Best modern classics 2020 UK: retro heroes on a budget

Published: 26 December 2019

► Great modern classics that won’t break the bank
► These old timers are still brilliant to drive
► Treat them right and you won’t suffer (too much) depreciation

The passage of time is a relentless and sometimes cruel mistress. This is a fact that has never been truer than when applied to modern classic cars – and when you scan down the list of our current favourites, your first though might well be, ‘that’s way too modern to be called a classic.’ 

Perhaps that’s the case, but it’s also worth reiterating that the Honda NSX sailed gracefully into its third decade in 2019, while that doyen of the modern classic movement – the BMW M3 – will be 20 in 2020. As I say, the passage of time can be cruel. But it can also be your friend. Certainly, so if you’re a petrolhead who enjoys driving something interesting, quick and rewarding. Depreciation has taken its toll on the cars we’ve chosen to highlight here, and in some cases, if you buy now and protect your car, it may well pay for itself when the time comes to sell. Assuming you want to sell. 

Now is probably a good time to define what a modern classic is. This has a very different criteria to a traditional classic car, which tends to earn its spurs when the time ‘feels’ right – some cars become classics before others. For example, a 1995 Porsche Boxster will become a classic car long before a 1995 Ford Mondeo. But just to make things complex, they’re both already modern classics, and already have their own followings…

A modern classic is easier to define than an outright classic car, because in today’s terminology, a modern classic is any car with a following (which means just about all of them) built during the 1980s, ‘90s and ‘00s. Probably around some time in 2025, that will be adjusted to the 1990s, ‘00s and ‘10s – but right now, that’s where the market, and the fans have modern classics pegged. Logical, yes?

There are plenty of modern classic poster boys out there already. The BMW M3, Subaru Impreza and Peugeot 205 GTI sum up everything that makes modern classics great, and they are adored by an army of fans. They’re good to drive, keep up with the flow perfectly well, and most importantly, will entertain and reward keen drivers. Values of the best of these cars have already skyrocketed in recent years, which means that their charms are being enjoyed increasingly sparingly by their loving owners, mindful of their car’s worth. 

So, in the interests of putting driving and value before investment, I’ve chosen a number of modern classics, which in today’s terms are great value, but also have that added ‘X’ factor. These are cars that are still very much behind the curve in terms of their prices, and in some cases, are still actually depreciating. But buy wisely, enjoy whenever you can, and keep them in tip-condition, and they may well sell for more than what you paid. 

That doesn’t make this an investment piece – but what it does do, is help you rationalise buying one of these cars. And there’s nothing wrong at all with that. 

  • Aston Martin DB9
  • Audi S8
  • Audi TT Sport
  • BMW 325i Compact (E46)
  • BMW 550i Touring (E90)
  • Jaguar XKR
  • Maserati Granturismo
  • Mazda 6 MPS
  • McLaren 12C
  • Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG
  • Porsche Cayman R
  • Renault Megane RS 265 Trophy

 Modern classics: a buying guide

If you’ve read all the above, then you’ll already know that buying a modern classic is an irrational decision that’s rarely steered by logic. However, I can give you a steer that will help you decide whether the car you’re looking for is actually the one for you. If you’re used to driving, say, a current-generation BMW 320d as your daily, on rational grounds, much of what comes below will be a step down in terms of build quality, all-round functionality, tech and – dare we say it – safety. But don’t fear, because generally speaking, none of these cars will need to. You’ve not bought them for that.

Here are a few pointers, which should help keep you on the straight and narrow:

1.  Research your prices

Take time to learn the market and get a handle on prices. Study lots of adverts and use as many portals as possible to do it. Condition and history are often more important than mileage – as the colour and spec. But most importantly, find out nice and early who has maintained any car you’re considering buying. 

2. What is the support like?

Before you take the plunge, it’s always good to find out what the parts prices and availability are like. If you’re looking at a car with limited parts supply, then you could be in a world of pain keeping it original and on the road. Equally, if a specialist support network isn’t there, life could be a whole lot more stressful if things go wrong.

3. Buy the person as much as the car

If you’re buying from a non-specialist dealer, take your time to pore over the paperwork and see what sort of a life the car has had. Has it been serviced on the button by someone who knows these cars? Then that’s a good sign. Buying from a specialist will take some of that research away from you (shame, as I quite enjoy that). If you’re buying privately, get to know the seller by engaging with them, sussing out their motivation, and working out how much their car means to them. If you like them, chances are you’ll like their car.

4. Maintenance: be internet savvy and know your subject

You’re here, so the chances are that you’ve already ticked that box. But nowhere is this more relevant than when maintaining a modern classic. Unless you have deep pockets and are happy to pass all your work to a specialist, it’s best to join the expert forums, learn all the best places to get support from, and talk to them as much as you can. Most enthusiasts are more than happy to help and advise you. Before you know it, you’ll be an expert yourself!

5. Join an owners’ club

If something goes wrong, an owners’ club will be a great resource for tracking down your issues because someone will have been there before you. They generally don’t cost an arm and a leg to join, and many offer discounted insurance scheme, valuation advice and some great social events. 

Read on for our selection of the best value, most enjoyable modern classics on sale – don’t let us put you off the idea of adding something interesting and rewarding into your garage in 2020. You won’t regret it.

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Best Modern Classics 2020

Porsche Cayman R

The Cayman R paved the way for the more bespoke extensions of the theme that have led us to today’s brilliant GT4. I’ve no hesitation in recommending a Cayman over a 911 every time. Not because it’s quantifiably more special or better to drive than its larger sibling, but because it’s easier for mere mortals to drive quickly, it’s more suitably sized for UK roads, and it’s quite simply better value.

You can pick up a Cayman R these days for around £35k, which is a strong value compared with its 2011 launch price. But that reflects its limited-run status compared with the Cayman S (which is much better value, but less special, if you know what I mean). Moreover, it’s powered by a tuneful 3.4-litre flat-six that punches out 325bhp and comes with lower and stiffer suspension than the Cayman S, so you know it’ll be better on track. But despite that, it’s still a beautifully balanced and forgiving road car. This one’s highly recommended. 

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RenaultSport Megane 265 Trophy

We love a hot RenaultSport Megane at CAR, and the 265 has a special place in my heart especially for trumpeting the potential of the front-wheel drive hot hatch (well, coupe, of sorts) by establishing an impressive record lap at the Nurburgring Nordschleife. OK, being quick here doesn’t necessarily equate to a well-sorted road car, but it this case it was. In fact, it’s brilliant to drive. End of. And that record shows the Megane is a devastatingly effective performance car.

The 265 was a development of the 250, with the additional power coming from a remap of its 2.0-litre turbocharged four-pot. It also gained stickier tyres to really exploit its Cup chassis set-up. Currently sat anywhere between £10-20k, some might think that’s expensive for an old Renault – you might think so, in which case this car isn’t for you – but it’s a bargain compared with the wonderful R26.R, and 99% as good 99% of the time.

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Jaguar XKR

The second-generation Jaguar XK is a wonderful car that seems to have been overlooked in the post-F-Type glow that’s shrouded Jaguar sports car fans for a good few years now. Although it looked similar to the rather creaky first-generation car, this was an all-new effort, featuring the extensive use of aluminium in its construction and an interior layout that cast aside the rather unpleasant retro-styled effort of its predecessor. 

Surprisingly, the XK (and its XF sister car) are fundamentally reliable cars, with well-proven drivetrains and rugged interiors. If you’re lucky you might find a usable example for around £10k, but in reality, you want to be spending around £20k to get one that’s trouble-free and from a loving home. Whichever way you cut that, this is a great-value big Jaguar that should look after you well in the future, and which is literally brilliant to drive with towering supercharged performance and effortless B-road dynamics. It’s a real shame that it was killed to make way for the F-Type – a car as good as this deserves a better fate for it.

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Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG

Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG, driving

While big fast saloon fans will opine endlessly about the brilliance of the BMW M5, they tend to overlook the W210-generation AMG E55 for reasons I don’t quite get. Here we have a thundering V8-powered saloon with massive power and high drama, but which is available from £15k for an example you’d actually happily depend upon. Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t look that distinctive, with slab sides and inelegant headlamps – who knows. 

But while they’re overlooked, they’re also cheap compared with the opposition. And fast. Damned fast. An E55 AMG can rocket from 0-60mph in less than five seconds, and on to 100mph in 10.4 seconds. That’s quick even today. But there’s a downside – reliability isn’t quite where you’d expect it to be, and they rust in annoying and high-visibility places. The other bonus is that the E55 AMG rides acceptably well on its air suspension set-up. Would we have one over a BMW M5? If money were no object, not a hope in hell – but given how much cheaper this car is, and as it’s such a genius all-rounder, it’s a bit of a shoe-in really.

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Maserati Granturismo

If the world were a fairer place, they’d sell more of these than they do. As it is, the Granturismo is a rare beast, and almost the hardest of the lot to justify here, as they’ve only just closed the lid on this fine-looking sports car. But that’s where we are – a 2007 car that can rightfully be called a modern classic, because it looks great, has incredible badge kudos, and is actually a damned fine all-rounder. 

For one, this oddly-proportioned coupe is surprisingly usable for drivers who ferry about more than one passenger. The rear seats will accommodate larger children, while the boot is almost quite useful. You get a Ferrari-derived 4.2-litre engine in earlier examples, and when paired with its six-speed ZF automatic transmission, it’s both punchy and relaxing when it needs to be. In short, this is one usable Maserati that you can pick up from around £20k. Don’t expect it to be cheap to run. Do expect to spark up random conversations at petrol stations.

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Audi TT Sport Quattro

Audi TT Sport Quattro

The Sport isn’t your normal common-or-garden Mk1 Audi TT. Based on the original TT 225, it was fettled by Quattro GmbH to deliver 237bhp (up from 222), while at the same time, being lightened by a useful 75kg. Other Sport niceties include uprated suspension and wheels, as well as some brilliant Recaro seats inside. In all, this was a nicely sorted TT without the pretence of having rear seats, and a far cry from the less powerful standard models. 

The good news is that Quattro GmbH’s magic extended to the way the TT Sport drives – so you can expect sharp steering (who’d have thought with that platform) and decent body control. But the market is cottoning on fast, so values are rising as this car’s obvious talents become more widely known. Only you can decide whether it’s worth more than double a nice 225. I say yes, especially if you plan to keep hold of it for a long time. 

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BMW 325ti Compact (E46)

BMW 325ti Compact

This is by far the ugliest of the modern classics I’ve selected, but don’t let that visually-challenged face put you off buying one. Oh no, the E46-generation 325ti might be a proper munter to look at, but on the road, it’s sheer dynamite. Powered by BMW’s sweet 2.5-litre, 192bhp straight-six engine, it would sprint from 0-62mph in 7.1 seconds, and thanks to being underpinned by an exceptionally well-balanced rear-wheel drive package, it drove – and still does – incredibly well. For a hot hatch of this vintage, the 325ti is a genuine revelation, with the sweetest of steering rounding off this brilliant hot hatch.

Yes, it’s a rare beast now, but despite that, it’s not been swept up in the fast BMW goldrush, so you still pick one up for less than £2k. There’s lots of specialist support (of varying quality) for this car, so you can be confident in keeping it on the road – and the only downside I can think of is (coming back to the original point) weird styling. Still, it’s highly recommended.

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BMW 550i Touring (E61)

BMW 550i Touring

It’s funny how some of the best models within a range just don’t sell, and are buried in the back of their model catalogues, as a consequence. Take the E60-generation BMW 550i Touring (known as the E61) – here’s a car with 367bhp that its driver could exploit via the best suspension set-up you’d find on an executive car in the mid-2000s. But this was in the height of the dash for diesel, so was unfairly ignored – and those who wanted a fast 5 Series, the glamorous M5 took just a little bit more of a reach.

There are other plus points, too – you could have a 550i in manual form, and as a Touring, it came with a large and practical loadbay. Today, you’ll struggle to find one, but if you can, they’re out there from between £6 and £12k. Bad points? It’s an E90, so therefore riddled with reliability issues that will test the patience of a saint. But as a package, here’s a car with looks and performance that still stack up, for the fraction of the cost of its illustrious sibling.

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Audi S8 (D2)

Audi S8

I must admit that I have an interest here, having just bought an S8 for an insanely small amount of money. But even if I hadn’t, I’d have put one on the list, because here we have a car with plenty of power (335bhp) and poise (it’s a Quattro four-wheel drive), and a super-cool image for a very reasonable amount of money (until you have to start pouring petrol in it). Launched in 1998, the S8 became Audi’s flagship car, riding a ticket of low-key styling, lots of tech and kit, and just about enough power and poise to face of the best that BMW and Mercedes-Benz could throw at upstart Audi.

It’s not all sweetness and light for the S8, though. Its aluminium spaceframe construction means that the cost of repairing even a lightly crashed one is prohibitive, while they can be hellishly expensive to repair too when things stop working. And they do – especially the transmission. That’s kept values low despite being one of (if not, the) star cars in the best car chase film ever made, Ronin. Definitely worth a punt if you’re brave, or just lay out strong money for a pampered example.

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Wild card: Mazda 6 MPS

Mazda 6 MPS, driving

If you like a Q-car, then you’ll love the Mazda 6 MPS. Here’s a car with 256bhp and four-wheel drive, and surprisingly good dynamics, but looks like it could spend its days ferrying pick-ups from the local kebab house. And that’s why I love the sheer silliness of the Mazda 6 MPS, especially when priced between £2-5k. This delivers true bang for your buck.

But it’s not all about numbers. The 6 MPS rides surprisingly well, has nicely weighted steering with decent feel, and has the body control to deal effortlessly with whatever UK roads throw at it. Specialist knowledge isn’t exactly abundant, though, and if you’re thinking of buying one, you’ll want to find a good source for parts, now that it’s dropped away from Mazda’s front of mind. They can rust, too, so look long at hard at any examples you happen upon on your travels. Still, at a price of £2-5k, it costs a fraction of some of its more obvious and glamorous rivals.

We’ll be updating this page regularly, so keep checking back 

By Keith Adams

Devout classic Citroen enthusiast, walking car encyclopedia, and long-time contributor to CAR

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