I Need a Car to Distract Me From Some Bad News. What Should I Buy?

What Car Should You BuyThe experts at Jalopnik answer your car-buying questions.

Just recently, Steve got some bad news that he has been diagnosed with cancer. There are a lot of unknowns with this new situation, but the one thing he does know is that he doesn’t want to be stuck just driving a boring-ass Toyota Highlander. 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:

On Monday I learned that I have cancer. Figure that it makes sense to drive something that I enjoy. I have two kids, 12 and 9. Will want enough room for the three of us. Will be my daily driver in place of my appliance of a Highlander.

I want something that is easy to drive and park. Enjoy shifting my own gears. The kids and I can do some basic maintenance. Roll down the windows and cruise. Should not need it longer than ten years.

Have had cars ranging from 1940s sedans to a couple of Lotuses, hot rods to survivors. There was something about each of them that I loved. Either enjoyed driving them hard or tinkering with them to keep them running.

Now I am looking for something that looks inviting, like an old sweater, feels good to ride in and wash. Nothing loud, fast, or fancy. Something to take on an ice cream run every day. Something to make memories with. I can spend up to $15,000.

Quick Facts:

Budget: Up to $15,000

Daily Driver: Yes

Location: San Jose, CA

Wants: Fits three, easy to keep on the road, has character

Doesn’t want: Something too large

Expert 1: Tom McParland - Doesn’t Really Know How to Respond


Steve, that is certainly a punch in the gut. But you didn’t come here to discuss your diagnosis. You came here to talk about cars. You want a classic cruiser with some character than you can enjoy and maybe tinker a bit on.

You are probably aware that thanks to Radwood, the new trend in cars with character are rides from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Those were good times or at least those were better times because that is how the Gen-Xers and millennials remember them. Anyway, what you need is a BMW from the mid-‘90s because your kids need to know what is “cool” and an E34 5 Series is cool.


I’m also going to suggest that you not get rid of the Highlander just yet because when you have an old BMW in your driveway, you are probably going to need a backup plan. Here is nice clean one in California for about $4,000. Like all BMWs of this vintage, it will likely need some work.

This one is an automatic, you can likely find a manual but that will be more of a challenge and it may just be easier to cruise with the auto.


Expert 2: Erin Marquis - A Little Something Special


Hey, big guy. I know a little bit about what you’re going through, though I can’t imagine having kids and dealing with this disease at the same time. I really feel for you and your family. And that’s why I want you to avoid an old German car that might end up laid up in the shop too often.

What you need is something fun, zippy, easy-to-drive and at least from this decade. Something memorable to make memories in. And since you’re in California, that definitely means a convertible. What you really truly should buy is a Mini Cooper Convertible.


Sure, they’re not exactly known for their reliability per se, but neither are 30-year-old German cars. And the newer Minis are a lot better in this regard. These are cars with at least up-to-date handling and safety systems to keep your precious cargo secure even in a tiny package. Even just the construction of smaller cars over the last 20 years has improved dramatically. When it comes to kids and someone already not feeling their best, safety is as important as fun.

There are a few Minis in California with low miles and in your price range with just a cursory glance. That third pedal won’t be hard to find, and the Cooper is definitely not something that could be considered big and it definitely has character.


Your kids will love this zippy fun-looking and driving car (I know I did as a 12-year-old) and when the tough days hit, rowing gears with a gearbox from this century will be at least a little easier on you. Even if convertibles aren’t for you, Mini has tons of different styles to get something that fits you perfectly.

Whatever you get, I hope there are many, many miles of good road ahead of you.

Expert 3: Alanis King - A Fun Car You Won’t Have to Stress Over

The 2015 Honda Civic Si.
Image: Honda

I’m going to build off of Erin’s assertion that you probably won’t want to deal with much car trouble or repairs with this fun ride, because you’ve got a lot going on right now and you’ll want this to be enjoyable instead of stressful.

That’s why I’m recommending a Honda Civic Si, from anywhere between 2011 through 2015. You can shift your own gears all day, it has enough power but not too much, it’ll fit your family and anything you could ever need even if you get a two-door version, and you don’t have to worry much in terms of reliability.

Image: Autotrader

My husband has a two-door 2006 Honda Civic EX with a stick, which is almost the exact body style as the 2011 Si. The car is as slow as can be and has a paint recall that makes its exterior look like a nearby galaxy in portrayed in shades of brown, but we absolutely love it. There’s almost never anything wrong with it, any fixes it does need are easy, and despite what it looks like, we can fit almost anything in that car—65-inch televisions, multiple two-year-old apple trees, everything. We call it our Civic truck, because it’s practical and fun. The Si will be all of that with roughly 200 horsepower, versus our 2006 Civic EX’s estimated -10 HP.


There’s the absolutely pristine, 6,766-mile 2011 Si in the photo to the left at this Autotrader listing for $15,987, but there are others under your $15,000 mark all the way through the next five model years.

Best of luck in your adventures and with your diagnosis, Steve, no matter which car you decide to go with. You deserve the fun.


Expert 4: Jason Torchinsky - Inviting Like an Old Sweater is Great Car Buying Criteria


Steve, I’m really sorry to hear about that stupid cancer but I’m happy to hear that it looks like you’re going to be enjoying the crap out of life no matter what. That’s the best anyone can do, and I can’t think of a better way to make that happen than getting a car you’ll really love. And I think I have an idea for that, based on how you described what you’re looking for: looks inviting, not loud, fast, or fancy, feels good to ride in and wash, fits you and your kids, and, yes, that old sweater analogy.

I think there’s an ideal car to fill all of these requirements out there for you, and it’s a Volvo PV544. Specfically, this beautiful 1963 Volvo PV544 for $13,000.


The 544 is an amazing car. It looks like an old ‘40s-era Ford but it’s a tough little Swede through-and-through, with the bulletproof Volvo B18 engine. In this case, since this one is the sportier 544S model, it’s got twin carbs making a ravenous and usable 95 horsepower. These things were actually surprisingly good rally cars back in the day, and are still really fun to drive.


This one has a four-speed manual, so you’ll get to shift, and has plenty of room for kids and whatever in its surprisingly roomy humpbacked body. It looks charming as all hell, and all those curves and chrome bumper tubes and trim will make this one a lot of fun to wash, as you mentioned, with all kinds of good details to focus on.

This is a car that will make people smile when they see it, and you’ll be smiling every time you drive it. You can’t be angry or miserable in a car like this—just look at it! It’s way, way too charming.


It’s humble and comfortable, like that old sweater, rugged and easy to work on, giving plenty of opportunities to spend some time with those kids, as they help you replace a carb or change the oil or whatever you want.

This one looks to be in great shape, inside and out. You need a memorable car you can love here, not some modern anonymous whatevermobile. No matter what happens in the future, this is both a car and a machine for generating wonderful memories for you and your kids. You deserve something special like this.


Expert 5: Patrick George - The Answer Here Too


I’m sorry to hear your news, Steve.

I’ll echo what Tom said: Keeping the Toyota Highlander isn’t the worst idea in the world. It’s boring but dependable and will probably be useful when you just need A Car to get around various places, like your treatments. I have never experienced what you’re going through but I’ve had friends who have, and I know some days you just won’t be up for corner carving and howling engine noises.


But on good days, you will be, and that’s why I think you hang on to your Toyota and splurge on a cheap, fun roadster to enjoy that California weather with. I know just the one. We’re fans of it around here. And I can tell you personally that it makes every bad day a lot better.

Here’s a lovely British Racing Green one for sale near you for just $2,300. It’s pretty loaded, as far as these go. You may only be able to take one kid on an ice cream run at a time, but in this thing, they’ll be fighting over who gets to go with you.


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About the author

Tom McParland

Tom is a contributing writer for Jalopnik and runs AutomatchConsulting.com. He saves people money and takes the hassle out of buying or leasing a car. (Facebook.com/AutomatchConsulting)