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Cheap first cars for fast car fans – evo fun on a budget

Budget should be no obstruction to fun in the world of evo. And while we occasionally get carried away with talk of new supercars and 300-horsepower-plus mega-hatches, you can go a long way with as little as a grand in your pocket and a horsepower rating in the low three-figures.

To prove it, we’ve gone back through the archives and picked thirteen small hatches and four open-topped roadsters that promise surprising fun for surprisingly little outlay, in terms of both initial purchase price and running costs such as servicing, insurance and fuel.

The idea here is not so much “fun first car” (as insurance could be a problem for all but the most well-heeled of new drivers) but “first evo car”, while still being affordable to fuel and fix and practical enough to use on all days and in all weather conditions.
Cheap hot hatchbacks Citroen Saxo VTS

When did you last see a completely original Saxo VTS? No, we can’t remember either, but they make absolutely fantastic fun-car purchases. It’s tiny, tinny and most have spent their lives ricocheting from teenager to teenager and tree to tree, but that’s always been the case with small French hot hatches and it’s never made them any less fun. ‘A car with incredible agility and a general lack of inertia’ and ‘sensationally pointy’ is how we put it in evo 020.

Finding one is the difficult bit – most have been either modified or crashed (or both), but they’ve not yet been carried away by the classic bubble either, so it’s still possible to buy one for as little as £1500. The 8-valve VTR is even cheaper, and more plentiful – most will be less than £1k, making it almost as cheap as the MG and not bad at all when mechanically-similar series 2 Peugeot 106 Rallyes are trading comfortably into four figures.
It’s hard to think of a more left-field choice than Daihatsu’s oddly-styled Sirion, but Daihatsu has been known to surprise on occasion and the Sirion Rally (and the pre-facelift, innocuously-badged SL that preceded it) achieved up to 107bhp from only 1.3 naturally-aspirated litres.

That was only part of the story, as maximum power was developed at a peaky 7100rpm, while the five-door, surprisingly spacious Sirion weighed only 850kg. Or 900kg if you went for the option no other car here offers – all-wheel drive. Richard Meaden drove both in evo 049 and came away pleasantly surprised. ‘There’s a neutral balance and poise that allows you to maintain a surprising pace’, he said. The Rally 2 was £9995 when new in 2002, but today, as little as £1000 will get you an SL or Rally – though all are fairly rare.
Fiat Panda 100HP

The Panda 100HP was a bargain when new, clocking in at just under £10,000, and it remains so today with prices starting from around £2000. Not only that, but it’s a real bundle of fun and a proper evo hero – a car we wanted on our long-term Fast Fleet so badly we actually bought one.

Here’s where it scores: an effervescent little 1.4-litre engine developing 100 metric horsepower, fantastic looks, a snappy six-speed gearshift and susprising levels of grip. Here’s where it doesn’t: bumpy roads, as its cornering abilities come at the expense of ride quality. It can suffer synchro wear and electric power steering failure, but otherwise they’re remarkably solid little cars.

Solid is not a word we can use to describe the SportKa’s bodywork. What a shame it is that Ford designed such a fantastic-looking car and then treated it so poorly for rust prevention – like other Kas, Fiestas and Pumas of the era, you’ll struggle to find one unfeathered by iron oxide.

But working examples start from a grand, and we suspect SportKas will one day be very collectable – so it may be worth investing in professional repairs. You’ll have a 4.5-star evo car for your troubles, with a playful chassis and steering feel better than any modern supermini can offer.
Ford Fiesta Zetec S

The late 1990s was not a golden period for hot hatchbacks, with high insurance premiums ensuring the models that did persist were often a little bit too sensible, even if performance still crept upwards. Ford’s Fiesta Zetec S was a toe in the water for slightly more interesting styling, with multi-spoke alloy wheels and the popular combo of deeper front and rear bumpers and side skirts – think modern-day XR2. But it also used a relatively low-powered, and therefore relatively insurance-friendly engine.

Even back in the day, it was considered a little slow (we’ve always wished it had the Puma’s Yamaha-developed 1.7), but its chassis was up there with the best. In issue 020 of evo it made it through to the final six of a hot-hatch mega test – alongside such luminaries as the Peugeot 106 and 306 GTIs, the Citroen Saxo VTS, the Clio 172 and the original SEAT Leon Cupra. Today the Zetec S is cheap, simple, and still a lot of fun – and like the SportKa, its status as a sporty Ford means prices are only likely to rise from here.
MG ZR 105

MG Rover wheeled out a tried-and-tested formula in the early 2000s, just as Austin Rover had done in the 1980s: tweak some existing hatchbacks and saloon cars, slap on an MG octagon, and hope for the best. Incredibly, that formula actually worked, not least because the MG ZR, ZS and ZT were actually surprisingly well-engineered products.

The ZR was probably the least well-resolved of the trio, but also one of the most popular. Effectively a hotted-up Rover 25 the ZR looked good, drove well and cost very little – with the 1.4-litre, £9995 ZR 105 at the foot of the range. The small engine kept insurance costs as low as could be expected, but the K-series engine was keen and the handling nimble. Today even range-topping ZR 160s are affordable, but insurance is still a problem, making the 105 appealing if you’re new to the world of fun cars. Prices start from as little as £500 for tidy, MOT’d examples.

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