We all play this game, think of a number, any number and then scour the Auto Trader classifieds to see what kind of metal you can get for that money. Here, we outline some of the best used-car bargains available on Autotrader.co.uk for less than £50,000. We think you’ll be surprised at what’s available.

Up to £10K

Mazda MX-5
There’s a reason this car is the best-selling sportscar of all time – it’s just brilliant. The MX-5 may not be the fastest car in the world but the chassis is one of the most entertaining ever conceived. While the recipe is undeniably simple; there’s an engine at the front, sending its power, via a gearbox in the middle to the wheels at the back. Simple, elegant and brilliant. A good example of an early model will only set you back £1,500 or so. Plus, they come with got pop-up headlights which are properly cool.

BMW 530d estate
This car is the answer to many of our motoring needs. Want a big estate car? Buy a 5 Series. Want a motorway cruiser? Buy a 5 Series. Want a car that’s fun to drive? Buy a 5 Series. Want a car that’s fast but economical at the same time? Buy a 5 Series. It really is that good. The boot on the estate is vast, the engine is an absolute peach and it drives with the poise of far smaller, more focussed machines. It’s a jack-of-all-trades and the master of several. OK, so the looks might not be to everyone’s taste, but we think that it’s ageing well (especially with the M Sport bodykit). Add this to the fact that you can pick a very good one up for anywhere between 5 and £10K, and it starts to look like a bargain.

£10K to £20K

Volkswagen Golf MK VI
The most common answer to the question we get asked more often than any other: “What car should I buy?” The Golf is just so competent in so many areas, most of the time, that we find it difficult to recommend anything else. The 1.4-litre TSI petrol is the engine to go for unless you do enough miles to warrant the extra expenditure on a diesel. It’s economical, smooth and rapid enough to make decent progress anywhere. The Golf just exudes class from every panel and while it’s not the most exciting car in the world it handles well enough to keep you entertained. A good one can be had for anywhere between 10 and £17 grand.

Lotus Elise S2
Lotus’s Elise is almost the complete polar opposite in terms of character to the Golf. While the Volkswagen is unashamedly sensible, the Elise, it’s fair to say, is not.  The baby Lotus is about just one thing– making the driving experience as fun and involving as possible. Thankfully, it delivers this in spades. The lightweight stature means it’s incredibly agile, and it combines accurate, communicative steering with vast reserves of grip. Elises aren’t very powerful, which means that all this fun can be had at sane speeds, preserving both your licence and your life. True, refinement is lacking and there’s only room in the boot for a toothbrush and a change of underwear. Who cares, though? Whenever you step out of it, you’ll have a smile on your face. Make sure you keep an eye out for any potential crash damage when looking, but a good one will set you back anywhere between £12,000 and £20,000.

£20K to £30K

Jaguar XF
To our eyes, the Jaguar XF is by far the best looking executive saloon available, especially in later facelifted form. However this isn’t the only thing the Jag is good at. It’s got a dramatic interior, drives beautifully and is quiet and comfortable at the same time. If you’ve got your sensible hat on, then the diesels are the only engines to consider. If you want the best balance between performance and economy, then the 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel is the one to go for. But, if economy is your biggest priority, then the four-cylinder 2.2-litre diesel is the best bet. You can get very tidy examples for anywhere between £20K and £30K.

Porsche Cayman
When it comes to pure, unadulterated driving pleasure, very little even gets close to the Cayman. The inherent balance of the mid-engined layout means that the car is incredibly agile and stable. This gives you the confidence to really attack the bends (should the circumstances allow) and the accurate and communicative steering allows you to point it exactly where you want it to go. All this driving brilliance does not, however, mean that it’s impossible to drive at a more leisurely pace. It’s remarkably refined and comfortable and there’s even enough boot space to pack for a weekend away. The only problem with the Cayman is that people might think you only bought it because you can’t afford a 911. But, for under £30,000, who cares?

£30K to £40K

Mercedes S-Class
The Mercedes S-Class has been around for so long now that it’s almost the default choice for anyone in the market for a luxury saloon. With every new generation, it pushes the market further on, with everyone else scrabbling to keep up. As quiet as a library, as comfortable as a sofa, surprisingly economical and really quite fast – even in humble diesel form – it’s the ultimate in luxury motoring. If money’s no object, then we’d go for a long wheelbase S500 but if you’ve got to look after the running costs, then you can’t go far wrong with an S350 diesel. Whether you’re being driven or doing the driving yourself, there’s no more comforting way to cover big miles, especially for under £40,000.

Volkswagen Touareg 4.2 TDI
The second generation VW Touareg was a massive improvement over its forebear, being far more stylish and much more subtle. This version, with the smooth-yet-muscular 4.2-litre diesel V8, delivers an impressive mix of performance and refinement. The Touareg was developed alongside the Porsche Cayenne so it’s also surprisingly able in the bends for such a big, top-heavy car. Add to this the fact that it is capable off-road as it is on it and the Touareg starts to make an awful lot of sense, even at this sort of money.

£40K to £50K

Aston Martin DB9
Astons have always been stunning to look at and the DB9 is no exception. It just oozes style and grace. OK, so it’s not the most functional car in the world – the sat-nav is from an (old) Volvo and the dials, whilst beautiful, are almost unreadable. But, when you stand back and look at it or gun that big V12 from behind the wheel, you really won’t care. It’s not just a beautiful object, however – it’s also a very good car. Fast, comfortable and very capable through the twisty bits. This is a car which cost well over £100,000 when new, remember and for under £50k, it really does resemble a bargain.

Mercedes E63 AMG
No one does mad-cap Mercs quite like AMG. Stuttgart’s in-house tuners decided what the usually serene E-Class needed was a huge 6.2-litre V8, beefier bodywork and upgraded brakes, tyres and suspension. It worked; the E63 is the closest thing we have in Europe to the classic American musclecar and that huge V8 sounds like it has come straight from a NASCAR. It’s quite tail-happy so, unless you’re a (very) experienced driver, we’d advise you to keep the traction control on. Still, it’s an astonishing amount of performance for less than £50,000.

By James Richardson


Find a full list of the top 50 used car bargains on Auto Trader’s iPad and iPhone publication, ignition