Alfa Romeo 156 GTA

The best sports saloons for under £10k

The best sports saloons for under £10k

If for some reason a small two-seater sportscar simply doesn’t fit into your lifestyle, there are other ways of quenching your thirst for exciting driving.

There’s a long list of larger, more practical, but no less exciting sports saloons that are capable of putting a dirty great smile on your face. Here are eight of the best.

W211 Mercedes-Benz E55

The W211 Mercedes E55 comes from a time when AMGs were as much about cosseting as they were about tyre-shredding performance. That said, there’s plenty of the latter. Power comes from a supercharged 5.4-litre V8 that hammers out 476PS (350kW) and a mighty 706Nm (521lb ft) of torque to the rear wheels via a conventional slushbox – factors that make its 4.7-second 0-62mph time all the more impressive.

Standard air suspension ensures it’s very comfortable, giving the E55 a high-speed ride not a million miles away from an S-Class of the period. It’s the ideal mile-crusher. Yet it’s also relatively agile, with neat body control and feelsome hydraulic steering. Having said that, a little more traction in the wet wouldn’t go amiss. Inside, the E55 is starting to show its age but still feels relatively plush. You get comfy armchair-like seats up front – complete with active bolsters that clamp your body in corners – and a back seat with acres of legroom.

The boot is also generously proportioned and there’s an estate version if you need more room. Sadly, you’ll need every one of our £10,000 to get your hands on one.

GD Subaru Impreza WRX

The Subaru Impreza rumbling flat-four could stake an Oasis-like claim to being a sound of the ‘90s and early ‘00s, it’s that recognisable. A delivery of more than 200PS delivered 0-62mph in under six seconds and a top speed of more than 140mph. Permanent four-wheel drive was the secret to the former and it helped the Impreza deal with the UK’s patchy climate.

Sadly, the introduction of cars like the Volkswagen Golf R – with its fancy DSG gearbox and viscous coupling on-demand four-wheel drive – sounded the Impreza’s death knell. But while a WRX wouldn’t see which way a Golf R went on a country road, the Subaru has character a VW can only dream of.

This brings us to this particular GD version of the Impreza. So long as you avoid early ‘bugeye’ versions, it’s a handsome vintage, with a chunky body that earlier models missed out on but without the ugly hatchback rear-end of later offerings. Our £10,000 buys you an exceptionally nice WRX but you could also take a gamble on a leggier (and significantly spicier) STi variant.

X350 Jaguar XJR

While this version of the Jaguar XJR lacks the svelte lines of the models that preceded it, it’s still the one we’d recommend. The X350 XJR is notable for its aluminium body that – larger than the car it replaced – meant the big Jag was capable of surprising fuel economy. Around 30mpg is within reach – not to be sniffed at in a 400PS (294kW) super saloon. That said, it’s the XJR’s performance that’s most notable.

Its supercharged 4.2-litre V8 offers effortless overtaking grunt – even compared to the competition of the time – and a buttery smooth ride makes this a great machine for tackling long distances.

Inside, the XJR misses some of the older model’s character but it’s a lot more spacious, with a usable back seat and a huge boot. Wood and leather are not in short supply, either. The best part about this unloved Jag is the price, with mint examples on offer for well under £10,000.

Saab 95 Aero

In lieu of a Volvo T5 saloon (sorry, fast Volvos need to be estates in our book), it’s the Saab 95 Aero that flies the flag for Sweden on this list. Unlike its countryman, the 95 wears its saloon car body well with a chiselled front end and handsome lines that bring to mind the aeronautical theme Saab loved to play on.

Performance isn’t jet-like but it’s not far off. Turbocharger torque and 250PS (184kW) mean the Saab delivers in-gear performance to humble far more exotic machinery and it is also an exceptionally comfortable cruiser. Unfortunately, it’s no B-road blaster. Traction is limited and the Vauxhall Vectra-derived chassis – although heavily modified by Saab – can feel all at sea if you stray above eight-tenths. But, with your family abroad, you’re unlikely to do that.

Instead, it’s better to marvel at the restrained good looks of the spacious cabin – complete with its Night Panel that reduces distractions by dimming all but the speedo at night. Our £10K budget means you can pick from the best examples.

Audi S4

The Audi S4 takes its place on this list based on its engine alone – a 344PS (253kW) 4.2-litre V8 that produced more thunder than a tropical storm supercharged by global warming (ironically, its replacement would be a supercharged 3.0-litre V6 with little of the older unit’s charm). The V8 started with a characteristic rumble that manifested into an old-school bark before you grabbed another gear in the six-speed manual box, revelling in the throaty splutter as the revs dropped. It’s pure theatre.

Which is just as well, because the S4 was not all ‘that’ in corners. With a large portion of its V8 sitting ahead of the front axle, it tended to understeer, which was exacerbated by the standard quattro four-wheel drive.

That said, there’s still a lot to love. The S4 looks as smart today as it did when it went on sale in 2005 and inside you’ll find an example of peak Audi interior – one that’s beautifully built, easy to use and has plenty of room for a family. Prices start from a mere £7,000.

BMW 335i

The days of the £10,000 M car might be far behind us but that doesn’t mean you’re all out of options. The 335i BMW 3 Series is a sparkling example of the hidden gems lurking below the M-car halo. Its lusty turbocharged 3.0-litre straight-six has the power to worry hot hatches (and a soundtrack they’d kill for), with over 300PS (221kW), 0-62mph takes well under six seconds and you get a 155mph top speed. The rear-wheel drive chassis is a joy to behold and – unlike newer versions – you can also have a (rubbery) manual gearbox.

Adjustable dampers are another option worth looking out for, giving a handling balance that ranges from surprisingly comfortable to deliciously taut. The 335i gets all the sensible stuff right too. It looks ‘right’, the cabin design is blissfully intuitive and you can tickle 40mpg with a light right foot. All in all, the 335i could be one of the best cars – of any type – available for £10,000.

Alfa Romeo 156 GTA

We couldn’t write this list and not include an Italian stallion with room for four. But while the Ferrari-engined Maserati Quattroporte seems like an obvious choice, the DuoSelect automatic is your only option at this price and it is plagued with slow shifts and dismal reliability. The Alfa Romeo 156 GTA has no such problems.

Its six-speed manual will never age the car (we’d avoid the Selespeed auto), while the Alfa’s magnificent-looking Busso 3.2-litre V6 is arguably more characterful even than the Maser’s unit. Delivering a rich growl you’ll not find in anything modern. Sadly, the driving experience isn’t quite such a delight with torque steer and understeer aplenty. But, hey, at least it’s a challenge.

The standard 156, with its hidden rear doors and offset number plate, looks great and the GTA’s extensive body kit only adds to the sense of occasion. Considering their rarity (around 150 are left), £10,000 for a well-used example of this practical saloon seems like money well spent.

Vauxhall Insignia VXR

While the Vectra VXR was a tyre-smoking, understeering mess of a fast saloon, the Insignia VXR was rather good. It was, like the old car, a performance bargain giving you a 325PS (239kW) 2.8-litre turbocharged V6 (0-62mph in 5.7 seconds and a 155mph top speed) for the price of a bog-standard BMW 3 Series. But, unlike the car it replaced, it could also handle. Sure, it doesn’t have the rear-biassed feel of a fast BMW but standard four-wheel drive means it grips hard and is never flustered.

It’s also very comfortable if you’re looking for something to while away the miles in. The Insignia doesn’t have the wide-boy image of VXRs of old, either. Its clean shape and tight shut lines are more Audi than fast Ford – only the lovely ten-spoke alloy wheels hint that this is the performance model.

Inside, it’s more stereotypically ‘Vauxhall’. A sea of black plastic meets your eyes and the scatter of buttons doesn’t look tidy, but it is roomy. With prices starting from £7,000 for a car that is not much more than ten years old, it arguably offers the best value of all the cars here.

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Saab 900 exterior

Saab 900


Saab 900 Review

Quirky in both both looks and engineering, the Saab 900’s jet fighter-inspired styling and turbocharged engines are as appealing now as in its ’80s heyday…

What Is It?

The automotive landscape is a less interesting place for Saab’s departure from it, though the cars live on and, of them, the iconic 900 is maturing into a definitive modern classic. Evolved from the 99 and launched at the end of the 1970s, the 900 matured into an ‘80s icon thanks to its early adoption of turbocharged engines and determinedly single-minded looks heavily influenced by a long-standing overlap between Saab’s automotive products and its aerospace engineering.

This found its perfect expression in an advert by Tony Scott indulgently comparing the 900 Turbo to the Saab Viggen fighter jet, this stylised celebration of speed and technology later finding its full expression in the original Top Gun he went on to direct shortly after.

Back in the real world the stereotype of Saabs being the choice of architects and other free-thinking creative types was a perfect match for the brand image, the 900 shared the Scandi cool of fellow Swedes Volvo but with a more dynamic and performance-orientated twist, thanks to the focus on aerodynamics and forced induction.

Corrosive Areas

Bodywork behind plastic cladding

Boot floor

Front valance/crossmember


  • The 900 was based on the 99 and inherited many traditional Saab quirks, such as the inclined ‘back to front’ longitudinal engine driving the front wheels, double wishbone suspension with unusual multi-linkage beam rear axle, handbrake operating on the front wheels and early adoption of turbocharging
  • The 2.0-litre engine at the heart of all 900s (expanded to 2.1-litres in some models) traces its roots to a Triumph design and was available in eight- and 16-valve forms with fuelling by carburettors or fuel-injection and in naturally-aspirated and turbocharged form with or without intercooling; turbos are referred to both ‘Low Pressure Turbo’ and ‘Full Pressure Turbo’ depending on trim – you’ll often see these abbreviated to LPT and FPT
  • Identifying which engine variant you’re looking at isn’t always obvious, though the early naming convention of GL for single-carburettor, GLS for twin-carb, GLI for injection and Turbo is relatively straightforward; later LPT models used an ‘S’ designation to differentiate from the full, Turbo-badged FPT models
  • The original ‘B’ engine was replaced by the much improved ‘H’ engine in 1980, though confusingly both carry the B prefix to their official designations; a naturally aspirated 2.1-litre version was added later
  • While the turbo installation and badging will be obvious enough, one quick signifier you’re looking at an FPT model is the boost needle above the fuel gauge that LPT versions missed out on
  • More powerful FPT and 16-valve turbocharged cars are prized but given even an LPT or early eight-valve version had around 145PS (106kW) from new performance is strong on all forced-induction 900s
  • While the definitive bodystyle is the three-door hatchback the 900 was also available in five-door form, as well as two- and four-door saloons and, later, a four-seat convertible
  • The 900 received frequent and detail updates throughout its life, including a new grille and bigger rear lights in 1980 and a more far-reaching facelift in 1987 with the introduction of fully integrated bumpers and various technical changes, including a conventional rather than front-wheel handbrake
  • Aero models arrived in the mid-1980s, the wind-tunnel honed bodykit actually making a meaningful difference as well as looking cool; limited edition Carlsson models with uprated 185PS (136kW) output are rare and beaten only by the Ruby edition run-out version for desirability
  • Engines are considered very tough and capable of racking up huge mileages when properly cared for, though look out for the usual signs of overheating, blown gaskets and unusual rattles; blue smoke may indicate a failing turbo
  • Automatic Boost Control – APC – was added to the Turbo in 1982 and adjusts boost according to fuel quality to prevent knock; it can fail and cause running issues in later life, though
  • The unusual transmission arrangement of a transaxle gearbox integrated into the front of the engine is considered a weak-spot, manuals coming with four-or five speeds while automatics should be a bit sturdier
  • Interiors are generally tough and long-lasting but beware sagging headlinings

How does it drive?

Saabs are as quirky to drive as they are to look at, thanks to both the unusual mechanical arrangement and the distinctive, aircraft inspired ergonomics. Overall there’s a sense of confidence-inspiring solidity, informed by the typically safety-focused Swedish ideals.

But thanks to Saab’s long traditions in rallying and a more performance-orientated mindset there’s also an emphasis on sharp handling, the sophisticated front suspension meaning better than expected steering response and predictable balance.

True, the general vibe is fairly described as nose-heavy and less exciting than the BMW 3 Series you might also have considered at the time, but that’s more than compensated for by the distinctively boosty rush of power on the turbocharged models, especially the more powerful 16-valve versions.

 What’s good?

Saab’s independent thinking has always had huge appeal to both the aesthetically and technically curious driver. And the 900 rewards that engagement from the moment you open the door, drop into the driver’s seat, appreciate the visor-like sweep of the windscreen, the carefully considered ergonomics that prioritise controls according to those you use most and quirks like the ignition barrel in the centre console behind the gear lever.

Some might consider the styling somewhat odd, and it’s true the long front overhang can look ungainly from some angles. But few cars have made three-spoke alloys look good, and the more the years go by the better and more distinctive the 900 looks.

They’re also built tough and, looked after properly, can go on for ever. The huge boot and excellent long distance comfort and refinement also make them very usable, and as appreciation grows and numbers dwindle the good examples are likely to get increasingly sought after.

What’s bad?

While superficially similar on the outside, once you start delving into the intricacies of the different engine, trim and model year differences the 900 range quickly gets very confusing. And that’s just the turbocharged ones. Refining your search is one thing, but finding one will likely then prove nearly as big a challenge, given how few there seem to be around these days.

As such it’s probably best to narrow your search down to a few key must-haves but accept choice may be limited and you’ll just have to go with the best you can find. Mechanical toughness is a blessing and a curse as well, given many will have limped on with minimal care to the point that restoring them to proper condition will now be an expensive and complex business.

The desirable models like the 16-valve turbos and rarities like the Carlsson and Ruby special editions are also getting very expensive now.

Which model to choose?

While the naturally-aspirated cars shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand there’s little doubt a turbocharged 900 of some form or another is probably the way to go if you want the full Saab experience. In terms of bodystyle the convertibles have a following but it’s fair to say the five-door hatch and saloon versions are less desirable than the three-door most consider the definitive shape for the car.

Narrow that down to the super desirable Aero models with their wind-tunnel honed bodykits and iconic three-spoke alloys and you’ll quickly find your choices limited and prices rising.

The heart says one of these – or at least a 16-valve ‘Full Pressure Turbo’ – would be top of the wishlist. But your money may go further if you’re willing to broaden the search to less overt Low Pressure Turbo or eight-valve models, given they still have plenty of performance and the necessary character to put a smile on your face.

Specifications – Saab 900 Turbo 16S (1987)



2.0-litre four-cylinder, petrol


175PS (129kW) @ 5,300rpm


273Nm (201lb ft) @ 3,000rpm


Five-speed manual, front-wheel drive

Kerb weight

from 1,265kg


8.7 seconds

Top speed


Production dates

1978-1993 (total production)

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