VW Golf R, 2018, 21k, £23,500
No prizes here for originality, but that’s sort of the point. For more years than we’d care to remember, and certainly when asked for the ‘best’ way to spend £25k on a fast car, the default response was ‘Golf R’. The reasoning for that was simple: you couldn’t miss. Nice to drive? Yes. Nice to sit in? Yes. Nice to look at? Yes. Was it the cheapest or most exciting option, no - but Volkswagen has shifted so many of the things that there are plenty to choose from at least. We’d recommend finding one in a sober colour with the optional Pretoria alloys and the (often unticked) Dynamic Chassis Control. Few owners and few miles is obviously a bonus, too. Here’s one from 2018 with 21k from one owner. Job done.
Honda Civic Type R (FK8), 2018, 29k, £25,690
Except it’s not job done because by choosing the Golf you automatically dismiss everything else. And £25k is a sufficiently large pile of readies to access some seriously desirable hardware. If you’re inclined to stick with the usability and do-it-all stylings of a hot hatch, then the FK8 Civic Type R is the archetypal anti-Golf, insofar as you’ll stand out like a shouty thumb. But it drives sublimely well and is capable of going to enlivening places that no all-wheel-drive R can reach. Unsurprisingly, Honda sold far fewer examples of the Civic, so £25k is roughly where the secondhand market current starts (here’s one with 43k on the clock for £24,500) but for a few hundred quid more you'd likely get something with below average miles. Like this 2018 car with only 29k.
Lotus Elise, 1999, 11k, £24,900
If hot hatches aren’t really your jam, how about the best performance car of the last 25 years? Granted, not everyone is an Elise superfan - and the odometers of many if not most Series 1 cars testify to a ‘sunny weekend’ use case - but if you’ve got space for one in your life, and revel in driving purely for its own sake, then look no further. Obviously, you’ll need to make your peace with a K-series engine (definitely not the ticking time bomb it’s made out to be) and an interior that errs toward ‘elemental’, although that’s very much part of the experience. As is a vibrant ownership community and the inimitable feel-good vibe that comes from driving a tiny, featherweight, fuel-sipping roadster. You might find a 111S for £25k, but we couldn’t take our eyes off this Azure Blue example from 1999 with 11k showing. Call it love.
Kia Stinger GT-S, 2018, 29k, £24,500
Once upon a time, the Elise told you everything you needed to know about Lotus; the Stinger, meanwhile, told you virtually nothing about Kia - save, perhaps, that its ambition knew no bounds. The only thing more surprising than it launching a flagship-grade, rear-drive fastback in the UK was that the result was an unlikely 370hp gem. In a segment stuffed to the gunnels with leash-straining options, the GT-S - powered by a lusty 3.3-litre turbocharged V6 - simply gets on with the business of being steadfastly good company. It often feels like a throwback to simpler times, which is perhaps one of the reasons why it was largely ignored by buyers when new. But for little more than half its original cost, it looks like stonking value used. Here’s one that’s five years old with 29k under its wheels.
Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 Shooting Brake, 2016, 50k, £24,450
Of course, if something as left-field as a Korean fastback strikes you as money well spent, there’s every chance you might think Mercedes-AMG’s niche-filler worth a punt. Truthfully, the second generation of the Shooting Brake - especially in 420hp S format - is probably the pick of the junior wagon bunch, but that doesn’t mean that its predecessor, still packing 380hp isn’t worth a look. Especially with some of the starch taken out of its asking price. Granted, there are more spacious options - the swoop of that rear end scything away some of the practicality - but the unlikely combination of estate body and bomb-grade four-pot delivered one of those cars that end up being adored by anyone searching for its rare-groove qualities. This one is from 2016 with 50k on the clock. Once in the driving seat, you genuinely might not see another.
BBR MX-5 Super 220, 2019, 11k, £20,990
We were going to end with something multi-cylindered and silly to remind everyone that buying a V8 is a timely and enlivening thing to do in 2023. But it was impossible to look past this 2019 MX-5 with its wick turned up to Super 220 grade by the wand-wavers at BBR. In case you’ve forgotten the particulars, there’s a twin test here with the Alpine A110 GT in which Matt B called it ‘an unmitigated joy’. He wasn’t kidding. This one adds the upgraded sports suspension, too, so really ought to be more fun than a box of frogs. And at £20,990, you'll have a few grand left over to spend on fuel and possibly renting a larger car when you’ve got anything to shift that’s bigger than a teabag. Otherwise, satisfaction is very much guaranteed.
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