Brandon is 31 and has always regretted not learning how to drive a manual transmission. He wants to get a cheap, fun beater with three pedals to learn the skill that many of us cherish so much. What car should he buy?
Here is the scenario:
I can’t believe that I am now 31 years old and still don’t know how to drive stick. I’m almost embarrassed to call myself a car enthusiast without having the very basic skill of rowing my own gears. Well, the time has come for me to learn. I want to get a cheap car for less than $5,000 that can take the abuse of a first-time manual transmission driver.
I’m pretty open to whatever is available but I do have an affinity for those old muscle cars from the ‘90s. I also wouldn’t mind something interesting and different. The only thing I ask is that the car is not a Hyundai Elantra
Location: Eastern PA
Average Miles Per-Week: 200-300 miles
Wants: A manual transmission
Doesn’t want: A Hyundai Elantra
Expert 1: Tom McParland -Better Late Than Never
Brandon! Don’t worry that it has taken you so long to drive stick. You still have plenty of years left to enjoy the wonders of the three-pedal life. At least, until the robot cars take over. I guess jump on this opportunity now while the market supports it.
Since you love your old muscle cars, I was going to suggest that you go all out on this 1980 Firebird with a four on the floor and is making around 420 horsepower, according to the owner. (Clearly it’s been tuned or engine swapped because not many things were that powerful in 1980; come on.) Then I realized that a 420 HP vintage muscle car is probably not the best place to start when you are learning.
I say you combine your desire to learn stick and live out your muscle car fantasies as well.
Expert 2: Alex Hevesy - Learn To Be Practical With A Pickup
I know you suggested a muscle car and those are cool, I guess. But what if you need to move something bigger than exactly one (1) backpack? You’re gonna want something with a little more cargo space like a pickup truck. Manual pickups are a great way to learn stick AND move a couch at the same time.
For you, I have this 1982 Datsun pickup with an SD22 diesel engine. It’s perfect for several reasons. It’s an indeterminate purple-like color which makes it stand out. It’s a diesel so you’ll have plenty of torque. And, it’s a Datsun so it immediately has a retro charm to it. Who can hate a Datsun? Plus, this specific truck seems to be in great shape with only 107,000 miles.
While a muscle car would be fun for a little bit, a small and honest pickup is a lasting choice.
Expert 3: Jason Torchinsky - It’s Pronounced “Mare-coor”
OK, both Tom and Alex made reasonable points, but I don’t agree that you have to choose one or the other—fun manual muscle or practical manual utility. You can have both. And not even just fun and practicality, but all that and two rear wings and a name that’s spelled funny: you need this 1987 Merkur XR4Ti.
The XR4Ti was a fantastic little German Ford that we got here in the U.S. very briefly in the late ‘80s and was a slightly re-skinned Ford Sierra. The “T” in XR4Ti stands for “turbo” which helps the 2.3-liter four make a very respectable 175 HP—spitting distance of Tom’s V6 Firebird up there.
The seller of this one mentions a “larger valve head and roller camshaft conversion,” so maybe it’s making even more power? I guess you’ll have to try it and see.
The Merkur is also surprisingly roomy, and has a nice big hatch, so it’s practical, too. That hatch also has the famous twin rear wings, so you can feel like you’re driving arond a Fokker biplane, if that’s your thing.
The five-speed manual in there is perfect to learn stick on, if only because that stick is connected to a very cool car. It’s quick, distinctive looking, useful, fun, and absolutely not a Hyundai Elantra!
It’s only five grand, has new paint, and what the hell are you waiting for?
Expert 4: David Tracy - Just Get A Dirt-Cheap Ranger
I learned to drive stick on a two-wheel drive, four-cylinder Ford Ranger, and let me just say: it sucked. The engine’s lack of grunt made for maximum stall-ability if I didn’t give enough gas, the absence of weight over the rear axle (which had an open differential) made for maximum One Wheel Squeal-ability if I gave too much gas, the shifter was way out in the middle of nowhere, and my god were those throws long.
But after spending an hour driving through traffic in Lawrence, Kansas, and having to start up some steep hills with cars just a few feet from my rear bumper (incidentally, an ex-girlfriend was in one of those cars, making for the most nerve-racking hill start ever), I eventually mastered the Ford Ranger’s five-speed. And ever since, I’ve had no issues driving anything from a Civic Type R to an old Willys CJ-2A to a Hellcat Challenger.
So just buy a cheap Ford Ranger. Here’s one sorta near you for only $1,500 or best offer (which, in Craigslist terms, means this is really more like a $1,000 truck).
Even if you stall it out a bunch or rip a few inadvertent smoky burnouts, you probably won’t break the little truck, and if you do, parts are dirt cheap and easy to find. More importantly, though, Rangers are just cool.