Just passed your test and looking for your first car? Here are the 10 best cars for first time drivers all for under £3,000.
We have a saying here at Fast Car: ‘Do as we say, but not necessarily always what we do… unless it’s something awesome, which it probably is, but tread carefully just in case’. It’s not the catchiest saying, granted, but it is quite appropriate for this particular scenario. You see, we’re about to dole out some advice on first cars – but our own collective history of first cars generally involved spending a couple of hundred quid on a rubbish old Vauxhall Nova, which then blew up after a month and left oil all over the M25. So, er, don’t do that. Learn from our stupid mistakes, and take our sage counsel now that we’re older and wiser.
You see, whether you’re sixteen and champing at the bit to get your driving licence after your next birthday, or you’re in your 20s or 30s (or more) and have only just passed your test, you’ll be looking at your first car with some keenness. You want something cool, that’s obvious – no-one needs that embarrassing yellow Fiat from The Inbetweeners. You also want something reasonably reliable, so you’re not calling your mum to come and tow you home on a weekly basis. It’ll need to be cheap to run – frugal on the fuel, easily obtainable service parts and inexpensive tax. And most importantly, you want something you can afford to insure. In some cases, a first car’s insurance can cost more than the car itself, so you really need to factor that in. So what we’ve done here is to take a rough budget of around £3,000 (a figure we arrived at by calculating the amount of cash you might have saved up from a couple of summers of shop work and a couple of winters of babysitting, minus what you’ve spent on trainers and fizzy pop) and pinpointed the top ten cars you can buy for that which will be cool, fun, and have modifying potential once you’ve built up a bit of no-claims bonus. Choose wisely – we’ve featured quite a few cars over the years which were people’s first rides that they’d modified and built up over a few years – who knows where this first car adventure will take you…? Without further ado, it’s our 10 best cars for first time drivers.
10 best cars for first time drivers
Ford Fiesta 1.25 (Mk7)
The Fiesta is a bit of a no-brainer when it comes to first cars, and that’s been true for generations, hence why its first on our list of the 10 best cars for first time drivers. They’ve been such a massive seller for so many decades that there will always be a cheap Fiesta knocking about for a first-timer, and the good news is that at our £3k budget point you can get a good one. You’ll be looking at a 1.25 from around 2015; the 81bhp motor is pretty perky and the car’s surprisingly well-equipped – you’ll more than likely find one with air-con, 16” alloys, leather steering wheel, decent factory audio, all the bells and whistles that we never had back in the olden days! The Fiesta’s really well served by the aftermarket too, so when it comes to modifying time you’ll have oodles of options – the 4×108 PCD is very common so there are lots of wheel options, a set of GAZ coilovers is about £700, and a 4-1 decat manifold can be found for around £250, which will free up a few horses and make the right noises.
Top three Ford Fiesta Mk7 modifications: Coilovers, wheels, exhaust manifold
MINI One (R56)
The MINI proved to be such a massive seller that the used market is flooded with them, so you can pick up quite a lot of car for your money, which is why it’s here on our list of the 10 best cars for first time drivers. Obviously as a first car you’re not going to be going for the sporty top-of-the-range Cooper S – and even the Cooper may prove wallet-stretching at insurance time – but the One is a perfectly decent little car, and most of the bits are interchangeable if you feel like making it faster in the future!
Three grand buys you a great example of a late-model Mk2 (R56) MINI One, which has a 95bhp 1.4-litre motor and a frankly unbelievable combined mpg figure of 61.4! (Although you’ll never see that – but you still won’t be bothering the petrol pumps too often.) The interiors are brilliantly quirky on these cars, and with the wheels right at the car’s corners they’re chuckable little runabouts too. Fit a Quaife LSD and some thicker anti-roll bars from the JCW model and have some fun on the country lanes!
Top three MINI One modifications: LSD, thicker ARBs, Cooper S engine swap
We’ve tried to keep this list to cars that look like proper cars, if you see what we mean, and steer away from things like the Citroen C1 and Hyundai i10 which (and no disrespect to owners of such things) tend to look a bit cheap and Fisher-Price. So why include the little iQ? Because this tiny car has a secret that actually makes it extremely cool…
Let’s look at the facts, first of all. The 1.0-litre model is very cheap to insure, being way down in group 3, and the road tax is free; you also get climate control, a decent stereo, auto lights, auto wipers, all the toys. So what’s the secret? Well, have you heard of the Aston Martin Cygnet? That was a rebadged Toyota iQ sold in the UK from 2011-13 – it cost three times as much as the Toyota and, while the running gear was the same, it had a proper Aston interior. So if you can find a Cygnet in a scrapyard and pillage it for its innards, you’ll have the swankiest supermini in the college car park. (Aston Martin also recently fitted a Cygnet with the V8 from a Vantage S – but that might, er, cost a bit more…)
Top three Toyota IQ modifications: Coilovers, funky vinyl wrap, Aston Martin interior
Citroën C4 1.4
The first-generation Citroën C4 was available in two shapes – a five-door which looked frumpy and grandma-ish, and a three-door which looked cool and edgy and slightly weird. When the second-gen car arrived in 2010, the three-door was gone from the range so the frump was the only option… but it’s actually a pretty charming thing to drive, and it’s nicely screwed together with a decent amount of standard-fit kit. Brilliantly, you’ll only be splashing out half your budget on a 2nd-gen C4, as £2,500 can bag you a decent example from around 2010. K&N sell an uprated panel filter for the 1.4 engine, or you could go with a universal induction kit; couple it with a custom exhaust from Powerflow and some lowering springs from Cobra or Apex and you’re all set!
Top three Citroen C4 modifications: Exhaust, air filter, lowering springs
Fiat 500 TwinAir
When the Fiat 500 was launched in 2007, there was a lot of talk of it being retro and paying homage to the 1957 original. This was obvious in its old-school styling cues, but Fiat didn’t really walk the walk until 2011 when they stuck a two-cylinder engine in it.
OK, two cylinders and a displacement of 0.9-litres may sound like a recipe for misery, but think about it: they’re relatively big cylinders (look at it as a 1.8-litre engine that’s been chopped in half), and it makes a brilliant buzzy noise which makes it hilariously fun to drive. Trust us, this is the most fun you can have at very low speed!
Helpfully, Fiat have flogged oodles of 500s for many years in all sorts of spec variants, so when it’s modifying time you can pick and choose from all the best Abarth bits and beyond. For maximum hero points, why not build yourself a 695 Biposto replica? Or track down the interior and wheels from a Tributo Ferrari, or a Maserati Edizione…
Top three Fiat 500 modifications: Abarth Brembo brakes, Maserati Edizione wheels, Tributo Ferrari interior
Honda Civic 1.4 (Mk8)
Despite being launched sixteen years ago, the 8th-generation Civic still looks incredibly fresh, with its wraparound lights and weird double-glass tailgate situation. The interior’s awesome too, with a deep-dished steering wheel and a dash that looks like something from a spaceship. The insurance isn’t too heinous on the 1.4 (it’s the same group as the Fiat 500 we were looking at, surprisingly), and while it’s not exactly quick it makes up for it by being stylish!
And after you’ve found your feet as a new driver and built up the ability to insure a few mods, you can really embrace this low-and-slow vibe – a set of BC coilovers wound right down, a great big Kenwood audio install, and a swanky interior retrim by Plush will be ticking all your boxes. (Or just go in completely the opposite direction, sell it and buy a Civic Type R, that’s another option…)
Top three Honda Civic Mk8 modifications: Coilovers, stereo, retrim
Renault Clio 1.2 (Mk3 facelift)
It couldn’t be a list of the 10 best cars for first time drivers without the brilliant Renault Clio. Clios have gone hand-in-hand with hot hatch thrills since the uber-desirable 16v and Williams variants of the Mk1, and these playful chassis are just as willing with the lesser-engined variants. In the case of the Mk3, we’re looking at a post-2009 facelifted version with a 1.2-litre motor at this budget point. It’s not going to be quick, but it will be very cheap to run and it’ll be pretty well equipped too. And hey, half of ‘quick’ is down to the driver, it’s not all about the car. If you’ve got 75bhp and you’re using every last horse, that’s the same as driving a 150bhp car in a half-hearted manner, right?!
To make the 1.2 Clio quicker, don’t bother trying to tune the engine. It’s futile with this motor, really. No, you need to strip out all of the weight (back seats, spare wheel, soundproofing, everything you don’t need), uprate the suspension, and fit decent tyres. You’ll suddenly find it’s faster than you think!
Top three Renault Clio modifications: Coilovers, quality tyres, thicker anti-roll bars
SEAT Ibiza 1.2 (Mk4)
The Mk4 Ibiza is a great option as it’s basically a cheap Mk5 VW Polo – and the entry-level 1.2 is only insurance group 5! Your £3k budget will get you into a 2014-ish 1.2 S; while the 69bhp motor isn’t going to set the world on fire, it’s definitely going to keep your mum happy, and it runs on vapours so you won’t be spending a lot on fuel. The interior may be a bit rental-spec, but the whole thing’s screwed together to proper VW standards, and the exterior is very stylish too – those mean taillight clusters make it look very angry!
Once you start modding, you’ll really be focusing on aesthetics rather than power; bear in mind that this 1.2 motor is the three-cylinder rather than the 1.2 TSI four-pot, and tuning options are limited. But the bare bones of a cool car are here – with a set of KW Coilovers, some Rotiform LAS-Rs or 3SDM 0.08s, and the factory bodykit from an Ibiza Cupra or Bocanegra, you’ll be hot to trot.
Top three SEAT Ibiza modifications: Coilovers, wheels, OEM+ bodykit
Volvo C30 1.6
The Volvo C30 isn’t really anyone’s first choice for a first car, and with good reason: at insurance group 15, you may struggle to find quotes that are as cheap as, say, a Fiesta, and the same’s true of the parts and servicing costs – the Volvo’s a premium option, so it’ll dent your wallet a bit more. But look at it this way: you’re buying peace of mind – not just for you, as a new driver, but for everyone who cares about you and is panicking about you being unleashed on the public highways among the HGVs. What could be safer than a Volvo…?
If you can make the numbers work for you, the C30 has a lot to offer, which is why it’s here on our list of the top 10 cars for first time drivers. 99bhp from the 1.6 S is a decent amount of power for a first car, and you get a really nicely appointed ride with oodles of standard kit. The styling is crisp and funky – check out the weird glass tailgate! – and if you can find one with the R-Design option, you’ll have 18” wheels, Xenons, a tasty bodykit and all kinds of sporty trim. We’d then give the interior a proper motorsport theme – a pair of Cobra buckets, some harnesses, a rollcage, extinguishers and killswitches… because if your mum wants you to stay safe, this just takes it all to its logical conclusion, surely?
Top three Volvo C30 modifications: Rollcage, bucket seats, harnesses
OK, we were a bit mean about Simon from The Inbetweeners’ yellow Fiat, weren’t we? So we thought we’d give it a fair go here because, while it’s quite a bit older than the rest of the cars in this list so we might not quite be ticking the ‘reliability’ box, it’s the one model where you’re genuinely able to get an insurable hot hatch (well, a warm hatch anyway) as a first car – the Cinquecento Sporting is in a super-low insurance group, and it’s got ‘Sporting’ written on it in red letters. Who could refuse?
The Sporting had the 1.1-litre ‘FIRE’ engine from the Punto, along with a close-ratio gearbox, front anti-roll bar and lowered suspension. To this, you can add a 40mm throttle body, some Stance+ front camber bolts, a K&N induction kit and a Sportex exhaust, and you’ll have a proper little weapon that won’t have the insurance company rubbing their hands together. It’s a million times better than being a bus w*****. And people will love how yellow it is.
Top three Fiat Cinquecento modifications: Camber bolts, bigger throttle body, noisy exhaust