The best modern classics to buy in 2021

The best modern classics to buy in 2021

01/14/2021

Unsure about the future of fast cars? Here are 10 golden not-so oldies to consider instead

By PH Staff / Thursday, January 14, 2021 / Loading comments

It's only natural to reminisce about the good old days. For petrolheads, though, it's becoming a frustrating way of life. With so much of what we love about performance cars seemingly under threat, the temptation to revisit former glories only increases. And now every seller with a 15-year-old petrol car thinks they have a classic…

Most do not. And we'd love to think the burning of hydrocarbons will go on unregulated forever. But just in case it doesn't, and you're tempted to dip a toe into a golden age while you still can, here's the PH rundown of the ten best modern classics for the year ahead. We've kept the criteria broad: pre-2007 means at least 15 years old some point in 2021 as well as cheaper tax in almost all cases, and obviously skewed it toward performance cars we'd like to own. (Because that's the only way to gauge these things.)

Handily, they tended to be those with attributes we won't see again, be they an engine configuration, body type or transmission, and thus likely to be considered classics some point soon – if they aren't already. Rest assured we're not dwelling on appreciation here, because that's a real minefield. Values of many if not most have already risen, but that's not the point; each and every one is here because they remind us of how joyful driving really can be. Which is exactly the point of a classic, isn't it? Now more than ever…


Up to £5,000…

  • Renaultsport Clio 172/182

The seminal hot hatches of the 21st century, revered by all who've driven them and plenty who haven't, the original Renaultsport Clios – the 172 and 182 – were the only place to begin this list. Why, you might ask, given plenty of cars early in the 2000s adhered to that classic hot hatch recipe of small car, big engine, manual gearbox and not much money. What marked the Clio out from the rest was the quality of the chassis, driving with a verve and agility that no rival could match. It made both iterations a bit of a handful on occasion, too – but then all the more reason to have the classic Clios in here; they need driving properly to reveal their very best.

Over the years, the basic Renaultsport cars became the foundation for some excellent limited editions: the 172 Cup ditched 89kg from an already tiny supermini for a properly raw pocket rocket, and the Trophy is quite simply one of the best hot hatches ever made. Amazing what an expensive set of dampers can do…

Nowadays, the cheap Clio game appears to be up, as so many have been bought for track projects or have gradually increased in value. £5k still gets you into one though, this 182 in budget with fewer than 80,000 miles. Those accustomed to modern superminis will be aghast at the quality – but ought to be totally enamoured by the drive. Exactly how it should be.

Up to £10,000…

  • VW Golf R32

The Golf might look an odd inclusion here. Even when new the R32 wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, heavy engine and crude Haldex conspiring against wider entertainment. That perception was compounded by the Mk5 range, when a revitalised GTI was as quick as the flagship down a road – for many thousands less.

How times change. Because in 2021, with downsized turbos dominant, a fussier Golf design upon us and a dearth of manual gearboxes, the notion of a cool, contemporary VW hatch with a rasping V6 appeals more than ever. The narrow-angle VR unit was always a lovable oddity; now it seems downright special. That secures its inclusion here – with the obvious financial health warning about the price of fuel compared to 2005….

The Mk4 is typically thought the more desirable in the R32 generation game, but £10,000 is enough for a decent Mk5. This three-door manual Golf (remember those!) seems spot on, modern enough to look fresh despite being on the cusp of its teenage years.

Up to £15,000…

  • Lotus Elise S2

Another dead cert for this list, the Lotus Elise is one more hero of the recent past that remains relatively affordable. Best move fast, though: 2021 not only marks a quarter-century since the debut of that iconic original, but also 20 years since the arrival of the updated S2. As lockdowns lift and the sun comes back out, an Elise could well be on a lot of summer shopping lists – with prices to reflect that.

Right now, £15k is your entry point to any kind of Elise ownership, which secures a car like this early Series 2 with the K Series engine. For one of the later Toyota-engined S2s you're looking around £20k. Still, even with more modest Rover power, there's never any doubting the Elise's genius: lithe, lucid, engaging and exhilarating to drive, it's the perfect antidote to needlessly complex and heavy performance cars. Classic cars have often appealed because of how they connect an owner and driver to their function in a way contemporary cars can't – the Elise still demonstrates that perfectly, and in some style, too.

Up to £20,000…

  • BMW M3 (E46)

If the Government's proposed ban on selling purely combustion-powered cars from 2030 goes ahead (as is looking likely), it seems a fair assumption that older cars characterised by sublime engines will only become more appealing. Cars exactly like the E46 M3.

BMW's repuation for overdelivering under the bonnet is well deserved and nowhere is it better demonstrated than the S54. Today the stats look like they're from another planet: 3.2-litres, six cylinders, 343hp at 7,900rpm and 269lb ft at 4,900rpm. It needed working to give its best, but rewarded handsomely with a scintillating soundtrack and ample performance.

The M3 is in the list ahead of, say, the Z4M Coupe, because it was even more than just an engine car – damn near everything else was as good as that straight six. For many, it's the definitive M3, and prices now reflect that; less than £20k can be spent, sure, but the E46 is not without its issues – it's worth lavishing the money on a cherished car, and look for the rear subframe having been repaired or replaced. But there's a reason why people love them, and why values have climbed – the E46 is probably about as good as the modern M car got.

Up to £25,000…

  • Audi RS4 (B7)

Though some manufacturers have consistently delivered great driver's cars over the years, others flit from awesome to average without warning – you probably don't need telling which Audi is.

Even more than 15 years after its introduction, the B7 RS4 remains a highpoint in the fast Audi story. And, despite a decade and a half of plaudits, it still remains relatively affordable, though values are firming up – an early saloon like this one was probably £20k not so long ago, and is now £25,000.

But, trust us on this, the RS4 is worth it. Never before had an Audi saloon delivered such a compelling blend of traditional brand attributes – it looked great, and was made well – with those appreciated by keen drivers. Truth told, nothing save the R8 has since, either. Because, obviously, there was grip and traction in abundance, but also the finesse, composure and nuance that had been in such short supply before. Fast Audis were blunt and recalcitrant before the B7; ever since we've expected the same blend of handling nous and towering V8 performance this RS4 provided. And, ultimately, we've been disappointed. So it's still the one to have.

Up to £35,000…

  • Porsche 911 (997)

If the E46 was peak M3 and the B7 peak RS4, then there's an argument to say the same applies to the 997 generation of 911 as well – the mid-2000s really did produce some fantastic cars. The 997 makes a claim to that accolade by bringing together the best of the old 911s with the best of the new: it was still relatively compact and had great steering, yet looked way better than the 996. As the 991 further evolved the 911 ethos, so the 997's compromise looked ever sweeter: fast enough, usable enough, small enough, cheap enough – and so on.

In 2021, its inclusion in modern classic lists is almost a given, especially with the recent 992 update doubling down on the icon's new image. Despite well documented engine problems and their sheer popularity, there's still an awful lot to recommend the 997. Those issues haven't prevented values shoring up either, as the relative simplicity of the 911 appeals in an increasingly complex automotive landscape.

Prices now start from £20k for higher mileage or automatic Carreras, with £25k seemingly a good starting point for a 997. With a little more budget naturally comes even more choice, and it's hard to deny the appeal of this 2005 Carrera 4S; with just two owners from new and recent RMS/IMS work, it looks an excellent way to spend £30k. If this is the best 911 era, there can't be many better examples.

Up to £50,000…

  • Honda NSX

The NSX is the oldest car on this list by a margin, but the fact it stayed in production for 15 years without a major overhaul shows just how good the concept was. And why the Honda sports car is now so collectible. Obviously the cars improved with updates into the 21st century, but good luck finding one of the 2002-on facelifts in this budget – the only such car on PH currently is £80k. With 73,000 miles on it.

Crucially, the nub of what makes the NSX a classic is present and correct in the original 3.0-litre model. Namely an immersive mid-engined sports car experience, with far fewer of the associated histrionics. Or rather, the histrionics associated with the breed before the NSX. Once Honda had shown that mid-engined didn't have to mean evil to drive – at least not at normal commitment levels – so the rest of the world followed suit. You'll have heard it a thousand times, but the current breed of nice-as-pie supercars owe a lot to the NSX.

Which is why they're expensive. This one is 30 years and 70,000 miles old, yet still commands £50k. Perhaps just as importantly, its condition suggests half that use, a testament to the Honda's quality. There are other faster and more exotic mid-engined cars in this list, sure, but not many can claim to be as significant to the genre as the NSX. A point we all should have realised when they were £20k!

Up to £75,000…

  • Ferrari F430 Spider

Given the drastic changes both ongoing and imminent at Ferrari – hybrid series production cars, an SUV, the potential demise of the V12 and so on – one of its recent gems had to feature in this list. Especially as, in the case of the F430 Spider, a low-mileage example is on offer for Boxster GTS money.

Everything you've always associated with Ferrari is present and correct in a £70k F430: thrilling engine, oodles of supercar drama and an unforgettable driving experience. Naturally, a convertible Ferrari will never deliver the scalpel sharp responses of a berlinetta, though it's hard to imagine too many complaining with that 485hp V8 yowling away.

The F430 existed in an interesting transitionary period for Ferrari, still sold as standard with a manual gearbox but introducing the manettino dial that's since become commonplace. With the 360 slowly but surely accruing classic status and the 458 modern enough to command more money, the 430 looks an interesting introduction to the world of V8 Ferrari motoring. This black F1 Spider has matching black leather and 30,000 miles, or just 2,000 a year since its first registration; for that sort of use on high days and holidays, what better than a drop top Ferrari?

Up to £100,000…

  • Lamborghini Gallardo

The Gallardo was the foundation modern Lamborghini is built on, fusing preposterous performance with daily-driver levels of usability. It was the first Sant'Agata supercar designed entirely under Audi's tutelage, and it showed; the Gallardo was leagues faster than a 360 Modena, but you didn't need to be Valentino Balboni to make it so.

The inherent rightness of the Gallardo concept can be seen in today's Huracan. Naturally, outright ability has soared, but the foundations – stunning V10, outrageous good looks, eminent approachability and great quality – were there in 2003. The Gallardo has additional appeal for this hitlist, too, with the manual – nothing quite says classic supercar like six open-gated gears and a clutch pedal.

With so many made – it was comfortably the best-selling Lambo before the Huracan – there are plenty of Gallardos to choose from at what isn't even new 911 money. This one is quite the find, having covered just 2,800 miles since 2004 – one person's waste can be another's nearly new Lamborghini supercar, for £100,000. Naturally, the usual caveats apply – supercars don't get any less expensive to run, even when they depreciate – but it isn't hard to see the allure. Do you really want a Huracan twice as much as you want this?

Sky's the limit…

  • Ford GT

As always, blowing the budget brings an array of choice classics to the table. And we all know that the early 2000s was a real purple patch for the supercar, the kind of which the world won't see again: think Enzo, Zonda, SLR, Carrera GT, Murcielago and so on. In the end, though, we've settled on the Ford GT as modern classic choice if money's no object.

Why? Well, if it's some angst and intimidation you're after, the sort of supercar fear that doesn't really exist nowadays, the GT delivers that: it's low, wide and left-hand drive, for starters. It also has no driver assists beyond ABS to help the driver manage its supercharged V8 wallop. The GT does old school supercar theatre like little else, too, making an entrance wherever it goes.

Perhaps the main reason the GT is here, though, is because back in 2004 it confounded every expectation anyone had for it. In truth, Ford could have made a car that looked like this but drove like the F-150 truck and it would have sold. But the GT didn't; it drove superbly, showing the Europeans a thing or two about engagement and excitement. Its nostalgia-heavy looks belied an experience that could keep any contemporary supercar honest, which made the GT very cool. 15 years later, a rare, manual-only, rear-wheel drive supercar with a history like the GT's only makes Ford's 100th anniversary surprise all the more enticing – which probably why it'll cost you £350k for one.


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