - is THE car to buy if you want something special for the weekends. Sure, they’re the most rust-prone of our selection but there are still plenty of pampered ones out there that aren’t and a good one is a joy forever.
The early cars had a diminutive 1.6-litre engine, while the later ones had a small power and capacity hike to 1.8-litres. All are fairly slow but have the most amazing handling; if you grew up with front-wheel-drive hot-hatchbacks then the purity and joy of a rear-wheel-drive chassis will stun and delight you. Add in 30mpg, the nicest steering in the business, and the easiest and neatest folding roof ever fitted to a budget convertible and you’ll start to understand the Mazda’s appeal.
You can buy one with an automatic gearbox but you shouldn’t; the manual cars have the sweetest gear-change this side of £100,000 and thrive on revs. Besides, if you’re going to buy a sportscar, then you might as well get one that you have to actually drive, hadn’t you?
Problems, aside from rust, are almost non-existent. They’re mechanically robust and everything is easy to fix, either on a DIY-basis or by using one of the plethora of MX-5 independent garages and specialists.
They have almost nothing in the way of gadgets and extras either, so there’s nothing to go wrong. Inveterate fiddlers will find plenty to spend their money on if modifying is your thing but everyone else will be delighted with the car in factory specification.
Prices are rising slowly (which is why I tout them as a classic car investment), so you might even make a small profit on one if you’re careful. As ever, the market prefers unmodified, original cars so it is worth paying the extra for an unmolested, low-mileage example.
You’re probably going to have to find £4-5,000 for a very nice one, but you can pick up a scruffy but reliable early car for under £1,500. Japanese imports are usually cheaper than genuine UK cars, but again I’d pay the small premium if you want to maximise its investment potential.