Aaron lives in the DC area and loves classic cars with a bit of character, but what he needs is a sensible commuter car with decent gas mileage and can seat four. He is having trouble reconciling those two choices. 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:
I want a Karmann-Ghia, but I need a Honda Civic. Please don’t make me buy another Civic.
It needs to run forever without any maintenance, but it can’t be a Honda Civic. It needs to cost less than $30,000, but it can’t be a Honda Civic. It needs to be decent on gas, but...well you know. It needs to seat four, but not for long periods of time.
I’m open to the body style, but no convertibles and it needs to be an automatic for DC traffic.
Budget: Up to $30,000
Daily Driver: Yes
Location: Washington, DC
Wants: Reliable, good MPG, but would really like something old and cool
Doesn’t want: A Honda Civic
Expert 1: Tom McParland - You Need Something Swede
Aaron this is certainly a challenge and I’m going to assume the two-car solution of a cheap Honda Civic and a Karman Ghia project car is not in the cards. So finding the balance between a nice commuter and something funky is not easy, but I think I have the answer.
What you need is the last Saab 9-5. There aren’t many of these cars around but these cars have that cool aesthetic you are going for with a reasonably reliable, fuel-efficient, and comfortable commuter car. While Saab has left the American market most of the stuff under the skin of these cars is shared with GM vehicles so sourcing parts shouldn’t be too bad. And while the interior is a bit dated, I’m sure you can upgrade the stereo to handle CarPlay or whatever at a reasonable cost. The best part is these sedans can handle a commute but you will never get lost in a sea of Civics in the parking lot.
Finding a solid example will require a wide net search, but here is one in New England well under budget with less than 40,000 miles.
Expert 2: Jason Torchinsky - Life Is For The Living
Aaron, look, buddy, you know what you want. You know exactly what you actually want. You’re just a little nervous, you’re hedging, but I’m here to tell you right now that if you want a Karmann-Ghia, then, brother, get yourself a Karmann-Ghia.
You’re not going to look back on your automotive life and think, man, I’m really glad I was too scared to get myself something old and cool that I would really love and instead settled for some modern boring whatever I can barely remember. You know this, too, deep down, otherwise you would never have written to us. If you wanted to be convinced to buy a Civic or Camry you’d have asked Consumer Reports or some shit.
But you didn’t. You’re here. And that means, yes, motherfucker, I’m going to tell you to buy a Karmann Fucking Ghia.
Luckily, you have a lot of cash to throw around, so that means you can actually buy a good Karmann-Ghia, and your life will be much easier. Old air-cooled Volkswagens, like so many old cars, have reliability problems today mostly because, duh, they’re old.
But they’re by no means actually unreliable. If you get one that’s well-sorted, with good parts and well-maintained and with care taken to see that wire insulation isn’t broken or hoses aren’t decaying or things like that, they can be very reliable.
I know, I’ve driven an old air-cooled VW for years, and pretty much everything that goes wrong is because some old bit is decaying. But if you find a restored car, like this beauty here for $22,000, it should be plenty reliable.
Look at that thing! No rust, everything is clean and well-sorted, points have been replaced with electronic ignition, there’s a back seat for the occasional cramming of four humans, and, yeah, it’s a manual, but if you really, really wanted to you could find an old semi-auto transmission and convert it.
I say try it with a manual for at least a little while first, though.
Look, you want a Ghia, get a Ghia. Just get a really nice, well-sorted one. For your money, you can. I think we’re done here. Enjoy your lovely little car.
Expert 3: David Tracy - You Can Have Soul AND Reliability
Honestly, if you want something for the city that won’t require much maintenance, my first thought is to buy an EV like a Chevy Bolt, which you should be able to find used all day for under $30 large. But that’s boring, especially since you’re clearly looking for soul in this purchase.
Which is why I recommend the 1985 Mercedes 300D shown above. It’s got a turbodiesel engine which should, in theory, outlast every living organism on earth (and possible earth itself), and per the seller, this particular one is in “like NEW to possible MINT and / Showroom condition.”
The asking price is $12,500, which may be a tad high considering it’s got over 110,000 miles and it isn’t the wagon (and let’s be honest, wagons>sedans). But this Merc is still absolutely gorgeous, with shiny dark red paint on the outside and beautiful light tan fabric on the interior.
It’s not too bad on gas, either. So what I’m suggesting, here, is a reasonably efficient, reliable, soulful automobile for well under half of your budget. Were it not for Jason’s Karmann-Ghia suggestion, I’d say I won this round.
Expert 4: Raphael Orlove - But Also Figaro
Old style, new tech. Seats four, roll back top, and everything inside is bespoke and gorgeous.
Getting a super nice example of a super trusty old car in excellent condition won’t do you wrong but... c’mon. Look at this thing.
I drove one once. It lives up to the hype. Duncan Imports (not so far from you) is stuffed with the biggest collection of them in the world. Enjoy.