I Want The Impossible Combo Of Cheap, Fast, Reliable, And Unique! What Car Should I Buy?

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

Kevin has owned more than 55 (!!!) cars and bikes and is constantly on the hunt for something different. Now he is looking for the holy grail: something fast, reliable, fun and unique for under $20,000. What car should he buy?

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Here is the scenario:

I am a prolific car owner. I have owned over 40 cars/trucks/vans and 15 motorcycles since I got my driver’s license. The problem is I WANT a fast car but I am a cheapskate so the budget will sadly not allow for an AMG63 wagon. Which would check all the right boxes for sure. So I basically need a unicorn... fast, reliable, cheap, and practical. And if I am asking for the impossible it should fit on the cool wall on the appropriate side as well.

I’m open to various body styles, but I really do love wagons. I like unique cars that you don’t see everwhere. I have five-year-old, so this car must have at least four seats. Therefore a roadster is out, but a sports car is fine. Of course, I would prefer to have a manual gearbox but I could be persuaded otherwise for the right car.

Quick Facts :

Budget: $20,000

Daily Driver: Yes

Average Miles Per-Week: 200-300

Wants: Something fun to drive, has to be practical enough for kids, preferably 3 pedals


Doesn’t want: Boring or something too common

Expert #1: Tom McParland - Sometimes You Just Gotta Settle For Almost


Kevin, I know your pain. I once sought out the same rare specimen and found the excellent Subaru Legacy GT wagon. I loved that wagon, but to my surprise it wasn’t as reliable I expected. However, that is another story for another time.

You definitely have a tall order here, but if you dig hard enough you will uncover the perfect alphanumeric combination: BMW E91. The E91 generation BMW 3 Series wagon was the last manual longroof that BMW sent to America. While the 215 horsepower motor would not be considered “fast,” the excellent inline-six paired with the manual transmission made it a joy to wind up and run through the gears.


These cars were also fairly reliable, if well maintained. Minor issues are bound to pop up but the major components were pretty robust. Of course, the wagon body style means you get the practicality you need all the while being unique enough that you aren’t sporting the same old BMW.

Here is a 2008 328xi wagon with a six-speed manual for under $14,000 that should give you plenty of wiggle room to get this car in tip-top shape. I would recommend waiting for the ultra-rare rear-wheel-drive E91 with a manual to hit the market as you will save some weight and have a bit more fun letting the tail out.


Expert #2: Patrick George - This Is As Close As I Can Get


To add to what Tom said, I’d love to be able to suggest something like a Subaru WRX hatchback—the previous generation one, as the current car is sadly sedan-only—but those things really seem to be all over the map in terms of reliability. I owned one. Most of the time it ran great. It also had weird electrical gremlins that three different dealer techs could never figure out. And it completely shat the bed at 100,000 miles, immediately after I sold it to someone else. Fun times!

We all define “reliable” in different ways. Equally important, if not more so, than initial quality from the factory is how well a car is maintained by its owner. Having said that, I’m assuming a guy like you doesn’t want a slew of regular problems.


That’s why I suggest the Honda Civic Si. Of course it’s reliable; it’s a goddamn Civic. And while Civics are super common, the Si models are a bit more exclusive in their appeal, and generally mark someone as an enthusiast. I’ll recommend the last-gen car here because it’s naturally aspirated with a high-revving VTEC motor, not like the new turbo cars, and the wonderful Honda six-speed manual is a bonus. Plus, it’s a sedan, so it’ll do your kid-carrying extremely well.

Here’s a 2015 Civic Si sedan for a hair under $20,000 with just 17,000 miles. In Honda years, that’s a brand new car. Go forth and enjoy it.


Expert #3: Kristen Lee - Money Is Just An Imaginary Constraint Of The Corporate Man


Hey there, Kevin. Before we really get into this, I just want to say that most used German luxury cars are pretty reliable—if carefully maintained. Everyone’s like, oh, a used Mercedes? An AMG? You have to be out of your goddamn mind. I’m tired of it!

And here’s the other delightful thing about used AMGs: depreciation hits them like filthy lead sack of rocks. Which brings me to my recommendation: a 2003 Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG wagon.


Powered by a 5.4-liter supercharged V8, this E55 has 469 horsepower and 520 lb-ft of torque. Yes, it doesn’t come in a manual, but I think a special case can be made for this car. As it already stands, you don’t really see many W211-bodied E-class wagons driving around, especially not ones messed around with by Affalterbach.

Unfortunately, an E55 AMG wagon is a little more than your budget. This one here in Georgia, with 121,116 miles on the clock, is going for $24,999. But, if this 400,000-mile E55 AMG sedan has anything to say about it, you can bet this engine is still pulling strong.


Expert #4: Jason Torchinsky - Fast Is A Relative Term, Don’t Forget


Look, Kevin, you’ve owned an absurd number of cars. That means that each new car has to do that much more to stand out from the vast lineup of cars you’ve had before. You’re like an automotive Wilt Chamberlain. That’s why this next car has to be something special, something you’ll remember. That’s why this car has to be this 1973 Volvo P1800ES.

Volvo’s charming little shooting brake fits all your desires: fun to drive, three pedals, it’s a little, practical wagon with room for your five-year-old kook in the back, and it’s absolutely uncommon and downright Kryptonite to boring.


This one looks like it’s in amazing shape, with only 73,000 miles on it, and at $14,900, it’s well inside your budget.

I’ve had a P1800S before, and I can honestly report that these are fun, satisfying cars to drive. The B18 engines in them are simple and bulletproof, and while it’s only making 125 HP, pretty meager by today’s standards, who gives a shit? It’s still fun.


A P1800 is fun in the 45-70 mph range that actually matters. You’ve got a five-year-old, remember. Are you really going to need that 469 hp AMG beast? What the hell are you going to do with that, race for pinks? No. You’re not.

Get this fantastic old Volvo and enjoy the crap out of every drive you take in it.

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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)