Diana Melly is 70 years old, she tells me. She has a two-part question that's tantalisingly brief. First, she wants to know how to go about buying a second-hand Audi. And second, Diana wants to know more about the Smart ForFour; she wonders whether it would be up to the job of taking her, a friend and four small dogs (no breed is mentioned) away for the weekend.
Oh yes; "away" in this case means journeying from London to Norfolk.
There are so many ways to buy used cars these days. Diana could, of course, go to an auction – either a physical one, full of rough car-dealing types like me, or the online version at eBay. But I wouldn't recommend either to someone who needs to ask how it's done. Diana needs reassurance.
Certainly, the safest way to buy an Audi would be through its used approved scheme. This way, she will be buying a car that has been very well prepared, through an Audi dealer. I have found them to be very helpful at explaining the scheme, and in most cases the car will be less than five years old and with less than 60,000 miles on the clock, and it will come with a 12-month warranty.
The only downside is that Diana will be expected to pay a bit for this sort of service, so such a car will be more expensive than it would through a private sale. But private sales are far more risky, as Diana would have no comeback if there was a problem. Better to find a local independent dealer with a clean Audi that's had few owners, and which is offering a decent warranty. Ideally, Diana should take a friend or relative with her to stop her making any rash decisions. So that's the Audi question dealt with – but what about the Smart?
A car for the head
In Diana's head, the Smart ForFour certainly must look the part style-wise, but there are lots of other small cars that can better the Smart in many ways. In the style and practicality stakes, the Suzuki Swift is a great little car. The engines are eager, which will help on those long journeys between the capital and Norfolk. Diana should consider either the 1.3-litre or 1.5-litre petrol engines, which are surpriingly quick and will return decent economy as well – up to 45mpg. There is also a diesel if Diana is interested, but it is probably not worth paying extra for.
The 1.5 GLX, though, would be a good all-rounder – it has air conditioning and keyless entry and start, as well as alloy wheels. Always good value, this model costs just under £9,000 all in, and Suzuki's reputation for reliability means that there aren't going to be worries about breakdowns. Even used examples are still covered by the three-year warranty.
Ah; but what about those dogs? I would fold down the rear seats and let them have the run of the boot, although obviously there will be luggage and dog-restraint issues. But that's for Diana to sort out. Sit!
A car for the heart
Well, Diana loves the Smart ForFour and she is not alone in liking the funky styling. However, the ForFour is no more. Poor sales meant that the car was discontinued, so the only option is to buy used. The Smart, though, is closely related to the Mitsubishi Colt, which has remained in production, and some have said that the Colt is the more practical and useful option of the two.
It is very spacious, although the boot is on the small side. Like the ForFour, the rear seat slides forward, which means that it is possible to maximise and minimise both luggage and pooch space. The Colt may not look as cool as a ForFour, but Diana will have to consider her priorities on that.
Let's look at what's available on the used Colt market. There's plenty of choice, as there are three petrol engines (1.1 1.3 and 1.5 litres) plus a couple of turbo-diesels, all in a variety of trim packages. There are a lot of 1.1s around at less than £4,000 now, but even if Diana wanted a diesel, I came across a 32,000-mile Passion model that should return a stunning 60mpg on those long Norfolk runs, for just £5,500. The only important decision Diana has to make is to choose between a five-speed manual or six-speed semi-automatic.