Beauty. It’s allegedly in the eye of the beholder, but even then, there seem to be a few rules of thumb regarding the best looking cars around. As with any aspirational object that has a permanent shape, cars are always judged on their looks. And while it might not matter to some folks, others find the overall look of a car to be its most important factor.
Car-makers know that looks sell, too. They spend millions of dollars trying to get the all-important look right before the car goes into production. Because releasing a dud looker is a fast-track to falling sales. A plain looker might be okay in a dual-cab ute (and, obviously, it is) but a sports car or luxury car that doesn’t look right is never going to be a proper seller. Heck, even conventional family cars need to be attractive; just ask Ford about the dowdy AU Falcon of 1998. Then take a look at how the vastly better looking Holden Commodore gave the Falcon an absolute towelling in the marketplace, despite the homely Ford being, in some areas, the superior product.
Strangely, only the passing of a certain amount of time will reveal the truth about the looks of most cars. Many that look okay when they’re brand-new and shiny don’t age too gracefully. Conversely, a car that might have been a bit plain when it was in showrooms, can come into its own visually after a few years. And that’s when they can become a cool cheap cars. And we love that.
A great example of the latter is something like the Jaguar XJS. Designed to replace the gorgeous E-Type in the 1970s, the XJS always had big shoes to fill. But on its release, the gaudy detailing and other design elements labelled the XJS as a visual also-ran. But fast-forward a few decades and the Jag has really come into its own style-wise.
There’s also a bit of a rule among car designers that shapes with a lot of straight lines will age faster than a more rounded shape. Going back to the Falcon/Commodore thing, compare a 1979 XD Falcon with its starched creases with the more flowing shape of a VB Commodore (the two were launched around the same time) and you’ll see what we mean. And just to prove the point, sit an XD next to an XE. Ford really only added one more fold to the XE (which was the wrap-over edge of the bonnet) but it softens the whole shape and has arguably aged better. Yes, it’s subjective, but so is the rest of this discussion.
So, having established that some cars are better looking than others, it’s also nice to know that there are some seriously good looking cars that are also cheap good looking cars. And here’s our (purely subjective) list of the best looking cheap cars out there.
Peugeot 406 Coupe – 1997 to 2004
One of the best looking affordable cars out there and work of renowned styling house Pininfarina, the coupe version of the 406 was a fairly major diversion from the rather upright 406 sedan. Instead of the latter’s straight edges the Coupe scored a sweeping roofline and a svelte silhouette. Make sure you buy the manual as it makes the best use of the 2.9-litre V6.
Price guide: $5000 to $8000
Holden Commodore VE Sportwagon – 2008 to 2013
While there’s nothing wrong with the Commodore sedan of the same era, the station-wagon version added some real wow factor. Holden moved away from the long-wheelbase platform for the VE wagon and it made a huge difference to the looks. Load space was compromised a little, but if all wagons looked as good as this one, the SUV might not have flourished like it has.
Price guide: $6000 TO $12,000 (V6); $17,000 TO $25,000 (V8)
Audi TT – 1999 to 2005
No list of the best looking cars under 30K is complete without the original TT. It was the car that best channelled the Kraftwerk vibe of industrial artistry. Probably the first of the current rash of retro designs, the Audi was also the car that probably pulled it off the best. The harbour-bridge roofline still works and the barrel-chested front-end works a treat. A turbocharged all-wheel-drive version is the absolute pick.
Price guide: $8000 to $14,000
Jaguar XJS – 1968 to 1992
The most beautiful grand tourer ever? Probably, and the 24-year production run confirms the rightness of the thing. Our pick is a Series 1 car (68 to 73) with the deep grille and elegant door handles. That said, a fuel-injected Series 3 probably makes more sense even if it’s unlikely to be reliable; just less unreliable. These were nice to drive when they were going, too, with supple suspension and good brakes. And that interior!
Price guide: $10,000 to $20,000.
Volvo C30 – 2000 to 2013
Given the C30 is Volvo’s homage to its P1800ES model of the 1960s, how could the C30 miss? The three-door hatch is smart and trim in profile and almost generic-Volvo from the front. But at the rear you’ll find those lovely, sculpted Volvo shoulders as well as a deep, shapely glass hatch. Rear vision is excellent and this appears to be a looker that won’t break your heart.
Price guide: $7000 to $15,000
Mazda MX-5 – 1989 to 1997
With this cut-off date, we’re talking about the original Series 1 cars here. The later version lost the pop-up headlights and a fair chunk of the charm. With a wide, squat look from the rear, the MX-5 is still a tiny car but is perfectly proportioned. Roof up or down, it looks the part and as well as that, you also get one of the purest roadster driving experiences possible. No wonder it’s the best-selling sports car of all time.
Price guide: $15,000 to $25,000
Ford Focus – 2002 to 2005
While Ford’s ‘Edge’ styling language was busy ruining cars like the AU Falcon, it was also doing the Focus hatchback a huge favour. The angular lights and details just work on the hatch, particularly the three-door. This was also a good driving car with great balance and sweet steering, even if it lacked a bit of oomph. As such, a manual transmission is the pick of them, and try to find a 2.0-litre rather than a 1.8. Forget the sedan, it’s as ugly as the hatch is lovely.
Price guide: $3000 to $6000.
Volkswagen Type 3 Fastback – 1961 to 1973
If you squint – and we mean, really, really squint – you might discern a tiny sniff of Porsche 911 in the Fastback. While the Type 3 was available as a wagon (practical) and a sedan (ungainly) it was the Fastback with its swoopy profile that stole the show stylistically. The mechanicals are air-cooled VW, so forget about speed and concentrate on the simplicity. Prices have shot up lately, but a Fastback is still cheaper than a Beetle, and a way better drive.
Price guide: $10,000 to $30,000
Mercedes-Benz CLK – 1997 to 2002
Not M-B’s finest hour quality-wise, but the coupe version of the C-Class we got was built in Germany rather than South Africa as the sedans sold here were. Even so, the highlight is that roofline and kicked-up rump that looks classy and way more expensive than the car really is. The V6 is okay, but the supercharged four-cylinder offers more a more technically interesting experience. Look hard and there’s a bit of latter-day Holden Monaro in the Benz. Or should that be the other way around?
Price guide: $$5000 to $9000
Alfa Romeo Brera – 2006 to 2011
At first glance, the Brera looks a bit unbalanced and nose-heavy. But take in the overall shape and the superb detailing and that changes to a purposeful coupe that is different enough to be worth the trouble associated with an Alfa of this era. The squat look with the pronounced beak is aggressive and sharp, yet somehow matches the rounded rear perfectly. The V6 with a six-speed manual and all-wheel-drive is fast and fun, but the front-drive four-cylinder is much cheaper.
Price guide: $14,000 to $40,000