Megan is a full-time college student in Oregon who needs a new ride. All the rational people want her to get a Honda or Toyota, but she wants something quirky and different. What car should she buy?
Here is the scenario:
I am a full-time college student that needs a car for around town and going on many weekend trips for my research. My family wants me to get a Camry or Honda Civic for their reliability and affordability, but I want something that is more unique. I love quirky old cars, but I live on my own, so I need it to be very reliable. Also, I live in Oregon so it should be able to stand up to the wet conditions.
This car needs to be fun to drive and good on gas. While I want something different, I don’t really know how to fix cars so it can’t be too difficult to keep on the road. I like small cars and I would love a Mini from the 1970s, but I don’t think those would be safe or reliable enough for me. While most of my driving is just around town, I plan on driving down the California coastline, so I wouldn’t want something that is going to break down on the trip.
As for the budget I’m looking to spend around $15,000 - $20,000. I don’t know how to drive a manual, but I would be willing to learn and I think it would be fun to have a car with a stick.
Budget: up to $20,000
Daily Driver: Yes
Wants: Quirky, Fun, Fuel Efficient
Doesn’t want: Something too unreliable or difficult to repair.
Expert 1: Tom McParland - College Kids Should Drive Fun Cars
Hey Megan, good for you for not wanting to take the boring path of a Honda Civic as your college car. The Honda is a fine choice, but you will have the rest of your life to be “responsible” now is the time to have some fun.
Since you love old Minis my first instinct was to find a new Mini for you, but then I remembered that the new Minis aren’t so... Mini. They’re still good and fun cars, but there is a better brand that exemplifies the quirky, small car ethos, and that is Fiat.
And the best part is you can get a brand new Fiat 500 with a full new car warranty well within your budget. Here is a cool yellow one with a sticker price of just over $17,000, with some tough negotiation you should be able to easily get this closer to $15,000.
Now if you really want to be the “cool kid on campus,” you will take the 500 path to the next level and get an Abarth, which may be the best small car with a big attitude that you can buy. Here is a sweet 2015 model with a certified warranty for only $10,000.
Expert 2: David Tracy - Get Something With Style
Tom’s right when he says college kids should drive fun cars, but I would add that they should also drive sexy ones. So get yourself a rear-wheel drive, manual, convertible sports car styled by Franz von Holzhausen, the same guy who now designs Teslas. Buy a Saturn Sky.
You’ll find the naturally aspirated, 2.4-liter models all day for around 10 grand. This base engine is not going to be that quick, with a 0-60 mph time around seven seconds, but it’ll still be lots of fun, and with GM’s ubiquitous 2.4-liter EcoTec four-banger under the hood, it’ll likely be reasonably reliable and fuel efficient.
Grab the Sky Redline if you want a legitimately quick, Sub-Six Second To 60 turbocharged sports car, though those tend to be a bit harder to find than the 2.4-liters.
You could also grab a Pontiac Solstice, which shares the same Kappa platform as the Sky, but let’s be honest, the Sky looks better.
Expert 3: Jason Torchinsky - Find That Glorious Loophole
Megan, this is important: get a car you really love. Do not, under any circumstances, settle for a Camry or something. Sure, it’ll get you where you want to go, but the “you” that will be going places will be dead inside. You need something reliable and modern enough, but you love old and quirky. These things seem like contradictions, but I’m happy to tell you there’s a loophole. A loophole called Mitsuoka.
You mentioned wanting an old Mini, so I’m guessing you like classic British style. If that’s the case, then you’ll adore this 1992 Mitsuoka Viewt: it’s mechanically a solid, reliable Nissan, but the body looks like a shrunken Jaguar Mk 2.
The Viewt is perfect for you: vintage British look and feel, and mechanically it’s basically a Nissan Micra, which we didn’t get in the U.S., but Canada got, and you can get parts easily there. I myself drive a Micra-based car, and I love it. It’s reliable, great on gas, easy to work on, it’s everything you need, and yet it’ll bring you joy instead of soul-crushing boredom.
Sure, it’s not going to be super quick, but when it looks this good you don’t want to whiz by in a blur—you want people to have the chance to get a nice, lingering look at how awesome you are.
Plus, it’s not expensive! Shipped to the U.S. it’s only $4809, a solid ten grand less than the low end of your budget! Stick $5000 in the bank as a repair slush fund and save or enjoy the rest!
Look, you’re young, you give a damn about cars, you should drive something fun and interesting. This is it, with the benefit of Japanese reliability. This car will ratchet up your basic happiness index by at least, what, three or so. Get it.