How to Buy the Best Small Second-Hand Car

Buying a car is like buying clothes or shoes; the size and style need to be a good fit. And if you haven’t got a lot to spend, you’ve got to get it right. That way, you won’t be stuck with something that’s gone out of style by next year. Unlike a pair of shoes, a car needs to last more than a few years.

Kelly is a young woman looking for her first car. She intends to drive from home to the station, down to the local shops and run around with friends at weekends. Her budget is around $10,000 but she’s not sure where to start.

First of all, she should be looking for a small car that’s easy to park as well as drive, economical to run, and she must feel confident driving in city traffic. Two-door models look sharp but getting in and out of the back can be awkward, so a five-door hatch or four-door sedan is often a smarter choice. In many models, there are a few engine options – say a 1.2-litre and a 1.6-litre. The larger engine is nearly always better because, although smaller-engined cars tend to be cheaper, they have to work harder, performance is barely adequate and there’s virtually no difference in fuel economy.

Extra safety gear and features make mid-spec and high-end versions the ones to look for. Colour is important to Kelly, so popular brands will give her greater choice.

In the light car class, $10,000 will generally buy a 2009-2013 model. There are a wide range of makes and models available, so she should start with those that have solid reputations for reliability. This means the likes of Honda Jazz, Mazda2, Toyota Yaris and Hyundai Getz.

Kelly should test-drive a variety before making her decision, taking them for a good run and replicating the conditions in which she intends to use the car. If it’s city commuting, she should make sure there’s plenty of stop/start work in her test, and include freeway driving to see how it performs and handles at higher speeds. She should make sure the car steers straight, that acceleration and gear changes are smooth (in both manual and automatic cars) and listen for abnormal noises. After the drive, she should look for signs of oil or cooling-system leaks.   

Service history is always important and in budget-focused cars servicing is sometimes neglected. While it doesn’t guarantee reliability, a buyer’s chances are better if the car has been well maintained. Most cars this age will have some repairs, but check it has not been in a major crash and been poorly repaired. 

Once Kelly finds the small car she likes, a professional check such as an RACV vehicle inspection will provide in-depth information on its condition. If buying privately (i.e. not from a licensed trader), a Personal Property Securities Register check is also money well spent, as it provides vital information such as whether the car has been a repairable write-off, is stolen or has finance owing (visit PPSR.com.au). Also check the Product Safety Australia website to see if the model is listed for airbag recall (search for Takata Airbag Recalls). If it is, check with a dealer to make sure a replacement airbag has been fitted.

Here are four of the best small cars for Kelly to consider.

Honda Jazz Space- efficient and clever
Honda Jazz Space- efficient and clever

Honda Jazz

Honda Jazz rules supreme for cabin versatility and space efficiency, with its high roof and clever folding rear seat.  In automatic models, check for transmission shuddering, which in some cases (but not necessarily all) can be rectified by changing the transmission oil to the one specified by Honda. 

Mazda2 - Strong performer and practical
Mazda2 - Strong performer and practical

Mazda2

At the heart of Mazda2’s appeal is strong on-road ability and a practical cabin layout, although space is not abundant. Direct steering and a small turning circle make city driving a breeze. Its road-holding and cornering ability are high, while the ride is firm but compliant. Tyre noise can be an annoyance, particularly if cheap tyres are fitted.

Toyota Yaris - At its best around town
Toyota Yaris - At its best around town

Toyota Yaris

Yaris bears the Toyota family’s overall strengths, particularly reliability. The styling was a touch futuristic for its time, but mechanically Yaris follows a conventional layout. The designers have made good use of the limited cabin space.

Yaris is at its best on smooth roads around town but it doesn’t embarrass itself on the open road. The manual’s vague clutch and gearshift action is not to everyone’s liking.  

Hyundai Getz - Good value for money
Hyundai Getz - Good value for money

Hyundai Getz

Hyundai Getz tends to be good value for money and because it’s been well established in the market for so long there’s plenty of choice on the used market. Although not as refined as the other three, Getz is an honest performer that gives very little trouble.

Look for oil leaks and worn pulley belts. The timing belt should also be replaced every 90,000km.   

Fuel consumption

Good fuel economy is a feature of all four cars, and how they are driven will have a far greater bearing on it than brand differences. The official Green Vehicle Guide separates all four by less than 0.5L/100km. Yaris leads the way, followed by Getz, Jazz and Mazda2.  In every­day driving, expect 6.0-8.0L/100km. 

Used car safety

Jazz: Models from 2008 to 2011 with two or four airbags achieved a four-star ANCAP rating, while from October 2010 models with ESC and six airbags got a five-star rating. All variants from February 2011 onwards received five stars.

Mazda2: Lower-spec models from 2008 to 2011, which have two airbags, got a four-star rating, while higher-spec models with ESC and six airbags achieved five stars. From October 2011, all variants have been five-star.

Yaris: Three-door models up to Oct­ober 2011 had a four-star rating, while the five-door variants with a Safety Pack achieved five stars. From December 2011, all models got five stars.

Getz: The three-door car only had a three-star rating, while the four-door got four stars.

Other options

If none of the above suits Kelly’s particular needs, she can consider Suzuki Swift, Volkswagen Polo or Holden Barina.

Written by RACV
October 30, 2017

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