Mazda

Mazda 3 (2009-2014)

If you’re looking for a small family car that’s good to drive and reliable into the bargain, but you don’t want to follow the crowd, Mazda could have just what you’ve been looking for; its Golf-sized 3. Despite its Focus roots, the Mazda 3 has never set the charts alight as Ford’s family car has done. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as you can enjoy many of the benefits of the Focus while also having something more distinctive on your drive. And while the 3 is class-leading in few areas, as an all-rounder it’s a great small family hatch. We’d avoid the MPS though, as while it’s enjoyable to drive, there are plenty of alternatives that do a better job.

Key dates

5/09: The Mazda 3 Mk2 is introduced. There are four-door saloons or five-door hatchbacks in S, TS, TS2 or Sport trims, with 1.6-litre petrol or diesel engines, a 2.0-litre petrol or 2.2 diesel, the latter in 148 or 182bhp forms. There’s also a 256bhp 2.3-litre petrol option, in the MPS.

3/10: The 1.6D engine is upgraded and gets a six-speed manual gearbox for better efficiency.

2010: The Tamura and Takuya special editions arrive in February and June respectively.

3/12: A facelift brings a reprofiled nose, improved refinement and extra standard equipment. The steering is also improved to provide more feedback and two new trim levels are introduced: the Sport and Sport Nav, the latter featuring standard navigation.

Checklist

  • Servicing can be expensive thanks to short intervals and high costs.
  • Saloons are rare and unloved, so can be tricky to sell on.
  • The diesel particulate filter on 2.2 diesels can cause problems which require a dealer visit to change the oil.
  • Diesel-powered cars tend to get through front tyres quickly, thanks to the extra weight of the engine.
  • The Bluetooth sometimes play ups, but a software update usually fixes things.
  • The rubber boot button can crack, letting water in, leading to reliability issues.
  • While the headlamps are great on main beam, they’re poor when dipped. Upgraded bulbs don’t seem to help.
  • The front seats could be more supportive, so you might suffer back ache after a long journey.

We like

  • Distinctive looks
  • Sharp dynamics
  • Good value
  • Strong engines
  • Reliability
  • Equipment levels
  • Build quality

We don’t like

  • So-so MPS
  • Unrefined 1.6D
  • Busy dash design
  • Thirsty petrol engines

Daihatsu

Daihatsu Materia (2007-2010)

If you’re looking for a small car that really stands out from the crowd, the Daihatsu Materia could be just the job. With its distinctive design and generous equipment levels the Materia is a left-field option for anyone who wants to avoid the obvious supermini choices such as the Ford Fiesta or Vauxhall Corsa. With typically Japanese levels of reliability the Materia can be an easy car to own, although Daihatsu no longer sells new cars in the UK so there’s no longer any dealer network. Not many Materias were sold new either, so you might have to search to find the right one, but there aren’t many choices to make thanks to the Materia coming with just one engine and trim level; the only choice is between gearboxes and colours.

Key dates

4/07: The Materia is introduced with a 1.5-litre petrol engine and a choice of five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmissions. There’s just one trim level, with standard equipment including alloy wheels, electrically adjustable door mirrors, remote central locking, air-con plus electric windows front and rear.

2010: The final Materias are sold in the UK, as Daihatsu announces that it’s quitting Europe.

Checklist

  • Daihatsu sold its last car in the UK in 2010, so parts availability is patchy at best.
  • The original wipers aren’t great. The driver’s side was 500mm long and the nearside 475mm; swapping them for 550mm and 500m items is worthwhile.
  • The factory-fit headlights also aren’t highly regarded. Fitting Osram Nightbreakers or Philips X-treme Power bulbs helps fix things.
  • Brake discs corrode and then warp, so feel for juddering when braking. Aftermarket replacements aren’t costly.
  • The rear seat slides back and forth, but when moved forward the boot is still small even though there’s no longer enough leg room for back seat occupants.

We like

  • Cheap to buy
  • Well equipped
  • Looks distinctive
  • Seems to be reliable
  • Spacious interior

We don’t like

  • Dynamically flawed
  • No diesel option
  • Few to choose from
  • Patchy parts availability
  • Noisy at motorway speeds
  • Sombre cabin design
  • Small boot
  • Brand now defunct in the UK

Richard Dredge

BMW

BMW X3 (2004-2010)

Car buyers love premium brands, and they love compact SUVs too – combine the two and you’ve got a sure-fire recipe for success. That’s what BMW found when it launched its original X3 in 2004. The looks may have been a bit awkward and professional reviewers had reservations, but the X3 proved a success for BMW, with owners generally loving them – and it’s easy to see why. Offering almost as much of everything as its bigger brother the X5, but in a smaller, more usable package, the X3 provides performance with efficiency, and it’s a great car to drive too. X3s with black plastic bumpers have a downmarket feel, but facelifted models have a higher-quality interior and body-coloured bumpers. Buy one of these and you’ll feel as though you’re in a BMW rather than a budget SUV.

Key dates

3/04: The X3 debuts, with 2.5 or 3.0-litre petrol engines. 

1/05: 2.0 and 3.0-litre turbodiesel units arrive.

9/05: A 2.0-litre petrol engine appears, along with M Sport trim. 

8/06: A facelift brings a new grille plus fresh bumpers front and rear. The 2.0-litre petrol engine dies, the 2.5 and 3.0-litre petrol units get extra power and a twin-turbo 3.0 diesel also appears, the 3.0sd. 

7/08: New badging means all X3s carry an ‘xDrive’ tag, the 2.5i becoming the xDrive 25i and the 2.0d being renamed xDrive 20d for example.

Checklist

  • All X3s have a firm ride, but cars with sports suspension (M Sports) are even less forgiving.
  • The 2.0d can suffer from deposits in the fuel system; regular use of an additive can help prevent this.
  • The brushed aluminium roof rails can corrode, especially if a roof box has been clamped to them, damaging the coating.
  • The parking sensors can be temperamental, although not all cars are fitted with these.
  • Make sure the rear window washer works, as it can come apart under the cabin carpet, leading to floods and a big bill.
  • The SE got cloth trim as standard, but some option packs brought leather. Cars with leather stain less easily and are easier to sell.

We like

  • Driving experience
  • Strong image
  • Spacious cabin
  • Efficient engines
  • Build quality
  • Reliability
  • Capacious boot

We don’t like

  • Low-rent early cars
  • High purchase prices
  • Firm ride of some models

 

Richard Dredge

Audi

Audi A3 (2003-2012)

When Audi introduced the original A3 in 1996 it created the first successful premium small hatch, and the car would go on to become hugely popular. It was with the second take on the formula though, that Audi really got into its stride. Sharing the Volkswagen Golf’s floorpan, the A3 featured a more upmarket interior and the understated styling for which the German brand is famous. With a lifespan of almost a decade, the second-generation A3 came with a huge choice of engines, trims, transmissions and bodystyles, which is why there’s bound to be one for you.

Key dates

5/03: The A3 Mk2 arrives with a wide choice of petrol and diesel engines.

7/04: A 2.0 TFSi (turbo petrol) joins the range, along with the five-door Sportback. 

5/06: A 2.0 TDi 170 is introduced, with optional quattro 4WD. 

10/06: A 1.8 TFSI debuts, alongside the quick S3.

5/07:  A 1.4 TFSi petrol engine is now available.

10/07: The ultra-frugal 1.9 TDie appears. 

4/08: The A3 cabriolet arrives, as the range is facelifted.

7/09: A 109g/km 1.6 TDi reaches showrooms; six months later its emissions are cut to 99g/km. 

1/10: A 1.2 TFSi engine debuts.

Checklist

  • On manual cars, clutch judder suggests the flywheel is falling apart; it can happen after just 40,000 miles.
  • A3 radiators can prove fragile, with leaks possible after just 18 months. Look for signs of coolant at the base of the radiator.
  • Owners can get locked out of their cars if the door sensor microswitch fails. The doors lock themselves, with the keys left inside the car.
  • Steering racks of early cars are prone to failure; replacements are costly but racks to the later design tend to be more durable.
  • ECUs, electrics, electronics and associated sensors can all play up, so make sure all the warning lights go out and that everything works.

We like

  • Wide model range
  • Lots to choose from
  • Build quality
  • Strong engines
  • Strong image
  • Refinement
  • Comfy seats

We don’t like

  • Inert handling
  • Less reliable than you think
  • They’re everywhere
  • Three-door’s cramped rear seats
  • Firm ride of some models
  • High purchase costs

 

Richard Dredge

Peugeot

Peugeot 207 (2006-2012)

It’s easy to see why the 207 was one of the most popular cars in its class when new. Keen pricing and a wide choice of engines, trims and bodystyles made it very accessible. Now the 207 is available only as a used buy, nothing has changed; you’re still spoiled for choice. When Warranty Direct claimed in 2011 that the 207 was the most reliable European car, Peugeot’s transformation appeared complete, but online forums suggest not all owners think their cars are so dependable. That’s why you need to check any potential purchase carefully, but a good 207 can represent spectacular value for money.

Key dates

5/06: The 207 hatchback debuts, with three or five-door options and any combination of 1.4 or 1.6-litre petrol or diesel engines. 

1/07: A 120bhp 1.6 VTi petrol engine joins the range, along with the 207CC (Coupé-Cabriolet), the latter with 1.6 petrol (normally aspirated or turbocharged) or 1.6 diesel engines. 

6/07: A 95bhp 1.4 VTI petrol engine and a 175bhp GTi debut. 

7/07: The 207SW (five-door estate) debut, with a pseudo off-roader edition soon after, the Outdoor. 

8/09: A facelifted 207 brings a fresh nose and interior, a higher quality cabin plus standard Bluetooth.

3/10: Allure trim is added to the range.

4/10: The 1.6 HDi is tweaked to comply with Euro 5 emissions regulations. A six-speed gearbox replaces the previous five-speed unit.

Checklist

  • Peugeot recommends 10 years between cam belt renewals; six years or 60,000 miles is more advisable.
  • Pairing a phone via Bluetooth can be a pain. Disconnecting the battery for a few minutes can fix things.
  • The interior trim isn’t very durable, so check for damaged or missing parts.
  • The dashboard’s LCD can fail. The only effective cure is replacement, which is costly.
  • Anti-pollution warnings lead to the car reverting to limp-home mode. Effective fixes can be elusive.
  • Gear selection problems and difficulty getting out of fifth gear is down to the linkage being incorrectly set up. It’s an easy fix.
  • The ECU that controls the anti-lock braking module can fail, leading to warnings on the dash. Replacement is costly.
  • The 207 has been the subject of a lot of recalls, so make sure any necessary work has been done.

We like

  • Wide range
  • Lots available
  • Looks smart
  • Great diesel engines
  • Cheap to buy
  • Comfortable ride
  • Good to drive

We don’t like

  • Small boot
  • Cramped back seat
  • Uncertain reliability

 

Richard Dredge

Land Rover

Land Rover Defender (1990-2015)

When Land Rover built the final Defender at the end of 2015, it may have looked as though it had driven straight out of the 1940s, but under that boxy skin was a car that had been constantly updated over the years. It was still noisy, slow, thirsty and agricultural, but if you’re looking for a weekend toy or a tow vehicle which can traverse even the most demanding terrain, the Defender is in a class of its own, while its relative simplicity makes DIY maintenance a breeze. However, you’ve got to be committed to buy a Defender as just about any rival is more comfortable, refined and high-tech, but somehow the Land Rover’s crudity is a large part of its appeal.

Key dates

1990: The Defender arrives, little different from the 90 and 110 that it replaces. There’s a V8 petrol option or a 200 TDi 2.5-litre diesel.

1992: The V8-powered 110 becomes special order only.

1993: The diesel is now a more muscular 300 TDi 2.5-litre five-cylinder unit, which is cleaner, more refined and smoother. There’s a slicker five-speed gearbox and disc brakes at the rear.

1998: The all-new TD5 engine replaces the 300 TDi, and electronic traction control plus anti-lock brakes are now standard.

2006: There’s an all-new 2.4 TDCi engine, six-speed gearbox and a heavily revised interior. 

2012: A new 2.2-litre diesel engine offers the same power and torque as before, but with far greater refinement.

2015: The last Defender is built, but not until Land Rover has offered three run-out limited editions. These are the Autobiography Edition (80 built), Heritage Edition (400 made) and Adventure Edition (600 produced).

Checklist

  • Fuel consumption and CO2 emissions are high, so road tax is costly, especially for post-2006 cars.
  • More Defenders are stolen each year than any other car, so check you can get insurance before you buy.
  • Corrosion can be a real issue. Check the bodywork and chassis, especially the rear crossmember; replacing this can take 10 hours.
  • Knocking from the transmission as you take up drive is usually wear in the gearbox or transfer box. Effective repairs are expensive.
  • Waterlogged footwells are common, because of leaks through the windscreen seal, sunroof or the panel joint above the windscreen.
  • If buying a 200 or 300 TDi check the head gasket hasn’t blown, and that the engine doesn’t overheat.
  • Starting and running problems can be caused by a faulty fuel injection loom or ECU connector, a tired fuel pump or a blocked fuel filter.

We like

  • Iconic design
  • Appreciating asset
  • Off-road abilities

We don’t like

  • Lack of refinement
  • Low-rent interior
  • Not very comfortable
  • Poor security
  • Corrosion issues
  • Poor on-road dynamics
  • High purchase costs
  • High running costs

 

Richard Dredge

Nissan

Nissan Note (2006-2013)

With downsizing very much in vogue, it’s cars like the Nissan Note that make the trend so understandable. Combining a cleverly designed interior with discreet good looks, the Note is one of those cars that’s inconspicuous but very talented, leaving you wondering why you don’t see a lot more of them. Compact yet spacious, the Nissan Note is good to drive and surprisingly versatile, plus it looks smart too. Now the earliest cars are getting old, the Note still scores strongly for reliability. And with plenty of cherished low-mileage cars available, this ultra-practical Nissan is as appealing as ever.

Key dates

3/06: The Note arrives as a five-door hatchback only, with 1.4 or 1.6 petrol engines or a 1.5-litre turbodiesel. 

1/09: A facelift brings a fresh nose and a higher quality interior with more standard equipment.

8/10: Further revisions bring more tweaks to the exterior detailing plus extra standard equipment – significantly more, for the high-spec N-Tec. 

2/12: A final facelift means extra standard kit for the Acenta and N-Tec, plus a new range-topping N-Tec+ trim.

Checklist

  • Squeaks and creaks from the front suspension suggest fresh anti-roll bar bushes are needed.
  • Cars with 16-inch wheels and 55-profile tyres have a ride that you might find too firm.
  • The engine auxiliary drive belts can wear quickly.
  • The windscreen suffers from chips and cracks in the lower corners, which then spread throughout the screen.
  • Steering racks aren’t very durable, so feel for play.
  • Waterlogged footwells suggests the air-con system is leaking; repairs can be involved.
  • The electrics can be unreliable, so ensure they all work. Pay particular attention to the powered windows and stereo; check the CD player too.

We like

  • Versatility
  • Practicality
  • Smart looks
  • Keen prices
  • Reliability
  • Driving experience
  • Low running costs

We don’t like

  • Bland cabin design
  • Basic entry-level cars
  • Cramped for five

 

Richard Dredge

Chrysler

Chrysler Grand Voyager (2008-2015)

Chrysler invented the people carrier in 1983 when it launched the Voyager, so it knows a thing or two about making MPVs. While some rivals are better all-rounders, when it comes to all-out practicality, little can touch the cavernous Grand Voyager. Even with all seats in place there’s a 756-litre boot; fold the various chairs flat and this jumps to a huge 3,296 litres, making even the biggest estate car seem small. Buy a Grand Voyager with the neat Stow ‘n’ Go system, which adds a DVD-based entertainment system and centre seats that can swivel through 180 degrees, and you’ve got the perfect family carry-all. But running costs can be high and reliability can be poor, so buy with care.

Key dates

2/08: The fifth-generation Grand Voyager reaches UK showrooms, with 3.8 V6 petrol or 2.8 CRD diesel engines and seating for seven. 

5/09: The Special Edition celebrates 25 years of the Voyager (a year late); just 100 were made, each with leather trim, DVD player and metallic paint. 

7/10: Revisions cut CO2 emissions and fuel consumption by 10%. Anti-whiplash head restraints are now standard too. 

7/11: A facelift brings revised lights, badging and grille along with improved seating and extra standard equipment. At the same time, the petrol engine is dropped.

Checklist

  • Diesel-powered models are thirsty; petrol editions are very costly to run.
  • All cars have powered side doors and tailgate as standard; the former can sometimes open for no reason.
  • The paint gets chipped around the sat-nav screen, making the dash look tatty.
  • Base models don’t get parking sensors as standard, yet they’re essential.
  • The brakes have to work hard and can wear quickly, so check the discs and pads aren’t tired.
  • Make sure all the electrical items work, such as central locking, windows, seats, doors and lights; these can all be unreliable.
  • The quality of some interior plastics isn’t great, so look for marks in the fittings, and broken trim.
  • The paintwork gets damaged easily, with the sills and leading edge of the bonnet the most likely to chip.

We like

  • Space
  • Practicality
  • Comfort
  • Refinement
  • Equipment levels

We don’t like

  • High running costs
  • Poor build quality
  • Heavy depreciation
  • Chrysler defunct in the UK
  • Poor safety rating
  • Mediocre to drive

 

Richard Dredge

Suzuki

Suzuki Swift (2005-2010)

When the Suzuki Swift arrived in the mid-1980s, it failed to make much of an impact. But when the fifth-generation Swift was unveiled in 2005, Suzuki had really nailed it. Now, this left-field supermini is a used car bargain. Suzuki may not have got carried away with the choice of engine and trim options, but that doesn’t stop the Swift from being an enticing used buy thanks to the value, style and performance on offer. There are plenty of low-mileage cherished examples out there as the Swift is a popular private buy. With zesty handling and decent economy there’s plenty of fun to be had – at keen prices. 

Key dates

4/05: The fifth-generation Swift hatchback debuts, with 1.3 or 1.5-litre petrol engines and three- or five-door bodystyles. There’s an automatic gearbox option, but only with the 1.5-litre engine. 

1/06: A turbodiesel (badged 1.3 DDiS) appears, with a Fiat-sourced 1.3-litre engine; it comes in five-door guise only. 

9/06: A new flagship model joins the range; the 125bhp 1.6-litre Swift Sport, which comes solely in three-door form. 

1/10: The GL and GLX trims are replaced by SZ2, SZ3 and SZ4.

Checklist

  • Go up and down through the gearbox several times, as a notchy gearchange is common.
  • There’s no reach adjustment for the steering wheel, so the ideal driving position can be hard to find.
  • The Sport’s suspension is very firm; if you’re considering one of these, give it an extended test drive.
  • Dampers can be weak, so sharply push the car down at each corner and see if it quickly settles. If it doesn’t, the shock absorbers need replacing, in pairs.
  • All sorts of squeaks, creaks and rattles can emanate from the cabin. Many come from behind the dash, which means they need major surgery to fix.
  • Watch for uneven tyre wear, as the wheel alignment is usually thrown out if the car has been jacked up by its suspension at the rear.
  • Listen out for a noisy gearbox on high-mileage cars, as the bearings can fail. Once this happens, an expensive gearbox rebuild is the only solution.

We like

  • Sharp looks
  • Keen prices
  • Economical engines
  • Reliability
  • Sharp handling

We don’t like

  • Low-rent cabin
  • Limited engine/trim line-up
  • Unrefined
  • Firm ride
  • Small boot

Richard Dredge

Mini

MINI hatch (2006-2012)

BMW struck gold with its first MINI (the German owners chose to capitalise the name, Ed.), so it was no surprise when the second take retained the qualities and looks of the original. Looking just as chic and offering the same opportunities for personalisation, the second MINI was a smash hit just like the first. However, despite its popularity and resultant ubiquity, you need to ensure the MINI is right for you as some rivals offer better value and practicality. There are so many combinations of engine, trim and options that it can be hard to pin down exactly what a MINI is worth, so don’t pay over the odds. As a premium small car you’ll pay for the privilege of buying a MINI but a good reliability record, sharp dynamics plus great styling inside and out mean there are plenty of reasons to opt for this baby BMW. 

Key dates

11/06: The MINI Mk2 is launched in 120bhp Cooper and 175bhp Cooper S forms, with 1.6-litre engines. 

3/07: A 1.6-litre Cooper D diesel and entry-level 1.4-litre 95bhp MINI One join the range. 

8/07: Stop/start becomes standard.

3/09: The 211bhp John Cooper is introduced.

7/09: The 1.4-litre MINI First becomes the new entry point and the One gets a 1.6-litre engine. 

9/10: A facelift brings new diesel engines and revised petrol units, even more personalisation options and mildly revised styling. 

9/12: The 218bhp John Cooper Works GP appears.

Checklist

  • The windscreen glass is unusually thin and gets damaged easily; check for chips and cracks.
  • The Getrag six-speed manual gearbox can be weak; play in the change signifies trouble ahead.
  • Diesel MINIs can suffer from failure of the dual-mass flywheel, requiring costly replacement. Listen for rattling.
  • If you’re looking at a MINI with an upgraded sound system, check the speakers work properly; sometimes they don’t.
  • Weak starter motors can be a problem, so make sure what’s fitted will spin the engine over happily.
  • The paintwork isn’t that tough, so look for chips, scratches and evidence of bird lime problems, especially on the roof.
  • Electrical problems arise when the battery earthing strap fails; the electrics can be lost altogether.

We like

  • Chic looks
  • Strong image
  • Sharp handling

We don’t like

  • Cramped cabin
  • Tiny boot
  • Hard ride
  • High purchase prices

Skoda

Skoda Fabia (2007-2014)

The original Skoda Fabia represented a turning point for Skoda as it was the first supermini from the VW subsidiary that couldn’t just take on desirable rivals – it could beat them at their own game. But while the Fabia Mk2 is both practical and comfortable, it’s never offered much to those who enjoy their driving. Used values can also be surprisingly high so make sure you’re not paying over the odds for a car that’s no class leader. The Fabia’s excellent reputation means some sellers are asking inflated prices for a car that’s still a great used buy, but not as far ahead of competitors as some think it is.

Key dates

5/07: The Fabia Mk2 debuts with 1.2, 1.4 or 1.6-litre petrol engines, along with 1.4 or 1.9-litre turbodiesels.

1/08: The high-spec Sport arrives, alongside a five-door estate. 

4/08: The ultra-economical 1.4 TDI Greenline arrives.

7/08: The Fabia Scout pseudo off-roader appears. 

3/10: A facelifted Fabia arrives with more efficient engines, a revised nose plus S, SE and Elegance trim levels in place of the previous 1, 2 and 3 trims. 

5/11: The high-spec SE Plus brings climate control, privacy glass, powered rear windows plus a multi-function steering wheel.

Checklist

  • Panel alignment isn’t always perfect, so if things don’t line up properly, don’t assume the car has been crashed.
  • Squeaks and rattles can crop up, particularly from things like the dashboard rubbing against the windscreen surround and the pedals needing lubricating.
  • Some engines come with a choice of low or high power outputs, so establish exactly what you’re getting.
  • From 2009 there was no spare wheel fitted as standard, although it is possible to buy and fit one.
  • The interior trim can be fragile as some of the plastics are cheap. Watch for trim coming apart and the electric window switches popping out of their sockets.
  • Oil consumption can be an issue, especially on some of the more stressed (small capacity, high output) engines – up to as much as 1000 miles per litre.
  • Many Fabia owners are disappointed with the standard headlights; swapping to Osram Nightbreaker or Phillips Xtreme bulbs is the preferred solution.

We like

  • Reliability
  • Spacious cabin
  • Decent boot
  • Strong engines

We don’t like

  • High used values
  • So-so dynamics
  • Uninspiring cabin

Richard Dredge

Skoda

Skoda Superb (2008-2014)

The original Skoda Superb pushed Skoda further upmarket than it had ever been before, and while it was a great car, buyers didn’t really latch onto its brilliance. So when the second take on the formula was launched in 2008, Skoda had to come up with something really special to be noticed – and that’s exactly what it did. This time round there was a novel tailgate arrangement, more space and equipment than before plus a great range of engines. You can now buy one of these brilliant cars for peanuts, making it one of the biggest – in every sense – bargains around. 

Key dates

9/08: The Skoda Superb Mk2 arrives with 1.4 TSI, 1.8 TSI or 3.6 V6 petrol engines, or 1.9 TDI (Greenline) and 2.0 TDI diesels, the latter in 140bhp or 170bhp guises. The 1.8 TSI, 2.0 TDI 170 and 3.6 V6 engines are offered with 4WD. 

2/10: A Superb estate appears, with the same engine options, and the 2.0 TDI 140 engine gets common rail fuel injection to make it smoother, more refined and more frugal than the previous PD unit. Later in the year the Greenline gets a 1.6 TDI engine.

5/11: The high-value SE Plus trim joins the range.

6/13: A facelifted Superb brings an overhauled interior, reduced emissions and a refreshed exterior.

2/14: The Superb Outdoor 2.0 TDi brings off-road styling and optional four-wheel drive.

Checklist

  • The badges can corrode and look tatty after just a year. Dealers have replaced many under warranty.
  • The leather trim can wear on the driver’s seat bolster. Again, dealers have fixed this under warranty.
  • If buying a Superb that’s been used for towing, check its suspension, clutch and brakes aren’t worn out.
  • Cars with the DSG transmission can suffer from jerky changes between first and second; software ‘fixes’ can make things worse.
  • Superbs with the ‘KESSY’ keyless entry system can suffer from the car refusing to acknowledge the proximity of the key, so it won’t start.
  • ABS sensors can fail, leading to the ESP, ABS and tyre pressure warning lights coming on. Fixes are cheap though.
  • All Superbs have alloy wheels which can corrode under the lacquer. Dealers have replaced many wheels under warranty.

We like

  • Reliability
  • Practicality
  • Comfort 
  • Low running costs
  • Spacious cabin
  • Affordability
  • Good engines
  • Refinement

We don’t like

  • Low-rent image
  • So-so dynamics
  • Awkward styling

 

Richard Dredge

 

Porsche

Porsche Boxster (2005-2012)

Ever since the original Boxster appeared in 1996, rivals have struggled to keep up; Porsche’s entry-level model has always provided sublime handling, strong performance and excellent build quality, with a cast-iron image. This is a car that’s so good, it’s easy to wonder what the point of a 911 is – or any number of costly supercars. Fabulous to drive, fast, sharply styled and superbly built, the Boxster is one of those rare cars that’s so good, you wonder how it can be improved. So while the Boxster can cost a chunk of cash to buy and run, it’s still a bargain.

Key dates

1/05: The second-generation Boxster, codenamed 987 (the original was the 986) debuts in 240bhp 2.7 (Boxster) and 280bhp 3.2-litre (Boxster S) forms. 

7/06: The 2.7-litre engine is boosted to 245bhp, while the Boxster S gets a 295bhp 3.4-litre unit. 

1/09: A facelift brings improved steering, more standard kit and the option of Porsche’s brilliant PDK dual-clutch gearbox. There’s also a 2.9-litre engine for the Boxster while the S is boosted to 310bhp.

2/10: The Boxster Spyder is introduced. With more power (now 320bhp) and less weight (just 1275kg) the Spyder is the most involving Boxster of all to drive.

Checklist

  • Transmissions are strong, but hard-driven cars may be suffering from a tired rear axle, so listen for whining.
  • On very early 3.2-litre cars, a weak intermediate shaft (IMS) can lead to premature gearbox failure.
  • Water pumps can fail in less than 40,000 miles, so check for coolant leaks and inspect the fluid levels.
  • The roof mechanism can suffer from failed ball joints. Poor repairs can damage the roof, so check no water has leaked into the cabin.
  • Stick with 17-inch wheels for general road use; larger wheels spoil the ride. Whatever is fitted, kerbing is common so check for damage.
  • Pre-facelift cars (built before the end of 2008) can suffer from stonechipped paint all too readily.
  • The standard seats are excellent, but the optional sports seats take comfort to a whole new level.

We like

  • Build quality
  • Refinement
  • Performance
  • Handling
  • Usability
  • Value
  • Reliability

We don’t like

  • Running costs can be high

 

Richard Dredge

Ford

Ford S-MAX (2006-2014)

When the Ford S-MAX arrived in 2006 it cut a dash like no other car in its segment. Seen by some as the world’s first seven-seater sportscar, thanks to its handling prowess, the S-MAX was capable enough to secure the 2007 European Car of the Year award. For many, having a family means an end to enjoying driving, but thanks to Ford, you don’t have to make such compromises. The S-MAX also makes a brilliant tow car when fitted with one of the larger engines; even when you’re not towing, some of the smaller units can feel a bit weedy. As an all-round family car however, the S-MAX is up there with the best of them, proving that the best things don’t always come in small packages.

Key dates

6/06: The S-MAX reaches UK showrooms in 2.0 and 2.5T petrol forms, alongside 1.8 and 2.0 diesels. 

5/07: ESP becomes standard range-wide 

8/07: A 2.3-litre petrol engine joins the range. 

3/08: A 175bhp 2.2 TDCi (in high-spec Titanium form only) debuts, alongside a 1.8-litre flex-fuel Econetic version that can run on E85 petrol; it’s badged FFV (FlexiFuel Vehicle). 

3/10: A facelifted S-MAX arrives, with a redesigned nose, new safety technologies, an upgraded interior plus new 2.0-litre petrol and diesel engines, along with a new dual-clutch transmission badged Powershift.

Checklist

  • There’s no spare wheel and no provision for one; instead you have to use a tyre sealant.
  • If the car has front parking sensors, make sure they work; they sometimes don’t.
  • Some versions have hydraulic power steering, some electric. Both systems can be unreliable.
  • The S-MAX is a heavy front-wheel drive car. As a result, the front tyres tend to wear quickly.
  • The 1.8 and 2.2 diesel engines can be hesitant and suffer from poor economy if the ECU software hasn’t been updated since it left the factory.
  • Electrics and electronics can play up, so make sure everything works. Focus on the climate control, rear window demisters, active lighting systems and stereos.
  • Blocked ventilation drains can lead to the interior flooding, potentially the wiring loom. Fixing this properly is then very costly.

We like

  • Value
  • Choice
  • Dynamics
  • Practicality
  • Smart design
  • Spacious cabin

We don’t like

  • Unreliable early cars
  • Small boot seven-up

Peugeot

Peugeot 308 (2007-2013)

When it was launched in 2007, the 308 Mk1 was praised for its comfort, refinement, frugal engines and much-improved interior quality over the outgoing 307. Few small family hatchbacks offered the same sort of value as the 308, and as a used buy you get even more for your money. The 308 is safe too, with a five-star Euro NCAP crash test rating. Rear seat space isn’t great though and the 308 isn’t polished dynamically, but with decent fuel economy available from the diesel engines and very low purchase prices, the 308 can be just the job for a budget-conscious family.

Key dates

9/07: The 308 replaces Peugeot’s 307 in five-door hatch form in September; a three-door option arrives three months later. There are 95bhp 1.4 and 120 or 150bhp 1.6-litre petrol engines; diesels are 90/110bhp 1.6 or 136bhp 2.0 HDi units. 

6/08: The seven-seater 308SW arrives, along with the fleet-focused 308 SR which comes with standard navigation and bluetooth. 

4/09: The 308CC coupé-cabrio appears.

5/11: A facelifted 308 brings a revised nose and tail design, extra standard equipment and reduced CO2 emissions, including a 98g/km e-HDi model which arrives a few months later.

Checklist

  • From January 2010 ESP became standard on all 308s, apart from entry-level Urban editions.
  • If you don’t do many miles, cars with a diesel particulate filter are likely to give costly problems.
  • The electrics can be erratic, with the engine cutting out and the column stalks packing in. Starting can also be a problem, so check everything works.
  • The instrumentation can be troublesome, with trip computers and service indicators failing. The odometer can also over-read; the cure is a software update.
  • The interior trim is sometimes weak, with squeaks and rattles common. Seats can also split, while carpets have been known to come adrift.
  • Look for evidence of water leaking in through the windscreen seals, which can prove ineffective. Also check for cracks in the windscreen.

We like

  • Strong diesel engines
  • Low purchase prices
  • Lots to choose from
  • Wide range of engines and trims
  • Five-star Euro NCAP rating
  • Excellent refinement

We don’t like

  • Patchy reliability
  • Cramped rear seats
  • Stodgy handling
  • Unsettled ride
  • Poor rear visibility
  • Offset driving position

 

Richard Dredge

Honda

Honda Jazz (2008-2015)

There’s nothing quite like the Honda Jazz in the supermini segment, with its brilliantly packaged interior, class-leading reliability and efficient petrol engines. Strong demand means you’ll have to dig deep to buy one, but you’ll be rewarded with low running costs and an ability to carry things that simply shouldn’t fit into such a small car. Hardly the last word in driving enjoyment, the Jazz tends to be overlooked by anyone below 60 but whether you’re a student, transporting a family or you’re looking for something to carry bikes and camping gear for a life of outdoor pursuits, the Jazz is worth a closer look.

Key dates

11/08: The second-generation Honda Jazz arrives with 1.2 or 1.4-litre petrol models with a manual gearbox only.

1/09: The 1.4 engine is now offered with an unlovedi-shift semi-automatic transmission. 

2/11: A facelift brings fresh bumpers, tweaked suspension, a continuously variable transmission in place of the previous i-shift gearbox, and upgraded cabin trim. Also a hybrid edition is introduced with its own trim options (HE, HS, HX), similar to those of the regular Jazz.

Checklist

  • No Honda Jazz comes with free road tax – even the hybrid is rated at more than 100g/km
  • Rear suspension creaks in cold weather are likely to be down to the bushes needing a smear of silicone grease.
  • Rattles from the rear of the interior are normally down to the back seat’s retaining bar having worn.
  • Engines can sound surprisingly tappety, especially when cold. Once warmed up things get quieter, but don’t expect complete silence.
  • There are various tyre issues; they can perish, wear quickly, and some cars have unusual tyres sizes fitted, which pushes up the cost of replacing them.
  • Clicking sounds from the brakes when cold is down to the pads moving in the callipers. Once warmed up the noise usually disappears.
  • There’s no spare wheel as standard, but you can order one as a spare part.

We like

  •  Reliability
  • Spacious cabin
  • Brilliant packaging
  • Efficient engines

We don’t like

  • So-so dynamics
  • High purchase prices
  • No diesels
  • Unsettled ride
  • i-shift gearbox
  • Below-par refinement

 

Richard Dredge

Fiat

Fiat Bravo (2007-2014)

NewCarNet says:

If good looks alone were enough to guarantee strong sales, Fiat would have been on to a winner with its Bravo. But sadly they’re not, which is why this sharp-looking small hatch never captured buyers’ imaginations. With its low profile and a lack of development the Bravo was never going to compete with big sellers such as the Ford Focus or Vauxhall Astra, but the Fiat’s lack of visbility can now make it a good buy thanks to low prices and few takers.

Key dates

6/07: The Fiat Bravo goes on sale in the UK. There are 1.4 petrol or 1.9 Multijet diesel engines. The trim levels (in order) are Bravo, Active, Active Sport, Dynamic and Sport.

9/07: There’s now a 1.4 T-Jet petrol engine available with either 120bhp or 150bhp.

3/08: A 1.6 MultiJet diesel engine joins the range in 105bhp and 120bhp forms.

12/08: A 165bhp 2.0 Multijet engine replaces the previous 1.9-litre unit.

Checklist

  • The 2.0 MultiJet engine comes with a diesel particulate filter; make sure it’s not clogged up from constant short journeys.
  • The cabin doesn’t feel that well screwed together, so look for broken or missing bits of trim, which might be tricky to replace.
  • Rear and rear three-quarter visibility is poor, so look for evidence of touched in scrapes on the bumpers and rear wings.
  • The Bravo does well in the safety stakes; it scored five stars in Euro NCAP crash tests and ESP was standard across the range from the outset.
  • Knocking from the front suspension when driving over speed bumps is usually down to worn anti-roll bar drop links, which are a weakness.
  • Some early cars came with a ‘tyre mobility kit’ instead of a spare wheel; from August 2007 a space saver was fitted. Officially. But some later cars got a mobility kit instead.

We like

  • Sharp looks
  • Strong value
  • Refinement
  • Diesel engines

We don’t like

  • Iffy build quality
  • Uncertain reliability
  • Stodgy dynamics
  • Lumpy ride

Richard Dredge

Chevrolet

Chevrolet Trax (2013-2015)

The Chevrolet Trax had barely gone on sale in the UK before its maker announced that it was shutting up shop in Europe. As a result this micro-SUV never really stood a chance, but it didn’t come close to threatening the class leaders anyway, so it was never much of a loss. That’s not to say the Trax is a poor car though. It always offered strong value and a decent level of practicality, along with a four-wheel drive option – it’s just a shame the car was so bland with it. Now Chevrolet has ceased trading in the UK you’re on your own in terms of getting problems fixed, but thankfully reliability seems to be OK, even if it’s short of the class best.

Key dates

8/13: The Trax goes on sale. There are 1.4 or 1.6-litre petrol engines, the former in normally aspirated or turbocharged (1.4T) forms. There’s also a 1.7 VCDi diesel. The 1.6 petrol engine has front-wheel drive only, all other engines are offered with front- or four-wheel drive.

12/13: Chevrolet announces that it’ll stop selling cars in the UK on 31 December 2015. The Trax remains on sale until this point, but unsurprisingly, sales are slow once the car is launched, with dealers already gearing up to close down.

Checklist

  • There’s no spare wheel; just one of those dreaded ‘mobility kits’. Your best bet is to buy a Vauxhall Mokka space saver wheel and keep it in the boot.
  • Vauxhall dealers should be able to maintain your Trax for you, but parts availability could be an issue, although service items shouldn’t be a problem.
  • The MyLink touch-screen multi-media is intuitive but it can be slow to operate and sometimes it crashes for no obvious reason.

We like

  • Good value
  • Looks smart
  • Spacious cabin
  • Efficient diesel engine

We don’t like

  • Defunct brand in the UK
  • Poor refinement
  • Cabin feels cheap

Richard Dredge

Lexus

Lexus IS (2005-2013)

Designed to take on compact executives from Audi, BMW and Mercedes, the IS is well-equipped, comfortable and reliable, but refinement and economy can be disappointing, while there are few engines to choose between. In Japan the IS was sold as a Toyota, and in some ways it’s more deserving of that badge than the Lexus one, as this doesn’t feel like the premium car that it’s supposed to be. The dynamics aren’t as polished as some rivals’, but as an ownership experience any Lexus is hard to beat, as the dealer network offers unrivalled levels of service. So while driving an IS probably won’t raise your pulse, neither should owning one.

Key dates

11/05: The IS Mk2 arrives in 2.5-litre petrol (IS250) saloon form.

1/06: The first ever diesel-engined Lexus appears; the IS220d.

4/08: The 417bhp 5.0-litre V8 IS-F debuts.

11/08: A facelift (but not for the IS-F) brings a revised nose, an overhauled dash and a new trim structure (now SE, SE-I, SE-L).

7/09: The IS250C coupé-cabriolet hits showrooms, in 2.5-litre petrol form only. 

12/09: There’s a new HDD navigation system and an F-Sport trim.

8/10: The IS200d replaces the IS220d.

Checklist

  • The diesel engine can take an age to warm up; bad news if your journeys are usually short.
  • IS220ds built before the November 2008 facelift can suffer from turbo lag and a lack of power below 2000rpm.
  • Water pumps fail after 60,000 miles or so on the IS250. Listen for rumbling from the engine bay.
  • Alloy wheels are prone to bubbling and blistering of the lacquer, as well as corrosion, especially if not cleaned regularly.
  • The interior trim isn’t always as well screwed together as you’d hope; listen for rattles from the door trim panels and dashboard.
  • The rear brake callipers can seize up and it’s not always possible to free them off. Fitting replacements is a costly job.
  • The power steering can be unreliable, so make sure there’s a consistent feel as you turn the wheel; check for leaks too

We like

  • Reliability
  • Value
  • Equipment levels
  • Excellent dealers
  • Lots of safety kit

We don’t like

  • Inert dynamics
  • No estates
  • Noisy diesel
  • Manual gearchange
  • Small boot
  • Cramped rear seats

Richard Dredge

Audi

Audi TT (2006-2015)

One of the most distinctive cars on the road, the Audi TT has been hugely sought after ever since the first edition arrived in 1999. It’s easy to see why; superbly built, great to drive, surprisingly practical and with some superb engines, the TT is one of the easiest sportscars to own. While most of its rivals are incredibly compromised, with the Audi TT you don’t have to make too many sacrifices. In coupé form the hatchback configuration provides a surprising amount of carrying capacity while many cars come with four-wheel drive, so the fun can continue, whatever the weather.

 Key dates

4/06: The TT Mk2 arrives in 2.0 TFSi and 3.2 V6 coupé forms.

1/07: A roadster appears, with the same engines and no rear seats.

1/08: The TTS coupé and roadster debuts with a 268bhp 2.0 TFSi engine.

2/08: The 168bhp 2.0 TDi coupé and roadster appear.

4/09: The front-wheel drive 1.8 TFSi represents the new entry point.

9/09: The 335bhp 2.5-litre TT RS goes on sale.

4/12: The 355bhp TT RS Plus appears.

8/10: Revisions bring reduced CO2 emissions, a tweaked exterior design and more options.

 Checklist

  • Initially, the TT got leather/Alcantara trim as standard. Later, entry-level cars got cloth-trimmed seats.
  • The 2.0 TDi, TTS and TT RS have quattro four-wheel drive. Some 2.0 TFSi editions and all 1.8 TFSi models are front-wheel drive only.
  • Steering racks rattle and clutch pedals vibrate; some cars were fixed under warranty.
  • Cars on 19-inch wheels have a hard ride; 18-inch rims give the best balance of ride and looks.
  • The window regulator mechanism can break, especially on early cars. Sometimes it just creaks; other times it breaks.
  • Front seat bases can sag, especially on cars with leather trim. Some seats were replaced under warranty.

  • Some TTs have factory-fit parking sensors, some have aftermarket and some have none at all. Factory-fit items are the ones to go for.

  • The headlamp units can mist up – especially xenon units after the car has been washed.

We like

  • Sharp looks
  • Build quality
  • Efficient engine. 
  • Hatchback usability
  • Stylish cabin
  • 4WD security.

We don’t like

  • High purchase costs
  • Coupe’s useless rear seats

Richard Dredge

 

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