From the Panda 100hp to the legendary MX-5, they could all be yours for less than you think
But fret no more, as this list might just be your saving grace. We’ve scoured the classifieds, weighed up countless options and run more insurance quotes than we care to remember to find 10 perfect first cars for petrolheads.
Each car on this list is cheap to insure, has a USP that marks it out from other bits of metal in the car park and, crucially, isn’t powered by electricity.
Stand by, then, for our list of the 10 best first cars for enthusiasts.
Fiat Panda 100hp (2006-2010)
Small, peppy, manoeuvrable and charmingly utilitarian, the Panda 100hp is the hot version of Fiat's most city-friendly car.
Rather than being a shopping trolley with a bodykit, the Italian brand employed some genuine engineering to let the Panda spread its wings a bit. It slotted a 99bhp 1.4-litre petrol engine from the Punto under the bonnet, threw in a six-speed gearbox, lowered and stiffened the suspension and thickened the front anti-roll bar. Stopping power came from stronger brakes that didn't have drums at the back, as on the standard car.
Fiat also added 15in alloy wheels, eclipsed by wider tyres that sit satisfyingly stretched out at each corner. Meanwhile, a Sport button on the dash replaced the City button, reducing the steering assistance and quickening throttle response.
The Panda 100hp is in insurance group 11 and, having run from 2006 to 2010, is LEZ-compliant, which makes for an attractive, affordable used buy even today.
Read our complete Fiat Panda review
Toyota Yaris T Sport (2001-2005)
This car was so typically Japanese and one of the last words in unconventional motoring.
When the regular Toyota Yaris arrived, it became car of the year thanks to its novel attention to detail, which means the flagship T Sport was built on bedrock foundations.
Less solid are its looks: it hasn't aged quite as well as some others on this list. But it does have some exterior touches to make it look both interesting and endearingly odd at the same time.
Much like the interior, then. The air vents are like pastry cutters, there are huge pockets carved into the dashboard to store your clutter and where you'd expect to see an instrument binnacle there's just plastic, because it has been moved to the left a bit (of course it has!).
By contrast, the engine wasn’t that weird: it's a 1.5-litre atmo petrol. But it was one of the first to have variable valve timing, which meant it pushed out 103bhp and a 0-62mph time of 9.0sec. Power was sent to the front wheels via a five-speed manual - the only transmission on offer.
Read our complete Toyota Yaris review
Suzuki Swift Sport (2006-2011)
They all have one thing in common: they're normal hatchbacks with a small amount of spice to give them a tasty kick. The Swift Sport, for example, has a 1.6-litre engine and produces 125bhp. It dispatches 62mph in 8.9sec and has a top speed just shy of 124mph.
Fairly reserved figures, then – but remember that it weighs just 1.1 tonnes, which makes for a hugely attractive power-to-weight ratio if you've just passed your test and need to convince the insurers you know how to drive a car.
The price of used examples is equally reserved, both to buy and when you're going through the insurers. Being in group 23, it's in a slightly higher group than others on this list, but it's still at the lower end.
Read our complete Suzuki Swift Sport review
Ford Fiesta Zetec S (2008-2017)
The Ford Fiesta was always going to make this list. It doesn't matter what spec, what year or what price you get one for: beneath a pretty handsome shell lies a fine-handling chassis by which the competition was historically judged for nearly 50 years. You could even go so far as to call it the Porsche 911 of superminis.
The best part is that you can pick one up for pennies. You should, however, buy carefully. Some cars will have been tastelessly modified, and steer clear of cars that look ragged and neglected, because you will probably end up paying for more in maintenance than you did for the car.
The very fact they're favoured by anyone from those who like to drive quickly to those who can't drive at all means insurance costs can get quite steep if you modify them, particularly in expensive areas such as London.
Choosing a car isn't so complicated, because there are loads of examples to go around. The most common engine available is the 120bhp 1.6-litre petrol, which pushes it to 62mph in a little under 10sec with a snappy five-speed gearbox.
Read our complete Ford Fiesta review
Citroën Saxo VTS/VTR (1999-2003)
This is a little French hatchback that doesn’t care what people think of it. You can do whatever you like to it (most people do) and it will always come back for more.
As with the Fiesta, that means there are badly modified examples out there, but there are also several tidy ones with below-average mileage and a clean service history to boot.
That boot is small, however, like the rest of the interior. But like HMS Victory wasn’t meant for Caribbean cruises, this isn't meant to carry people en masse to the south of France.
What it does is bung you around your favourite road with a huge smile on your face before trotting around a shopping centre car park, squeezing in and out of gaps like a magnified mouse.
And if you misjudge a gap and ding it, it won’t cost a fortune to repair, because there are plenty of spare parts to go around.
Engines? Well, the VTS came with a 98bhp 1.6 that was good for 120mph and a 0-62mph time of 9.4sec. There was also a more powerful 120bhp VTR, which dispatched 62mph in 7.7sec and a top speed touching 130mph. You could say that's fast even by today’s standards.
Mazda MX-5 (2005-2015)
Mazda's little drop-top has proven to be so popular that it makes everything else seem not so worthy of your attention - a bit like Warburtons orange toastie bread.
Millions of sales later and the fabled Japanese sports car that was set up by car enthusiasts for car enthusiasts remains one of the best driver's cars on the market, no matter the generation.
You can't configure it as you drive along, it doesn't have a Garrett turbocharger and the seats don't give you a hot-stone massage; it's pure engineering done reliably well.
It’s priced well, too. Early cars can be picked up for no more than a ragged Fiesta and tidy later examples are only just a shade more than that. Insurance isn't huge, either. Second-generation ‘NC’ cars come in at group 21.
Read our complete Mazda MX-5 review
Mini 3dr Hatch (2006-2013)
The Mini may be one of the most iconic cars in the world, but it also comes with a bit of exclusivity.
No fewer than 13 trim levels were available with a list of colour combinations and options form so extensive it looked like a child’s Christmas wishlist. That means that no two Minis are less likely to be the same, giving you a slice of car-park cachet.
This generation was birthed with the code ‘R56’ – ‘R’ standing for Rover. That doesn’t mean it uses any Rover bits, however, because this endlessly configurable hatchback was reliable with strong build quality and is now available for less money than the MX-5, with fully ULEZ-compliant petrol engines no matter which year you pick. Plus, insurance group 17 means it’s far less expensive to cover than the drop-top.
Six engines were offered, ranging from a 1.4-litre petrol to a 2.0-litre diesel. While the diesels are a bit gravelly, they don't detract from the fact this is a reliable, fun-loving hatch that turns on a dime and is instantly recognisable.
Problems? Practicality is quite poor and some cars have developed gearbox issues if they’ve lived hard lives; just make sure to listen for gearbox whine before you buy.
Read our complete Mini 3-door Hatch review
Renault Twingo RS 133 (2009-2013)
The Renault is a slightly more expensive choice to buy, but you get what you pay for: this is probably one of the best-handling cars on this list. It's also one of the newest, introduced in 2009, with a production run that lasted just four years before it was replaced.
Its relatively young age means there is a slimmer chance of things going wrong - just as well, because you will want to savour this car for everything it's worth.
Power comes from a rorty 131bhp 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, with power sent to the front wheels via a five-speed manual gearbox. A weight of 1050kg means you get 127bhp per tonne, a 0-62mph time of 8.7sec and a top speed of 127mph.
Its performance may not have been groundbreaking, but it still had to appeal to the younger, insurance-conscious buyer. And being in group 20, it’s still among the lowest here.
Attention to running costs meant the design changes over the standard car had to be kept simple - but, like the engine, they were done well. Outside, it got wheel-arch extensions, a 40mm-wider track, deeper bumpers and a wider sports exhaust, while inside the hot-hatch hoonery extended to sports seats, a shift light and red trim pieces.
Read our complete Renault Twingo review
Citroën C1 (2005-2014)
Now, what self-respecting enthusiast is going to turn down such competition and plump for the no frills, boggo Citroën that looks as interesting as bathwater and uses technology developed in tandem with the Gregorian calendar?
Well, those exact reasons are why you should buy one. Think of it as a blank sheet of paper; a cheery starting point for what could become anything you want, from a lowrider to a reliable tool for the uni commute. Or even a race car.
You can buy a conversion kit from a specialist site for £3700 that allows you to convert your Bishon Frisé into a track-ready Pitbull. They look great if they've been modded well and don't cost an arm and a leg to fix, because you won't need to spend that much on buying one in the first place.
It’s also slow, with just one litre of engine capacity to its name. But what you lose on swings, you gain on roundabouts. It’s a joyous car to drive – playful, unintimidating and ready to take a beating.
It can be picked up for even less money than the Fiesta above, and insurance is just as cheap, it being in group 3 - one of the lowest on this list.
Read our complete Citroën C1 review
Volkswagen Up (2012-2016)
This joins our list in the same vein as the C1: it's as cheap as the proverbial both to buy and insure, and there are hundreds available for your picking and choosing.
But that doesn't mean it isn't interesting. It has charm. Character. Kudos, even.
Designed by Walter de Silva, once design boss at Alfa Romeo, the Up is one of those rare occurrences of a cheap car made desirable not through its badge but by clever engineering.
It has one of the longest wheelbases in its class and the wheels are pushed right out to the far corners, which means it handles with verve and is spacious inside. You can easily fit four adults and still get a spare wheel under the boot.
It's not just cleverly packaged, either: its 1.0-litre engine sounds fantastic, despite being comedically slow. It was offered in two states of tune: 59bhp and 74bhp.
But that leisurely pace can be a fun factor in its own right, and you get the by-product of cheap running costs. It's in group 2 for insurance, it achieves more than 50mpg and spare parts are available like iron on Mars.
Read our complete Volkswagen Up review