How to shop for a first car

Covered mag, presented by
  • | by Kristian Dando

Finally getting round to binning your L-plates after passing your driving test is an experience you’re not likely to forget. But given the whopping prices of insurance for young drivers, actually passing the driving test is now only a small part of the financial battle to get a car on the road.

If you're a first-time car buyer, chances are you won't have a great deal to spend. But it’s important to invest in a car which won't present wallet-sapping mechanical clangers on a frustratingly regular basis. The humble hatchback – cheap, abundant and frugal – is the obvious choice for young drivers, for plenty of reasons.

There are loads on the market to choose from, but it can be tough telling a wreck from a bargain, particularly if you haven’t had much experience on the road.

To get yourself started, it’s probably worth having a browse of our three-part guide to buying a used car – it contains loads of universal advice on shopping around for a used car, including the options of where to buy, negotiating tips, and what to look out for when conducting a vehicle check...

Part 1Part 2Part 3

False economy?

Only the most fortunate of first-time drivers will have a great deal of cash to splash on a first car, so most will be shopping in the cheaper end of the market. It’s quite easy to pick up a car for £1,000 or less.

But while it might seem cheap on paper, it could be worth spending a bit more - older cars often cost more to fuel and tax due to their comparative inefficiency. A lot of the time, you really do get what you pay for. “The rule with buying a first car is to spend as much as you can afford, bearing in mind the huge cost of car insurance and fuel” says Stuart Milne, used car editor at Auto Trader . “A decent first car can be had for less than £1,000, but to secure a blend of safety and reliability, £2-3,000 might be a better idea.” Take a look at the essentials of cars you’re looking at, because it could save you money in the future.

A set of good tyres and an MOT and tax with a long time to run is a real bonus – new tyres, some minor work and 12 months tax could end up costing almost as much as the car. “Check with a main dealer when any particularly expensive services are due – buying a slightly higher mileage car that’s had an expensive cambelt changed could work out cheaper than buying another with a few thousand miles less on the clock,” says Stuart.

Talking ‘bout a whole lotta history

The key to buying a used car is to delve deep into your prospective buy’s past. Start with the service history, as this can help shed light on any suspicious things. Take a look for the stamps for when services have taken place. If there are receipts and invoices, then that’s even better.

Run a careful eye over the mileage. “If the mileage drops between services or MOT tests, the car could be clocked,” advises Milne. The most important thing to get is a car history check which will uncover if the car has a dodgy past. Many cars might be stolen, dangerous write offs, or have outstanding finance left to pay, so it’s essential to ensure all the data on the check report matches the car you’re buying and the information outlined in the logbook.

Also check the colour, registration number and Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN)  all match. The VIN will be stamped or riveted into the chassis under the bonnet, under the carpet beside the drivers’ seat and often at the base of the windscreen.

Check for signs of tampering – there shouldn’t be a need to have VINs replaced or altered. “Assuming you’ve done the basic checks there’s no reason why the car shouldn’t be maintenance-free for years outside of regular servicing and consumable parts like brakes and tyres,” says Milne. “There is a balance though – cheaper cars may need more regular maintenance, so it can be best to choose the simplest car you can.”

Decisions, decisions

It’s really a matter of personal preference and the state in which the individual car you're looking to buy is in. But there are plenty of models which are recurring new driver favourites, and with good reason. “The original Ford Ka is an ideal first car,” says Milne.

“It’s small enough to park easily, but offers comfort and style and is superb fun to drive.

They start at less than £500 rising to around £5,000 for the best, although with young drivers accounting for a disproportionate number of accidents on the road, safety conscious buyers should aim higher than the three star NCAP rating it was awarded.”

First-buy options which have scored highly in Euro NCAP include Fiat’s Grande Punto, the Mazda 2, the Vauxhall Corsa (2006 onwards), The Peugeot 207 and the Renault Clio. “The market is fairly consistent in what’s popular,” says Stuart. “The Ford Fiesta, Vauxhall Corsa, Renault Clio, Peugeot 206, Toyota Yaris and Volkswagen Polo are consistently popular thanks to their image. The large numbers in which they sold when new means there’s a massive choice that helps to keep it a buyer’s market.”

Essential insurance stuff

When looking for a first car, it's usually best to go for something with a modest engine - more powerful cars can cost a lot more to insure because of the higher risk on the road. As tempting as 'hot' versions of hatchbacks might seem, they're likely to cost a small fortune to keep on the road for novice drivers.

You should also steer clear of cars which have been modified from factory specification, as insurers will usually hike up the price of a policy if a car has been tinkered with. Before you part with any cash for a used car, make sure you've found out how much actually insuring it will cost - you could do a lot worse than starting your search here....

Our five favourite first cars which won’t break the bank

Volkswagen Polo Mk IV

The Volkswagen range has a well-deserved reputation for reliability. It’s a fairly desirable brand, so VWs tend to hold their value well. Produced from 2002 to 2009, the fourth generation Polo began life with some rather twee round double headlights, but underwent a facelift in 2005. Pre-facelift models can be picked up for around £3,000, but expect to pay a fair bit more for newer models with square headlights.

Toyota Yaris (First generation)

Toyota became the world’s biggest car manufacturer thanks in part to stylish, sturdy numbers like this. The first generation Yaris was manufactured from 1999 to 2005 – a reasonably decent example (2003, 50,000 miles) might set a driver back £2,000 or so.

Citroen C2

The sharp C2 debuted in 2003 and replaced the Saxo, a first-drive favourite. We’ve opted for the C2 over its predecessor because of its striking lines and better safety record – it scored 4/5 in Euro NCAP’s tests, while the Saxo only mustered 2/5. Ones with lots of miles on the clock (80,000 upwards) start at around £1,500, but consider splashing out a bit more for reliability and maintenance’s sake.

KIA Picanto

This Korean car might not pack as much cred as its European and Japanese rivals, but at these prices it’s hard to argue – relatively low-mileage examples from around 2005 with 30,000 miles or so on the clock can known to go for under £2,000.

Ford Ka

First produced in 1996, the first generation Ka was still being produced up until 2008. It enjoyed such a long innings for a reason – it was cheap to buy and run, and looked pretty funky too. As such, there’s plenty of supply – examples with lots of miles on the clock can go for under £1,000, but it might be a good idea investing a bit more for a less leggy example.