Car Advice

Top first cars for young drivers

When it comes to your first car it’s often a case of substance over style with affordability, both in purchase price and running costs key determining factors in what you’ll choose. Here are our top first cars for young drivers.

THE OPEN ROAD. It doesn’t have quite the same pull on youngsters as it did when I was growing up…there are just too many alternative forms of transport. More than that, with more youngsters living at home for longer, there’s usually access to a ‘family’ car. Beyond that, many youngsters are putting off their first car purchase while they “save to buy a house”.

But, if like me, you grew up in the country, a car means ‘freedom’. But whether you’re in the city or the country, your first car will generally be purchased on a budget and usually a tight one. So, to that end, we’ve picked a selection of new and used vehicles that offer a mix of affordability, practicality and reliability.

My first car was a Toyota Tercel (Google it) and I chose it over an-exactly-the-same-priced Fiat X1/9…I was a geek even back then, opting for reliability and practicality. See, I lived in Bathurst but played a lot of sport in Sydney and needed something that could transport me, my gear and my mates without costing the earth. As sexy as the Fiat was, it would never have done any of that…nor would it have been out of the workshop very often. The Corolla-based Tercel (part-time all-wheel drive) made more sense and didn’t let me down once in more than five years of ownership… and it wasn’t exactly a spring chicken when I bought it, already 10 years old.

NEW: Ford Fiesta Ambiente

When it comes to buying something small, the Ford Fiesta has always been a package at the top of shopping lists. Back before we had kids, my wife and I purchased one, and it was easily one of the best, most fun cars we’d ever owned; it replaced a WRX. So, forgive me if I’m a little biased.

The current Fiesta looks smart even against newer rivals although a cloud hangs over its future with rumours that the Thai factory where it’s currently produced won’t retool to build the new one. Indeed, the current Fiesta was launched in 2009 and last updated in 2013. Locally, it languishes in terms of sales, but I don’t understand why, and in Europe the Fiesta is one of the best-selling vehicles, indeed, it’s Ford third best-selling vehicle globally.

Ford Fiesta Ambiente

Okay, so why should you buy a car that is getting long in the tooth and isn’t overly popular in this country? Because you’ll likely be able to get a ripper deal with dealers falling over themselves to shift them off the lot.

The Ambiente lists from $15,825+ORC but that’s for the five-speed manual model. You’ll need to spend a little more to get an auto but Ford’s had problems with its dual-clutch transmission (called Powershift, so we’d likely stick with the manual). The engine is a 1.5-litre four-cylinder producing 82kW at 6300rpm and 140Nm of torque at 4400rpm. It’s happy to run on 91RON and drinks down a claimed combined 5.8L/100km.

Ford Fiesta Ambiente

The Fiesta gets a five-star ANCAP rating but it misses out on active safety features that are fast becoming the norm, although it does feature Ford’s programmable MyKey that allows you to set maximum speeds and volume, etc to reduce distractions.

The Fiesta Ambiente gets an older version of Ford’s SYNC communications and infotainment system with only a 3.5-inch screen. It offers voice-control of your phone for hands-free calling, with steering wheel mounted controls too.

Ford Fiesta Ambiente

But the thing that will attract those interested in ‘driving’ are the Fiesta’s dynamics. You don’t need the top-spec, sporty ST to have behind the wheel. Fiesta’s have always been fun to drive, and this current car is no exception. The steering is sharp and the excellent suspension see this thing ride and handle better than just about anything else in the class, except for the new VW Polo.

NEW: Volkswagen Polo 70TSI

The new Volkswagen Polo recently arrived in Australia with an entry price of $17,990+ORC. And it’s fair to say, that a quick glance of the feature list will reveal that almost no other car in the light class can come close to the Polo.

Some of its key features include an 8.0-inch infotainment screen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, two USB ports in the front of the cabin, cruise control, tyre pressure monitor, and autonomous emergency braking. Spend $1400 on the Driver Assist package and you’ll add things like automatic reverse braking that works up to 10km/h and radar cruise control.

2018 Volkswagen Polo 70TSI Trendline Manual.

More than that, thanks to the fact the new Polo is now on the same MQB modular platform as Golf, Passat and Tiguan, the Polo is a little longer and wider than the old car; it’s also torsionally stiffer.

Under the bonnet is a 1.0-litre turbocharged three-cylinder petrol making 70kW at 5000rpm and 175Nm of torque at 2000rpm, you can choose to mate this engine to either a five- or six-speed manual or a seven-speed DSG ($2500). Fuel consumption swings from 4.8L-5.0L/100km depending on the transmission.

2018 Volkswagen Polo 70TSI Trendline Manual.

Thanks to the longer body there’s more room inside the Polo, with the boot space growing by 70L to 351L while the rear seats can be folded down (60:40).

2018 Volkswagen Polo 70TSI Trendline Manual.

Being sat on the new platform means the new Polo is also a better handler than before, with better body control, steering response and bump absorption – or so we’re told by our European correspondent; remember, VW locally is in a strop with PM about our praise for the Hyundai i30 and so won’t lend us cars to test. Moving on.

2018 Volkswagen Polo 70TSI Trendline Manual.

So, if you’re looking for a brand-new car and have the coin to splash on the new VW Polo, even the entry-level model, then you’re likely buying the best city car you can.

NEW: Kia Picanto

The old Kia Picanto was the dominant force in the light car segment with more than 50% of the market. The new one arrived in 2017 and upped the ante. It’s available in just one trim, Picanto S and can be had with either a manual or automatic transmission, driveaway pricing for the automatic variant was just $15,690 when it was launched. If you don’t mind changing gears yourself then the manual option can be had for much less than that, and driveaway too.

2017 Kia Picanto S Review

The Picanto S runs an impressive feature list, which includes an seven-inch touchscreen, up from the old car’s small non-touch screen, and offers Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, dusk-sensing headlights, auto up and down driver’s window, but powered windows right around, reversing camera with dynamic guidelines (meaning they move to indicate the direction of travel), and in a segment first, brake-based torque vectoring to ensure turn-in (when you’ve pushed the thing too hard into a corner) is well controlled.

2017 Kia Picanto S Review

The front seats are comfortable and getting in and out is easy (the base of the dashboard has been raised by 15mm for a little extra knee room). There’s no reach adjustment on the steering wheel, only height, but the seat offers enough travel for drivers of all heights to find a comfortable driving position.

The dashboard is dominated by the ‘floating’ seven-inch touchscreen, with key controls, like this touchscreen, and the climate controls pushed a little higher up into the driver’s line of sight. This means, you don’t have to look away from the road for too long to adjust the air-con.

2017 Kia Picanto S Review

Over in the boot there’s a standard 255 litres, which is up 55 litres on the old car’s boot. That’s not a huge space, but the shape of the boot is such that you can use every single litre of room. Should you need more space, the 60:40 split fold rear seats fold forwards (but not flat) to liberate 1010 litres of space.

In terms of ride and handling, Kia Australia, tweaked the spring rates, shock absorbers, sway bars and to the speed and feel of the steering response. The fact this new car is 32% more torsionally rigid than the old car and that the wheels have been pushed further out to each corner has made for a much more planted car that really can be hustled through corners. And I don’t just mean hustled for a micro car, I mean genuinely hustled.

2017 Kia Picanto S Review

The safety package includes six airbags, reversing camera with dynamic guidelines, traction and stability controls, as well as brake-based torque vectoring, central locking, dusk-sensing headlights, and ISOFIX points (x2). Not available at launch, 2018 models are now fitted with autonomous emergency braking.

USED: Suzuki Swift Sport (2006-)

Back when I was young, everyone on a budget wanted a Suzuki Swift GTI (1986) …it was the poor man’s Golf GTI. Fast forward to 2006, and the Suzuki Swift Sport arrived. It didn’t come across with the same level of excitement or looks as that old Swift GTI but it still promised bang for your bucks…and it wasn’t cheap listing for almost $30,000 when it was launched. Ouch.

Under the bonnet is a 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol engine making 92kW at 6800rpm and 148Nm of torque at 4800rpm, this is mated to a five-speed manual gearbox with the thing drinking around 7.5L/100km.

Suzuki Swift Sport

The cabin was geared more towards longevity than luxury and there are none of the creature comforts you’ll get in newer cars, like smartphone connectivity…there was no Bluetooth either, so you’ll need an external system or else leave your phone in your bag and enjoy the drive. The Swift Sport did offer a six-stack in-dash CD player…remember CDs.

The front seats were supportive but you sit very upright in them and the back seat was roomy enough for two adults; there’s no reach adjustment on the steering wheel. The boot offers 213L of storage space and there’s no spare at all because of the packaging for the exhaust system.

Suzuki Swift Sport

I was living in Adelaide and road testing for Top Gear Australia when I got my hands on the Swift Sport and that meant it copped a thrashing along the very excellent Adelaide Hills roads used for the Classic Adelaide road rally. What the Swift Sport lacked in outright squirt it made up for in chuckability and eagerness in cut and thrust corners. It’s worth noting, that the first batch of cars delivered to Australia in 2006 lacked any form of electronic traction control. In terms of safety, the thing is basic with discs at the front and drums at the rear, no electronic traction controls, although it did get six airbags.

Pricing for 2010 Swift Sports is at less than $10k which is still quite high, but this ain’t no garden variety Swift.

USED: Volkswagen Up! (2012-)

Ah, the Volkswagen Up! Unpopular when it lobbed Down Under it was loved in Europe (and still is) where it’s small size make total sense on crowded, narrow streets.

The up! really does have a wheel at each corner. This simple but effective design goes a long way to explain why there is so much useable room inside the car as the wheels and their suspension components are largely pushed right out to the edges. This configuration also gives the up! a decent ride and pinpoint handling.

Volkswagen up!

Inside, the up! is Tardis-like. It’s incredibly roomy with width, legroom and headroom all far better than you might reasonably expect from such compact dimensions. The front seats had headrests built into them and while initially the driver’s seat will feel flat and unsupportive, it proves comfortable enough on both short and long runs.

Under the bonnet there is a 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine making 55kW at 6200rpm and 95Nm at 3000rpm. It’s mated to a five-speed manual gearbox – there was no auto option – and it drank a claimed combined 4.9L/100km

Around town the up! is just excellent. Its compact dimensions suit city streets where it can thread through traffic and be easily parked. The excellent electro-mechanical power steering adjusts assistance to speed, and the crisp short-throw gear change is quick and precise.

The ride is generally very good with a suppleness that also manages to be quite taut, it offers quick turn-in, not too much body roll and amazing grip, all the more so when you consider the standard-fit skinny tyres. On the motorway, the up! Will pull strongly, keep up with the pack and even have some power in reserve to allow you to overtake without fear.

Volkswagen up!

When it was launched, the up! offered champagne quality at a beer price. You could order it in two forms – a three and five-door. And there were two main extra equipment options, Comfort Style and Comfort Drive. The former included cruise control and a multi-function display revealing outside temperature, trip time and length, average speed and fuel consumption, current fuel consumption, speed warning, rear parking sensors, and distance to empty. Comfort Style gave you bigger 15-inch alloy wheels, front fog lights, leather trimmed steering wheel, handbrake lever and gearshift knob, leather-look seat upholstery (called leatherette…) with white stitching, heated front seats, floor mats front and rear, plus carpet trim options. Oh, and it could also be had with Maps and More which was a removable tablet that allowed you to connect your phone via Bluetooth and access navigation.

Volkswagen up!

But the main reason the up! is on this list, is because it was available with autonomous emergency braking at a time when not a single one of its competitors or even vehicles in classes above it offered. It worked at speeds up to 30km/h. Both the three and five-door variants scored a five-star ANCAP rating.

The up! was dropped from Australia after just two years but that shouldn’t put you off. The thing represents excellent value for money and the fact it’s got AEB is a huge plus. There aren’t huge amounts of up!’s for sale, and 2012 models are priced at around $9k.

Honourable Mention:

NEW: Suzuki Ignis

The Suzuki Ignis can be had from as little as $16,990 driveaway which is a good price for a brand-new car, but it’s poor safety performance means it’s more of a ‘thought’ than a recommendation.

The Ignis comes in two grades, GL and GLX, and the base GL gets a 7-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, reverse camera, cruise control, power windows and 15-inch steel wheels. Over the GL, the GLX gets 16-inch alloys, DRL front headlights, climate control, tinted windows, keyless push start ignition and sliding and reclining rear seats. Note this last point well – the GL rear seats do not slide or recline and so it is a five-seat car, the GLX rear seat however can slide and it is a four-seat car.

For such a small car, the interior feels surprisingly spacious. And it’s a well thought out layout too. What’s most appreciated is the step up in quality of materials and fitment compared to Suzuki’s other city car the Baleno. Inside the Ignis there’s no scratchy plastics and the fabric used on the seats seems like it won’t fall apart after five years.

The Ignis isn’t a particularly fearsome car but it’s 1.2-litre four-cylinder is nimble enough for urban driving. It only produces 66kW and 120Nm but it’s economical, and our real-world testing returned 5.2L/100km in mixed driving conditions – close to the claimed 4.7L/100km. Because the Ignis sits a little high it can feel top heavy when cornering and its traditional MacPherson strut suspension will bounce a little over carpark obstacles such as speed humps. The suspension is generally well behaved during driving however, and soaks up minor dips and ruts in the road well.

For a small and affordable hatch/light SUV the Ignis offers good value. The infotainment system is good, and has features such as Apple Carplay, with the bonus of a reversing camera. The interior is also above par in some respects, although still noticeably budget friendly. On the road, it’s hard to fault if you just want to get from A to B, and it’s also hard to match the styling and ‘flair’ you can achieve by customising it.


Isaac Bober

Isaac Bober

Isaac Bober was born in the shadow of Mount Panorama in Bathurst and, so, it was inevitable he’d fall into work as a motoring writer. He began his motoring career in 2000 reviewing commercial vehicles, before becoming editor of Caravan & Motorhome magazine. He then moved to MOTOR Magazine before going freelance and contributing to Overlander 4WD, 4×4 Australia, TopGear Australia, Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, The Australian, CARSguide, and many more.