While user-choosers looking for something different might cast an eye over a sub-£20,000 coupe or sport utility vehicle, there is still fun to be had in the medium sector without sky-high running costs.
Our latest long-term test car fits the bill of fun on the cheap. The SEAT Leon Cupra T, with 180bhp, is perhaps overshadowed by its newer and more outrageous brother, the 210bhp Cupra R, but for £14,995 on-the-road I would argue that little comes close for the price.
Our car, finished in metallic black (far more residual value friendly than one of those bright yellow ones), arrived the other week for a six-month stint at Fleet Towers.
Obvious rivals include the Skoda Octavia 1.8T vRS, which shares the engine and other components with the SEAT but retails at £800 more. The MG ZS 180 hatchback is more than £900 more, while the Ford Focus ST170 is £1,000 more.
Possibly the only models to match it on price, if not quite on performance, are the new 160bhp Honda Civic Type S at £14,995 and the 170bhp Fiat Stilo GT at £14,295, although the Stilo only has three doors.
Despite falling 30bhp short of the Leon Cupra R, the T sprints from 0-62mph in 7.7 seconds, and where permitted is capable of a maximum of 142mph.
Standard kit naturally includes alloy wheels, but the T also has electric windows all-round, air conditioning, a trip computer, a six-CD autochanger and part-leather seats. The ride is firm, steering weighty and the six-speed gearbox shifts with typical Volkswagen Group precision.
The car accelerates fast from the time it approaches the 2,000rpm mark, and thanks to the turbo, feels like it's begging for more. As well as the fuel consumption over the next few months, we will also be keeping an eye on front tyre wear.
While the exhaust note has a warm burbling sound, the engine sounds rather lacking in character when working hard.
Although an MG ZS 180 might not be to everyone's taste, I know its 2.5-litre V6 would be far more rewarding when accelerating through the gears. And we had a little problem with the windscreen wash a few weeks ago, when the water bottle became disconnected from the pipe to the washer jets – remedied by our local SEAT dealer in seconds.
Despite this, I know there will be great demand for the Leon over the next few months, however spurious the reasons for 'needing' a high-performance compact hatchback.
Company car tax bill 2002 (22% taxpayer): £65 per month