Depreciation - the process by which a used car steadily loses value until it turns up in the Bargain Buys section of the Auto Trader - is a funny thing. Can an eight year old VW Vento (a Golf with a boot) really be worth only half as much as its hatchback cousin? Is an Audi 80 so much worse than a 3 Series BMW that you can buy two tidy K-plate 80s for the price of one 320i? And why does everyone hate French and Korean cars so much?
The vast majority of the banger population is, and always will be, made up of Ford and Vauxhall products. But open your mind a little, and there are plenty of better value alternatives. The used car market has taken a real hammering just lately, and all sorts of decent, serviceable motor cars are now slipping closer to the magical £1,000 barrier that is the gateway to bangerdom. Here's a few which even now can be picked up for under a grand if you look hard enough.
(Editor's note 24/2/04 - this article was written a couple of years ago, and is about due for an update. Most of the cars listed here are now available for banger money in large numbers, even Mk3 Golfs are turning up under a grand, and the Ford Mondeo (not even mentioned here) is starting to look like the new king of bangerdom. Update to follow when I get the chance)
Alfa Romeo 164 (1988-97) The first decent big Alfa for as long as anyone can remember, and the first Alfa which doesn't break out in rust holes as soon as it rains. Mechanically complex and a daunting DIY prospect, but devastatingly quick, sweet handling luxury transport for would-be Mafia hitmen. Even the base version has 148BHP. Climate control system unreliable and expensive to fix, and rust starting to nibble away at early examples. Looks best in black.
Audi 80 (1988-92) Stodgy handling and VW engines meant this was never a convincing BMW alternative, but looks much better value at banger money. Galvanised body - any visible rust means previous accident damage. Base 1.8 most common, uses legendary VW Group eight valve motor which powered a million Golfs. Cheap parts and service from VW-Audi specialists (of which there are plenty) helps make this a better used bet than a Cavalier at the same price. Tragically tiny boot. Post 1992 cars much improved, but residuals heading the same way.
Citroen ZX (1991-98) Panned by motoring journalists when new for its lack of innovation, but conventional mechanical layout really pays off at 10 years old. Rust-resistant body, tough and simple running gear, decent ride and bags of room. Worth looking at if you have an ageing Mk2 Golf to replace. Citroen petrol engines not the best - they seem to run rather too hot for their own good - but diesels excellent, especially 1.9 turbodiesel.
Citroen Xantia (1993-2000) Citroen's Mondeo competitor. Quite a popular fleet choice due to smooth ride and frisky turbodiesels, so plenty about. Again the petrol engines are best avoided, and the more upmarket variants can be plagued with electrical problems - just for once, basic spec is best. Still, perceived build quality inside and out is a million times better than its BX predecessor, and the number of Xantias in use as taxis has to be a good sign. Estate fetches nearly double the price of more common hatchback.....
Daewoo Nexia / Espero (1995-98) Apart from a Lada, probably the newest car you stand a chance of picking up for banger money. Daewoo's sales pitch was based on a 'total ownership package' (long warranty, free breakdown cover, cheap finance etc.). Take all that away and you are left with a Korean built Mk2 Astra (Nexia) or Mk3 Cavalier (Espero), which isn't exactly going to excite the punters. But the cars aren't that bad - decent equipment, reasonably well screwed together and more than adequate daily transport. They sold in large numbers to elderly private buyers, so plenty of lovingly polished low-mileage examples starting to turn up. Kia, Proton and Hyundai provide more of the same.
Jaguar XJ40 series (1986-94) Slightly awkward looking replacement for the William Lyons-styled XJ6, which failed to tackle the rust and unreliability problems of its predecessor, and added a few of its own (such as the self levelling rear suspension, which often doesn't). Readily available at banger money (three in this week's Essex Loot for under a grand) but a risky undertaking. Still, these cars have such a poor reputation now that even cherished one-owner cars with full dealer service history are cheap. Don't buy anything less. Poverty-spec 2.9s with cloth seats are pointless at any price.
Nissan Primera (1990-96) First-generation British-built Nissan is a great driver's car cunningly disguised by bland styling. Reliability is well up to Japanese standards, and your biggest risk is buying a clocked ex-minicab, so make sure the mileage tallies with the condition of the interior, and be especially wary of any car where the rear seats look more worn than the front....
Seat Toledo (1991-98) Does my bum look big in this? Strangely styled mid-size hatchback with slab-sided styling and an enormous boot sticking out at the back. VW Golf-derived powertrains, but it took a while for parent company VW to bring build quality up to German standards, and early Toledos are starting to look decidedly ratty inside and out. Possibly the world's best cheap car for the self-employed builder, and GTI 16V (150 BHP) an excellent bargain basement Golf alternative.
Subaru Legacy (1989-99) Legacy Estates are much sought after by country-dwelling Labrador owners, but the rarer saloon is pretty unloved, and now starting to turn up at bargain prices. Peculiar two-tone metallic paint and grey plastic interior don't help its sales appeal, but a Legacy is tough, reliable and good for massive mileages. Fun to drive too, with that distinctive flat-four motor and permanent four wheel drive. Four-Cam Turbo (200 BHP) has cult following and likely to give much trouble at banger prices.
VW Vento (1992-98) Booted saloon version of the overhyped, overvalued Mk3 Golf, and just as unpopular as VW's previous attempts at selling mid-size saloons in the UK. Solidly built (although electrical problems not unknown) and prices falling so fast that you might even be able to pick up a high-mileage VR6 for a grand before too long. Of all the cars here, the VW has to be the best bet for long-term ownership.
Longer term, look out for the following cars, whose residual values are starting to look pretty flaky even at this early stage:
Alfa 145/146, Audi 100 (1991-94, then lightly rehashed and rebadged as A6 to 1997), absolutely anything by Daewoo, Hyundai, Kia, Perodua (who?) and Proton, Fiat Bravo, Brava and Marea (especially the latter, which in saloon form has all the makings of a depreciation disaster area), Land Rover Discovery (dreadful reliability has to catch up with it sooner or later), and of course the Renault Safrane (residuals guaranteed to go the way of all big French cars). I can't stop you buying any of these cars with your own money, but don't say you haven't been warned.