Having laid out our top 50 new cars to buy in 2021, it did occur to us that there are many - ourselves included - who realistically couldn’t afford most, if any, of the cars on that list. Cars, new cars anyway, are expensive, but the good news is that they depreciate, and so if newness isn’t the most important thing to you, there’s a whole world of great cars from which to choose. Lower your buying budget from the average new car cost of about €33,000 to just €10,000 and you can still get yourself a snazzy set of wheels that will provide you with years of enjoyable motoring.
1. BMW 3 Series
Let’s start with, arguably, the most desirable of all cars , the BMW 3 Series. Often touted as being the most searched for car in second-hand terms, the 3 Series has gone from being an unattainable premium product to, thanks to being a big seller, both available and affordable. Our €10,000 budget would get you into an F30 3 Series (the one before the current model) and a 320d at that. Diesel may be falling out of favour with new buyers, but it still makes a lot of sense for used customers, and the 320d’s 190hp punch, combined with genuine 60mpg economy makes for a tantalising double-act.
Watch for: Build quality on F30 models is excellent, and there are few reported regular problems. That does mean that they're easy to 'clock' though, so watch out for that, and make sure you buy one with a full BMW service history. Avoid the larger wheel and low-profile tyre options, too, as they ruin the ride quality.
Likely age range: 2012-2013
Motor tax: €200
2. Dacia Duster
The cheapest of the cheap, it’s little wonder that the rugged little Dacia Duster has built up a solid following for itself over the years. For the price of a small family hatchback, you get a ‘proper’ SUV with family-friendly space and a decent boot. They’re not even bad to drive, although you’ll have to put up with pinchy front seats and rather less refinement than some rivals. Still, the price means you’ll have plenty left over for buying ear-plugs. The only problem is that Dusters hang on to their resale value rather well, which means that you’ll have to go back to a 2015 or 2015 model to get one within our €10,000 budget.
What to watch for: Dusters are solidly built, and Dacia's policy of using old Renault bits and bobs means most of the mechanical parts are well-proven. You do need to watch for rust on older models, though (usually around the boot hinges and the edges of the bonnet), and you'll need to check underneath for signs of damage after being driven roughly - the Duster's cheapness meant that many were used as hard-working commercial and farmer's vehicles. If you find lots of cheap, nasty plastic with sharp-edges on the inside, don't worry - they're all like that.
Likely age range: 2015-2016
Motor tax: €200
3. Mazda CX-5
Okay, so you’ve caught the SUV bug, but you want something reliable and roomy enough for the family, but still stylish and enjoyable to drive. Well then, you need a Mazda CX-5. The first-generation of Mazda’s popular SUV was also the debut model for its 2.2litre diesel engine, with a lively 150hp, as well as all of the ‘Sky-Activ’ light weight and low-friction fuel-saving innovations. The trouble was that for all the innovations, the CX-5 was always a little thirstier than we’d have liked - closer to 6.5 litres per 100km than is ideal. The CX-5 does make up for that by being enormously entertaining and engaging to drive, far more so than any rival product of the time, and it’s superbly well made too.
What to watch for: Beware of diesel fuel leaching into the engine oil, a problem that gives very little warning of onset, but which can be very expensive to sort out. As ever, it's better by far to buy something with a full Mazda service history to be on the safe side. The stereo and Bluetooth connection can be fiddly too, and be careful what tyres you buy as the CX-5 can be prone to excessive road noise. Avoid the 175hp version of the 2.2litre diesel engine as it's even thirstier.
Likely age range: 2014-2015
Motor tax: €200
4. Mercedes-Benz 190E
SUVs are all well and good, but how about something that can truly claim to be a classic. For €10,000 you just might be able to track down a Mercedes 190 - the car that came before the C-Class - and we found one with a 1990 reg that means it now qualifies for classic tax. Unlike a great many classic cars, the 190 is robust enough for you to still use it as a daily driver, and there’s no denying the appeal of that set-square styling, nor the comfort of the simple, airy interior. Okay, so you don’t get a touchscreen, but you do get impressive refinement and surprisingly good safety for a car of this vintage.
What to watch for: Rust is going to be the biggest enemy here, and 190s are especially prone to rusted-out jacking points, so check there first. Door and window seals perish over time and need replacing, but engines and gearboxes are as solid as they come - just watch for loose-feeling manual shifts, or rattling automatics. If it looks like it's riding low, then that could be worn shocks and springs, and if it has a sunroof then check the cabin for damp or water stains as the seals can leak. You won't find one with a full service history, but look for one with as much paperwork as you can find. Above all, buy on condition and history, not age nor mileage.
Likely age range: 1985-1990
Motor tax: €56
5. Toyota Prius
Perhaps, instead of a classic Stuttgart taxi, you want to be a bit more forward looking, and start your journey towards having an electric car. A hybrid would seem like a good first stepping stone, and in the third-generation Toyota Prius you have a car that has become synonymous with hybrid power. The MkIII Prius was arguably the best-looking car to wear the badge, and comes with a roomy, comfy interior and the usual rock-solid Toyota build quality. Don't worry about battery life - the Prius's battery will easily last 300,000km if the car is serviced properly, and they're not massively expensive to replace anyway. Do beware slightly of long motorway journeys - this generation of Prius becomes uncomfortably thirsty on such runs, so is best kept in and around town.
What to watch for: The Prius has long been popular as a taxi and hackney, so check the car's history carefully for any such use and avoid ones that have had a taxi plate. Early versions of the MkIII had a really fiddly sat-nav which is difficult to replace. Cabin rattles and squeaks are common (and more obvious when you're running with the engine off) but usually don't mean there's a major issue. Be aware that many Prius in Ireland are Japanese imports.
Likely age range: 2011-2013
Motor tax: €180
Perhaps what you’re looking for is a good starter car, or maybe a small runaround for short hops and shopping trips. Well, such vehicles don’t come much better than the Mini hatchback. Yes, you could have something more sensible - a VW Polo, maybe, or a Toyota Yaris - but they don’t have the laugh-out-loud steering response, nor the sheer sense of fun of the Mini (although if you regularly carry back-seat passengers, they’re probably not going to thank you). Effectively a small BMW coupe, you can spend pretty much as much as you like on expensive, fast, Cooper S and Cooper S Works models, but the basic Mini First gives you 90 per cent of the driving enjoyment for a fraction of the price and running costs. The Mk2 version, launched in 2006, gives an excellent balance between styling, performance, cost, and reliability.
What to watch for: Go for the six-speed manual gearbox, rather than the auto option, and if you live and park in town, it could be worth swerving the easily-kerbed alloys and going for steel wheels with trims. Dealer service costs are pricey, but worth it as the Mini is more mechanically complex than you might think. Excessive oil use is common, and will need a trip to the dealer to sort. Beware of ex-driving school cars.
Likely age range: 2011-2012
Motor tax: €270
7. Volkswagen Golf
There’s a reason that the VW Golf is so ubiquitous that Volkswagen actually saw fit to make fun of that ubiquity in an advert. The reason being that it’s so bloody good. Whenever we’re asked by people what sort of car they should buy, it’s so damned hard to escape the easy, lazy, but thoroughly safe answer of “just get a Golf”. While one could pine for high-performance models such as the GTI or R, for our €10,000 budget we’re being a bit more sensible and going for a 1.2 TSI Golf five-door hatch. That kind of price tag should get us an early MkVII Golf, and the good news is that even though the MkVIII is now on sale, there’s not much of a qualitative difference between the two. That 1.2 TSI petrol turbo engine is a sweetheart, too, delivering diesel-like economy but with sweet petrol refinement.
What to watch for: Make sure the optional DSG automatic gearbox changes gear crisply and quickly. Engine timing chains have been known to snap, so make sure you buy one with a full service history. The blown bulb warning system doesn't always work so check the lights are all functioning. Front wheel hubs can also be a weak point, so listen for grinding noises when turning corners.
Likely age range: 2012-2013
Motor tax: €280
8. Volvo XC60
Given that many people say that they buy an SUV because it makes them feel safer, it seems to make sense to look at buying possibly the safest SUV of all. The old-shape Volvo V60 was designed and built before some of the more recent innovations in electronic safety tech, but it’s a big, chunky Volvo with country-sized crumple zones and more airbags than a hot air balloon convention, so when push comes to shove, it’s as safe as things get. It’s also a rather nice thing to drive - soothing and comfortable on a long journey, but not above providing some entertainment and enthusiasm for the driver in shorter, twistier runs. Quality levels are excellent, too.
What to watch for: Go for the 2.0 litre D3 diesel for the best economy as the XC60 can be quite thirsty. False alarms from the tyre pressure monitors are common, while four-wheel drive models can suffer burn-out on the centre clutch, leaving you with front-wheel drive only. The electronic parking brake can stick on, and the early 'MyCar' infotainment system can be fiddly to use.
Likely age range: 2011 to 2012
Motor tax: €790 (for D3 FWD auto)
9. Ford S-Max
Thanks to successive baby-booms brought on by the last recession, and the current series of lockdowns, having a good family seven-seater has rarely been more important. Finding one for good money can be tricky at the best of times, but take your time and find yourself a nice Ford S-Max. Honestly, seven-seat motoring has never been so good. The S-Max, which has been around since 2006, is roomy and versatile and can easily cope with varying loads of kids or their chattels. Better yet, in spite of being a sensible family car, the S-Max is actually huge fun to drive, thanks to using the chassis from the MkIII Ford Mondeo. Go for a later model with the frugal 1.6 TDCI diesel engine for best economy.
What to watch for: The S-Max is big and heavy, so burns through tyres pretty quickly, and they can be thirsty for fuel too. Check electrics carefully, especially the air conditioning system, and check carefully for any signs of damp or water getting into the cabin (it gets in via blocked ventilation drains). Check that the steering is free from vibration and make sure that, if fitted, the parking sensors are working properly.
Likely age range: 2012-2013
Motor tax: €280
10. Alfa Romeo GTV 3.0
Well, they say always finish on a flourish, and they don't come much more flourish-y than an Alfa Romeo GTV. There might well be a 1990s Fiat Tipo chassis under there, but you'd never know it from the dramatic, wedge-shaped body on top. We managed to track down a 1998 example with the amazing 3.0 litre 'Busso' V6 engine shoved under that arrow-head nose, and no engine ever built makes a better noise. The combination of aural and visual impact makes this humble Alfa more head-turning than a phalanx of Ferraris. It's fun to drive, too, if you can live with the torque steer, and the 2+2 layout gives it a modicum of practicality.
What to watch for: How much time have you got? The good news is that the mighty 3.0 V6 engine is, mechanically speaking, very reliable and capable of high mileage. The bad news is that more or less everything else is going to be suspect, from sagging suspension to collapsing seats to actual electrical fires. You'd probably be better off getting a Porsche Boxster for similar money, but if you've caught the Alfa bug, and can track down a good one, and you're prepared to work hard at keeping it going, you'll not find a more characterful car for €10,000 anywhere.
Likely age range: 1995-2005
Motor tax: €1,494