Fun on a shoestring

Honda Civic, front
Honda Civic, side
Honda Civic, rear
Honda Civic, interior
Suzuki Vitara, front static
Suzuki Vitara, side action 2
Suzuki Vitara, side action
Suzuki Vitara, front seats
Volkswagen T-Roc, front
Volkswagen T-Roc, side
Volkswagen T-Roc, rear
Volkswagen T-Roc, interior

WE'VE all heard the tired old saying ‘money can't buy you happiness'... probably a trillion times over.

Few would quibble too much with that philosophy. And there's a parallel with cars - an expensive model doesn't necessarily guarantee you the best driving experience.

Fortunately though, for the majority of us, if you choose carefully you can be rewarded with maximum pleasure for minimum money. Maybe it's one of those rare slithers of true justice.

I'm looking here at cars with a price tag of less than £25k, ok not exactly bargain basement but probably within reach of many, especially with a decent lease or PCP.

Three particular cars stand out from the crowd - models I have driven extensively during the past 12 months, all practical family cars. Two are SUVs, hardly surprising since it's the most popular style at the moment, and the third is a hatchback.

Let's kick off with the cheapest, the Honda Civicwhich is a pretty radically styled family hatch with bags of room, a huge boot and, in my favourite form a miniscule engine.

Yes, just one litre in size and with a mere three cylinders and 126bhp it propels the five door hatchback at a decent speed. But better than that, is the manner in which it does everything. Dealing with the VTEC engine first - it's ultra-smooth and makes a satisfyingly guttural noise which never seems to become intrusive even at high revs.

And like all Hondas, it loves to race round the tachometer. A slick six-speed manual gearbox makes the most of the tiny engine and cogs which are swapped smoothly in a nano-second.

It's aimed at family drivers, so it's comfortable. Poor surfaces are smoothed out impressively yet it's not soggy around bends. Steering is a bit woolly for an otherwise very precise bit of kit, but that's as far as the criticism goes.

Apart, of course, from the looks. It's something of a Marmite design with sharp angles and fake air intakes. I have to admit that I got to quite like it, but acknowledge it's definitely divisive. But with a starting price of just under £20,000 it's worth getting behind the wheel even if the styling isn't exactly your thing.

Now for something even more sensible and practical. The Suzuki Vitara has been with us for four years now and won friends for its sturdy mountain goat-like off-road ability as well as its cheap-and-cheerful Evoque-like looks. Prices start at nearly £20,000.

But dig deeper in your wallet for the 1.4 SZ5 Allgrip with Boosterjet engine (price: £24,849) and you'll find an altogether more exciting drive.

With no less than 140bhp squeezed out of the four-cylinder unit and an abundance of torque it will despatch the 62mph dash in just over nine seconds. Like the Honda, power is delivered with creamy smoothness and a pleasing absence of harshness.

It's this level of refinement in a reasonably basic SUV that helps make it satisfying and rewarding over windy, country roads as well as relaxing on motorway runs.

Add to this the presence of four wheel drive which allows the five-door Vitara to traverse where others can't, helps make it a bit special.

The fascia and furnishings aren't as smart and upmarket as some rivals but such criticisms tend to fade away the more you drive it. Goodies like sat nav, heated seats and alcantara trim are standard.

A more recent candidate for honours is the Volkswagen T-Roc, which covers just about all the bases for just over the £20k mark. The two-wheel drive crossover looks the business without being over-flash, has a cabin that looks solid with an air of typical VW quality and it drives better than you'd ever expect a high-rider to be capable of.

Pick of the bunch, for my money, is the little 1.0-litre which is ultra responsive, refined and also happens to be the cheapest. Prices for the 1.0-litre are from £20,490.

With a Tardis like interior, the T-Roc can absorb up to five passengers and there's still space for their luggage in the 445 litre boot.

Based on the latest Polo, there's an emphasis on lightness both in terms of controls and handling. With precise, fairly high-geared steering it turns in early to corners and weights-up nicely as bends are negotiated. Few crossover come close to offering such a blend of balanced handling alongside decent ride comfort.

With just 115bhp on tap, the T-Roc does well to top 117mph and reach 62mph in 10.1 seconds. In real-life driving its immediacy and instant throttle response make it feel quicker. And the great thing is that it never feels flustered or strained as you press on.

Most owners will easily squeeze out 40mpg-plus even if they are tempted to make the most of its eager nature.

Certainly, there are other options that offer cheap thrills - what about the ubiquitous MINI or Mazda MX-5 - but few keen drivers will find this trio disappoints.

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