What's the best 'first car' for $20k? Here's what our car journos would buy
Search Driven for vehicles for sale
DRIVEN's headquarters is, generally, one rolling ongoing argument after another about all things four-wheeled. Whether it's cars currently on test or rose-tinted memories from years gone by, the next passionate vehicular debate is never far away.
It made sense to take this excitable energy and turn it into something (hopefully) useful. As such, welcome to DRIVEN's new online content series (published each Monday), where we pick out the cars that we would actually buy with our cold hard cash.
This week, it's back to reality. Worlds away from our $100,000 picks from last week, we turn to the age-old question; What's the best second-hand car for learning to drive for under $20,000?
Editor, Dean Evans: 2014 Mini Paceman / 2015 Hyundai Veloster
Safety to look after your kids is the mantra pushed by new cars, but I’m going to ensure my kids are skilled enough that they will be looking after the car more so than vice versa – plus there are a few psychological elements here, as my kids are spoiled enough already.
Knowing my genes for the love of speed, it’s unlikely a first/learner car for my kids will be either brand new, expensive or fast, but it does need to tick a few basic boxes: ABS, ESP and a few airbags is fine, but I’m looking for a decent engine to get you out of trouble, but not too much to get you into it. So a small capacity four-cylinder, preferably sans turbo, and a budget of $20k does offer a lot of choices.
Mazda 3s, Toyota Corollas and Suzuki Swifts are all fine choices, if a little predictable and ‘safe’, but my kids will want something a little different, so I found some solid alternatives – and given I’ll no doubt have a financial interest in it in some way (loan, insurance, rego for eg), I want something that the kid can be proud of, too.
So browsing through DRIVEN I found a 2014 Mini Paceman auto for just under $20k, a 1.6 auto with 30,000km, that I’d shortlist as a learner car. Good vision, a two/three-door and it looks a little quirky, at least in my eyes, so that’d likely mean they’d want something different.
So there’s the option of a 2015 Hyundai Veloster 1.6 DCT, with similar kilometres, and Elite spec too, so packed with features and tech like a sunroof and cruise control, proximity key… geez, where was a car like this when I was learning to drive?!
Vision out of the coupe isn’t as good, but this could be their first true car, once they’ve learnt the driving basics for a year or two and dispensed with the L plates.
More important than the car, however, is that I’ll be getting my kids to build their driving skills, so by the time they get their licence, they will have had fun in go karts, and even got some experience in basics of car control, defensive driving and accident avoidance.
They will have trialled and trained on grass or slippery surfaces, learned what ABS and a car does in precarious situations (all in controlled areas), how to control it and have the ability and confidence of a foundation of skills that will ensure that I, as a parent, have trust in their capacity to be a better driver than most.
To me, the skills of the person operating the controls is more important than the safety features offered.
Deputy Editor, David Linklater: 2018 Suzuki Swift RS
Photo / Ted Baghurst
I reckon for a learner and especially first car, the newer the better: easier to drive and safer. Especially when you consider that you probably need a small car to learn traffic and parking skills.
A Suzuki Swift might seem like the obvious choice, but maybe the obvious choice is the best one in this case. Plus I’m going to be quite specific and say a 1.0-litre, six-speed automatic RS, which can be found for a snip under $20k if you go for around 2018 vintage.
Not a manual? I love ’em and I do think you learn good habits and skills with three pedals, but the reality is that it’s not important to be able to drive a manual these days, so it’s better to invest that energy learning other things.
A learner/first car should be fun, but also something to take pride in. The 1.0-litre, three-cylinder Swift is a hoot: it’s responsive, it makes nice noises and unlike the entry Swift GL it has a proper gearbox (not a CVT), but it’s still not powerful enough to lead a young driver astray.
The modern Swift really is a classless car and therefore quite aspirational. Even more so with an “RS” badge on the back.
Senior Multimedia Journalist, Matthew Hansen: 1996–2002 Toyota Surf (4Runner)
I know what this looks like. Two weeks of Toyota picks in a row must mean I'm on some kind of take, right?
Allow me to allay those fears with an assortment of negative-leaning Toyota factoids. The current Hilux has one of the most uncomfortable suspension set-ups of any ute in class. The RAV4 defies reasonable underpinnings by fumbling the moose test. And the CH-R's back seats are a dungeon.
Phewf. Glad that's over. Now to my choice.
The natural thing to gravitate towards in first-car discussions are small cars pumped with safety kit. I learned to drive in a wee square Mazda Demio and eventually got a Suzuki Swift Sport as my first car, so the rationale is more than familiar.
But, choosing a first car should be about more than simply assorting options according to what comes wrapped in the most proverbial cotton wool. Getting a car that actually teaches the act of driving to a first-timer should be just as important. And, as a whipper snapper growing up, that car ended up being my Dad's Toyota Surf.
As a youngster, hopping out of the Demio and into the Surf was like graduating from making toast to making a croquembouche. The change was violent, but it made me a better driver. Learning to drive in a large vehicle like a Surf makes you more aware and empathetic to other drivers. It's a big old-school tank, which makes it a good testbed for learning mechanical sympathy.
In short; if you can drive a Surf, you can drive anything.
Because the engineering underneath is dead simple, too, you can fix almost any issue with a hairpin and a hammer. It's a product of the 1990s based on something from the 1980s, which means visibility is excellent. And, most important to any first-car buyer, you'll look totally rad driving one.
$20,000 will buy you the absolute best second or third-generation Surf in the country (or a couple of average ones with change). There's a few gems with under 100,000km listed for sale on DRIVEN currently, including this one.
Digital Writer, Andrew Sluys: 2005–2013 Mazda MX-5
When looking for a first car, you want to go for something that is the vehicular equivalent of getting thrown in the deep end with a lifeguard present. That is why I’ve opted for the third-generation Mazda MX-5, as it walks the line between safety and learning valuable driving lessons.
If you weren’t too concerned with the well-being of your child, the first-generation MX-5 would be a go, but the extra safety offered by the NC MX-5 with airbags and traction control is the better choice.
As a bog standard enthusiast, I’m obsessed with manuals as much as the next guy, so a first car being a manual is still high on my list of priorities. On top of this, the rear-wheel drive orientation of the roadster will teach some valuable lessons about oversteer, especially in the wet. On this topic, the 2.0-litre N/A engine isn’t going to be breaking any records with 126kW on tap, and the kid should know not to race anyone, as they’re going to lose either way.
Also, having a two-seater as a first car means that gangs of teenagers can’t pile in, so the risk of getting caught with passengers on a restricted licence is minimised.
Finally, if you drive an MX-5 to high school, you’re probably going to get laughed at, and called a hairdresser (not that being a hairdresser is a bad thing) so this will keep any child humble. Another great trait to possess in the formative years.
As they say; Miata Is Always The Answer.