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Cheap first cars for fast car fans - evo fun on a budget

A wide variety of late-90s to late-00s hero hatchbacks and roadsters can now be picked up from just £500-£3000

Budget should be no obstruction to fun in the world of evo. And while we occasionally get carried away with talk of new supercars and 300-horsepower-plus mega-hatches, you can go a long way with as little as a grand in your pocket and a horsepower rating in the low three-figures.

To prove it, we’ve gone back through the archives and picked thirteen small hatches and four open-topped roadsters that promise surprising fun for surprisingly little outlay, in terms of both initial purchase price and running costs such as servicing, insurance and fuel.

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The idea here is not so much "fun first car" (as insurance could be a problem for all but the most well-heeled of new drivers) but "first evo car", while still being affordable to fuel and fix and practical enough to use on all days and in all weather conditions.

Cheap hot hatchbacks

Citroen Saxo VTS

When did you last see a completely original Saxo VTS? No, we can’t remember either, but they make absolutely fantastic fun-car purchases. It’s tiny, tinny and most have spent their lives ricocheting from teenager to teenager and tree to tree, but that’s always been the case with small French hot hatches and it’s never made them any less fun. ‘A car with incredible agility and a general lack of inertia’ and ‘sensationally pointy’ is how we put it in evo 020.

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Finding one is the difficult bit - most have been either modified or crashed (or both), but they’ve not yet been carried away by the classic bubble either, so it’s still possible to buy one for as little as £1500. The 8-valve VTR is even cheaper, and more plentiful - most will be less than £1k, making it almost as cheap as the MG and not bad at all when mechanically-similar series 2 Peugeot 106 Rallyes are trading comfortably into four figures.

Daihatsu Sirion Rally 2/4

It’s hard to think of a more left-field choice than Daihatsu’s oddly-styled Sirion, but Daihatsu has been known to surprise on occasion and the Sirion Rally (and the pre-facelift, innocuously-badged SL that preceded it) achieved up to 107bhp from only 1.3 naturally-aspirated litres.

That was only part of the story, as maximum power was developed at a peaky 7100rpm, while the five-door, surprisingly spacious Sirion weighed only 850kg. Or 900kg if you went for the option no other car here offers - all-wheel drive. Richard Meaden drove both in evo 049 and came away pleasantly surprised. ‘There’s a neutral balance and poise that allows you to maintain a surprising pace’, he said. The Rally 2 was £9995 when new in 2002, but today, as little as £1000 will get you an SL or Rally - though all are fairly rare.

Fiat Panda 100HP

The Panda 100HP was a bargain when new, clocking in at just under £10,000, and it remains so today with prices starting from around £2000. Not only that, but it’s a real bundle of fun and a proper evo hero – a car we wanted on our long-term Fast Fleet so badly we actually bought one.

Here’s where it scores: an effervescent little 1.4-litre engine developing 100 metric horsepower, fantastic looks, a snappy six-speed gearshift and susprising levels of grip. Here’s where it doesn’t: bumpy roads, as its cornering abilities come at the expense of ride quality. It can suffer synchro wear and electric power steering failure, but otherwise they’re remarkably solid little cars.

Ford SportKa

Solid is not a word we can use to describe the SportKa’s bodywork. What a shame it is that Ford designed such a fantastic-looking car and then treated it so poorly for rust prevention – like other Kas, Fiestas and Pumas of the era, you’ll struggle to find one unfeathered by iron oxide.

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But working examples start from a grand, and we suspect SportKas will one day be very collectable – so it may be worth investing in professional repairs. You’ll have a 4.5-star evo car for your troubles, with a playful chassis and steering feel better than any modern supermini can offer.

Ford Fiesta Zetec S

The late 1990s was not a golden period for hot hatchbacks, with high insurance premiums ensuring the models that did persist were often a little bit too sensible, even if performance still crept upwards. Ford’s Fiesta Zetec S was a toe in the water for slightly more interesting styling, with multi-spoke alloy wheels and the popular combo of deeper front and rear bumpers and side skirts - think modern-day XR2. But it also used a relatively low-powered, and therefore relatively insurance-friendly engine.

Even back in the day, it was considered a little slow (we've always wished it had the Puma's Yamaha-developed 1.7), but its chassis was up there with the best. In issue 020 of evo it made it through to the final six of a hot-hatch mega test - alongside such luminaries as the Peugeot 106 and 306 GTIs, the Citroen Saxo VTS, the Clio 172 and the original SEAT Leon Cupra. Today the Zetec S is cheap, simple, and still a lot of fun - and like the SportKa, its status as a sporty Ford means prices are only likely to rise from here.

MG ZR 105

MG Rover wheeled out a tried-and-tested formula in the early 2000s, just as Austin Rover had done in the 1980s: tweak some existing hatchbacks and saloon cars, slap on an MG octagon, and hope for the best. Incredibly, that formula actually worked, not least because the MG ZR, ZS and ZT were actually surprisingly well-engineered products.

The ZR was probably the least well-resolved of the trio, but also one of the most popular. Effectively a hotted-up Rover 25 the ZR looked good, drove well and cost very little - with the 1.4-litre, £9995 ZR 105 at the foot of the range. The small engine kept insurance costs as low as could be expected, but the K-series engine was keen and the handling nimble. Today even range-topping ZR 160s are affordable, but insurance is still a problem, making the 105 appealing if you’re new to the world of fun cars. Prices start from as little as £500 for tidy, MOT’d examples.

Mini Cooper

Rarely has 113bhp been put to better use than in the first of BMW’s Mini Coopers. The Cooper S offered greater performance, and subsequent Minis have been more aggressive, but no modern Mini has a chassis quite as sweet as that first Cooper, preferably on 15-inch wheels and skinny 175-section tyres. And that original hydraulic power steering rack, which even brought back a hint of classic Minis by whining like an old A-series.

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In a group test in evo 034 it saw off a Peugeot 106 GTI – while the French hatch was deemed a better driver’s car, it was ageing and a far less of a complete product than the Mini. Not that the Mini wasn’t also a lot of fun, and next to today’s bloated models they look quite pert, too. Age has wearied some cars now – watch for rust, and oil leaks – but with prices from £1000 you’ll struggle to find a better front-drive chassis for the money.

Mitsubishi Colt CZT

While the Colt CZT attained a middling three stars when reviewed in evo 079, this forgotten hatch now offers significant performance for the money. With examples floating around for less than £1500, you get 147bhp from a 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol engine and 0-62mph in eight seconds flat. That's among the quicker cars in this list.

Being turbocharged it’s also only ever a remap away from even more power, though since its chassis wasn’t a strong point originally, you might be better spending any extra cash on the undercarriage before the engine room. The facelifted Colt Ralliart (pictured) starts at nearer £4000 and looks a little odd, but it's an option if you've got a little more money to spend.

Peugeot 206 GTi

Given a lukewarm reception when new, it’s no surprise to discover that you won’t find a cheaper Peugeot bearing the GTi badge. You’d have to try quite hard to spend more than £1000 on a 206 GTi these days, and as the car enters its 20th year there’s sure to be an uptick in interest as 205, 106 and 306 GTis climb out of reach.

So what do you get for your sub-grand outlay? A 138bhp 2-litre 16v engine, for a start, good for 0-60mph in eight seconds - so it’s not slow. There’s a nimble chassis too, even if feedback isn’t quite to 106/205/306 levels, and you can trace its styling influence all the way to the current 208 GTi. Oh, and less than £3k will get the GTi 180 - which despite being outmatched by the Clio 182 back in the day, is really quite a laugh.

Renault Twingo Renaultsport 133

Like the Lupo GTI further down, the Twingo 133 is one of the more expensive choices here with prices starting just under £3000. But that’s because it’s newer than most, debuting in 2009, rather than because it wears a VW badge and the loyal following that entails. And to drive, it’s probably the best car here.

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It’s got healthy performance, with an 8.7-second 0-62mph time thanks to a 131bhp 1.6-litre four-pot up front. It’s got grippy seats and a grippier chassis – related to the old Clio 172s and 182s – with sharp steering and short gearing adding to the fun. You can of course get one of those old Clios for a little less money, but the newer Twingo may be wearing its miles better and should cost less to insure.

Suzuki Ignis Sport

That the current Suzuki Swift Sport is a great car should come as no surprise. But the Ignis Sport that it replaced was fantastic too. It gets the basics so right: a set of Recaro seats, pedals well-spaced for heel-and-toe, a crisp engine (1.5 litres, 108bhp), a snappy gearshift, and good steering feedback once the front end is loaded up.

It can also be stiff and noisy. The interior (seats aside) is pretty naff and the styling a little frumpy, despite some sizeable spotlights in the bumper and white multi-spoke alloys. But it can all be had for around £1000, which is a real bargain for something this entertaining.

Toyota Yaris T-Sport

The Yaris T-Sport was one of three cars in this list (the others being the Mini and Lupo) pitched together in a group test in issue 034. In that company it failed to shine (3 stars was the verdict) but like the similarly-starred Mitsubishi further up it’s now particularly cheap – from as little as £1500. That, combined with Toyota reliability, may cause you to overlook some of its shortcomings.

Those include a lack of grip on 185-section tyres (a wheel and tyre upgrade to something meatier would be a good start upon purchase) and little steering feel. But it looks the part, and is better suited to accommodating people than mot of the other tiddlers here.

Volkswagen Lupo GTI

You’ll pay more for a Lupo GTI than most other cars here. VWs are surprisingly fashionable in the right circles, and the Lupo’s values are a beneficiary of this. Put simply, you’d be lucky to find one for less than £3k, and since VW’s are also popular on the aftermarket you may struggle to find a standard one for that figure.

No matter – the Lupo GTI is actually a fantastic little car. It looks great for a start, with a chunky but subtle body kit and twin central-exit exhausts, sitting on six-spoke alloys. We timed one to 60mph in 8.6sec back in evo 034, and praised its neutral chassis and grown-up ride quality. If you can find a car with the six-speed gearbox, that'd be our choice, but all Lupo GTIs are a hoot.

Cheap roadsters

Mazda MX-5 Mk2

The original is still the best for some, but there are good reasons for opting for the second generation of Mazda’s MX-5. Firstly, they’re often cheaper these days, with prices starting under a grand if you’re brave and £2k-£3k getting a pretty good example. Secondly, they’re generally quicker and better equipped. And thirdly, they’re a little more usable every day, with more luggage space and a stiffer chassis that doesn’t shake or shimmy quite as much on bad roads.

Unfortunately, they’re just as (if not more) susceptible to rust as their earlier counterparts, so you’ll have to buy with your eyes wide open, and even then budget for some remedial work down the line. But as a fun and fairly benign way of dipping into the world of rear-wheel drive, they’re virtually unmatched.

Renault Wind

For such a recent car, Renault Wind prices are pretty low. Maybe it’s due to the curious styling, or perhaps unfortunate name, which conjures fewer images of breezy mornings and evocative seaside chills than it does human emissions. But it might also be because few realise the Wind’s true secret: Under the skin, it’s basically a Renault Sport Twingo 133.

Well, the top model is anyway, but when you can pick up one of those for under £3000, why bother with the 1.2 turbo? What it loses to the Twingo in performance (8.9sec to 62mph, rather than 8.4) it gains in sense of speed when the folding roof is stowed. It’s nimble, revvy fun, and well worth a look at these prices.

Smart Roadster

Mazda’s MX-5 might be the default low-budget sports car choice and Toyota’s MR2 if you want something mid-engined, but there is another way: the Smart Roadster. You can find examples for under £2k and rarely for more than £6k, which doesn’t seem bad for a neatly-styled mid-engined roadster capable of over 50mpg.

No, the automated manual gearbox isn’t great, and yes, they have a bit of a leaky reputation, so ideally you’ll want to keep it garaged. But between gearchanges they’re fairly brisk (and a little technique goes a long way), while the handling is as agile as you’d expect for a car that weighs under 800kg, even if the steering could be a little sharper. For some, the fact it’s not an MX-5 will be enough.

Toyota MR2 Mk3

Toyota’s third-generation MR2 is the elephant in the room in any conversation involving the Mazda MX-5. Because out of the box, it’s probably a little better than Mazda’s evergreen roadster, and nearly as cheap, with prices starting around the £2000 mark.

The structure is stiffer, the engine more advanced and more willing, and the handling more agile. Early models had a bit of an edgy reputation (curiously, mirroring the second-gen MR2) but modern tyres should fix that, and they’ve been known to develop engine issues signalled by high oil use, but think of it as a budget Boxster and you won’t be too wide of the mark.

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