PH Service History: Sparing the horses

It is a well-established theory in the world of motoring - and one to which I subscribe fully - that one does not necessarily need a great deal of power in order to have fun. Indeed, quite often, the most fun you can have in a car is with relatively little power at your disposal.

It's an ideal my esteemed colleague Mr Prior put to the test a couple of weeks ago, when he went out to Belgium in order to thrash a Citroen C1 around Spa for several hours. For some of you, this will sound like hell on earth, but I for one was so excited by the idea that I spent roughly the same amount of time as Matt was driving his C1 trying to work out how I could get the idea of buying and racing one past Mrs R.

Suffice it to say that I haven't yet, but I remain convinced of the principle that something cheap and cheerful has the potential to provide motoring enjoyment on a scale far beyond that which it has any right to.

Oh, sure, big power has its place. But I've lost count of the times I've been lucky enough to drive something big and silly and powerful, and wished for a bit of tarmac clear and smooth enough to really exploit its potential. Brief, short spurts of manic acceleration and face-distorting grip, spliced in between a dawdling tractor here and a blind crest there, are all you really get.

Which is why I regularly find myself having just as much fun - often even more so - in something with a fraction of the power. It's a different type of fun, too; something with 'proper' performance these days usually deals in the sort of head-spinning rapidity that results in one huge adrenaline hit, whereas a cheaper and lighter alternative more consistently plasters a big, asinine grin all over your face. These are cars you laugh along with. And, in part at least, that's because the chances of your spirited drive across the moors ending... well, embedded in the moors, are that much more slim, what with the speeds involved being so much more modest.

Best of all, they're seriously cheap. And here's where the real joy comes in, because the amount of joy they dish out is often inversely proportionate to the cost they incur. Take the most obvious proponent of this sort of motoring, for example: the Fiat Panda 100HP.

With, as its name suggests, a paltry horsepower figure that only just scraped into three figures, it was pushing it a little even when it was new to call it a hot hatch. Yet the sporting aspirations of the 100HP's styling - not to mention its taut chassis, lowered and stiffened up compared with the stock Panda - make it a deeply desirable little car, and one that's the epitome of less-is-more motoring.

This one looks cheap at £3,440 - but in reality, this is top money for a 100HP these days, and really only justifiable for a car with such low mileage and fantastic provenance. A similarly well-kept example with more miles on it can be had for little more than £2,500, these days, while two grand gets you a leggy example. That's a lot of fun for relatively little cash.

But the Panda 100HP isn't the only car of its type out there. There's also the Suzuki Swift Sport, of course. There's a new one arriving imminently, and we've run the outgoing model as a long-termer, but for me it's the first-generation car that's the most exciting at the moment. Its heady 125hp power figure is almost too great to make it worthy of inclusion here, but the dedication to a giggle-worthy driving experience at its most basic is evident throughout, from the rorty little engine to the way the chassis is set up to deliver gentle, manageable lift-off oversteer.

It's a shade more expensive than the Panda, but then again you get more space and more power too, so you pays your money, you takes your choice. This one gives you a full history, low mileage and even a questionable decal package, all for a smidge more than £4,000.

These two tepid hatches do, of course, take as their starting point cars of a sportier bent, aping their looks if not quite their power. Some of the best cars of this type, though, hide their talent under a bushel. Take the outgoing Ford Fiesta, for example. The later 1.0-litre turbo models are the best for this sort of thing, with their fabulous three-pot engine note, gutsy mid-range shove and astonishing ability to rev out.

But even the earlier 1.25 is a hoot; arguably just as keen to rev, and endowed with a blissfully feelsome and responsive chassis that can be persuaded into doing... well, pretty much whatever you want it to. This mid-range Zetec is far more fun than it has any right to be, costs just a few grand, can be run on peanuts, and best of all, nobody will ever know just how much fun you're having.

And of course, if you want to follow in Matt's footsteps, there's always the Citroen C1. Granted, it was never the most enticing drive in original form, but if Matt's experience is anything to go by, a few cheap mods can make it one of the most hilarious little buzzboxes going. Buy this one, with a full history and low mileage, for two grand; enjoy a year or two of cheap, entertaining motoring, and then when you're bored of it, go racing.

P.H. O'meter

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