Cameron McGavin August 26, 2011
Horatio is ready for his first car but doesn’t know which one he should be chasing up.
The dilemma : Horatio is a learner driver looking to buy his first car. He wants something respectably roomy with a manual transmission, good fuel efficiency and solid reliability prospects. He’s willing to consider both hatches and sedans and is thinking he’ll probably buy used. What should he be looking at?
The budget: Not provided
Horatio hasn’t given us a lot to work with here. You could potentially name any number of contenders with manual gearboxes, respectable space, good fuel economy and strong reliability, and the lack of a budget doesn’t make it any easier to frame a rock-solid shortlist.
So we’ll have to make some assumptions. Given space (itals)does(itals) rate a mention, we can probably look past light-sized cars to bigger options. But not so large they impinge on his desire for good fuel economy.
We can also probably assume – based on the utilitarian vibe of his wishlist – he’s not really interested in wooing the black-skivvy crowd or blasting down a twisty road at dawn.
With that in mind, here are two sub-$20K used small cars perfectly suited to the first-time driver, as well as a wildcard that delivers a step up in desirability without a significant hip-pocket penalty.
2003-08 Honda Accord Euro
If you’re looking for something a bit classier and more substantial than a small car without inflated running costs, a first-generation Euro could be just the ticket.
It’s one of the most fuel-efficient mid-sized sedans of its vintage, and the 2.4-litre petrol four rates just as highly for its other attributes. You also get a sweet manual gearbox, well-sorted road manners and the potentially life-saving benefit of stability control on all models.
You will, however, have to aim for a topline Luxury to get curtain airbags and, dollar for dollar, you’ll be looking at older cars than the others here. The Honda has no answer, either, to rivals with the added flexibility of hatch/wagon options.
Read Drive’s Honda Accord Euro reviews: Honda Accord Euro used.
2004-09 Mazda 3
This pick won’t win any awards for originality but if you’re in the market for a used small sedan or hatch the first-generation version of this super-successful franchise can’t be ignored.
It’s the complete package, satisfying the heart with slick design, smart road manners and willing petrol and diesel fours yet also managing to be the personification of affordable, practical and dependable motoring.
The 3 isn’t anywhere near as impressive at smothering noise, and fuel economy of petrol models is good rather than brilliant. You’ll also have to aim for mid and upper-level models if you want curtain airbags, or a post-2006 update for stability control.
Read Drive’s Mazda 3 reviews: Mazda 3 used.
2007-on Mitsubishi Lancer
The current Lancer raises a compelling case for those seeking peace-of-mind above all else. All models get stability control and even the oldest examples will have some meat left to run on the five-year warranty.
It stacks up well, too, when it comes to fuel economy and cabin space, and all models are generously specified. Like the Mazda you can choose between sedan and more versatile hatch versions.
So what’s the catch? Well, not a whole lot if you just want basic transport but the cheap, shiny cabin ambience, unremarkable refinement and bland road manners will encourage keener types to broaden their horizons.
There are two battles going on here – one for the heart, the other the head – but only the former is tightly fought. If you want easy ownership (as opposed to the best car) then the Lancer’s lengthy warranty is a decisive advantage that's well worth taking up.
However, while the Mitsubishi is a perfectly acceptable package, it lacks that certain something. We won't lie – if it was our money we’d be plumping for a Euro or 3. They’re simply better and, warranty deficits aside, they’re just as solid on the ownership front.
Which one? Well, we wouldn’t turn down a 3 any day of the week and if you need a hatch, must have a diesel or find its wider model spread suitable to your scenario you won’t be disappointed. Otherwise, the classy Honda gets our vote.