The best cheap – but safe – first cars to buy your grandchild (and the one to avoid)

The Ford Fiesta, for many years Britain's best-selling car, is a great first motor due to its excellent safety rating
The Ford Fiesta, for many years Britain's best-selling car, is a great first motor due to its excellent safety rating

For young people facing rising insurance costs and low wages, the idea of buying a car can sometimes feel sickeningly out of reach. So if you’re a grandparent who’s fortunate enough to be in a position to help, you may well be contemplating buying your grandchild their first set of wheels.

But what should you buy? With such high inflation, you probably don’t have a huge amount of free cash so you’ll want something affordable. Then again, cheap doesn’t necessarily mean safe – and the last thing you’ll want is to put your beloved into a car that isn’t going to protect them in a crash.

Is there a best of both worlds – a happy medium between cost and safety that’ll see your grandkids right without hurting your wallet too heavily? Naturally, you’ll also want to avoid crippling costs for them, too, which is why you’ll want a car that’s cheap to insure – not to mention one that’s good on fuel and reliable.

That’s a lot of criteria to fulfil. But such cars do exist: here are the best used cars that also rate highly on safety, reliability and running costs, to suit every budget from £2,000 to £6,000.

I’ve also included the car to run a mile from – and you should, too.

Budget: £2,000

Renault Clio (2005-2013)

Renault Clio (2005)
'Soft, comfortable ride': the Renault Clio (2005)

The third-generation Clio was well known for its crashworthiness, being one of the first small cars to attain the then-hallowed five-star Euro NCAP crash test standard, the top mark. And given that the Clio is generally cheaper than most of its competitors on the used market, that makes it easily the safest small car you can now buy for this budget.

That’s not all there is to like, though. This third Clio was endowed with a soft, comfortable ride quality and good fuel economy, making it a pleasant car to drive and affordable to run. Surprisingly little tends to go wrong, too, though keep an eye out for electrical glitches. And with plenty of space in the back seats and boot, there will also be room for mates and their baggage.

Price to pay: From £1,000

We found: 2006 Clio 1.2 TCE 16v Dynamique, 65,000 miles, full service history, £1,950

Watch out for: Dead or dying air-conditioning, dicky automatic gearboxes, high oil consumption with 1.2 engines

Budget: £3,000

Vauxhall Corsa (2006-2014)

Vauxhall Corsa SRI (2007)
'Easy to drive': the Vauxhall Corsa SRI (2007) - Alamy

The Corsa is about as common-or-garden as cars come, but with good reason: it’s cheap to buy and run, as well as being easy to drive. As a first car, it makes a lot of sense: this third-generation model’s safety rating is high, insurance costs are affordable – particularly the 1.0-litre model – and because there are so many around, prices are low, making them great value.

And don’t forget that this version of the Corsa was lauded when it was released, winning the What Car? Car of the Year trophy in 2007 thanks to its spacious interior, well-built dashboard and generous equipment list – characteristics that still hold true more than 17 years later.

Price to pay: From £1,500

We found: 2012 Corsa 1.0 Ecoflex 12v S, 66,000 miles, full service history, £2,795

Watch out for: Sticky and juddering clutch pedals, leaky radiators, broken glovebox lids, notchy steering

Budget: £4,000

Ford Fiesta (2008-2017)

'Ahead of most of its rivals for safety': the Ford Fiesta (2017)
'Ahead of most of its rivals for safety': the Ford Fiesta (2017)

For very many years, the Fiesta was Britain’s best-selling car. No wonder: it’s good to look at, great to drive, easy to live with and cheap to run. All of which makes it a good first car – but what promotes it to a great one is its excellent safety rating.

The Fiesta scored five stars in the Euro NCAP crash tests when it was introduced in 2008 and even in 2012, after the test had been beefed up, the Ford scored an impressive 91 per cent adult occupant protection rating – way ahead of most of its rivals of a similar age.

One note of warning, though: if running costs are a concern (and they probably will be for a first-time driver), avoid the 1.0-litre turbo engine, whose complicated timing belt needs changing every 10 years, at a cost of about £1,000. A 1.25- or 1.4-litre-engined car will be much cheaper to maintain.

Price to pay: From £1,500

We found: 2011 Fiesta 1.25 Zetec, 58,000 miles, full service history, £3,995

Watch out for: Moisture or dampness inside, notchy steering, vibration, 1.0-litre cars overdue a timing belt change

Budget: £5,000

Kia Rio (2011-2016)

'A lot of car for your money': the Kia Rio (2011)
'A lot of car for your money': the Kia Rio (2011)

Granted, the Rio isn’t quite as well known as some of the other cars here, but it’s a sensible choice. This third-generation Rio combines a very good safety record for its time with very low insurance groups, particularly with the 1.25-litre engine. That’s bound to make it a sure-fire winner with any grandchild looking to save money on their annual premium, even if the badge might not fill them with excitement.

What’s more, the Rio is great value – you get a lot of car for your money – and with Kia’s reliability record being one of the best around, a well-maintained Rio should be pretty dependable. Very much a head-over-heart choice, then – but if you’re the one making the decisions, that might well be just what you’d prefer.

Price to pay: From £2,000

We found: 2013 Rio 1.25 2, 57,000 miles, full service history, £4,990

Watch out for: Glitchy stop-start and stability control systems, rattling from behind dashboards

Budget: £6,000

Toyota Yaris (2011-2020)

'Top-notch reliability': the Toyota Yaris (2014)
'Top-notch reliability': the Toyota Yaris (2014)

The Yaris has become the go-to choice for buyers looking to combine compact dimensions with top-notch reliability. Indeed, so good is its reputation for longevity and dependability that it’s worth living with the slightly cheaper interior plastics when compared with some rivals.

But the Yaris isn’t a one-trick pony. It also scored well in crash tests, obtaining the full five stars which meant it matched the best in its class at the time. Meanwhile the small engines keep insurance groups to a minimum. That, together with meagre fuel consumption and that excellent reliability, should make getting around as cheap as possible for your grandkids.

Price to pay: From £3,500

We found: 2015 Yaris 1.33 Icon, 64,000 miles, full service history, £5,995

Watch out for: Rust on the boot lid around the number plate, engine misfires

One to avoid

Fiat Punto (2005-2018)

Fiat Punto (2005)
'A litany of quality niggles': the Fiat Punto (2005)

Granted, early examples of the Punto (aka Grande Punto and Punto Evo, depending on which model year you choose) at least boasted a pretty decent safety record for their time, but even when they were new, these older, cheaper examples suffered from a litany of quality niggles that make buying one something of a gamble by now.

And by the end of its life, when it was re-tested under Euro NCAP’s updated crash-testing regime, the Punto’s woeful adult occupant protection score of only 51 per cent proved that the world had moved on in quite some measure.

If you aren’t buying at bargain basement prices, then, there are plenty of safer, better value cars out there – and even if you are, an early Punto will likely be something of a liability.