A first car must be safe, and then, because spare cash is sparse for many new drivers, it also has to be cost-effective to buy and own, as well as reliable. That’s a tough set of criteria even before you consider the desire for a cool-looking car that’s fun to drive.
Our best cars for new drivers in the $5K to $10K used, and $15K brand new price brackets bring together the key first-car qualities better than most models.
Meanwhile, the tips below on things to consider when choosing a first car will help you select the right car from a used-car market that’s ripe with choice.
1. The newer, the better
The newer a car, the safer it is. Why? Safety technology and car body structural design is advancing at an increasing rate. Buy a mid- to late-2000s car or newer. If you can stretch to it, consider buying near-new.
2. Bigger really is better
While the right hatchback can be a safe choice, a medium sedan will typically be safer, simply because it is larger and heavier.
3. Do your research
Compare the safety star ratings out of five for new and used cars at www.howsafeisyourcar.com.au The ratings are based on real-world crash data and Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) crash test results.
Also visit www.ancap.com.au to research the standard and optional safety features for models you are considering.
1. Buy a Japanese car
There’s one easy thing you can do to choose a car that will cost the least amount to own and run – buy a Japanese car rather than a European one. (Also consider Korean models from the last five years.)
It’s simple – fewer things go wrong with Japanese cars than European models. Ask any mechanic.
Avoid French and Italian models in particular, as well as expensive premium brands. Volkswagens, Skodas and European Fords such as the Fiesta and Focus on the other hand, can be exceptions, because while they may cost more to own, they also bring excellent safety on a reasonable budget.
2. Get an inspection
A pre-purchase inspection by the RACQ will tell you if a car has been looked after and give you advance warning if any costly repairs will be due soon – visit www.racq.com.au.
3. Do a history check
Also, check whether there is finance owing and establish stolen-vehicle status and write-off history at www.ppsr.com.au.
Light hatch: Ford Fiesta (2009-2018)
The Ford Fiesta’s three-star safety (howsafeisyourcar.com.au) makes it a better bet than popular light cars the Mazda 2, Honda Jazz and Toyota Yaris, which each score two safety stars, and the Suzuki Swift, which scores either one or two stars depending on the year.
The Fiesta, with its European-designed solidity, fares as well in collisions as a Volkswagen Polo of the same era. But there are far more Fiestas available, particularly if you are shopping close to $5K.
Some six-speed dual-clutch automatic Fiestas were troublesome, which makes four-speed auto and five-speed manual versions the obvious choice for mechanical peace of mind, though don’t overlook a newish six-speed auto Fiesta, because it will still be covered by Ford’s extended, seven-year transmission warranty.
In addition, not every Fiesta features side airbags and electronic stability control – choose a version that has these valuable safety features.
Small hatch: Mazda 3 (2009-2014)
Few models better balance value-for-money, space, reliability and safety, with strong resale and low running cost, than a Mazda 3.
The Mazda 3 is also sporty and fun car to drive and, as one of the best-selling cars in Australia, is plentiful on the used market, as well as easy to get spare parts for and maintain on a budget.
Both the first- and second-generation Mazda 3 are available in this price bracket. If you’re shopping closer to $10K we’d recommend the bigger, more modern second-gen (2009-2014) over the earlier Mazda3– both models score three-stars on www.howsafeisyourcar.com.au.
Mid-size: Subaru Liberty (2003-2009)
When this model Subaru Liberty was ANCAP crash tested in 2003 it achieved a standout score of 35.52 out of a possible 37points and a five-star rating, the best-ever ANCAP score at the time.
Upper level versions featured head-protecting side curtain airbags and are the pick. The Subaru’s trademark all-wheel drive also gives the Liberty reassuring stability on slippery surfaces, including wet roads.
$5000 gets you a good early version, while$10,000 will get you a high-grade 2009Liberty in excellent condition.
The 2.5-litre four-cylinder versions are the pick,over the 2.0 four and 3.0 six-cylinder, and both the auto and manual transmissions are reliable.
Volkswagen Polo 70TSI Trend line
In 2020, the Volkswagen Polo 70TSI Trend line is the best all-round cheap new car money can buy. Why would you choose anything else? Well, the German hatchback costs a bit more to buy than some alternatives, and may cost a bit more to run, too.
But otherwise it’s all good news, from the slick interior to the polished ride comfort, eager and economical three-cylinder turbo engine and a fun-to-drive personality.
Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) is not yet wide spread in light hatches, but is standard in the Polo as well as the Mazda 2 (but is not available in the Honda Jazz).
AEB can automatically slow or stop the car to prevent or minimise the severity of a collision, in situations where the driver fails to recognise a collision,or to initiate an avoidance manoeuvre.
Honda Jazz VTi
The tall-bodied Honda Jazz is roomier than the alternatives, and it is priced right on the entry point to the baby hatch class at $14,990.
What the Jazz lacks in sporty looks and driving fun, it makes up with immense practicality courtesy of the clever ‘Magic’ folding rear seat design which lets the small Honda play wagon with ease.
History and countless owner satisfaction survey shave shown Hondas to be reliable and cheap to run, too.
Mazda 2 Neo
The Mazda 2 might be the perfect light-hatch (orsedan) middle ground. As unfailingly reliable and economical to own and run as the Jazz, but with a bit less cargo space, it brings a stylish exterior, and a sense of driving fun to rival the Polo.
The Mazda 2 also boasts terrific fuel economy,strong resale value and, like our other new hatch picks, a five-star ANCAP safety rating and a five-year warranty.