Herald Sun - Motoring - - Front Page -

BACK in the bad old days of mo­tor­ing — which ac­tu­ally weren’t that long ago — buy­ing your first car was an ex­er­cise fraught with dan­ger. On a tight bud­get, you had four op­tions — un­safe cars, un­re­li­able cars, re­ally bor­ing cars or a com­bi­na­tion of all three in one pre­car­i­ous le­mon.

But it has be­come eas­ier to find a tidy, safe, cheap used car for sev­eral rea­sons.

First, used cars don’t hold their value like they once did. New cars have be­come cheaper in real terms and sales have boomed, so there are far more used cars on the mar­ket.

Cars are also much safer than they used to be. Govern­ment leg­is­la­tion and in­de­pen­dent crash test pro­grams such as NCAP, (which pub­li­cises the re­sults of its tests, much to the an­noy­ance of the in­dus­try) have forced car­mak­ers to im­prove safety. A 2005 model, no mat­ter what make it is, will be safer than a car made in 1995. At the bare min­i­mum, you want two front airbags and an­tilock (ABS) brakes.

Un­less it’s French or Ital­ian, in which case a weekly dummy spit is part of the own­er­ship ex­pe­ri­ence, most cars from the past 10 years will be rea­son­ably re­li­able, pro­vided ser­vic­ing has been done by the book.

We are talk­ing about or­di­nary, ev­ery­day cars that haven’t been thrashed.

If you’re look­ing at some dude’s slammed, chipped Subaru WRX and the price seems too good to be true, chances are it will self-de­struct be­fore you make it home. You get what you pay for.

Im­mac­u­late, low-kilo­me­tre cars owned by lit­tle old ladies do ex­ist, and they are gold. So is a com­plete ser­vice record, es­pe­cially if it’s from the dealer who sold the car new.

Let’s see if we can find a few to rec­om­mend. The bot­tom dol­lar in our search is $5000.

It’s slim-pick­ings and not much joy at this money, but the last of the Mit­subishi Mag­nas, from 2004-2005, are great value and rea­son­ably plen­ti­ful. Many will be ex-renters. That’s not nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing, be­cause ser­vic­ing will have been done to sched­ule. The 3.5-litre V6-four speed auto ES has four airbags and ABS.

An­other Mit­subishi, the Lancer, is the best small car we can find at this price.

Toy­ota Corol­las also are an ex­cel­lent choice, but they’re more ex­pen­sive.

The Lancer’s as sexy as a can of baked beans and com­pletely bul­let­proof. Pay about $7000-$8000 or so for a 2005 model. Find one with op­tional ABS and six airbags.

If you have about $10,000 to spend, you have much more choice.

In 2004, Mazda made six airbags and ABS avail­able across its en­tire range, as op­tions or stan­dard, so any Mazda 2 or Mazda 3 from 2004 on will be worth check­ing out. Mazda does blue chip qual­ity, and if you find a good one, with a ser­vice book, buy it. You’ll pick up a 2 for less than $10,000; a 3 will be $10,000-$12,000.

If you need some­thing big­ger, this sort of money will also get you into a 2004-2005 Subaru Lib­erty, an­other top car from Ja­pan’s A-league. All-wheel-drive, ex­cel­lent han­dling and Subaru’s class lead­ing NCAP scores are pluses. The 2.0-litre four won’t rip your arms off, but it will do the job. Wag­ons cost a lit­tle more.

You may pre­fer a small SUV wagon in­stead. If so, look for a 2004-2005 Subaru Forester or Toy­ota RAV4 at $12,000-$15,000.

If you need a big car for a big coun­try, the Aussie six is hard to go past. You’ll pay $10,000-$13,000 for the first of the VE Com­modores from 2006. The 3.6-litre V6 sounds like 1000 leaf blow­ers on max­i­mum thrust, how­ever it’s durable enough. Holden got se­ri­ous about safety with VE, so you get sta­bil­ity con­trol as stan­dard.

It may take a while to find the right car, but in the end it pays to be fussy. Sec­ond-hand doesn’t have to mean sec­ond best.

Rar­ing to go: Jes­sica Wil­liams, with her new Mazda 2, gets set for her driver’s li­cence. Pic­ture: DAR­REN McNAMARA

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