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The most comprehensive “what car should I buy” question ever

We get a lot of “what car should I buy” questions, and for one reason only it’s hard to advise… and that is they lack focus. Not this one.

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW what car to buy then you have to be at least a little bit specific. For example, the question “what’s the best 4WD” is far too broad, it depends on your budget, whether you want to tow, go offroad, carry a load and much more even before we get into personal preferences.

Similarly, “what’s the best sports car” is not possible to answer unless you can state a budget, preference for two or four doors, whether you intend to track the car, automatic or manual and so on. Generally, the more detail you can provide about your requirements the better, but don’t go into specifications.

For example, unless you have a very specific need for a certain type of fuel then don’t mention diesel, petrol or hybrid. That’s a solution and as a buyer wanting advice you need to be listing your requirements, not jumping ahead to solutions. If you’re looking for a 4WD to go touring in don’t specify a ute or a wagon, start to consider both – and describe what you want to achieve, not how.

Of course, if you do have a strong preference then that’s fine, state it, but very often what’s stated as a need is in fact just the buyer defaulting to what they think is right.

Many people asking for advice tend to have already made their mind up and are really looking for confirmation of their choice, but that’s another story.

Anyway, what we have below is perhaps the most specific set of requirements for a replacement car we’ve ever seen. Behold:

QUESTION: The car that will be replaced is a 2009 WS Mk1 Ford Fiesta Zebec 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol manual 4dr hatch

What I like

  • complete reliability for last 110,0000km
  • Inexpensive to run and maintain
  • Lovely steering, gearbox, châssis
  • Styling looks fresh 8yrs on
  • General refinement

What I dislike

  • 40 aspect ratio tyres on 17inch wheels
  • Soft alloys
  • Engine lacks sparkle and character
  • Rear drum brakes
  • Some wear evident in gearbox synchromesh
  • Clutch disc wear now evident
  • Is on its 3rd set of front rotors

What I want in a replacement car Looking for a car with decent driving ability, versatility, some X factor, but still flies under the radar

  • Budget $20k
  • Predominant use -driver only urban commuting
  • Used car
  • Not a VW group product
  • Small, light
  • Well engineered
  • Mechanically reliable and simple
  • Moderate servicing/parts/fuel costs
  • ESC, curtain airbags
  • Bluetooth
  • Cruise control
  • Manual gearbox
  • 2 or 4 doors
  • Can be fitted with roof racks
  • Rear seats will be rarely used
  • Occasional long haul for camping/interstate
  • Quiet, refined, easy to operate
  • Excellent driving position with good seat and steering wheel adjustment
  • Well calibrated (read not overly assisted -eg i20) control weights and tactility for steering, gearbox and pedals (including decent spring load in throttle so foot doesn’t have to be ‘held’ in position to maintain a steady throttle position (eg i20!)
  • Playful and expressive chassis
  • Excellent body control
  • FWD or RWD
  • Interesting or characterful engine
  • Some decent mid-range torque and sharpish throttle response suited to daily commuting preferred
  • Force fed or naturally aspirated
  • Must avoid over-wheeled/under tyred car
  • Good ride quality and bump absorption but not at expense of handling and steering

ANSWER: We discussed this lengthy list and here’s what the team reckons:

Isaac Bober says: Fiesta ST. Great seats. Great gearbox. Great throttle response and an excellent chassis. It’s only small but it’ll seat two in the back in a pinch and is only two door. I had a WQ Fiesta Zetec which wasn’t as good as the XR4 but was pretty damn good. That would be an alternative too – I would de-stripe it, though. Both should be reliable as all the bits and pieces were strong.

Alex Rae says: I’d second the Fiesta ST and XR4, or Focus ST although hip-point isn’t great. I’d also consider Clio R.S (not the auto though) and BMW 125i. Clio will need to have been well looked after. Pity no VAG products.

Robert Pepper says: The 110,000km target is easy for any modern car, and things like cruise control, Bluetooth, ESC and curtain airbags are standard everywhere so we need to get into the requirements that actually narrow down the wide field of small to medium vehicles.

Given the desire for handling and the engine we’re looking more at hot hatches, or warm ones, although it must be said that most small manual cars are entertaining drives.

The two dedicated sports cars, the MX-5 and Toyota 86 don’t really fit the bill – the MX-5 is two seats, and the 86 isn’t a great long distance cruiser even if it has good space for its size and design, but might be a bit limited for the intended use. I have camped out of mine, but I wouldn’t make a habit of it. The ride is also a bit firm.

While not a hot hatch, the Fiat 500 is a great little car around town but doesn’t meet the space or long-distance cruising needs. A car worth considering is the Suzuki Swift Sport, which is very cheap, fun to drive and meets most of the requirements with the exception of space in the back, although if the rear seats are folded down there should be enough room for two people to go camping.

However, after thinking it over I have to agree with my colleagues. The hotter Fiestas offer everything; fun driving, round-town practicality and useful space. I think a newer Fiesta will do the job, and if it’s not interesting enough as standard there’s plenty of aftermarket options like wheels, tyres, exhausts and the like.

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Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper is a freelance journalist, driver trainer and photographer interested in anything with wings, sails or wheels. He is the author of four books on offroading, and owns a modified Ford Ranger PX which he uses for offroad touring. His other car is a Toyota 86 which exists purely to drive in circles on racetracks. Visit his website: www.l2sfbc.com