The Ford Focus made a huge impact in the UK when it was introduced in 1998. With its evergreen looks, range of punchy engines and plenty of choice on the used car market, it’s an obvious choice for anybody on a budget.
A revised Focus was introduced in 2001 with a new grille and sleeker bumpers – this version is more desirable so you might have to shop around to find the one that’s right for you.
Avoid under-powered 1.4-litre petrol versions and opt for the 1.6-litre engine – this offers a good mix of performance and efficiency, as well as reasonable insurance costs.
As you would expect, reliability is generally good but there have been reports of suspension issues, especially on higher mileage models.
Our pick: 2000 Ford Focus 1.6 Zetec (Insurance group: 6)
Fuel economy is generally good, with most petrols capable of at least 40mpg while diesel versions should top 50mpg. Avoid entry-level models as they are very poorly equipped.
Things to look out for include the electrics, as central locking failure is common. But there are more than 5,700 used Peugeot 206s for sale on Auto Trader so shop around to find the right one for you.
Our pick: 2001 Peugeot 206 1.1 LX (Insurance group: 3)
The Mark IV Volkswagen Golf – introduced in 1997 and replaced in 2006 – is an obvious choice for anybody looking for a reliable, spacious and comfortable hatchback. They hold their value very well so you’ll be looking at a slightly older version to stick within the £1,500 budget.
The choice of engines may be a little confusing but the best bet are the 1.9-litre TDI diesel and punchy yet frugal 1.6-litre petrol versions. Cabin and trim quality is good but you might need to shop around to get the equipment levels you want – SE models come with air conditioning and front and rear electric windows.
Our pick: 2001 Volkswagen Golf 1.6 SE (Insurance group: 6)
The Ford Ka – the manufacturer’
The 1.3-litre engine offers decent power but is rough and not particularly economical. Overall the whole package feels very old compared to newer rivals but if it’s fun, affordable mobility you’re after, the Ka is an excellent choice.
Our pick: 2003 Ford Ka 1.3i Collection (Insurance group: 3)
The Volkswagen Polo is an obvious choice for anybody in the market for a reliable and good-looking supermini. Polos hold their value very well so you’ll be looking at a slightly older version to stick within the £1,500 budget.
• 1994 – 2002
This version of the Polo may not be the most fun to drive and the smaller petrol engines are underpowered. But running costs are reasonable, it’s comfortable to drive and it’s reliable. We’d choose either the eager 1.4 16v petrol or the super frugal, if slightly noisy 1.4 TDI diesel.
• 2002 – 2005
You’ll have to hunt around if you want a post-2002 Polo within this budget. But it is a safe bet, with a cushy ride, sleek if dull interior, VW build-quality and a range of petrol and diesel engines. Gearboxes are a known weakness so ensure gears engage smoothly and easily.
Our pick: 2001 Volkswagen Polo 1.4 SE (Insurance group: 6)
The Seat Ibiza has become increasingly popular in the UK, thanks to its youthful good-looks, strong engines and build-quality.
• 1999 – 2002
The pre-2002 may lack the curvy good-looks we’ve become to expect from the Spanish car maker but it is very well-built, spacious and comes with a decent choice of engines. It’s also quite rare which makes it a highly desirable first car.
• 2002 – 2006
The new model introduced in 2002 gained a stylish new look, a range of punchy engines and a sporty, if rather firm ride. Best of all, every model comes well-equipped – SE models even come with alloy wheels. Opt for the powerful yet frugal 1.2-litre petrol and you can expect to return 50mpg.
Our pick: 2002 Seat Ibiza 1.2-litre 12v SE 5dr (Insurance group: 3)
With more than 1.7 million searches on Auto Trader last month, the Vauxhall Corsa is the most searched for used supermini.
There are two main types of Corsa available in this budget – if you want a newer model you might have to opt for a higher mileage, under-powered 1-litre engine or lower trim level.
• Pre 2000
There is a wide range of engines – from an underpowered 1-litre three-cylinder up to a brisk 1.8-litre unit in the sporty SRI – and there’s plenty of choice available from as little as £200
A new better-looking Corsa was introduced in 2000. This version benefits from a good sized boot, plenty of room for four adults and a range of economical engines. There have been reports of steering rack problems so make sure you check for smooth steering, with no unusual noises, before handing over your money.
Our pick: 2001 Vauxhall Corsa 1.2 16v Club 5dr (Insurance group: 2)
There’s a reason the Ford Fiesta is one of the most popular cars in the UK: it’s well-built, good-looking and fun. Whether you’re more concerned about reliability or space and looks, there’s a Fiesta to suit your needs:
• 1995 – 2002
A 10 to 15-year-old Fiesta is one of the cheapest cars to run but it’s still fun to drive, has a generous boot and plenty of choice. They may not be the plushest of cars but there are bargains to be had, from as little as £200. Check any potential buy thoroughly – its popularity as a first car means neglect is common.
• 2002 – 2008
In 2002 the Fiesta gained a sleeker look, extra room and new frugal engines. It benefits from a strong reliability record, good handling and a comfortable ride. Most petrol engines are capable of at least 40mpg, while diesels stretch to 60mpg. You’ll have to opt for a model with a higher mileage to stick within the £1,500 budget but there are plenty of deals to be had.
Our pick: 2001 Ford Fiesta 1.25 Zetec (Insurance group: 6)
The Toyota Yaris’ pert styling, low running costs and bulletproof reliability have kept its used prices higher than some of its rivals, but it’s still possible to find a decent one for the money. It was introduced in 1999, redesigned in 2003 and replaced in 2005 – and you’ll be looking at an earlier model for this budget.
The engines run like clockwork and overall running costs are very low. The only major reliability gripes are with the transmission – gearboxes can become whiney, while clutches wear quickly if the car spends most of its time in stop-start traffic.
Our pick: 2000 Toyota Yaris 1.3 VVTi GS 5dr (Insurance group: 5)
The evergreen Renault Clio – introduced in 1998, refreshed in 2001 and replaced in 2005 – is stylish, well-equipped and cheap to run. Taller occupants will find the interior slightly cramped and the driving position is uncomfortable no matter what your size.
The revised version introduced in 2001 is the best bet, with its range of new engines, added equipment and an improved interior. There are plenty to choose from so you should be able to find your ideal car.
Make sure common electrical and suspension issues have been fixed under the manufacturer’
Our pick: 2001 Renault Clio 1.2 16v Expression (Insurance group: 3)