Dan has had a batch of bad luck. He recently went through a divorce, and his old BMW crapped out just as he started a new job. He is looking for something enjoyable, reliable and practical for two kids and gear for under $20,000. What car should he buy?
(Welcome back to What Car Should You Buy? Where we give real people real advice about buying cars. )
Here is the scenario:
I’m a divorced father of two who just spent 6 months unemployed. My 2003 BMW 540i/6MT, on my seventh day of work at a new job, blew out its cooling system (which I’ve replaced or repaired five times since buying the car in 2011). My savings are zilch and my debt is high. I will likely have to dig into my retirement account to cover a down payment, so whatever it is, it has to be a good bang for the buck.
My new job involves a 25 mile, 40-minute commute each way, so fuel economy is important. I’d also like something that can haul my two kids (7 and 10), two dogs, camera equipment, etc, but isn’t an SUV. (I’m definitely open to wagons). A back seat that can fit two adult humans (with legs attached). A manual transmission would be nice. I’d like something I can work on myself, if possible, and Reliable. This car cannot be produced by the Volkswagen Auto Group. I would like it to be fun to drive, interesting looking/eye-catching. Leather/easy to clean interior would be nice, but not necessary (kids and cloth upholstery rarely work well together).
I can spend up to $20,000.
Budget: up to $20,000
Daily Driver: Yes
Location: Durham, NC
Wants: Reliable, Fun, Practical
Doesn’t want: Another German maintenance headache
Dan, sorry to hear about your cascade of bad luck. The good news is I have a solution—the bad news is it may not be what you have in mind.
What if I told you that you could get a “wagon” with a 330 horsepower V6, rear-wheel drive, tons of luxury appointments, low miles, and Japanese reliability all for under $18,000? You would be pretty jazzed, right?
Well, that car is called the Infiniti EX37. Now, this is technically labeled as a “crossover” but Infiniti only did that because they know Americans don’t buy wagons. But the EX is a wagon/hatchback version of the G35/G37 sedan that gave the BMW 3 series a run for its money. It has Nissan’s super sturdy VQ series V6 that is pumping out some serious power, but of course, all those horses get thirsty so the best you can hope for is about 24 mpg on the highway. As for styling... well, it is different.
The best part is that you can score a low mile example loaded with features for well within your budget zone.
Now, the sensible thing to do if you were looking for a car that’s practical, but sporty, with a manual, that’s not a Volkswagen, is to get the Ford Focus ST, which is very comfortably in your price range.
But I notice that you say you want something you can work on yourself, and I have gazed into the depths of modern Ford compacts and seen god. I don’t want to go in there. If I have to work on something, I want it as dead simple as possible.
With that in mind, a nice, practical, fun, manual commuter car is right in your price range: this immaculate 1971 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. It is as simple as an American car is going to get from the era, with tons of room to work under that long hood. Roomy in the back, too.
Ah. I see now that you say you wanted something fuel efficient. Well, you can at least take some consolation knowing that if you buy this Monte for $15,000 it will take the better part of a year and a half before you start spending more on fuel with it than in a FoST, assuming 15 mpg for the Chev, 25 mpg for the Ford, and gas at a punitive $5 per gallon. Not so bad, right?
Old BMWs! Why do they hurt us so? Why do we keep coming back to them? Why do we hate ourselves?
The good news, Dan, is that you can break the cycle of car violence right now. For your needs—fun, practical, manual, wagon-ish, reliable—we may not even need to go as high as $20,000. How about a well-maintained Mazda 3 hatchback?
Though the new one is getting all the attention, every generation of this car has been fun, pragmatic, affordable and stylish. It’s the driver’s choice among small cars, and while it lacks BMW power it does have near-BMW levels of fun for a car in its class. There are now plenty of them to choose from. You may be tempted to go with the turbocharged Mazdaspeed 3, but I’d be more inclined to go with the naturally aspirated one for reliability.
Here’s one near you for $7,000. He’s interested in trading, but I bet you could work something out. Go live the Mazda life and leave that old Bimmer behind.
Also, I’m laughing hard at “This car cannot be produced by the Volkswagen Auto Group.” You got a good head on your shoulders, Dan.
Dan, it sounds a bit like you’re starting a new chapter in your life here, and it’s worth remembering that nobody wants to read boring chapters. You need something reliable and useful, sure, but also fun! Something interesting, something that you actually give a rat’s rectum about! That’s why you need a Nissan Rasheen.
The Rasheen is a Japanese Domestic Market car that’s only just become ready for import this year, and it’s practical and charming and interesting, all at once. It has simple, square-rigged looks that sort of evoke Volvo 200 series and Wartburg and Range Rover all at the same time. It’s scaled smaller than an SUV, more of a wagon, really, but has a rugged demeanor and details like an external spare.
It’s just cool, and it’s got Japanese reliability and a lot of practical room for all those kids, dogs, and cameras. People will notice this thing, in a good way. Live a little, man!
Plus, this one is only about five grand and has a zebra on the spare tire cover! You can’t beat that!