I Need Something Fun, Interesting And Reliable For Under $15,000! What Car Should I Buy?

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

Jeffrey lives in Washington state and has played it pretty safe with his car purchases. He has had some solid rides but never really enjoyed any of them. It’s time to break free and get something that puts a simile on his face for under $15,000. What car should he buy?

(Welcome back to What Car Should You Buy? Where we give real people real advice about buying cars. )

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Here is the scenario:

I have never been behind the wheel of an even-remotely interesting car in my life. I’ve owned a 2005 Chevrolet Aveo and a 2012 Mazda 3, and sometimes drive my dad’s Nissan Frontier. Not exactly exciting!

I want to drive something fun. Whether it’s quick, fast, handles beautifully, has a funky design, or anything in between, I want it. I want something, anything that is more interesting than the cookie-cutter sedans I have always driven. I would consider an unusual body, flashy color, quickness or great handling to be options.

I live relatively close to work, so gas mileage isn’t of terrible concern. Must be automatic, because the hilly PNW and garbage traffic don’t lend themselves to manual. That being said the car can’t be too old or really unrelaible I do need to depend on it to get me to work.

I know this is a pretty vague entry, but cars have always been a way to and from work without any frills. I want to see what you would recommend to someone who has never experienced much joy in driving.

As for the budget, I can spend up to $15,000

Quick Facts:

Budget: up to $15,000

Daily Driver: Yes

Location: Western Washington state

Wants: Fun, reasonably reliable, interesting

Doesn’t want: A cookie-cutter sedan

Expert 1: Tom McParland — Comes From The Land Of Ice And Snow

Jeffrey, we can all sympathize with you and agree that life is too short to keep driving boring cars. I think I have found the balance between funky, fast, and different while being fairly usable as a daily driver: the Volvo C30 hatchback.

The C30 was Volvo’s fairly unsuccessful attempt at selling a premium hatch along the lines of an Audi A3. Unfortunately, the styling cues that made it unique also meant a tight back seat and a somewhat awkward hatch opening. But practicality isn’t your concern, and the C30 is definitely different if not a bit rare among compact cars.

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As for reliability, they aren’t going to be a Toyota Corolla. But a well-cared-for example and a solid local mechanic should keep you in good shape.

There aren’t many of these around, but here is one in Bellvue from a private seller. This is an R-Design version with a 250 horsepower turbocharged inline-5 under the hood along with some styling upgrades that make it both funky and fast.

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Expert 2: Andrew Collins - Today’s Cliché ‘Car Boy’

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Man, I was really excited about this prompt—until you demanded an auto.

I know. I know! Of course, the cranky old Car Man would say that. But at this price point, getting a stick is going to bring out a lot of that joy you’re looking for. Based on the very little I know about you, it sounds like maybe you just haven’t had a lot of time with manuals... hills and traffic aren’t really that big a deal, give it another shot!

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OK, I’m climbing off the soapbox and sticking that box into the cavernous trunk of a GTI, which is what I’m going to recommend you buy if you need to stick with two pedals. At $15,000, you should be able to find an early MKVII, and with the new eighth-generation about to come out, the 2013ish models should get just a little cheaper in the near future.

VW GTIs are fun but they’re also easy to use, so it should be a pretty painless transition from the more “normal” cars you’re used to. As in, you don’t have to start squatting or squeezing into a tiny sports car.

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The automatic transmission in these isn’t terrible at all, so you can still have an entertaining driving experience without rowing your own gears.

As for reliability, these are mass-market cars are from around 2013, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble keeping it alive.

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Most of them are boring colors, but if you look hard enough you might be able to sniff out a blue or red one. Or, just slap some vinyl stripes on a black or white car and peel them off when you go to resell.

A very cursory glance at Seattle Craigslist and CarMax offerings turned up a few for you, here’s a $15,000 one but I’d recommend a little more research.

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Expert 3: Patrick George — A Different Kind Of Fun

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Like Andrew, I was also thrown for a loop when you said you wanted an automatic. There’s a lot of cheap, reliable, fun used cars I could suggest to you in the $15,000, but most of them are Japanese and most of them have row-your-own gearboxes. Honda Civic Si, Subaru WRX, things like that.

These days automatic transmissions don’t have to be anathema to fun, however. The Volkswagen GTI is a great option, but I have big reservations recommending a used one, as VW’s reliability is infamously not great. Instead, I think it’s time for a proper sports car. Have you seen how cheap used Nissan 370Zs are?

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With this, you get a body that still looks great today, a six-speed automatic with paddle shifters (oooh!) and a robust 3.7-liter naturally aspirated V6 that makes 332 HP. It’s kind of a Japanese Corvette. And while Nissan in modern times has really let this car languish, it’s still a blast—more so than ever now that their prices are so low.

Here’s an auto Z with leather near you for a bit under $13,000. The miles are higher at this price, but if it’s well-maintained, this old-school, proven NA V6 shouldn’t give you too much trouble.

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Expert 4: Jason Torchinsky — You Know Who Has Fun? An Emperor

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You know what would be fun, Jeffrey? If you started calling yourself “Emperor Jeff I” and drove something that actually backed it up. Something stately and elegant and regal and uncommon. Something with some real presence. Something like this hyper-classy burgundy-colored V8 Toyota Century. It has golden majestic birds on it!

Our pal Gary Duncan has this 1988 Toyota Century for sale for $13,900—that’s emperor-level Japanese luxury for the price of a boring-ass Nissan Versa.

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This thing is automatic, of course, and will make your daily commute into a stately grand gesture of grandeur and well-modulated power.

This car has presence you can sense from across a parking lot, and great details like wing mirrors and, of course, those birds. The interior is a symphony of mahogany, rich brown leather and maroon carpet, with an 80s-tastic digital dash, and it all works together to make you feel like you’re piloting a spaceship made out of the finest Kobe beef.

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It’s reliable, comfortable, definitely not boring, and well within your price range. Go get it, drive it across the country like you own it, and begin your reign, Emperor.

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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)