Andrea is a cool mom who tears up the track on her weekends. Unfortunately, her beloved Fiat 500 Abarth got wrecked, and now she needs an affordable replacement that isn’t what everyone else uses. What car should she buy?
Andrea is living the Jalop life the way it should be lived. On the weekends she takes her trusty car to the autocross or pushes its limits at a hill climb. Unfortunately, her current car is out of commission, so now she’s looking for a new track weapon—and a unique one at that.
Here is the scenario:
I need a new dedicated autocross and hill-climb car that could potentially go to the track some day too. Also, I am a lunatic with a penchant for the weird cars.
This is just a weekend play toy so I don’t want to spend a lot on it. Ideally around $7,000, but maybe up to $10,000. Now this car, must NOT be one of the “usual suspect” race cars.... no Miatas, S2Ks, M3s, Corvettes, etc. It has to have tons of personality, soul, quirkiness, all that good stuff. Inexpensive (sub 7k-ish) and easy to work on are bonuses. A proper metal roof is good (keep in mind I was just upside down) and aesthetically, if it’s a low slung sports car, preference goes to 80's wedge styles.
Needless to say, it has to have three pedals, and despite the fact that I don’t want the same old thing that everyone else drives, I do need something with a decent aftermarket support.
Budget: $7,000 - $10,000
Daily Driver: No
Wants: Something weird and different, but with aftermarket support for parts.
Doesn’t want: Something too common or too hard to work on.
Expert #1: Tom McParland - Go Racing With The Original Giant Slayer
Andrea, I know from experience that with kids it’s not easy to make time for fun car events. Good on for racing whenever you have the opportunity. I think it’s fitting your Abarth’s replacement not only shares similar characteristics but also has a racing heritage as well.
What you need is a Mini Cooper S. The original Mini Cooper didn’t have much power but made up for it by being super lightweight with incredible cornering. In the 1960s, the Minis were incredibly successful at the famed Monte Carlo Rally beating sports cars that had a lot more performance and prestige.
So if you want to take on Corvettes and M3s at your local autocross, I would suggest you find the first-generation BMW-made R53 Mini Cooper S, the one built from 2001 to 2006. These had a tighter handling than the cars that came after, as BMW made them continually bigger and softer to sell more units.
I had a 2004 Cooper S and that was unfortunately totaled in a flood, but it found a second life by a gentleman who bought it as a salvage car to race on the weekends. I still miss that car. Here is a 2005 Cooper S hardtop right within your budget range, painted in the very appropriate British Racing Green.
Expert #2: David Tracy - Show Me The Way To Salvation
The answer to this question is a vehicle I myself have been drooling over for the past six year: the FB Mazda RX-7. And really, as I look over your list of requirements, it’s exactly what your life needs. Scratch that—it’s exactly what everyone’s life needs.
It’s tiny, has a small rotary engine up front, a five-speed manual in the middle, power going to the back two wheels, and the cutest little popup headlights I’ve ever seen. What more could you want?
The interior, too, is hilariously ‘80s with its burgundy color, square door handles, and spindly little four-spoke steering wheel. As for the exterior, you say you prefer 1980's wedge styling. Well, there are few cars on earth that looks more like a wedge than an early Mazda RX-7. In fact, first gen RX-7s actually had to be recalled by the manufacturer because mice kept chewing the paint off the front bumper. (OK, my source on that was a bit questionable).
Plus, these little sports cars are known to be fairly reliable if their engines aren’t heavily modified, and they’re dirt cheap. That red one in the picture above is going for only three grand, and the owner says it runs and drives great.
Buy one. Show me the way. For I, too, yearn to be an FB RX-7 owner.
Expert #3: Jason Torchinsky - Here’s the best solution to the best problem to have
Andrea, I hope you like being delighted every time you think about your car. I hope you work somewhere were people are willing to accomodate your sudden bursts of laughter and possibly tears of joy that, when questioned, are always explained with “oh, nothing, I was just thinking about my car.” Because these are going to be part of your life once you buy this amazing 1974 Saab Sonnet III.
Absolutely everything you want out of your weekend racer is here, crammed into a taught little wedge of Swedish joy: tons of personality, soul, quirkiness? Hell yeah. Sporty-wedge design? Look at the damn thing. Metal roof, low slung, three pedals, only $7900, Andrea, you should be properly losing it right now.
The Sonnet has always been a delightfully unusual sports car, and this is the furthest development of it. It drives the front wheels, Saab-style, with a Ford V4 engine– open the hood at any of your hillclimbs and just enjoy the raw WTF people will be dropping everywhere.
It’s got a great look, angular and curvy, covered in interesting details, and, of course, those big pop-up headlights, manually activated with a big, satisfying pull marked ‘LIGHTS.’
The interior is like being in a cocoon of butterscotch corduroy, and in that interior you’ll see the world whip by the windows at a nice clip, because this Sonnet has an uprated 90 horsepower rebuilt engine.
Oh, and if anything happens to that engine, the seller is throwing in a second rebuilt engine!
What the hell are you waiting for? Your search is done, and you’re one email away from being the person I envy most right now. Have at it!
Expert #4: Stef Schrader - Resisting The Obvious Answer
Sub-$7,000, used for racing, relatively easy to work on, tons of aftermarket support, wedge-shaped, has a roof, extremely fun to drive and a bit strange? Andrea, have you heard the good news of our Lord and Savior Porsche 944? Because 924s and 944s can be had all day long in your budget (even Turbos!), and their low-slung shape makes them a lot less prone to rolling over.
That’s the obvious answer, but since you explicitly said no obvious answers and “hillclimb,” I’ll suggest something Audi had even more of their grubby little fingers on. Go forth, buy a Coupe Quattro and live out every Michèle Mouton-based fantasy that’s been waiting in your head.
This $6,700 1990 Coupe Quattro on Craigslist may not be the Quattro Mouton dominated Pikes Peak with, but it’s in the right family for sure. Audi enthusiasts are around and plentiful, and if you’re used to a tightly packaged and quite Italian Fiat 500, this shouldn’t be too much harder to work on in comparison. Inside is the all-important five-speed transmission, all on a car that really won’t give you much trouble if you remember to keep up with maintenance.
Oh, and just in case you want to try out a rallycross, it should also be a blast on dirt, too. Be the hero who stops polishing der Audi and takes it racing.
Expert #5: Patrick George - Puts The Bro In Track Day, Bro
Oh, thank god! Someone with another interesting What Car Should You Buy? question. If I had to recommend the damn Mazda3 hatchback again I was going to put my head in an oven.
Andrea, my sincerest condolences on the 500 Abarth. It is a perennial Jalopnik staff favorite, a car we never say no to, and one that is more fun than vastly more expensive machines. At least it died as it lived.
The answer here could definitely be Mazda Miata, except you want something unique, and those are unfortunately kind of played out—they’re great at what they do, so everyone uses them.
What I’m going to offer up is a slightly less common choice, but still a popular one, as I wanted to give you a practical alternative to the absurd choices my colleagues suggested. (I’ll also tell you to only go for the Mini Cooper if you plan on spending most of your time fixing it instead of driving it.)
No, what I suggest is an E36, the BMW 3 Series of the 1990s. You’re getting a fairly robust rear-wheel drive coupe or sedan, ideally with a stick, and a smooth inline-six or revvy four-cylinder engine. Plus it’s not brutally uncomfortable like some ancient roadster would be. Personality? Well, it’s got class, and that’s close.
The best part? It’s cheap as hell. Prices on these haven’t skyrocketed the way the E30s have (ask me how I know this.) You can get one easily for under $10,000; in fact, you shouldn’t have to spend close to that much on an E36 track car. On top of all that, it’s endlessly customizable. Your challenge will be to find one that wasn’t already beaten to hell as someone’s track car.
Here’s one in Texas for just $4,500 with under 100,000 miles. It’s nice, too. Nice enough that it’s ready to live out a life of hard hoonage under your watch.