Jon is an engineer in his 20s who wants an engaging car that will take full advantage of the California canyons, but he isn’t sure if he should splurge and get a Porsche or play it safe with something more reasonable. What car should he buy?
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Being young is great because you have limited responsibilities! It’s the perfect time to get to treat yourself to a sports car that would most likely be not so practical once it’s time to grow up and start a family.
When I was in my 20s I had a desperate need for something fast with a manual transmission, even though I didn’t know how to drive stick at the time. But I was committed to learning, dammit, and doing it on something cool—ideally with a V8. Then State Farm killed my dreams of a Camaro SS, so I ended up with a Honda Prelude.
Because I was young and had a Honda at the height of the import tuner craze, I thought it would be a good idea to do some modifications, like a $300 coilover suspension that I bought from an ad in Sport Compact Car magazine. The Honda handled great until I hit the smallest bump in the road, and then it would buck like a rodeo horse. I didn’t care, I thought it was awesome. It really wasn’t.
Luckily, Jon doesn’t have to ruin his car with cheap tuner parts to enjoy something sporty.
Here is what he is looking for:
I’m a 20-something year old looking to purchase a fun, daily drivable car for around $20,000-$25,0000. I’m very tempted by a 987 Cayman since it is one of the best driver’s cars you can buy. However, I want something with a low cost of ownership as I would rather not have to spend a fortune on maintenance.
Essentially, I’m looking for something comparable to what a Lotus Elise provides with more practicality. I don’t care too much about the power of the engine as long as the car handles well, is easy to keep running with as few days in the shop as possible (and not too expensively), and has at least some degree of head-turning ability.
Budget: $20,000-$25,000 (but under $20k would be great)
Daily Driver: Yes, and I’m also on the tall side (6’ 2”) so legroom and headroom are important. I plan on keeping this car for about five years.
Average Miles Per Week: 50-80
Transmission Choice: Willing to learn stick, but automatic is fine
Wants: Handling, Balance, Driver Engagement
Doesn’t Want: High Maintenance costs, Boring to drive.
Expert #1: Tom McParland, Peddler of Reasonable-ish Advice
Okay Jon, so here is the deal with the Porsche. With a max budget of $25,000 most of the Caymans currently on the market will have about 60,000-90,000 miles. There are a few outliers with fewer than 50,000 miles, but those cars are typically multiple owner examples that have been sent through the auctions a few times and/or are for sale at questionable dealerships.
A high quality, well cared-for, one or two owner car is going to max your budget and not leave you any buffer for maintenance.
While the Cayman is relatively reliable, it is still a $60,000+ car when it comes to routine maintenance and repairs; it is probably not going to give you a similar cost of ownership like a Camry, even if a used one may cost as much as one of those.
Here is what you should buy instead. Get a Toyobaru (the Scion FR-S, Toyota 86, Subaru BRZ—they’re all basically the same.) When Subaru and Toyota were co-developing their sports car, they wanted to make exactly what you are requesting: an engaging, driver-centric rear-wheel drive coupe with great balance and handling and even some degree of practicality. They even benchmarked the Porsche Cayman for the suspension and chassis tuning.
The internet likes to give the BRZ/86/FR-S a hard time for not having a ton of power, but you don’t care about any of that. It’s not going to turn heads, but neither is a ten-year-old Cayman.
You mentioned that you would prefer not to spend more than $20,000. No problem, you could get something like this Certified 2013 Subaru BRZ Premium with less than 35,000 miles for $19,000, or spend a bit more and get a practically brand new FR-S for $24,000.
One more tip: get the manual. If you are looking to maximize your engagement with the car you want to row your own gears. The Toyobaru transmission is light and easy and you will get the hang of it in no time.
Expert #2: Andrew Collins, Reformed VTEC Cultist
It’s right in the headline, bro–Honda S2000 all the way!
You seem to be looking for balance over power, but you want something not too stiff or expensive to run. This car checks all three boxes! “Some degree of head-turning ability” is pretty tough to wrangle while also being remotely “practical” and in the $20,000 neighborhood, but at least you’ll know Miata owners will be looking on enviously.
The S2000 is no screamer or stunner but it’s a damn fine looking car with a high-revving engine, rear-wheel drive and a six-speed manual transmission. The design has already aged gracefully. I don’t think you’ll ever get bored looking at it.
I thought about suggesting an old Boxster because they’re so cheap, but you don’t want to deal with maintenance. “Fun to drive” and “practical” usually results in a list of hatchbacks but don’t waste your time with front wheel drive.
Your biggest challenge shopping for an S2000 will be to find one that hasn’t been fucked up too badly by an overzealous and unskilled owner. Fortunately the signs will be obvious– and your budget is high enough to get a really nice one or clean up a decent one with good parts. That said, I would get it running perfect, throw on the best tires you can afford and call it a day. You’ll probably be calling it a couple hundred days, since it’s a Honda and they’re basically immortal.
As for AP1 vs AP2—as in the early slightly-higher-revving version or the post-2004 revision—I’d be more concerned about what you can find in the best condition.
Expert #3: Kristen Lee, Worshipper Of The ‘Vette Gods
As the C5 Corvette Z06 is as American as apple pie, there’s no doubt that you’ll be able to fit comfortably in it. It’s totally daily driveable and the trunk will hold enough luggage for a weekend excursion or one trip’s worth of groceries. As a resident of California, you won’t really need to worry about rain or snow, so keeping a nice set of summer tires on the car is all you need to do.
Even though it’s 15 years old, the Z06 is still a wrathfully quick car in today’s day and age. From the naturally aspirated 5.7-liter V8 (which sounds righteous, by the way) snorts 385 to 400 HP, depending on which magazine you ask. That’s enough for a proper burnout.
The Z06's styling isn’t the scream-in-your-face sort—it stands out much more subtly. The low stance, extra vents and Z06 badges set this thing apart from a standard C5.
Oh, also, need I say more than an 11-second quarter mile time?
Here’s a red one in Huntingdon Beach, CA for $21,900 with 76,000 miles. It’s a stick shift, but trust me, this car will be worth learning the skill.
Expert #4: Freddy “Tavarish” Hernandez, Professional Craigslist Spelunker
With this criteria, I’m not sure there’s a better choice than a mid 1990s, second generation Toyota MR2 Turbo. It’s the sort of car that no pumpkin-spice-sipping, car-indifferent millennial will likely recognize, but it carries the same sort of street cred as its more famous Supra sibling, albeit with none of the Fast and Furious upcharge.
It has an extremely potent and tune-able turbocharged four cylinder engine in the middle of the car, a snappy five speed manual transmission, has looks that rival any of the sought-after ‘90s Japanese halo cars, and it was less than 3,000 pounds, which made it damn fast. You can currently find good used examples for well under $10,000, with the more concourse-ready, low-milers for under $20,000.
The car comes standard with Toyota’s overbuilt and unkillable quality, and parts are cheap relative to what you’d pay for a comparable Elise. I’m not sure how much storage there is, but it’s fast enough that you’d be able to make to trips without fuss.
Here’s one in Florida with a turbo and a manual and a ‘90s-tastic turquoise paint job for $17,000. Your choice is clear.