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Ten awesome used cars for the price of a new Tesla Model 3 – Top Gear

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It’s Britain’s best-selling EV for good reason. But who needs reason when there are used-car bargains to be had?
Well there you have it: 2021 might be the last time a petrol-powered car tops the best-seller list in the UK. The Tesla Model 3 – a car whose prices start at £43,000 – is second only to a Vauxhall city car that starts at just two-fifths of that amount.    
So the absolute cheapest new Model 3 that you can buy will set you back £42,990. And that, unless you’re the sort to drive in Boris’s VIP lane, is a fat stack of cash. This means that – regardless of a used-car landscape that’s hell-bent on giving the housing, art and even second-hand Rolex market a lesson in price-gouging – it’s more than enough for some decidedly excellent choices. And also some less excellent but transcendentally more entertaining ones, as we shall now demonstrate.
If you’re already thinking about buying an electric car – and indeed a Tesla – does it not make sense to see just how far your coin can carry you? Incidentally, we tried this ourselves and it turns out that 50p is pretty rubbish at carrying us anywhere. But we digress.
Regardless of how you view Tesla, the varying nature of its panel gaps, what exactly constitutes ‘full self-driving’ or indeed how much money someone has to accrue before currency becomes a literal game to them, the fact is that Tesla’s launch was pretty damn canny. Start off with a sports car to pique the public’s interest, segue into a large, astonishingly quick luxury car to cement your position (and start off a basically unstoppable hype train), then make a play for the mass market. How exactly a car-based subway system and a truck that looks like it was an unlockable vehicle in Interstate ’76 fit in with the plan is anyone’s guess. Also, extra points if you remember Interstate ’76. And you’ll need those points, because it makes you old.
Anywho, the point we keep missing by that much is that for the price of a mass-market, mass-produced Tesla, you can have a hand-built luxury car from the same manufacturer – all of the performance, most of the toys and more space than an Arthur C Clarke novel.
But who needs the very latest in technological advancements when you can get the absolute zenith of 1970s technological advancements? The SM is genuinely the final word in analogue wizardry, with pre-bankruptcy Citroen throwing absolutely everything it had into making a mechanical masterpiece.
There’s a widely repeated narrative that this near-pathological focus on the what and how – without really considering the why – bankrupted Citroen. And that’d be a lovely little anecdote to add heft to the SM’s backstory. But then we’d all just have to forget Citroen’s money-shedding ventures into sensible ideas like rotary-engined helicopters. In fact, just trying to get Felix Wankel’s recalcitrant design to work longer than a glass hammer and use less fuel than a Saturn V rocket took Citroen to the wall; add in a series of expensive corporate takeovers intended to bolster Citroen’s famously no-holds-barred engineering department and – even if the SM was the coup de grâce – it’d only need to be a love tap to finish the job.
But that’d rather suit the SM, a car in which the technological mastery wasn’t in pursuit of anything as gauche as shaving tenths or the kind of behaviour you could mime with oversteer hands. It was, in no uncertain terms, the pinnacle of grand touring. With that said, the SM did win the 1971 Morocco Rally – on its motorsport debut, no less – so the performance and indeed engineering are definitely up to snuff for a calming cross-continental cruise. And everywhere you arrive, you get to arrive in something that looks like this.
Let’s say you’re into the B-side grooves more than the hits – if so, welcome, pull up a chair – but you want something with a little more zest. A bit more rortiness. Helpful if there’s a bit of rally pedigree in there as well. Has to be from a manufacturer that was absolutely pathological about engineering. Styled by a famous Italian carrozzeria, too, of course.
And somehow, even with this incredible list of requirements, there is a car that manages to fit the bill. Based on the car that won the World Rally Championship, styled by Zagato, underpinned by pre-Fiat Lancia (read: obsessive) engineering and powered by a supremely rare-groove V4 engine that basically defines rortiness.
As you might expect from people who write about cars for a living, we’re pretty big fans of a lot of them. We’d like to own many, and desperately want a few. But we’re struggling to remember the last time we physically ached at the mere sight of one. Seems the Fulvia Sport managed to tick that box, too.  
Image: Silverstone Auctions
For all the electric versus petrol, rear-drive versus AWD, classic versus modern car arguments, it actually turns out that there are only two types of car people in the world: those who haven’t heard a supercharged Lotus Exige at full chat, and those who cannot shut up about it.
As we said back when we drove it, “if you’ve not experienced that sound, here’s a rough approximation: imagine Brian Blessed fighting an enraged Kodiak bear and funnel it through Millwall losing to West Ham in overtime. That gets you about halfway there”.
And as we said not long afterwards, Lotuses have the unhappy effect of rather ruining you for other cars. Once you’ve experienced the combined effects of scant weight, furious noise and sublime steering, regular cars can only remind you of how much we all miss out on. Well, apart from Lotus owners, of course.
Here’s an idea for you to mull over – being ‘awesome’ does not necessarily mean being ‘good’ as well. For instance, you could describe the power of the atomic bomb as awesome, but you’d struggle to consider one going off in your neighbourhood a particularly good thing.
Then there’s the Jensen Interceptor. A gorgeous thing – designed by Touring of Milan, so of course it is – and powered by an American V8 that scratches that primordial itch to bellicosely bellow at the loudest decibels you can muster. Yep, it’s Primal Scream Therapy, Top Gear style: find a whopping V8 from the decade that gave us psychotherapy’s shoutiest trend and use the sound of fire and machinery, rather than something as puny as a pair of lungs.
Unfortunately, the Interceptor was also built with the kind of care usually reserved for McDonald’s cheeseburgers, and the 6.3-litre V8 in question was from a time when American V8s were more elaborate vuvuzelas than methods of propulsion. The official number from Chrysler was 250bhp; this turned out to be a measurement unmatched in its optimism until the captain of the Ever Given figured he could make that gap. Undeterred, Jensen plumped for Chrysler’s big-boy-pants 440ci (7.2-litre) V8 – including the hallowed 440 Six Pack in some cases, which officially made a healthier, if still underwhelming, 330bhp. But generally speaking, you were looking at something in the mid-200s for power – if you could convince any of it to work.
But as we now live in an era when most everything is rubbish, except for V8s – i.e. the Mad Max timeline – there’s very little stopping you from spending Model 3 money on an Interceptor of broadly any stripe, sitting the old lump of iron aside and swapping in something with the trousers to match the mouth, as it were. The obvious is an LS, the most British feels like some form of fettled Rover V8, and the (quite literally) power move would have to be one of those mesmerisingly powerful supercharged Hellcat engines. Because that’s the basic idea you had when considering an electric car, right?
Of all the problems facing the modern world, the absence of a BMW M5 Touring ranks quite a ways behind… well, all the things that immediately popped into your head. After all, you can just head to Alpina for what’s basically an M5 Touring in all but name. And, when every last pound, dollar, dinar, drachma and rupee has been drained from every account you hold, you might be lucky enough to drive it home.
But there is – as Waze will not shut up about if there’s a mote of traffic – another way. Our way gets you a genuine BMW M5 Touring from a time when even heroically powerful, top-tier super saloons (and estates) didn’t announce their prowess to even the most casual observer. It also gets you a straight six – BMW’s signature dish – with roots firmly planted in the transcendent M1 supercar, as well as superbly straight-edged styling from Ercole Spada of DB4 GT fame. And Fulvia Sport, come to think of it. Clearly no slouch with the pencils, then.
It was hand-built by BMW’s M Division, comes as standard with a manual gearbox and will comfortably haul a family’s worth of kit down the Autobahn at 150mph. And, with less than 1,000 made, you could even make the awful yet persuasive (and pervasive) argument that it has only one way to go in terms of price.
Ah, yes. The ‘not a Ferrari’ that was the butt of so many jokes in the seminal ‘Supercars for less than £10,000’ segment on TG TV of yore. But, even taking inflation into account, we’re still only talking about £16,000 or so in today’s money. And that’s hardly enough to get a Ferrari keyring, let alone car.
This, aside from another twist of the knife in the ever-continuing saga of ‘Things Were Affordable When You Didn’t Have Any Money And Aren’t Now That You Do’, is as appropriate a segue as any other to the fact that even the perennially unloved Dino GT4 is now a properly pricey proposition. Tesla Model 3 money or thereabouts, in case so much wasn’t already obvious.
At this point, you might expect the usual caveat that spending less would only earn you an endless supply of headaches and a bucket of bolts in the broad shape of a Ferrari. But that’s the thing – the proper rotters have almost entirely… well, rotted away. Wrecked, ruined or rusted 308 GT4s have had all their useful pieces stripped for spares and restorations. Because there’s real money in the Dino now, there’s incentive to sort out the ones that aren’t beyond repair.
So, what could you get for your not-inconsiderable expenditure? Well, styling by Marcello Gandini, a 3.0-litre Ferrari V8 and the safety of knowing that despite how much the 308 GT4 was scorned, the Mondial will always be worse. Zero to 60mph in more than nine seconds, anyone?
Speaking of slow cars – here’s one that’s as fast as a Ken Burns documentary and as safe as the war it’s based on. Hills, crosswinds and traffic on hot days – none of these are your friend. And none of them want to be.
But in terms of active participation in driving, you’re unlikely to find anything that requires quite so much involvement from you at such low speeds. You’re not so much driving for the experience – the sensation of acceleration, the sound of speed, the ticket for £120 from a stern-looking police officer – but you will, unequivocally, experience the drive.
Also, while the rear-engined layout rather stymies the time-honoured ‘load up the van from the rear’ thing that just about every other manufacturer offers, there’s still space aplenty for whichever version of van life suits you best – even if the whole ‘living in a van’ thing invariably reminds us of Matt Foley.
OK, but what if you’re after a classic car that actually does offer a turn of speed?
Well, this is still Top Gear, after all, so we’re going to find a car that offers a turn of speed. Then another turn, then another, and then a race track’s worth. And, loath as we are to use this word, literally.
Such was the pace of the GT-R that it earned the title of Godzilla in Australia. But rather than destroying cardboard buildings (or indeed Matthew Broderick’s film career), it tore apart the touring cars from Australia and around the world – and more than a few egos.  
At the Bathurst 1000 – the race that overshadows every other meeting in the calendar, much like Le Mans does in WEC – it was a very simple equation. In the late Eighties, before the R32, Fords and Holdens won. In 1990, the Skyline would have won but for mechanical kinks that Nismo Australia hadn’t sorted out. In 1991, it wasn’t even close – the GT-R set a new record time, which stood unbroken until 2010. In 1992, it was handicapped with more weight and less power. And still dominated, as little as the local competitors or fans may have liked it. The win at Bathurst in 1992 – and its unpopularity – helped bring about one of the best, most honest and heartfelt lines ever uttered from the winner’s podium. Which we won’t spoil, but will say involves some slightly salty language. And then the series banned turbo cars in 1993. Not linked at all, we’re sure.
Of course, you won’t be buying a Bathurst-winning historical race car for Model 3 money. But you will be buying a bona fide modern classic, with a depth of engineering that’ll allow you to build up a car that’s every bit as quick. Even if you aren’t.
But if we’re going to talk about modern classic sports cars with unfathomable depths of engineering and giant-killing performance, we’re going to have to talk about the Corvette. Yes, that Corvette. Get your jokes out now.
Because this fairly regular-looking Corvette hides one of the all-time great engines, a technological tour de force designed by Lotus, hand-built (and computer-checked) by aluminium-engine specialists MerCruiser and able to hold its own against the might of the contemporary Ferrari Testarossa’s five-litre flat-12 engine. The Ferrari had 10bhp more than the 5.7-litre, quad-cam V8, but the LT5 fired back with an extra 25lb ft. Outright figures for the 1990s Corvette ZR-1 were 375bhp and 370lb ft, creeping up over 400bhp in later years and routinely taken beyond 420bhp with no more than an exhaust swap and software remap.
This, in no uncertain terms, is a quick car. As was ably demonstrated when a team of drivers took a basically stock ZR-1 around a high-speed ring for 24 hours at an average speed of 175.885mph, breaking a record that had sat untouched for 49 years. Apparently, modifications extended no further than a big fuel tank and longer gearing – and a couple of suitcases full of spare parts and tools, as the regulations stipulated that any repairs would have to be done by the drivers, using whatever was in the suitcases. And this record-breaking, Ferrari-fast Corvette with a Lotus-designed, gearhead’s dream of an engine, is available for less than a Tesla Model 3. Could this be the last classic car bargain ever?
Image: Bonhams
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She has been writing columns on consumer gadgets for over 2 years now. Her areas of interest include smartphones, tablets, mobile operating systems and apps. She holds an M.C.S. degree from Texas A&M University.