It's easy to identify the right car for this reader, says James Ruppert, but not so easy to work out where to get it from
Petrina Miller is 76 years old and has recently been diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy. This means that the sensitivity of her feet is reduced, and her occupational therapist has recommended an automatic car. Petrina, however, has had trouble finding something (and lives in a very rural area, which means that public transport is not an option). She needs to transport herself and dog to the shops 16 miles away. She has seen the Smart and likes the look of it, but only has £2,000 to spare.
The real problem for Petrina is neither her limited budget, nor the fact that she wants a small automatic; it is actually finding a good, reliable, used car in her area, being sold by someone who she can trust. For that reason she needs help: a good friend or a relative who may not be any more clued-up on cars than her, but can still stop Petrina making any rash decisions and acting as objective eyes and ears.
Ideally she should be buying an automatic Vauxhall Corsa from her local main agent under the Network Q scheme, which would guarantee a good car and a decent warranty. The trouble is that a £2,000 car won't be sold under such a scheme, so she needs to rely on dealers and possibly good private sellers. This is not an ideal situation and the rural location is not good either when it comes to choice.
Is there a reliable fairly local garage that could not only source, but also check out a car for her? That would be the ideal situation. Essentially Petrina needs hands-on help, which I can't give, but hopefully there is someone she knows who can hold her hand.
I'll try and base my recommendations on vehicles that may be local to her, but she must be prepared to travel a bit.
A car for the head
I would guess that Petrina needs a reliable car, and the previous generation Nissan Micra certainly fits that bill. In its time it has topped numerous reliability surveys. The insurance group is low and economy healthily over 40mpg. Although the 1.0 is small, it is perfectly capable and surprisingly quiet.
However, for buyers who plan on taking the Micra out of city bounds, the 1.3 would be the better all-round engine to have. Specifications aren't that generous. The LX at least has split-fold seat, but the SLX is a touch comfier. 1996 models were certainly better and the April 1998 models got a lot more character and improved handling and, significantly, were safer. 1998 Special editions, the Twister and Ally, have air conditioning and are worth finding. City Packs added power steering and central locking while GX models had power steering.
Within 40 miles of Petrina's house in Inverness-shire I could only find the latest models as automatics, and these are way out of her budget. There was a local dealer with two automatics on offer under £2,000, but neither were small.
The Fiat Bravo, however, could make sense although it was a five-door vehicle. Maybe, though, she should approach the dealer and ask him to find a Micra within budget.
A car for the heart
Petrina does not need a car for the heart, but she does need a practical, economical, vehicle which is easy to look after and live with , like the Ford Fiesta.
This three- and five-door hatchback, though also represents an affordable option for those after a tough, reliable and practical car which will also be very cheap to run. Parts prices are very low and the secondhand-spares market is highly developed. It is probably the cheapest used car to run at he moment.
When it comes to reliability, there is not a great deal to go wrong with such a simple car. Older examples, though, can prove problematic if neglected. Wear and tear on the components is the major reasons for failure, but at least parts are cheap to replace.
They can be cheap to buy; however there are lots of shabby Fiestas on sale. One downside is that they are not the most relaxing car to drive. The engines are noisy and the driving position is not adjustable, especially for the smaller driver. They feel cramped inside, too.
On top of all that the suspension gives a bouncy and uncomfortable ride. Petrina will be looking at mid- to late-1990s examples.
The closest example, at £1,350, was a 1998 example at a dealer 200 miles away from Petrina.