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Too cool for school? Graduate into a charismatic student car
When you’re a student, motors that offer penny-pinching fun are high on the menu. But there are some less obvious choices that serve up some street cred, too...
Freedom. Expression. A go-anywhere spirit. If you’ve just passed your driving test, a car to ferry you to uni digs is also likely to be your first car. And while money may be tight, that doesn’t mean you should drive a personality-free, four-wheeled machine.
When I passed my test in the early 1990s, my first – and therefore my student – car was a 14-year-old entry-level Volkswagen Polo. No frills, no carpet, a quartet of gears and one sun visor and one wing mirror attested to its basic status, but as student cars go, I felt very cool. I had wanted an original Beetle – and have still never owned one – but the little water-cooled hatchback was pretty and its light weight made its 40bhp more than plenty. Yes, the pea-green colour was in no way cool, but as a student car, it got me to art college 30 miles away with very little fuss.
These days, a 14-year-old car will be a lot more plush and packed with technology. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be cool. Cars at least a decade old are likely to be at the attainable end of the used car spectrum, and in that timeframe, one modern cool ‘classic’ is likely to be the Fiat 500. No, not the Nuova 500 of 1957, but the current model, first introduced in 2007. With a range of diddy but characterful engines and emissions at the lower end of the scale, Fiat’s cute city car should attract dinky running costs, too. Of course, its big selling point is the retro styling that shamelessly apes the original. Space usage might not be quite as good as the 1957 car, but its 12-year lifespan and endless stream of special editions mean there are lots to choose from. One less obvious bedfellow is the 2003-2012 Fiat Panda. Its blocky, upright appearance gives it a style all its own, and there’s fun in spades if you go for the warm 100HP.
The 500 may be cool, but the original remains way cooler, and the same could be said of the reinvented Mini and Volkswagen Beetle, too. However, like the original 500, classic Minis and Bugs are now getting on a bit and may test a Centennial’s DIY abilities. Saying that, though, the MGB GT has recently risen in popularity among the younger generation, and although it might look as though you’ve borrowed your grandad’s wheels, the sleek mini-Jaguar E-Type shape is still pretty as a peach as it approaches its 55th birthday. Available from as little as £3,500, its Pininfarina design gives it an exotic touch, but make sure it has the Rostyle rims, OK?
Staying with sports cars – which, admittedly, isn’t the most obvious choice when thinking of a ‘student’ car, but you want to be cool, right? – some Porsche 924s have recently been advertised for proper pocket money prices. The earliest late-1970s versions of Porsche’s transaxle have Audi-derived 2.0-litre engines which might make insurance a little more palatable than the later 2.5-litre machines and offer just enough performance with no fear of losing your licence. And as well as that bona fide sports car badge, the big rear glass hatch-covered load area will easily swallow all that washing you take home to the folks every other weekend.
It may be the running costs or age, as opposed to the purchase price, that puts cars like the Porsche out of reach – unless you’ve a rarely-refusing lender such as the Bank of Mum and Dad – but the iconic Stuttgart name can be had on much cheaper machinery. Like the original SEAT Ibiza. No, really, it’s true. In its pre-Volkswagen-owned days, the Spanish car maker sought engineering help from Porsche, the powertrain and gearbox developed in collaboration with the bods at Zuffenhausen. And while not every first-gen Ibiza proudly displays its ‘System Porsche’ engineering heritage on its flanks, the fact that the car’s looks were from the pen of Italian car design legend Giorgetto Giugiaro of Italdesign should score cool points on its own.
Sticking with practical, small hatches, the Volkswagen Golf has been the all-round darling of the bunch for 45 years. But disregard the costly later cars for the Mk 2 version, and not only will it cost you less in a cooking guise (sorry, the GTI will rocket your insurance almost as fast as it accelerates) but the scene kudos you’ll earn will pay you back in cool currency. And yes, the Golf which spanned the 1980s and 1990s may be over 30 years old, but its bulletproof build, tried and tested mechanicals – with widespread spares availability – and tidy looks have won millions of fans. A few select and subtle visual mods will also gain yet more street cred and the booted Jetta will satisfy those will a saloon silhouette fetish. But, if they’re a tad too old, the late 1990s Mk 4 is a safe modern classic bet.
The Citroën Saxo VTR and VTS were the stars of the hot hatch and cruising brigades during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Their pumped-up looks and peppy performance attracted boy-racer types like a bee to nectar, and shared components with the Peugeot 106 mean the oily bits are well-proven. But, VTR and VTR Insurance costs will be sky-high. We’d plump for a Furio or Westcoast which offer the VTR and VTS’s go-faster bodykit, with smaller, more wallet-friendly engines. The Peugeot 106 Rallye is cooler still, but its hot hatch image and rarity rules it out here. The avantgarde Citroën C2 is different again but some may find its looks ‘challenging’. If you want something with a similar spirit to the Saxo for the digital age, the second-generation Citroën C1, Peugeot 108 or Toyota Aygo fit the bill. Monthly deals, low insurance, 2010s levels of safety and smartphone connectivity – hooray! – also come into play with this trio.
Staying on a modern tack, the latest Suzuki Ignis city car looks a little out of the ordinary, especially when compared to other humdrum hatches. That’s also true of the early 2000s rally-winning Ignis Sport, but the current model has styling which recalls elements of the company’s cute SC100 Whizzkid coupé. The upright Suzuki also has space in spades for a car so tiny, and there’s that famed Japanese reliability. A mild hybrid system on manual models saves fuel and optional all-wheel drive delivers true go-anywhere ability. A £139 per month finance cost should seal the deal.
Other cool city slickers include the Volkswagen Up (especially in specially-styled and 300W stereo-equipped Beats spec), while the larger first-generation Citroën C4 Cactus has an eye-catching candour that is hard to ignore. Airbumps and all. And if it’s eye-catching you’re after, the original Smart Forfour might tickle your fancy for a used and stylish practical hatch, but its small two-year sales window may limit your choice.
That little lot prove there are some left-field choices for those who want to stand out in the student crowd. So, be different. Be charismatic. But most of all, be cool.
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