Thinking of purchasing your first motor? Just got the license? Patrick Cummins of The Daily Shift has all the best advice for you…
So you’ve passed the theory test, or perhaps you’ve passed the driving test – either way, it’s time to look for that elusive first car. It can be a great experience if the perfect motor presents itself but can also be intimidating and heartbreaking if it doesn’t. In this article, I lay out some simple considerations to take on board when buying a car.
If you have no named driver experience and this is the first time an insurance policy is being purchased, don’t expect it to be a cheap endeavour. €2,000-3,000 is not an unusual sum for an initial policy. Do shop around; certain companies award drivers for bonus details e.g. partaking in driving lessons. Best quotes are known to fall considerably under €2,000 so, for a 19-year old male driving a 2001 1.4L VW Polo, a ball-park quote should be between €1,700-1,800.
Your first car will, most likely, be found at the “small engine-size” end of the market. In the 1000-1200cc range, the most sensible options include the Ford Fiesta, Nissan Micra, Seat Ibiza, Peugeot 106 and VW Polo. Moving into the larger 1300-1400cc avenue, opens up a host of sturdier (though not necessarily better) cars.
Japanese hatchbacks such as the Mitsubishi Colt, Toyota Starlet and Honda Civic have a bad reputation for ending up in accidents and are popular with young ‘boy-racers’. As a young driver, premiums for anything small and Japanese will be loaded significantly. These cars are easily modified and have the potential to perform way beyond their logbook specifications. Despite that, the stock versions are very able cars with good performance (relative to standard specifications), reliability and economy.
Much more insurable, though, are cars on the European market: my recommended top three being -VW Golf, Opel Astra and Ford Focus. All three are popular on Irish roads so spare parts are easy to come by should you need them. Tax will be relatively low regardless of what rate system is in place (cars registered before 2008 are based on engine capacity for tax rates; those after are based on C02 emissions). Other options in this category are the Seat Cordoba and Skoda Octavia (both of which are based on the Golf). These are generally cheaper than an equivalent Golf as their value depreciates a bit more. Older generation cars such as the Toyota Corolla 1.3L (1993-1997), Ford Escort 1.4L (1993-2000) and VW Vento 1.4L (1993-1998) are valued at less than €600 for a good example. However, some insurance companies will not insure a vehicle beyond a particular year of manufacturer so make sure to check in advance.
Small petrol engines tend to be economical in town and on short journeys, with many 1.3 and 1.4 cars holding their own substantially at motorway speed. Bare in mind the type of driving you plan on doing before choosing your car. If the majority of your driving takes place in the city, you don’t need to worry about high performance. Although I personally dislike most “Superminis” due to their styling, they are the best choice for a city driver e.g. the Toyota Yaris, VW Lupo, Ford Ka etc.
If you regularly commute via motorway, a larger engine car is advisable. This is where the 1300-1400cc hatchbacks are advantageous. Diesel cars are, arguably, even more suitable but most of these engine options start with a base model of 1.7L (e.g. Opel) and, more often, appear in 1.9L format (Audi, VW, Skoda, Seat). This means that tax rates will be higher (unless your car is post-2008). Some small engine diesels do exist: older VW models have a 1.6D alternative, as do newer cars like the Volvo S40. Ford’s DLD diesel range includes a 1.4L diesel for their Fiesta (same engine in Peugeot 206) but be aware that newer model cars will be more expensive to buy and insure, negating any cost saved on fuel.
Reliability issues crop up with every car. My advice is to make sure any recurring issues with a particular model are not severely detrimental. For example, many Volkswagens (1998-2004) are known to have an air-pressure issue with the airbag system. This issue is not immediately compromising and should not deter a buyer when looking at a comparatively sufficient used car. Conversely, MG ZRs regularly have head gasket problems due to poor build quality of the engine block and, regardless of the condition elsewhere, could lead to full engine failure. It is very difficult to know which ZR has a bad engine block and which doesn’t so, if you don’t want a tough learning experience when purchasing your car, avoid problematic alternatives like this. Fiat and Alfa Romeo are also infamous for head gasket and engine issues so be wary.
When you’ve selected the motor of your choice, some simple checks are necessary before you strike a deal:
(a) Timing Belt: check how long it has been since the timing belt was replaced. Timing belts last at least 60,000 miles, with modern belts lasting 80,000+ miles. Despite this general statistic, do some internet searching to find out the recommended interval change for a belt on the car you’re viewing – then compare. Failure of the timing belt WILL lead to catastrophic engine damage that may require an engine rebuild or replacement so don’t take this lightly. Note, however, that some cars run on a timing chain. This does not have to be replaced often but listen for a rattle in the engine bay when increasing revs. It could be a slack timing chain which needs tensioning.
(b) Oil: Check the oil level on the dipstick. Check its condition (too black/sludgy means it needs a change). Then look underneath at the sump to see if there is any oil leaking. Dry-day viewing is advised as, that way, you can look on the ground beneath for drops of oil.
(c) Gearbox/Clutch: Notice the gear changes. If there is a “crunch” or “clunk” when you select gear, there could be an imminent issue with the gearbox selector, syncro-mesh or other vital component. This is a costly repair. Check the clutch. If the biting point is very far from the floor, the clutch disc could be severely worn – if you suspect this, ask if the clutch was changed since the manufacturing date. If the clutch is slipping, the disc is close to complete destruction and will cost a lot to replace (€400-500). Receipts of work carried out always add value to the car.
(d) Engine: Engine damage is presented, most obviously, by wafts of blue smoke emanating from the exhaust pipe. Don’t view your car at night as this may not be visible. Blue smoke implies that oil is being burned in the engine and could mean a variety of different problems, all of which mean a part-engine replacement, at best. Steer clear!
Various minor issues are also relevant but I’ve listed the most important ones because that’s as brief as I can make it in a short article. Shop around carefully and bring a knowledgeable assistant; you are less vulnerable if you have company. Oh, and welcome to the crazy world of motoring!