Jonathan moved from New York City to Los Angeles a few years ago and bought a 1998 Camry for $1,000. It was a smart and responsible move, but the old Toyota is showing its age it’s time for something new and fun. What car should he buy?
Here is the scenario:
In 2014, I moved from New York City to L.A. with no job and a tight budget. That led me to buy my friend’s - and previously, her grandma’s - 1998 Toyota Camry for a cool $1000. It served its function perfectly, but now, as it approaches its 20th birthday and a wealth of fixes that seem cost inefficient, I’m looking to upgrade to something with more personality but is still reliable.
The last car I drove before this Camry was a beat-up Plymouth Sundance America from the 80s. I drove that in high school, so basically, I’ve never in my life had fun in a car and I’m curious as to what that feels like.
I’m open on the body style, but I need four doors for some practicality and I can finally spend some decent money on a car and have a budget up to $25,000. I’m looking for something with personality, fun, and style, but since I have to deal with LA traffic it needs to have an automatic transmission.
Budget: up to $25,000
Daily Driver: Yes
Location: Los Angeles
Wants: Fun, Style, Somewhat practical
Doesn’t want: Nothing too unreliable, a manual transmission
Jonathan, that Toyota has treated you well for a while and I bet it could probably go another 100,000 miles without you having to put much into it. But as competent as it is, the Camry is not exactly fun. Since you have some cash to spend you should enjoy life even if most of it is spent standing still on the LA freeway.
There are a ton of good choices in your price range and I’ll be honest, I really wanted to say get a Volkswagen GTI. I have one and I would say it’s the best commuter car you can buy for someone that wants something fun, practical, and reasonably priced. But I’ll admit the VW doesn’t really have much in the way of style so perhaps something with a bit more flair would work.
You should get a Mini Cooper. The two-door version looks better, but if you insist you can get one with four doors. Pay a little more for an S model as it will give you a bit more punch for passing and handle better in the corners. Here is a used 2018 Cooper S, four-door for under $24,000. While Mini doesn’t have the best reputation for reliability the newer versions seem to be holding up fairly well, and this car should have plenty of warranty left. They also have a solid automatic gearbox for you, since manuals are no fun in LA.
Listen, Jonathan, you’re living in a bubble. The Camry has introduced you to a safe little world wherein you don’t have to worry about your car because it’s milled from solid Boringium that will never break, squeak, or fall apart. In the real world, life isn’t so easy. That’s why I want to keep you safe in the mystical land of Toyota, where cars don’t try to hurt you.
Don’t worry, you can stay in your bubble and still have fun. Enter the Lexus IS F, a car built exactly for this mission. Filled with high-quality leathers and plastics meant to outlast most celestial bodies, the IS F has everything you love about Toyota quality and reliability. It’s also got four doors, an automatic transmission and a semi-modern luxury interior for the days you’ll spend sitting in LA traffic.
Most importantly, however, it has a 420 horsepower V8 ready to be unleashed when you make it up to the canyons. An aggressive body kit and unique wheels help remind people that your IS came to play, as does a fantastic exhaust note from the naturally-aspirated power plant. Most IS F’s are closer to 30 grand, but I found a nice-looking example outside of LA for $25,399.
Jonathan, let’s face it, your automotive history has been about as stylish and fun as a wardrobe consisting of nothing but cargo shorts and t-shirts with things like FUN RUN ‘04 and TEAM BUILDING EXPERIENCE! printed on them. It’s time to inject some much-needed style into your driving life, and I think we can do that, reliably, practically, and cheaply. With this.
Yes, you need a classic 1985 Mercedes-Benz W123 wagon. This one is a turbo diesel, a 300TD, which means it won’t be as miserably slow as the normal diesel ones. Plus five cylinders! These are very stylish cars, with a classic look that still turns heads today, and are as practical as hell. Four doors, a good sized wagon area, this will do everything you need.
This one looks to be in fantastic shape, and, remember, these were luxury cars, so they’re automatic and comfortable and a great place to sit in miserable 405 parking lot-like traffic. Plus, these cars were mechanically bulletproof, and are probably some of the most reliable classics you can drive.
It’s only $7,500! Sock away $5K of your car money into a repair fund and go enjoy the rest! After years of Camry driving, you’re going to feel like a goddamn king in this. You’re welcome.
“I’ve never in my life had fun in a car.” Jonathan, that’s the saddest thing I’ve ever read on this website, and I edit David Tracy on a daily basis. We’re going to fix this and get you squared away here.
Tom doesn’t think a GTI is the right answer, citing “style,” but I can’t think of a better one for you. Coming from your Camry, it carries tons of practicality and adds a 220 horsepower 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder engine that will feel like a rocket engine by comparison.
And it has Volkswagen’s DSG, one of the best automatic gearboxes you can get in any car, regardless of price. I think you’re going to drive this and be blown away. And while VW’s reliability historically hasn’t been Toyota Camry good—that’s a high bar—they have gotten better, and you’ve been in boring cars so long I think you should just say fuck it and go for it.
You can find plenty of GTIs for around $25,000 or less. Stick to the current MK7 generation car, which has been around since 2015. Here’s a four-door near you with the performance package and under 30,000 miles for $23,998. Get it and don’t look back.