The dilemma

Ellie thinks it might have something to do with her father and uncle, because they both had Volkswagen Beetles, the old kind with the engine in the back and boot in the front.

What else, she wonders, could explain her hankering for a Beetle, the new kind with the engine in the front and the boot where it should be?

Maybe it's because they're cute, distinctive and the only car that comes with its own vase and artificial flower.


She currently has one of the last of the original Minis, as in the one before the Germans took over the brand, but it's now a bit of a basket case and a friend of a friend is interested in taking it. He's apparently rebuilding several clapped-out Minis into one good one.

So what does Driven think of the Beetle, and what else might suit a 24- year-old - something that's sort-of-different and can pack in a couple of friends?

The budget:
About $20,000

The shortlist
Fiat 500
The Nuova 500 is the same idea as the New Beetle, only rather more successfully executed. It's a modern take on Fiat's tiny and ubiquitous 500, introduced in 1957 and built for 18 years. It's available in many versions, from downtown runabout to hot hatch and even a diesel. Driving one is like a pick-me-up; little else makes urban driving seem such fun, but choose a manual over the auto, which isn't very good.
From $22,000
Smart Car
We're thinking of the Mitsubishi Colt-based ForFour 1.3-litre supermini here, rather than the wee two-seater. This one has a back seat and doors to get to them, and an unmistakable appearance that reminds Driven a little of the Citroen 2CV four-door. It was built for just over two years from 2004, but a fair number have arrived in New Zealand, many of them used imports.
From $9000
Volkswagen Beetle
The New Beetle was introduced in 1998, based on the Golf IV platform, with a convertible following in 2003. It sold well in New Zealand, new and as a used import. But designing a retro body to go on a floorpan designed for something quite different meant compromises. It's not roomy, the boot is small and access is difficult for some servicing. It may be cute, but can be hard to live with. The car has also had a number of mechanical issues, including problems with the automatic gearbox. Spend money on a good inspection. That said, Driven knows owners who absolutely love their Beetle and won't hear a word said against it.
From $4000
Driven recommends
For driving fun, the Fiat 500 scores top marks.

It's distinctive, fuel-thrifty and compact. However, good 1.4-litre manuals are going for about $22,000, so it might be a budget-stretcher for Ellie. Smart ForFours are plentiful starting at about $9000 and, given the Mitsi mechanics under the body, make a tempting proposition.

Used Beetles are a deutschmark a dozen, with prices as low as $4000, and you're hitting the sweet zone at $8000. Any of these meet Ellie's mandate - but we suggest she finds the best 500 she can and enjoys a taste of la dolce vita.