Alex lives in Los Angeles and designs toy cars. He has been driving his 2008 Corolla since college. While the old Toyota is still chugging along, he wants to upgrade to something that really stands out. What car should he buy?
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Here is the scenario:
I’ve been driving the same bare-bones 2008 Corolla since I bought it in college. It remains, as expected, completely fine, with no surprises or major headaches over a decade-plus of daily use. Despite this, I’m now on the cusp of my mid-30s, and every morning I enter my garage I secretly hope it somehow vanished in the night so I can convince the frugal part of my brain it’s finally ok to get something new.
Here’s the wrinkle: I design toy cars, so my aesthetic standards are somewhat...unreasonable, at least by grown-up, non-kajillionaire metrics. I have no interest in trading in my bland, generic ride for another anonymous people-mover. I’m looking for a car with character, soul, something that makes you feel something when you see it and when you drive it. My non-toy car knowledge is pretty limited (not much good with a wrench, can’t drive manual, etc.) so despite a fondness for classic cars, I’d be worried about actually owning one.
This will be daily driven, so needs to be semi-practical, but I have no real preference in body style, don’t need a ton of cargo or passenger space, and it doesn’t have to be fast. Just should drive well, provide joy, and not fade into the sea of drab, identical crossovers.
I can spend up to $25,000
Budget: Up to $25,000
Daily Driver: Yes
Location: Los Angeles
Wants: Interesting, distinctive, fun
Doesn’t want: A muscle car or a giant pickup truck.
Expert 1: Tom McParland - What If Hot Wheels Was Real Life?
Alex, you have what most of us would consider a dream job. You get to design fun cars without any real concern about actual engineering or safety. There are many of us who haven’t quite outgrown collecting die-cast cars because it’s really the only way for us to own our dream fleet.
While your 2008 Corolla is the benchmark for reliability, I can understand not being excited about it. Buying something that stands out on Los Angeles is a challenge since even the most exotic rides seem commonplace, but there is one forgotten mish-mash from GM that will still get some attention. That is the Chevy SSR. In the early 2000s, the retro trend was in full swing amongst the Big Three. Chevrolet decided the best way to capitalize on that movement was to make a strange combination of a muscle car, hard-top convertible, and pickup truck.
I realize that you specifically said you wanted neither a muscle car nor a large pickup, but the SSR is neither of those things. Essentially, it’s what would happen if a Hot Wheels designer was allowed to shape an actual production car. These SSRs are somewhat collectible now, and low-mile examples can reach upwards of $40,000, but you can find ones with reasonable miles well within your budget. Here is a 2003 example with about 65,000 miles right in your area.
Expert 2: Raphael Orlove - What’s The Most Normal Abnormal?
Shit, the SSR is actually a good idea. I mean, the SSR was a horrible idea as a pickup truck, but as a motive object it’s just about perfection. I still think I can do better, though.
You see, if you want a car that’s basically just your Toyota only somehow more fun, you’re not exactly trapped. While Toyota in America just sold plain and simple, reliable cars, in Japan it sold a few more variations on the theme. That’s what we have here, a Toyota Sera. The seller is only asking $9,500, but that’s before you get it to an import shop to make sure it’s CA-legal.
The Sera was not all that different from your Corolla (under the skin I believe it’s basically a Paseo), so you can trust it to be as dead reliable as any other 1990s Toyota product. The difference is that instead of wrapping the Sera in a normal beige body like everything else we got from the company, Toyota gave the Sera the best doors ever.
These are butterfly doors, the same style knocked off by the McLaren F1. They’re hinged at the front and top of the car, with little sunroofs built into them. I’ve sat in a Sera before (at Gary Duncan’s, which has an even nicer low-mile Sera for sale) and it is absolutely spectacular. There are convertibles that feel less airy and open than a Sera. It’s your perfect trusty car you want, only with the whimsy you need.
Expert 3: Mercedes Streeter - A Road Legal Toy Car
Look, it’s hard to follow-up a Chevrolet SSR, but I’m going to try my best. I will offer you a Honda Beat. This little car isn’t very practical. The rear is taken up by its 656cc triple and there’s maybe enough space to store a single bag of groceries. Up front is space for the spare tire and not much else.
But what you lose in practicality you gain in just about everything else. You simply cannot drive a Beat without the biggest possible smile on your face. Kids and adults alike will think it’s a toy car and nobody is going to mistake this for a generic crossover. Put a custom exhaust on it and it’ll sound like a mean motorcycle, even when you’re going just 30 mph. Buy a Beat and spread joy on the road.
Here’s a 1994 Beat in Las Vegas that appears to be completely stock, painted in a dark green with a low 21,000 miles on the odometer. If you don’t care about low mileage, they can be had for much cheaper, too.
Expert 4: José Rodríguez Jr. - A Different Daily Driver
Oh, boy, Alex. You’ve given us a near-blank slate, with the only constraints being budget and design. I want to recommend some of my favorites, like the Nissan 300ZX or the Volkswagen Corrado. I’m even inclined to suggest something rarer like a Saab 9-3 Viggen! But you mentioned that you want a daily driver, so I think you need a car that’s just a bit more practical.
You need this 2006 Subaru Baja Turbo. This one is a road trip away in Portland, Oregon, and a bit expensive at $16,000, but it has an automatic transmission. And most of the repairs you might have needed at this point have already been done — at least, according to the seller. This Baja looks ready for duty as a daily without sacrificing its personality or unique design.
It’s a practical yet outlandish car that could haul both people and cargo. I don’t run into the Baja often, but when I do, I always double-take and smile.