Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Decisions, decisions...

The first week of my car buying mission is drawing to a close and, on the upside, at least I've reached one conclusive decision.

I must admit to having something of a car buying habit. I’ve never actually managed to kill one before, but I’ve never kept one for more than about a year either. You see, there are just so many exciting possibilities and so little time. With the Saxo gone, I need something to get me moving again before the insurance company ask for their hire car back.

This should be simple, but there are a few mitigating factors. Firstly, I have a 65-mile commute, which gives me a simple choice of either low fuel consumption or bankruptcy. Secondly, when I’m not driving cars, writing about cars or arguing about cars, a good percentage of my remaining time is devoted to cycling; so I need something big enough to accommodate my bike. Finally - although there is probably an oil-burning MPV out there somewhere which suits those needs - I also want something that’ll provide a bit of fun on those rare occasions I escape from the confines of the M25.

Looking into it a bit further, I set a target of 40mpg for petrol contenders; anything diesel would have to significantly better this, due to the difference in fuel costs. I also decided on a maximum budget of around £7,000 (second-hand). The rest, however, is all to play for.

My first thought had been some kind of warm-hatch. The idea of a Fiat Panda 100HP appealed, as did a Suzuki Swift Sport. Ford’s evergreen Sportka also sprang to mind along with the (previous generation) Fiesta Zetec-S and the Focus. I even contemplated an e36 3-series.

The list rapidly began to shrink. It became obvious that the Swift was going to be out of my price range to purchase; the consensus amongst BMW owners on the internet forums was that you’d be lucky to get 30mpg out of the six-cylinder coupes and the Sportka was deemed too thrashy for motorway miles. Meanwhile there were a couple of additions – the Fiesta’s coupe cousin, the Puma, caught my eye. Citroen’s Xsara VTR seemed to combine economy with low insurance premiums and the Alfa Romeo 147 JTD crept in… although largely because it was an Alfa (I’ll have mine in red please).

I’ve now visited a few dealerships and, on the whole, the test drives have yet to produce any startling results. The Focus 1.6 Zetec (chosen for its economy) comes with a large boot and handles well, but feels somewhat lethargic in a straight line. The Fiesta Zetec-S feels far more lively, but concedes a certain amount in running costs and comes with a slightly dubious boy racer image. The Puma meanwhile… feels like a Fiesta Zetec-S.

The big shock for me was the Panda 100HP. I’d expected to love this car and face a worrying dilemma about spending twice the price of the other contenders on something barely big enough to hold my bike. In reality, I found it a bit of an anti-climax. Its 1.4-litre 16-valve engine, although willing enough, is nothing exceptional, the cabin is awash with cheap plastics and, to me, the concrete damping is simply a step too far. While the crashy ride is merely an annoyance in town, on a bumpy B-road it becomes bad enough to genuinely spoil the Panda’s composure.

To be fair, our test route may not have helped: “Now you’ll really have a chance to get a feel for it on the back roads” commented the salesman at one point as he directed me down 500yds of pothole-strewn 40mph limit with a dawdling Volvo in front. I wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic.

Even on a more suitable surface, the Panda felt good rather than great. For my purposes this rules it out. Being a relatively recent model, second-hand examples are still twice the price of something like a Puma, and it simply isn’t twice the car. It may be a great buy in the future, but for now I’ll resolve to let someone else take the depreciation hit.

So what about the others? Well, I remain undecided. An unmolested Fiesta Zetec-S would be a great car, offering a tempting combination of low running costs and reasonable space, but most look like they've ram-raided Halfords. The Puma is essentially a Zetec-S-R and good ones are easier to find, but it loses out on some of the hatchback's practicality. So far I've yet to try a Xsara VTR or Alfa 147. In fact, the list keeps growing as I've just seen an Alfa Romeo 156 JTD Sportwagon so gorgeous it's made me start dribbling.

Like I said: So many possibilities, so little time.

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