Don’t let potentially big repair bills put you off because if you’re patient, do your homework and choose wisely, one of these modern classics from Germany could prove to be a great buy.
Below you’ll find the usual mix of models from the big German brands, Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Volkswagen, but there’s also some left-field alternatives from Vauxhall (Opel to our European friends) too.
It might only seem like yesterday that cars like the BMW E36 3 Series and Vauxhall Calibra were plentiful, but numbers are dwindling and now they could make for a great investment as enthusiasm for some 1990’s nostalgia starts to peak.
For a cleverly packaged city car with a surprising amount of room, there’s little better than the Mercedes A-Class – starting at just £300 – and if you want a slice of automotive history, the Audi TT could be it. The first generation TT took the world by storm and thanks to its popularity at the time, examples can now be had from just £500. Whatever your budget, we’ve proven you could be driving a well-built, stylish and refined German classic car at a bargain price.
Years produced: 1995-2002
Price range: £1,000-£10,000
The combination of a BMW badge and striking retro looks on an affordable drop-top two-seater was too much for many buyers to resist when the Z3 was launched in 1995. It still is, because prices have now slid down to a level where tatty cars are less than £1,000. The early 1.9-litre four-cylinder versions are pretty simple mechanically, too, so are easy to fix even for a competent DIY mechanic. It’s more of a cruiser than a sports car, though.
Volkswagen Golf R32
Years produced: 2002-2004
Price range: £3,500-£15,000
The Mk4 Golf was initially a bit of a disappointment to fans of fast Volkswagens, with a lacklustre GTI model powered by a weedy 1.8-litre turbo petrol engine. Yet, all was forgiven when the R32 was revealed, featuring a new 3.2-litre VR6 engine that produced 238bhp. It had four-wheel drive, which meant it could hold its own against a fast BMW or turbo Subaru through the corners, too. It was also the first VW to use the DSG dual-clutch automatic gearbox, although a six-speed manual was also available.
While the drivetrain was new, the rest of the car had the usual Golf practicality and quality. The R32 was expensive new and only stayed in production for two years, so it’s rare now and sought after by collectors. Dealers ask more than £15,000 for the best cars.
Years produced: 1992-2002
Price range: £1,000-£10,000
While the value of original Audi Quattros has gone through the roof and prices of BMW E30 3 Series models have shot up, the Audi Coupé and Cabrio have stayed very much in banger territory, with prices barely in four figures. Frankly we can’t understand why, and think the classic car market will soon wake up to them, too. The tin-top Audi Coupé was always a solid and attractive car, and although the Convertible was a little more wobbly (a problem with many soft-top cars), it’s still a classy-looking thing.
Years produced: 1997-2004 Price range: £300-£3,000 Rarity: ★★☆☆☆
Mercedes’ reputation took a knock when an original A-Class fell over during a Swedish magazine’s ‘elk’ slalom test, and the public didn’t really understand its radical packaging, either. But now they are becoming rarer, the ingenuity of the model is starting to be appreciated. The A-Class is just 3.6m long – shorter than a Ford Ka – but it has more space inside than a Volkswagen Golf. It means the A-Class could make a practical future classic that can swallow a sofa at Ikea, yet not take up much space in the garage.
BMW E36 3 Series
Years produced: 1990-2000
Price range: £500-£6,000
After a BMW 3 Series turns 10 years old, it enters a zone where it’s affordable to people who like dubious modifications and can’t afford proper maintenance. Those that survive these years unscathed gradually become interesting and will get admiring glances. The oldest E36 3 Series models are now approaching their 30th birthday, and unmodified, tidy examples are definitely worth a look, especially the six-cylinder petrol models with Touring, Coupé or Convertible bodies.
Years produced: 1996-2004
Price range: £1,000-£8,000
In the SLK, Mercedes had a car that could make you look like a millionaire, even if you lived by relatively modest means. It had a party trick that even the SL couldn’t match: a folding hard-top that made it as secure, weatherproof and refined as a coupé, while allowing the sunshine in at the touch of a button.
It didn’t matter to the eager queue of buyers that the early cars had wooden handling, a wheezy four-cylinder supercharged petrol engine and a slow automatic gearbox, because it looked great.
It still does, too, if the dreaded rust that plagues Mercedes of this era hasn’t taken hold. That, and gremlins in the complicated roof, can easily write off an early SLK. We would look out for a slightly later V6 that has led a sheltered life. Ensure the folding top still works properly, and you can pose for a pittance.
Years produced: 1994-2001
Price range: £300-£6,000
When it was new, the ad for this A4 poked fun at the yuppie buyers of rival brands, suggesting Audi drivers were more caring and thoughtful. It worked, and customers flocked to buy the smart-looking A4, cementing the marque’s success in the UK. While the barmy RS 4 was an instant classic, the rest of the range is gradually becoming collectable, too. We’d seek out a cared-for 2.4 V6 Avant in a bright colour for a classic you could use everyday.
BMW E39 5 Series
Years produced: 1996-2003
Price range: £500-£30,000
Rumour has it that BMW was petrified at the idea of Mercedes’ replacement for the legendary W124 series E-Class, and so pulled out all the stops to make its new 5 Series, launched in 1996, exceptional in every way. In hindsight it needn’t have worried, because Mercedes was busy thinking it had over-engineered the W124 and dialled back the quality for its successor.
Still, this meant the 5 Series, codenamed E39, was a beautifully built and dynamically excellent car, which can still provide refined saloon or estate-shaped everyday motoring today.
As always, the hot M5 will be most in demand and sell for five figures, but lesser models can be found in useable condition for £1,000 upwards. The V8s are fun but thirsty, while the diesels are economical and good performers, but complicated to fix these days. We’d recommend a six-cylinder petrol Touring as a great future classic that could be used as an everyday family car. Furthermore, it’s unlikely to lose value if properly maintained.
Years produced: 1989-1997
Price range: £1,000-£10,000
Calibras were once so common that the classified ad pages were full of them. But now a Calibra advert is a rarity and enthusiasts are snapping them up, perhaps suspecting that they will mirror the success of the Ford Capri in the classic car market. Underneath the sleek exterior, the Calibra is nothing but a Cavalier, which means it is easy and cheap to maintain; just don’t expect excitement from anything except the super-rare 4×4 Turbo model.
Years produced: 1998-2006
Price range: £500-£8,000
It might be a common sight now, but when it was launched in 1998, the Audi TT was the most in-demand car in the world. Its looks were barely changed from the concept that had been revealed three years previously, and it made all other coupés at the time look instantly old-fashioned.
Not only did the first-generation TT have the looks, it was also beautifully made and underneath it had the sensible running gear of a VW Golf. There was an instant 18-month waiting list. Not even a high-speed stability scandal could dampen buyers’ enthusiasm.
That cutting-edge styling means the first TT still doesn’t look old today and can be a very useable classic design icon. But make sure it’s been maintained properly; the TT used a highly tuned turbo 1.8-litre engine and a complicated 4×4 system, so there are plenty of mechanical bits on a 20-year-old TT that could go expensively wrong.
Vauxhall Carlton 3000 GSi 24v
Years produced: 1987-1994
Price range: £1,500-£8,000
The 177mph Lotus Carlton might have grabbed the headlines, but the 3000 GSi 24v on which it was based was also a very highly regarded car in its time, beating the BMW 5 Series in contemporary road tests. It produced a sizeable 204bhp and was capable of topping 150mph, all in complete comfort. While they’re rare now, the cars have a loyal following and are starting to rapidly rise in value. Good examples are selling at around £5,000; that’s about a tenth of the price of a Lotus version.
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