Currently reading: £15k heroes: What is Britain's best cheap car?
The class of genuinely affordable cars is shrinking more quickly than ever – we decide which is the best bargain

How much does a new car cost nowadays? Any car will do: transport, freedom, four wheels, an engine and some seats. After the couple of years we’ve just had, I wouldn’t blame anyone who needed to look it up.

At the end of 2019, the cheapest car was less than £8000. There was a Vauxhall Corsa on the price list for less than £12,000, a Ford Focus for less than £20,000 and a BMW 3 Series for little more than £30,000. Now look at us. In another four years, who knows what a value supermini might cost – or if you will still be able to buy one at all.

If you like cheap, simple, versatile and efficient motoring, then, now is time to secure some. And if you are wondering what’s within reach – assuming that you want to spend around £15,000 in cash or £200 per month on a typical personal finance scheme (10% down, a three-year term and a conspicuously high interest rate: you know the drill) – you might be surprised how few the options already are.

There are only eight cars left on the UK market at that price or under it – and we’ve got five of them right here.

Unfortunately, Fiat’s UK distributor doesn’t have any Panda demonstrators right now, Volkswagen’s doesn’t keep any Ups and we didn’t think it worth including two slightly different Dacias in the same test just for the sake of completeness.

So it’s the Citroën C3, Dacia Sandero, Hyundai i10, Kia Picanto and MG 3 we have here to settle the question of who makes the best cheap car on sale today.

The truth is, neither the manufacturers nor the dealers are much interested in selling or promoting cars this cheap any more, and they’re growing less so, while buyers’ interest, as they see it, has migrated elsewhere.

As you’re about to read, though, bargain-basement motoring can be surprisingly fun, pleasant and practical, and remarkably convenient in 2023. Liberating, then, in more ways than one.

Meet the contenders: Dacia Sandero

Dacia Sandero and Kia Picanto following Hyundai i10

Even in isolation and even today, the Sandero feels like an awful lot of car for the money. That’s its shtick, of course. Really inspect it, though, and drive it back to back with its price-matched rivals, and it seems even more brilliant value.

The MG 3 isn’t too far off it for cabin space but has a boot some 20% smaller, while the C3 definitely offers less practicality. The i10 and Picanto feel much smaller – because they are – yet cost the same. But the Sandero can handle adults in the second row, taller folk up front and folded buggies in the boot – and leave a bit of living space around them all. Superminis never used to do that.

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What you’re looking at isn’t, in fact, the cheapest version of it. Because the headroom existed within our £15,000 budget, I borrowed a car in Expression trim (Dacia says very few customers plump for entry-level Essential, Britain’s cheapest car at £13,795), so it came with an equipment level running way beyond austerity spec.

An 8.0in touchscreen system featuring Apple CarPlay (simple, brilliantly laid out and easy to use), cruise control, parking sensors, a reversing camera, electric windows, electric mirrors and some attractive, textured, foam-backed cloth on the dashboard just to break up the other wise plasticky expanse. It’s a perfectly pleasant driving environment, with every fitted convenience you really need.

Dacia Sandero interior

It has big-car qualities on the road, too. Smart, secure handling, a comfortable ride throughout the speed range, gearing long enough for 60mpg tour ing economy and the turbocharged torque to make easy drivability in spite of that.

It could be a bit more fun, truth be told, and it’s a little way off some cars at the price in terms of apparent quality. There’s just a hint of empty biscuit tin about its rolling refinement and the reverberant clang of the doors as they close.

But just how can Dacia make a full-size supermini for less money than others charge for a city car? How can it do so without making the end result seem cheap, in so many ways? It’s a real conjuring trick. And long may it continue.

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Matt Saunders

Dacia Sandero 1.0 TCe Expression

Price £14,795 Engine 3 cyls, 999cc, turbocharged, petrol Power 90bhp at 4600-5000rpm Torque 118lb ft at 2100-3750rpm Gearbox 5-spd manual, FWD Kerb weight 1072kg 0-62mph 12.2sec Top speed 109mph Economy 53.3mpg CO2, tax band 119g/km, 28% Insurance group 14

Kia Picanto

Kia Picanto driving front

It's hard to write about enthusiastically driving a Picanto without sounding like Sniff Petrol’s parody motoring writer Troy Queef (“the Picanto is a bitch, and I spanked it”), but here we are.

Tootling through a Wiltshire village a few miles from today’s meeting point, a marked police Volvo XC90 pulls out ahead of me. When the road becomes a national speed limit, the big SUV takes off, so I figure I will gently follow its pace. But several minutes of thrashing the Picanto later, it has pulled long out of sight.

There aren’t many cars in which you can give so much effort and have so much fun yet make such unobtrusive progress.

This Picanto starts at £13,695, with ‘honey bee’ yellow paint its only non-cost option. There’s no air conditioning, the door mirrors adjust manually, as do the rear windows, and if you’re used to reading about large touchscreens, know that the infotainment system here is proudly presented on a 3.8in monochrome display with buttons.

Kia Picanto interior

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But there’s Bluetooth and digital radio, and it only takes a moment to flick the temperature gauge through its whole range without taking your eyes from the road. If it could cool air as well as warm it (air-con is reserved for the £14,445 2 model), it would have all the equipment I needed.

And I would enjoy it. Fine, 66bhp isn’t much to be getting on with. But as a result of the equipment sparsity, its 3.6-metre length and its naturally aspirated 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine, its kerb weight is just 935kg.

Most sub-tonne cars are fun to some extent, and the Picanto is more so than most. It wants 13.8sec to get to 62mph and will do no more than 100mph yet, as with the i10, has what I think is the best manual gearshift in production. Plus it steadfastly refuses to do less than 50mpg.

All winners, these cars.

Matt Prior

Kia Picanto 1.0 1

Price £13,695 Engine 3 cyls in line, 998cc, petrol Power 66bhp at 5500rpm Torque 7 1lb ft at 3750rpm Gearbox 5-spd manual, FWD Kerb weight 935kg 0-62mph 13.8sec Top speed 100mph Economy 56.5mpg CO2, tax band 109g/km, 26% Insurance group 14

MG 3

MG 3 driving – side

When it come to bang for your buck, the MG 3 is the undisputed king of our cut-price quintet. It’s not the cheapest car here, but the British-engineered, Chinese-built hatchback easily beats all comers for pound-stretching showroom appeal. Simply put, few cars give you so much kit for so little cash.

The car in our pictures is the £16,020 Exclusive Nav range-topper, but even if you go for the basic £14,320 Excite you get air-con, four electric windows, electric mirrors, parking sensors and a leather steer ing wheel. Hell, it even gets a slick-looking touchscreen infotainment system that packs Apple CarPlay. There are cars costing twice as much that aren’t as generously specified as this.

What’s more, the neatly proportioned 3 doesn’t look like a bargain-bin special: Excite trim’s diamond-cut alloys, LED daylight-running lights and a subtle rear spoiler add visual sparkle.

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It's spacious too, nearly matching the supermini-sized Sandero for family-friendly accommodation. And while the interior plastics are low-rent, the cabin is smartly designed and solidly built.

MG 3 interior

However, peel back the tinsel and you discover that the 3 is well off the pace dynamically. The ageing 105bhp 1.5-litre four-pot makes it as swift as the Sandero, but the engine becomes harsh and breathless when revved and has a thirst for unleaded (we struggled to hit 40mpg). A notchy five-speed gearbox and driveline shunt that forces you to really finesse the pedals for smooth urban assaults are further demerits.

Then there’s the chassis, which is clearly aiming for sporty but misses by a twisting country road mile. Uncompromisingly stiff suspension results in pogoing progress down even reasonably well-surfaced roads, while the glassy steering saps confidence in the corners.

There’s quite a bit of road and wind roar too (it’s the worst aural assailant here), making it a tiring long-distance companion.

It’s a shame, because there’s lots to like about the 3, not least its style, seven-year warranty and generous kit. But if you value driving pleasure, it’s badly beaten.

Moreover, while the other cars here feel more expensively engineered than their price tags suggest, the 3 proves that sometimes you really do get what you pay for.

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James Disdale

MG 3 1.5 VTi-Tech Exclusive Nav

Price £16,020 Engine 4 cyls, 1498cc, petrol Power 105bhp at 6000rpm Torque 101lb ft at 4500rpm Gearbox 5-spd manual, FWD Kerb weight 1195kg 0-62mph 10.4sec Top speed 108mph Economy 43.3mpg CO2, tax band 147g/km, 34% Insurance group 7

Hyundai i10

Hyundai i10 driving – front

If you're content to buy your baby Hyundai in Mangrove Green (rather than any of the other six pricier colours on offer) and can do without built-in sat-nav, wireless smartphone charging and other irrelevances, you can buy a 66bhp 1.0 MPi SE Connect for a shade under £15,000. Having lived with one for a week, I regard this not only as an outstanding bargain but the kind of joyful opportunity that most car buyers miss.

The bargain bit is obvious: this is one of Britain’s cheapest cars. The opportunity is less clear. Most of us instinctively shop for cars further up the complexity scale, believing the extra performance, convenience and comfort will bring a better day-to-day experience. But what a week like mine teaches you is that such car selection priorities actually deny you stuff, too.

The i10’s compactness makes standard parking spaces suddenly seem luxuriously large. And if you go for a more powerful engine, you will have to do without the thrummy smoothness of Hyundai’s delightful atmo triple, which soon teaches you that as long you use its revs generously (there’s no vibration penalty and the noise is great) and stir the slick little five-speed gearbox, you will enjoy something akin to a baby sports car experience while still turning 50mpg-plus.

Hyundai i10 interior

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SE Connect trim’s 15in wheels and relatively meagre tyres can be replaced by bigger ones if you insist, but I strongly suspect some of the car’s surprising ride suppleness, even refinement, would be lost.

As for gadgets, this base model has four electric windows, a decent audio system with wired smartphone mirroring, good head lights and everything else important. I honestly lacked for nothing. The black fabric seats are comfortable and stylish.

For those prepared to leave their buying comfort zones, the i10 is less a cheap car, more a fresh and beguiling ownership experience.

Steve Cropley

Hyundai i10 1.0 MPi SE Connect

Price £14,995 (March 2023, pre-facelift) Engine 3 cyls in line, 998cc, petrol Power 66bhp at 5500rpm Torque 71lb ft at 3750rpm Gearbox 5-spd manual, FWD Kerb weight 921kg 0-62mph 14.8sec Top speed 97mph Economy 56.5mpg CO2, tax band 119g/km, 28% Insurance group 4

Citroën C3

Citroen C3 You front cornering

When Citroën took the diminutive C1 city car off sale last year, it had become a £14,000 buy itself. The French company’s solution to replacing it – to providing the best value for money that it could in the modern compact hatchback class – was the C3 You.

It is, in essence, a C3 for less than C1 money. When it was launched in April 2022 at an eye-catching £12,995, it represented an effective 20% price slash for the entry-level C3.

Some of that “price realignment ” was the upshot of a fair pricing policy through which, a bit like Dacia, Citroën has lately sought to cut discounting and advertise its cars at a lower list price much closer to the one that the customer actually pays. But much of it was simply about focusing the car ’s spec down on the essentials.

By that term, however, Citroën clearly means something a little different than the bare bones. On the canvas of its bold exterior styling, the C3 You paints body-coloured bumpers and door handles, bright white door-mirror caps and contrasting C-pillar styling, and it can even be had with a white roof. So it doesn’t look like a bargain-bucket buy.

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Citroen C3 You interior

The interior feels a bit cheaper. Citroën’s usual flair with colour and trim would evidently have been too pricey for this car, so you get dark mouldings only, as well as a cheap-feeling plastic steering wheel and a small, antiquated-looking monochrome infotainment screen without any sat-nav or smartphone connectivity beyond Bluetooth.

There are brighter touches about the seat upholstery, but the seats themselves offer only average passenger space for a full-size supermini (especially in row two), and while the front ones are soft and large enough, they lack the shape and back support for comfortable long-distance running.

On the road, the C3 has Citroën-typical light steering, permissive body control and that usual longish travel lope about its primary ride. While neither the clutch action nor its gearshift feel particularly well defined, its three-cylinder engine is a willing revver and can put on speed keenly enough when you need it to, yet it can also be fairly refined and economical.

The C3 You is a bit of a charmer to drive, then, and, except perhaps for its steel wheels, certainly looks appealing enough for the money. It isn’t the most sensible buy here, but t hose irrational qualities will no doubt give it plenty of power to stand out.

Matt Saunders

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Citroën C3 1.2 Puretech You

Price £13,995 Engine 3 cyls in line, 1199cc, petrol Power 82bhp at 5750rpm Torque 87lb ft at 2750rpm Gearbox 5-spd manual, FWD Kerb weight 980kg 0-62mph 12.5sec Top speed 103mph Economy 48.5-54.3mpg CO2, tax band 123g/km, 29% Insurance group 14

Britain's best cheap car: Verdict

Hyundai i10 following MG 3 – front

We can imagine a slightly different buyer for every one of these cars, each motivated by a slightly different blend of factors.

If you want a surfeit of punch and grip and kit and space aplenty along with it, the 3 is the car for you.

MG 3 following Dacia Sandero – rear

If you want honest compactness and simplicity delivered in a cheery way and like the sound of a tender, lively and surprisingly analogue driving experience, it’s the Picanto.

If kerbside razzle-dazzle opens your purse, it’s the cheery C3.

Citroen C3 driving – side

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But those three all ultimately betray their cheapness, albeit in very different ways. The 3 wants for refinement and good manners on the road, the Picanto for drivability and equipment. In order to spend less than £15,000 on a car that avoids doing that, you have to look to either the i10 or the Sandero.

There’s a sense of abiding quality and sophistication about the i10 that lifts it above the field. The ride is just that bit quieter than you expect, the controls feel slicker and the grip level is more assured. So when you have to work that small engine hard to maintain speed, it’s not a chore. The i10 is only little, but it’s as if nobody told Hyundai about the compromises that littleness typically imposes.

MG 3 following Dacia Sandero – front

The Sandero isn’t little, however – not by comparison and certainly not by way of significance. That it exceeds its competition by so much and in so many ways – for performance and drivability, cruising economy and habitability, cabin space and equipment level and more – makes it nothing short of a marvel. As much so, in fact, as the old Sandero was when it arrived here a decade ago.

Join the debate

Add a comment…
A34 21 January 2024

Wonder what the lease prices for these cars are... ? 

Picanto £178pcmi10 from £180pcmC3 £206pcmMG3 £222pcmSandero £238pcm 

Chris C 21 January 2024

It gets complicated with the %EV sales rules but otherwise there does seem to be an opportunity for the import of cheap RHD cars from manufacturers in India, Malaysia or Indonesia, etc.

LP in Brighton 21 January 2024

These may be great relatively affordable small cars, but without the manufacturers and dealers support they won't sell and will eventually dissappear. I wasn't aware that the Fiat Panda still existed and I'm sure others aren't either, so no great surprise few are sold.  It seems that we Brits love our oversized SUVs instead, and we're all too happy to sign up to a PCP scheme and drive one of these vehicles that we will never own. 

xxxx 22 January 2024
LP in Brighton wrote:

These may be great relatively affordable small cars, but without the manufacturers and dealers support they won't sell and will eventually dissappear.....

Citreon, Dacia, MG, KIA, Hyundai will be around for some time yet. You've no worries