Mike is looking for an affordable sporty car to complement his daily driver, but it needs to have some degree of practicality since it will baby occasionally. He wants to be able to work on it easily and have something that is decent for long drives. What car should he buy?
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Here is the scenario:
I want to buy an easy to work on sports car for under $8,000. I was dead set on a Miata, but now my wife and I are expecting, so it has to be a four-seater. I currently have a daily driver (2016 VW Jetta). I don’t want any Subarus since I had a bad experience with the head gaskets in a WRX.
I need something quick, reliable for long-distance drives (Rochester, NY to Toronto), and cheap to wrench. I’m not picky about the drive wheels or even the transmission. However, it has to have a back seat large enough to fit a car seat and enough room for a hockey bag.
Budget: up to $8,000
Daily Driver: No
Location: Rochester, NY
Wants: Fun, Easy to fix, Somewhat reliable, four-seats
Doesn’t want: A money pit project car
Mike, this isn’t a super easy task because you need something fun, with four doors, and a fair amount of reliability for a modest budget. So I dialed back the mental time machine and remembered what I drove when I wanted the same thing. In college I bought a 1995 Honda Prelude Si.
I loved that car. It wasn’t the fastest coupe but it had a great gearbox, excellent handling (before I ruined it with lowering springs), and it treated me well for many years, despite my inability to wrench. While the Radwood era is upon us and those ‘90s Japanese sport compacts are worth buying, finding a fourth-generation Prelude with much life left in it will be tough.
However, there are a few of the fifth-generation Preludes still around with reasonable miles within your budget. These were bigger, faster, and more comfortable than the car I drove. Here is a 2001 SH model not far from you for $8,000. This car has the 2.2-liter VTEC four-cylinder that made 200 HP and is paired with a five-speed manual. It also has SUPER HANDLING, which is an important differentiator from the rest of the pack that will have just good handling.
The back seat is suitable enough for the car seat, and the trunk should be able to squeeze your bag.
Okay, look: I know you said no Subarus, but the thing is, there’s a Subaru that fits your situation so damn well, I have to ask you to at least consider it: the Subaru SVX.
Forget about those WRX head gasket issues—the SVX doesn’t even use the same engine—this one is a flat six, just like a Porsche 911 or a Corvair. It’ll be fine.
Besides, just look at the thing! It’s like a spaceship, with those fantastic windows-inset-into-windows and that gleefully optimistic 1990s aero look.
These cars were comfortable, quick enough, and have plenty of room for kids seats and hockey equipment (a saddle for the ice horses? I forget), and it just feels like the future, at least as we understood that concept in the 1990s.
Put aside your Subaru-phobia and consider the SVX. This one isn’t too far from you, in great shape, and it’s only $5,000! Just keep that mind open, because this SVX would be perfect.
If you want to go reliable and used, I almost always recommend Japanese cars. (Stay away from old BMW luxobarges, ask me how I know this.) And the Honda Prelude is a great choice, albeit a rare one. Here’s a more common pick: the Acura RSX.
The RSX was the sequel to the Integra and was actually called that in some markets. While it’s objectively not as cool as the Integra, it was a sharp-looking and sharp-handling VTEC coupe in its day, and one that should hold up long-term as long as you find an example that hasn’t been modified half to death. As for being able to work on it—ask the army of Honda tuners out there if they’ve had any trouble. The answer is no.
If you’re willing to schlep down to Long Island, here’s a Type S for just $5,800 and 114,000 miles on the clock. Not even halfway through its Honda-life, that.
The Chevy Corvair got a terrible reputation after Ralph Nader crapped all over it in his book Unsafe at Any Speed, but the reality is that it’s a great car. It’s got American size and swagger with a European-style powertrain.
The Germans were kicking butt with their air-cooled VWs in the ’50s, so GM hopped onboard and by 1959 had a small, rear-engine, air-cooled car of its own called the Corvair. Powering the little (by American standards) machine was a 2.7-liter flat-six engine that didn’t make a whole lot of power at roughly 80 hp, though certain variants like the “Spyder” cranked output up to 150 ponies thanks to what some call the first turbocharger ever equipped on a mass-produced passenger car.
Finding a Spyder model in good shape within your budget may be tough, but Corvairs in general are dirt cheap. The yellow “Monza” model (which got nice seats and pretty over the base model) above costs 14 large, but this beautiful 1964 coupe looks to be in great shape and it’s only $6,700 (though I’d probably skip the two-speed auto in favor of a four-speed manual).
My coworker Jason drove a convertible Monza back in 2013 and called it the “American Porsche 911.” Hell, back in 2016, Bloomberg wrote “Why You Should Buy a 1960s Chevy Corvair Right Now,” and Hagerty posed this question a year and a half later: “Why isn’t the 1960-69 Chevrolet Corvair worth more?”
Hagerty’s story does mention that the car has “limited performance potential” and that some body parts can be hard to find, but at the end of the day, it’s clear that, as a society, we’ve reached a consensus that the Corvair is cheap and awesome.
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