Buying a family car doesn’t mean opting for the mundane. As these options show, functional can also be fast…
1 – Skoda Octavia vRS (2004-2013)
Under the skin of the Skoda Octavia vRS lurks some of the running gear of the Mk5 Volkswagen Golf GTI, such as a 197bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged engine.
That enables the vRS to reach 149mph and dispatch 0-62mph in 7.3sec. Like the Golf, it is eager to please in the corners, too, with precise handling and a compliant ride.
Inside, the comfortable and subtly sporting interior equalled the Golf’s for quality and bettered it for practicality, with plenty of room for the family in saloon or estate guise.Problems are few, although an unmodified car is generally a safer bet.
Watch out for accident damage and check that cambelts have been changed on schedule.
2 – Subaru Legacy 3.0 R Spec B (2004-2009)
The 241bhp 3.0-litre engine of this unassuming-looking Legacy has more than just power on its side: its flat six configuration is perfectly balanced and enables a low centre of gravity.
It has full-time four-wheel drive, too, and Bilstein dampers, so the Spec B can be hustled along surprisingly quickly. Top speed in the manual version is 151mph and it can hit 62mph from rest in 6.6sec.
This is no brash rally car, though; rather, it’s a suave and able ground-coverer. The exterior is understated and the roomy interior is comfortable, well equipped and lavishly leathered.
It’s beautifully built, too, so there’s not a lot to worry about, apart from pricey parts and large fuel bills.
3 – Mazda 6 2.3 MPS (2005-2007)
The original Mazda 6 is a conventional family hatch or saloon that offers space, reliability, competence and good road manners. To that sensible cocktail, the MPS adds a heady 256bhp turbocharged 2.3-litre engine that enables it to knock off the 0-62mph dash in just 6.6sec and hit a top speed of 150mph.
The MPS is also stiffer in the body and firmer riding than the standard car, which, together with an intelligent four-wheel drive system, gives the MPS failsafe and even entertaining handling.
You can pick up a good one for £3k and, such is Mazda’s excellent build quality, there’s little to surprise the unwary. Buy one with a documented history and without accident damage.
4 – Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk5 (2005-2010)
The Mk5 Golf GTI really is it: the car that delivers everything in just one package. It’s quick, fun, frugal, flickable, classy, agile, practical, reliable, refined, unflappable and unparalleled. You’ll be as happy driving it to Waitrose as you would around the Nordschleife.
The 197bhp 2.0-litre four, shared with the Skoda Octavia vRS (see opposite), propels the Golf GTI to 150mph and the 0-62mph sprint can be dismissed in 6.5sec. The GTI also offers responsive steering and spirited handling. Some also have the excellent DSG dual-clutch automatic gearbox.
Reported problems are few, but insist on a full history. Find a good one and, for £5k, it’s the bargain of the century.
5 – Lexus IS300 (2001-2005)
Underrated and overlooked, the IS300 has all the good bits of the IS200 — it’s handsome, classy and extremely well put together — and adds the 211bhp 3.0-litre six-cylinder engine from the larger GS.
Power is fed through a Tiptronic-style five-speed automatic gearbox to the rear wheels. The IS300 is good for 144mph and is more responsive and nicer to drive than its sibling.
Inside, it has a more compact version of the kind of luxurious interiors found in the firm’s more expensive models. It is well equipped, beautifully designed and fully trimmed in leather. There’s even a curious-looking estate version, the Sport Cross, which adds a little practicality.
Prices are now below the £5k mark and finding a good one is easy, thanks to Lexus’s legendary build quality.
Get the latest car news, reviews and galleries from Autocar direct to your inbox every week. Enter your email address below:
This review is about Fast family cars for under £5000 - used car buying guide.