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THE year 2005 will go down in Singapore history as the year of the first-time car buyer. As many as one in three of the 100,000 cars sold this year went to first-timers, who usually make up a mere fraction of new-car transactions.

A record crop of COEs has resulted in premiums hovering just above $10,000, with Category B (above 1,600cc) diving to an astounding $9,001 this month. Together with lower car taxes, a new car has become more accessible than any other time in recent memory.

But there are thorns to any rose.

The value of existing cars has sunk further. And first-time buyers may not be aware of the entire cost of owning a car (as opposed to buying one). There are also those who borrow to the hilt, even resorting to bridging loans to help them pay off their existing borrowings.

Our advice is to think carefully before taking the plunge. The water may be deeper than you think. Being pulled under by a tsunami of debts is a real possibility if you don't do your maths.

For instance, with the high loans and lower scrap rebates accorded by a new car tax formula, buyers today may well have to keep their cars for seven years or more to 'break even'. Unloading their cars sooner will mean hefty losses.

All this means you will have to be extra careful in your choice of a car. You need to ask yourself if the appearance and performance will keep you happy for seven years. Do not succumb to faddish designs.

The list of best buys here is divided into different categories. While consideration is given to design, engineering, performance, comfort, character and innovation, emphasis is on value for money.

Cars which have not yet been officially launched in Singapore by this month were not considered even though they may be open for bookings. Thus, strong contenders like the Honda Civic, Mercedes S-class, Lexus IS250 and VW Passat are out.

Small hatchback

AFTER many quiet years, this class has seen a resurgence led by excellent contenders. In this category, the small hatch with the bubbliest personality is the Fiat Panda ($59,800). Voted European Car Of The Year 2004, the Panda has equipment quite unmatched by any other in its class. And it brims with Italian brio. Styling is chic and handling great. Though endowed with only a 1.2-litre engine, the Panda is a lively little toy. But if quirky Italian cars are not your cup of tea, pick the Suzuki Swift (main picture, $56,900). It looks cute and trendy without being overtly feminine. A 101bhp 1.5-litre engine and superb handling mean the Swift goes as well as it looks.

If both the Panda and Swift are beyond your budget, the revised Hyundai Getz is worth considering. An entry level 1.1-litre manual costs $42,000. It may not have a lot of kit but the inherent quality is not just skin deep.

Small saloons

THE Hyundai Verna and Kia Rio share the same engine and floorpan and even the same dashboard. These are honest little saloons which look and feel modern and are endowed with surprising refinement and overall balance. Both have huge boots.

The new 1.6-litre DOHC engine finally has continuously variable valve timing. With a healthy 112bhp output, the Korean twins offer lively performance, enough to elevate them from the boredom usually associated with entry-level cars. The Verna 1.6 ($50,000) costs $2,000 more but comes equipped with one airbag and anti-lock braking system - safety equipment which the Rio lacks.

Medium-sized saloons

LEADER of the pack in terms of overall handling agility and performance is currently the Mazda 3. The car is a quantum leap over its 323 predecessor. Unfortunately, the 3 ($64,988) costs $8,000 more than a Toyota Corolla Altis. While not having the same handling prowess as the 3, the Corolla has superior acceleration and fuel economy. So if the niceties of on-limit handling are beyond your care or comprehension, buy the Corolla and join the many thousands who have made it Singapore's best-selling car.

Large saloons

ONCE again, the mass-market contenders are the Toyota Camry ($86,988) and Nissan Cefiro 230JM ($92,500). With a 2.3-litre V6 motor, the Cefiro has superior engine refinement and a more modern appearance. The Camry scores convincingly in cabin space and fuel economy while having the edge in comfort and handling. But both these cars cannot match the charm, character and sheer exuberance of the revised Subaru Legacy GT ($109,500). Powered by a 245bhp turbo-charged engine, the GT will run rings round both the Camry and the Cefiro. Yes, it does cost more, but it delivers a lot of bang for the buck.

Small executive saloons

THE clear winner this year is the new BMW 3-series. After the controversy surrounding the appearance of the 7, BMW decided to play it safe with its bread-and-butter model. The body may look too mainstream, but underneath the skin is a chassis which sets the standard for ride, handling and agility. The bulk of local sales is for the 320i ($155,800). Its 150bhp four-cylinder 2-litre engine is reasonably smooth but lacks the oomph to do the chassis or the keen driver justice.

The quintessential 3 is the 330i. Its new composite alloy 3-litre motor is a gem. With 258bhp on tap, it hurtles the 330i from rest to 100kmh in 6.6 seconds. The car feels beautifully balanced, but costs a cool $54,000 more.

If you feel there are just too many BMWs around, alternatives include the Audi A4 and Mercedes C-class. The best model in the A4 range is the 200bhp FSI. At $185,000, it is a little steep for a 2-litre four-cylinder. For the ageing C-class, Mercedes has given it a new lease of life with a decent 2.5-litre V6 ($181,000) which is a far cry from its humdrum predecessor. Smooth and free-revving, it gives the C230 better ammunition to take on the 325i.

Large executive saloons

THE two main contenders here are the Lexus GS300 and the BMW 5-series. The Bavarian has the edge in handling finesse and rear head room, but the Japanese offers superior equipment level and value for money. Price-wise, the closest equivalent model to the GS ($176,888) is the BMW 523i ($201,000). The latter has a 2.5-litre capacity with 177bhp while the GS is endowed with a 3-litre V6 delivering 231bhp. Besides an advantage in outright performance, the GS has the benefit of Lexus' quality and reliability.

The prettiest car in this class is the Audi A6. It is roomier than the other two but cannot match their dynamic abilities. The version to buy is the 2.4 ($188,000). It undercuts the 3.2-litre Quattro by a cool $45,000 and is far more frugal with fuel.

Luxury saloons

THIS category sees a toss-up between the Jaguar XJ and BMW 7-series. The recently launched long-wheelbase version of the Jag has given it even greater elegance and class. This side of a Rolls or Bentley, the XJ is still the luxury car which creates the biggest impression at black-tie functions. The best value version is the XJ6L 3.0 ($290,000).

The revamped BMW 7 in long-wheelbase form looks truly imposing. The enhanced iDrive is still a pain, but the car's ride and handling cannot be faulted. The best model in this range is the 750Li ($381,000), but the 730Li ($298,000) is less extravagant and burns less fuel. The latter is now endowed with a new 258bhp 3-litre composite alloy engine and is quite zesty despite its heft.

Multi-purpose vehicles

IF A full-sized seven-seater is what you need, the choice is the Honda Odyssey ($94,000). Its breadloaf profile is unique and it drives and handles like a proper hatchback - not a clumsy MPV. If the Odyssey is still not roomy enough, the obvious alternative is the Chrysler Grand Voyager. Its seats can disappear under the floor when not needed. The basic SE without electrically operated sliding doors is a steal at $119,999.

However, if you find both the Honda and Chrysler a trifle big, the mid-size MPV to buy is the Mazda 5 ($78,988). It is a six-seater with a seventh tuck-away seat that can be pulled down when needed. Based on a stretched Mazda 3 floorpan, the 5 shares the smaller sibling's quick steering response and agile handling. Coupled with a lively 140bhp 2-litre motor, this is one MPV which will appeal to the keen driver.

Station wagons

THIS is one segment which is fast gaining fans. Station wagons are chic and trendy, offering more space than a normal saloon and more elegance and driveability than an MPV. Both Volvo and Subaru are wagon specialists, their best offerings being the Volvo V50T5 ($132,995) and the Legacy GT Wagon ($113,500). Both are extremely quick and fun to drive. But the best-looking and most practical wagon has to be the Audi A6 Avant ($196,000). It has loads of cargo space and yet rides and handles better than the A6 saloon.

High-performance saloons/hatchbacks

OVER the past few years, this category has seen a straight fight between the Subaru WRX and the Mitsubishi Evo. These thinly disguised rally specials offer the enthusiast superlative performance and handling at relatively affordable prices. The Evo IX ($129,988) has the edge in on-limit handling agility and performance over the WRX STi ($109,000). But at just $91,000, it is the new WRX 2.5 which offers the best value if competition driving is not contemplated.

The dominance of the duo has since been challenged by the VW Golf GTi ($126,300). With 200bhp from a turbo-charged 2-litre FSI engine, the Golf may not have the ultimate pace of the Japanese cars but it satisfies with its 'just right' feel. This VW has the uncanny ability to become an extension of the driver, especially when driven hard. A key plus point is the upper-crust image that the GTi projects.

Sports cars/coupes

THE Porsche 911 has been the dominant model for so long because dedicated development has always kept it desirable. The latest 911 Carrera S is a jewel. With 355bhp, it is endowed with supercar performance and yet remains docile in town. Unlike some of its temperamental competitors, the 911 is both reliable and practical enough to be used as an everyday car. However, $461,888 is still a hefty sum that only the very well-heeled can access. The good news for Porsche fans is the Cayman S. So forgiving is the handling of this mid-engined coupe that in most hands, it will be a match for the 911 outside a race circuit. Best news about the Cayman is the price. At $303,888, the 295bhp two-seater is relatively affordable.

But if money is of no concern, the Bentley Continental GT ($745,000) would be the choice. Its 560bhp W12 engine, classy image, a bespoke cabin for four and impeccable road manners are the stuff of dreams.

Sports-utility vehicles

THE SUV moniker covers a wide range of vehicles - from the rough and tough 4x4 to the pseudo-offroader with more style than substance. Most SUVs are bought for posing rather than trekking, but if you want to do both, the Land Rover Discovery 3 has to be it. This SUV has more presence and style than all the others, yet it retains the ability to tackle terrain that would sink most rivals. The patented 'Terrain Response' sorts out the best possible combination of power and drive configurations to tackle all sorts of conditions, with different settings for soft sand, rocks, rivers, mountains and snow. Unfortunately, its $268,000 price tag means the Disco 3 will remain an exclusive vehicle.

More affordable options include the Volvo XC90 2.5T ($181,004), Lexus RX300 ($140,888) and Nissan Murano 350XV ($125,000). The Volvo has the advantage of seven seats, the Lexus scores on refinement while the Nissan has a distinct price advantage.

But if serious trekking is contemplated, the value-for-money choice has to be the Suzuki Grand Vitara 2.7 V6 ($87,900). The new model retains the predecessor's tough off-road stance but delivers decent on-road dynamics within a roomier and more luxurious cabin.

Prices include COE, and are up to $4,000 lower at press time.