First published in CarBuyer magazine, 2004

Everyone is different. Different needs and expectations, different likes and dislikes, different prejudices and preoccupations. Something I like could be something you detest, and we wouldn't have to look far to find someone else who didn't really care one way or the other. So no matter how popular a car might be, there are always going to be people who like it and people who don't.

It follows, then, that just because a car is popular and sells well, doesn't mean it will inevitably be the right car for you. Popular cars tend to be those with a breadth of abilities, which meet the needs of a wide group of people. But you're not buying a car for thousands of different people – you're buying a car just for you. If that car meets your needs and appeals to you, it's really of little consequence what other people think of it.

Mitsubishi's Outlander has garnered bad press in many quarters because there's essentially just one model, with a 2.4-litre petrol engine and automatic gearbox. Many buyers in this category might prefer a diesel engine, and some would prefer a manual gearbox, and on that score you can mark down the Outlander's appeal. But if what you want actually is a smooth petrol engine and an automatic 'box, the Outlander might fit the bill – the lack of a diesel or manual option is irrelevant if they aren't what you want.

Lots of buyers must stay away from the Citroen Berlingo because of the panel-van styling, but you'd be hard pressed to find a car with more space and versatility – so if space and versatility are what you're after, and style is secondary, the Berlingo could be just what you need.

Yet most buyers are steered by friends and salesmen and magazine road tests towards cars which are good all-rounders rather than to cars which do exactly what they want. Recommending a popular car is easy, because it will do a pretty good job for most people. It's more difficult to really understand what a buyer needs, and then find a car whose strengths match that profile. But there are good reasons for doing just that.

First, if you choose a car which is less common on our roads you gain a measure of exclusivity: instead of following the pack, you opt for a more individual choice. For some people that alone is important enough to rule out choosing one of the more popular cars.

There can be a financial incentive, too. Cars with good all-round appeal are easy to sell, which means discounts are small. If a car has some weaknesses which rule it out for many buyers, you might find prices are keener – and if those weaknesses are in areas which don't concern you then you could have a bargain on your hands. And it could be an even bigger bargain, if you use the new car price guide at the back of this issue of Carbuyer to tell you what you should really be paying, instead of what the price list tells you. Most people choose the car they can afford by matching the price list to their budget, but in reality dealers can be persuaded to offer discounts which are often 5-10% of the list price and occasionally 20% or more, which makes your budget go considerably further.

While most buyers are happy to stay within the franchised dealer network when buying, there are even bigger discounts to be had if you go to an independent, often internet-based, seller. Often you can save 30% or more compared to the list price, which is considerably better than anything your local dealer can offer – though for some cars dealer prices are as good as any. The listing has all the latest details.

So instead of simply setting your budget and then using the price lists to find out which of the 'obvious' cars fits your budget, take a look at some of the alternatives we've suggested on these pages. In each case, the alternative won’t be one that does the job for everyone, but for some people it will be just the thing. And whether you choose a popular car or one that's a little unusual, if you choose it by matching its abilities to your own needs you can be sure that, for you and you alone, that car offers extraordinary value.

Alternative Choices Checklist

  • Think about your own needs and preferences, rather than those of the mass market.
  • Analyse carefully exactly what you want from a car before you start looking.
  • Don't be distracted by opinions or road tests which tell you a car is flawed: provided that flaw is in an area unimportant to you, it's irrelevant.
  • Consider resale value. A quirky car might appeal to you, but you might have trouble finding a buyer for it when you come to sell it on in a few years' time.

How many alternatives are there?

Look beyond the obvious and you'll find dozens of alternatives. Let’s take an average family hatchback, the Volkswagen Golf, and see how changing priorities give us different choices. In each case the alternative listed offers more of something than the Golf does - though it will also offer less in some other areas. It’s up to you to decide your priorities and pick the car that matches them best.

The obvious choice: Volkswagen Golf 1.6S FSI five-door, dealer price: £15,285 New Golf is a good all-rounder, with plenty of space and terrific build quality. And it’s better to drive than the previous generation.

More prestige: BMW 116i, dealer price: £15,690 New 1-series BMW gets good reviews, but equipment will be basic at this price.

More style: Mazda3 1.6TS 1.6-litre version is the sweet spot in the Mazda3 range. Well made, stylish, good to drive.

More value: Seat Leon 1.6SX, dealer price: £11,800 Well-made and capable, Leon looks like a bargain against its big brother the Golf.

More space: Renault Grand Senic 1.6 Privilege, dealer price: £15,000 Seven-seater Grand Scenic offers more space and more seats for the same price.

More character: Alfa Romeo 147 2.0 Twin Spark Lusso five-door, dealer price: £15,200 Alfa 147 looks terrific, and Lusso spec includes plenty of equipment.

More speed: Subaru Impreza Turbo WRX, independent: £16,500 225bhp Impreza approaches Golf money, if you opt for an import car.

More fun: Mazda MX-5 1.8i, dealer price: £14,600 MX-5 is one of our favourite roadsters - immense fun, without breaking the bank

More off-road ability: Land Rover Freelander 1.8E, dealer price: £14,700 Freelander drives like a car but it’s superbly capable when the going gets muddy.

More economical: Toyota Prius 1.5 T3, dealer price: £17,500 Expensive compared to Golf, but Prius petrol/electric hybrid uses much less fuel

Looking for alternatives

Objective: bargain-basement wheels, budget: £5500

Obvious choice: Perodua Kelisa 1.0EX, dealer: £5124 The Perodua is the cheapest car you can buy new in Britain, according to the price lists. Economy is good and it drives surprisingly well, but everything about it reminds you that it's been built down to a price.

Alternative choice: Fiat Panda 1.1 Active, independent: £5700 The 2004 Car of the Year will cost a little more than the Perodua, but its lower insurance group and lower service costs will pay you back in the long run. Better still, it's practical and terrific fun to drive. The 1.1 is no poor relation to the 1.2, though it gets buzzy on the motorway.

Objective: something stylish for the city, budget: £9000

Obvious choice: Ford Ka 1.3 Luxury, dealer: £9400 The up-range Ka Luxury comes with alloy wheels, electric windows, leather trim and air conditioning as standard. The Ka is still a fair bet if you need an urban runabout, though it can be a bit cramped inside and it’s unrefined.

Alternative choice: Volkswagen Lupo 1.4 Sport, independent: £8700 Internet retailers can offer some spectacular deals on the Lupo. For less than the price of the Ka you can get a Lupo 1.4 Sport which is far quicker than the Ford and holds its value better - though air con and leather are expensive options.

Objective: a supermini for shopping and stuff, budget: £10,000

Obvious choice: Nissan Micra 1.4SX five door, dealer: £10,100 Micra has plenty to offer, and in five-door form especially its an efficient, practical package which is economical and easy to drive. But some people just can't get on with that bug-eyed styling, no matter what the qualities of the car underneath.

Alternative choice: Honda Jazz 1.4i-DSi SE five-door, dealer: £10,100 Spacious, economical and well-made, the Jazz could be worth a look if those are your priorities - but unlike the Micra there's no diesel option, so if you're after an oil-burner you need to look elsewhere. Independents can offer even keener prices.

Objective: family saloon, budget: £14,000

Obvious choice: Vauxhall Vectra 1.8LS five door, dealer: £14,100 Latest Vectra is the best yet, with good performance, tidy handling and a cossetting ride. Build quality is good too, making it a serious Mondeo rival. But it's perennially a fleet favourite – which means values are low come resale time.

Alternative choice: Mazda6 2.0TS, dealer: £14,200 Terrific Mazda6 saloons combine performance and refinement in a distinctive package. Fluid chassis makes this a rewarding car to drive and you'll get a 2.0-litre Mazda6 for 1.8 Vectra money – even before you investigate independents' deals.

Objective: space and adaptability, budget: £17,500

Obvious choice: Renault Espace 2.0 16V Authentique, dealer: £17,200 Espace has always been the people carrier of choice, in Europe at least, and the latest iteration is the most impressive yet. Lots of space for people or luggage (though not both together) and it's a comfortable way to travel – though posher models are pricey.

Alternative choice: Citroen C8 2.0SX, dealer: £16,800 Citroen's big MPV is a joint effort - you'll find essentially the same car on sale under Peugeot and Fiat badges. Good interior, and 2.0-litre is quicker than the equivalent Espace. Big dealer discounts, so don't expect to pay anything like what the price list asks.

Objective: speed and sporting thrills, budget: £25,000

Obvious choice: Mitsubishi Evo VIII 260, dealer: £22,200 Rally-bred sports saloon packs a 261bhp punch. Raw speed is incredible even though this is the entry-level Evo, but stiff suspension delivers handling biassed to smooth race tracks rather than the bumpy roads of the real world.

Alternative choice: Caterham Seven Superlight R300, dealer: £23,950 Iconic Seven is even quicker than the Evo in a straight line, and few cars are as much fun as a Caterham on a twisty road. Utterly impractical, but why buy a sports car and then worry about practicality? This is the real deal.

Objective: sports saloon with space, budget: £22,000

Obvious choice: Ford Mondeo ST220, dealer: £21,500 If you need a spacious saloon the Mondeo is a good choice, and the ST220 version adds 3.0-litres of V6 power, giving it a top speed in excess of 150mph and a 0-60mph time of 7.5sec. Huge discounts available from independent retailers.

Alternative choice: MG ZT 260, dealer: £23,000 The V8-engined MG is optimistically listed at more than £28,000, but you should be able to negotiate a significant discount. It's a car of uneven ability, but undoubted character: for many enthusiasts, the V8 burble and rear-wheel drive will be deal-clinchers.

Objective: spacious estate, budget: £30,000

Obvious choice: BMW 525i SE Touring, dealer: £29,700 Controversial styling of 5-series works better in Touring estate form, but for some it's still wantonly ugly. This is the lowest-output engine available, but it's still swift and smooth. But build quality is not quite the hewn-from-sold feel of previous BMWs.

Alternative choice: Volvo V70 2.4 T5 Sport, dealer: £29,600 Turbocharged Volvo offers rapid performance, allied to massive space and an inviting cabin. Lacks the sharpness of the BMW, perhaps, but if comfort and carrying capacity are your priorities the V70 is tough to beat.

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Andrew Noakes motoring journalist / author / lecturer