08/07/2009 01:28 | By By CJ Hubbard

Used car guide: small family hatchbacks

Ford Focus (© Image © Ford)

This sector is unashamedly dominated by one landmark car - the Ford Focus. Unashamed because the Focus, while occasionally losing the odd monthly battle to the Vauxhall Astra, has consistently been the UK’s best-selling car for years.

Landmark because when it was introduced in 1998 the Ford completely moved the game on, offering a remarkable blend of quality, design and handling, at a very affordable price. But the Focus is far from being the only car out there. Here’s how it and the competition shape-up in the current secondhand market for a class that caters to everyone from young trendies to growing families.

Setting your budget
Learn Bangernomics

£0 – £2,000

Ford Escort (© Image © Ford)

If your budget is tight you could do a lot worse than a Ford Escort

Even at the £2,000 mark you don’t have to put up with astronomical mileage. There are plenty of mk3 Vauxhall Astras and Peugeot 306s less than a decade old and with fewer than 60,000 miles at this price. Either of these makes a good used buy; our money would probably go on a nice 306 – slightly more fragile, but with a better image and greater driving dynamics. Just make sure you look at a few examples to ensure you get a good deal.

Honda’s Civic of the same vintage is achievable, too – typically these will have covered more miles but offer the assurance of Japanese reliability. Really strapped for cash? Try a late 80s Ford Escort, cheap to repair and widely available – with MOT – for as little as £300. Just remember, these won’t be as safe or refined as more modern machinery, and you’re likely to have to budget extra for tax.

Used Ford Escorts less than £2,000

Cars to avoid

Fiats and Alfa Romeos aren’t likely to be very reliable, so steer clear. The mk3 Volkswagen Golf wasn’t exactly VW’s finest hour, either, and examples in this price bracket are best avoided. Speaking more generally, rust is the MOT’s enemy, so check bodywork carefully, looking for signs of accident damage along the way. Anything that seems suspiciously cheap often is for a reason.

How to avoid a dud

Top 3 smart buys

Honda Civic (© Image © Honda)

Honda Civic

  • We found a… 2000 Honda Civic 1.4i Sport 5dr hatch, 126,000 miles, £1,995
  • Best bits – 1.4-litre engine isn’t fast but it’s economical; fastidious Honda reliability; excellent Sport spec includes half-leather, air-con and alloys
  • Worst bits – higher than average mileage common; bland looks inside and out do the Civic few favours; unfortunate boy-racer/OAP image crisis

Used Civics under £2,000

Peugeot 306 (© Image © Peugeot)

Peugeot 306

  • We found a… 1998 Peugeot 306 2.0 16v XSi 3dr hatch, £1,495
  • Best bits – Well-equipped sporting model; good to drive and reasonably brisk; full service history and bags of style
  • Worst bits – Peugeot electrics can be problematic; trim can rattle; front suspension can wear quickly

Used 306s under £2,000

Vauxhall Astra (© Image © Vauxhall)

Vauxhall Astra

  • We found a… 1994 Vauxhall Astra 1.4LS 5dr hatch, 90,000 miles, £595
  • Best bits – cheap tax and insurance, reasonable repair costs
  • Worst bits –Vauxhalls of this age can be prone to rust; dull sales-rep image; high-mileages common

Used Astras under £2,000

£2,000 - £4,000

Nissan Almera (© Image © Nissan)

Hardy and cheap, the Nissan Almera is a sound buy at this money

It’s in this price bracket that the first reasonable examples of the Ford Focus begin to appear. Even though most will be six or seven years old, they still make an excellent used buy, with class leading dynamics, good reliability and affordable running costs. The 1.6 Zetec makes great sense as a family runabout or a first car. The Focus is sensible and safe while managing to remain pretty cool, too.

Toyota Corollas and Nissan Almeras may not stir the blood, but they offer very high levels of reliability and value for money; a 2000 registered car with less than 50,000 miles could be yours for around £3,000. Alternatively, if fuel economy is a concern try a 306 with a turbodiesel engine. As for age, £4,000 will buy a five-year-old Astra, which is among the newest motors you’ll get for your cash.

Used Nissan Almeras between £2,000 and £4,000
Used Peugeot 306s between £2,000 and £4,000

Cars to avoid

There’s a lot of choice here, so it pays to shop around. Buy as new as you can, but don’t be tempted into paying massive premiums for ultra-low mileages – city driving, for instance, is harder on the drivetrain – or base-spec models with newer registrations. Also look out for sellers pushing over-priced modified cars with non-standard alloys, bodykits and stereos. Full service history is also essential.

Top 3 Smart Buys

Toyota Corolla (© Image © Toyota)

Toyota Corolla

  • We found a… 2000 Toyota Corolla 1.4 GS 3dr hatch, 63,000 miles, £2,495
  • Best bits – reliability, reliability, reliability; good spec: alloys, air-con, remote locking; affordable
  • Worst bits – mileage can be high; dowdy image; uninspiring interior; not the most exciting drive

Used Toyota Corollas between £2,000 and £4,000

Ford Focus (© Image © Ford)

Ford Focus

  • We found a… 2000 Ford Focus 1.6 Zetec 5dr hatch, 64,000 miles, £3,995
  • Best bits – alloy wheels, alarm and immobiliser; engine blends pep and economy well; UK’s favourite small hatch for good reason
  • Worst bits – early cars have poor base spec; only driver’s airbag as standard on this model; radio/cassette not CD; slightly choppy ride

Used Ford Focus between £2,000 and £4,000

Vauxhall Astra (© Image © Vauxhall)

Vauxhall Astra

  • We found a… 2001 Vauxhall Astra 1.6i 16v SXi, 3dr hatch, 69,000 miles, £3,250
  • Best bits – air-con; alloys; full service history; Vauxhall engines are strong
  • Worst bits – not as nice to drive nor as well built as equivalent Focus; some models lack desirable metallic paint; boring looks

Used Vauxhall Astras between £2,000 and £4,000

£4,000 - £6,000

Peugeot 307 (© Image © Peugeot)

The Peugeot 307 is still fairly modern looking and has only had a minor facelift since launch

You have an enormous amount of choice in this price band since it encompasses everything from the higher spec and younger Ford Focus to premium motoring courtesy of the first generation Audi A3. The latter is tempting, but £6,000 doesn’t always stretch to the best examples, meaning the Ford remains a better buy for most people. Look for a 2.0-litre Ghia: lots of kit and competent performance.

Beyond this obvious pick, the spacious Peugeot 307 is widely available, though you may be limited to smaller engine sizes. The practical but dull Honda Civic is a sensible option as well and, unsurprisingly, it offers excellent reliability and versatility to match its bread-van proportions. Or you could try a Seat Leon; Spanish flair with Germanic engineering.

Used Audi A3s between £4,000 and £6,000
Used Peugeot 307s between £4,000 and £6,000

Cars to avoid

It’s difficult to recommend the mk4 Golf at this price. They may have an excellent image, but they’re comparatively expensive, underwhelming and suffer from inconsistent build quality. The Renault Megane is ultra-safe, with a five-star EuroNCAP rating, but was plagued by early reliability woes and is perhaps best avoided unless you can find a more recent car.

Top 3 Smart Buys

Ford Focus (© Image © Ford)

Ford Focus

  • We found a… 2001 Ford Focus 2.0 Ghia 5dr hatch, 41,000 miles, £4,995
  • Best bits – good to drive and high equipment levels, including 6CD autochanger; air-con, leather and electric everything
  • Worst bits – too everyday to be really special; some newer rivals offer higher quality and better packaging

Used Ford Focus between £4,000 and £6,000

Seat Leon (© Image © Seat)

Seat Leon

  • We found a… 2002 Seat Leon 1.6 S 5dr hatch, 24,742 miles, £5,995
  • Best bits – good equipment levels and value; decent handling; handsome exterior; solid image
  • Worst bits – interior design is functional at best and overwhelmingly dominated by dark plastics; harsh ride in some models

Used Seat Leons between £4,000 and £6,000

Honda Civic (© Image © Honda)

Honda Civic

  • We found a… 2003 Honda Civic 1.4i Inspire S 3dr hatch, 35,100 miles, £5,499
  • Best bits – dash-mounted gearlever seems odd but works well; good quality; high reliability; lots of equipment
  • Worst bits – not the best-looking vehicle ever, even in face-lifted guise as here; lacks image; not especially involving

Used Honda Civics between £4,000 and £6,000
How to take a test drive

£6,000 - £8,000

VW Beetle (© Image © VW)

The Beetle has been out for a few years now and prices are starting to slip

The Focus continues to dominate in this price bracket, and you should be able to pick up a very late first generation model in most trim levels. You may even find some second generation ones and latest model Astras creeping under the £8,000 mark – though don’t expect these to be fully-loaded or low-mileage examples. Again, the alternatives to these best sellers are numerous. Honda’s award-winning diesel engine finds its way into the Civic for this money. Better spec 307s and Leons are a good option, while if you favour something a little more trendy you could opt for the new-shape Volkswagen Beetle, or the funky Citroen C4. Need more space? Try an Octavia – the Golf-based Skoda has a big boot, great levels of standard kit and quality; yours at two or three years old for less than £8K.

Used Peugeot 307s between £6,000 and £8,000
Used Seat Leons between £6,000 and £8,000
Used VW Beetles between £6,000 and £8,000
Used Citroen C4s between £6,000 and £8,000
A-Z of buying a used car

Cars to avoid

The Alfa Romeo 147 is beautiful and is actually one of the company’s more reliable models. But unfortunately the brand’s past reputation does it few favours in terms of residual values – worth considering in this price sector – and neither does the dealer network, which is consistently amongst the worst in consumer surveys. It’s also cramped inside and poorly equipped.

Top 3 Smart Buys

Ford Focus (© Image © Ford)

Ford Focus

  • We found a… 2005 Ford Focus 1.6 LX 5dr hatch, 26,500 miles, £7,395
  • Best bits – this is the latest car offering increased safety, quality and prestige; spec includes air-con; sublime handling
  • Worst bits – watch out for unusually high mileages; full service history is essential;

Used Ford Focus between £6,000 and £8,000

Vauxhall Astra (© Image © Vauxhall)

Vauxhall Astra

  • We found a… 2004 Vauxhall Astra 1.6i 16v Life 5dr hatch, 9,898 miles, £7,990
  • Best bits – popular version of the latest model Astra; very well equipped; most cars will come through the Network Q main dealer and have undergone a quality check
  • Worst bits – not as attractive but more practical than 3dr Sport Hatch, though strangely that model has a bigger boot

Used Vauxhall Astras between £6,000 and £8,000

Skoda Octavia (© Image © Skoda)

Skoda Octavia

  • We found a… 2002 Skoda Octavia 1.9 TDi Laurin+Klement, 34,000 miles, £6,450
  • Best bits – top of the range luxury specification; economical turbodiesel; well-built; great value for money
  • Worst bits – Volkswagen engine is one of the noisier modern diesels; Skoda image is still a joke to some in spite of genuine quality

Used Skoda Octavias between £6,000 and £8,000
How to spot a clocked car


BMW 1-Series (© Image © BMW)

Not exactly roomy, but the BMW 1-Series offers an exhilarating drive thanks to its rear-wheel-drive layout

Buyers with over £8,000 to spend on a hatchback are in good territory. Admittedly, this sort of money will even get you something brand new – the current Focus, for example, starts at just over £8K if you’re willing to put up with the base 1.4-litre engine. But the best used choices offer a great deal on everything from premium quality to performance motoring. If you’ve got the cash, Audi’s A3 has unmatched quality and design kudos, while the BMW 1-Series rivals it for pedigree.

Speed merchants on a budget could try the Focus ST170 – yours for less than £10,000. The new ST offers much more power but secondhand values remain strong, starting at £17k. Lower down the price scale, the current Civic has futuristic looks and the usual Honda reliability credentials, and the latest Octavia is a strong value for money choice.

Used Honda Civics from £8,000+
Used Skoda Octavias from £8,000+
Used BMW 1-Series from £8,000+

Cars to avoid

If you’re spending this much it makes sense to pay even closer attention to residual values. While a car with strong secondhand prices will cost you more to buy in the first place, it’s also likely to be worth more when you come to sell it on. Avoid unusual and unpopular colours such as ‘lime green’ and ‘sunburst yellow’ and make sure that whatever car you get it comes with all the right standard kit and enticing optional extras.

Top 3 Smart Buys

VW Golf GTi (© Image © VW)

VW Golf GTi

  • We found a… 2005 Volkswagen Golf 2.0 GTi 5dr hatchback, 9,700 miles, £16,999
  • Best bits – Golf’s welcome return to form in brilliant hot-hatch guise; rock solid residuals; high quality; high desirability; great to drive
  • Worst bits – optional 18-inch alloys look impressive but harm the ride; fuel economy

Used VW Golf GTIs from £8,000+

Ford Focus ST (© Image © Ford)

Ford Focus ST

  • We found a… 2005 Ford Focus 2.0 ST170 5dr hatch, 18,000 miles, £9,750 (car pictured is the new ST)
  • Best bits – finely judged ride/handling balance; subtle styling; inexpensive to maintain
  • Worst bits – performance isn’t mind-blowing; age of the design starting to show compared to newer alternatives; bland Focus image

Used Ford Focus STs from £8,000+

Audi A3 (© Image © Audi)

Audi A3

  • We found a… 2004 Audi A3 2.0 FSi Sport 3dr hatch, 12,700 miles, £12,500
  • Best bits – stylish entry to Audi ownership; fully-loaded spec including in-dash CD-changer, remote windows; alloys
  • Worst bits – FSi petrol engine is strong but under-appreciated compared to turbodiesels, making this car a bargain to buy but difficult to sell on

Used Audi A3s from £8,000+
Used Car Guide homepage
Used Car Guide: superminis
Setting your budget
Learn Bangernomics
How to avoid a dud
How to take a test drive
A-Z of buying a used car
How to spot a clocked car


Latest Cars videos

Get the Bing Weather App for Windows 8 (© Microsoft)

More on msn Cars