Alex has taken a while to get a driver’s license, but at 26 years old, it’s better late than never. Now that Alex is finally getting behind the wheel, an affordable and fun manual car is at the top of the list. What car should Alex buy?
(Welcome back to What Car Should You Buy? Where we give real people real advice about buying cars. )
Here is the scenario:
A decade late, but I’m finally getting my license and really looking forward to my first car purchase. A good 90 percent of my driving will be simple city commutes in a very hilly city, but I’ll almost certainly go on a cross-USA trip at some point in this car, too.
More than anything, I really want a car with charm, a personality of its own. Absolutely no offense to Focus and Corolla and Civic owners, but those sorts of cars always struck me as “I need a metal machine to take me to work, and this can do it, I guess.” I really want a car that I see in the parking lot and puts a smile on my face. “Ah, that’s MY car.”
Also, if I am going to jump into this fun car thing I have to have a manual transmission. Ideally, I’m looking to spend around $5-$10,000, but I could stretch up to $15,000 for the right ride.
Budget: Up to $15,000
Daily Driver: Yes
Location: Omaha, NE
Wants: Fun, manual, charm
Doesn’t want: A boring sedan
Alex, congratulations on joining this wacky motoring community. Of course, now you need to make some kind of appropriate choice in selecting your first ride. You already know you can’t be driving something sensible.
If you want something fun, manual, and charming I have just the thing: the Fiat 500. These little hatchbacks will certainly stand out in a parking lot, though you are likely to frustrate some motorists thinking your spot is unoccupied due to the size. They are fun to toss around and perfect for city driving. You will have to pack light, however, for that cross-country trip. Reliability on these Fiats can be a gamble, so you may want to buffer in your budget an extended warranty.
Plenty of good examples can be found around $10,000 though not many in our immediate area. Here is one in Kansas City at $9,000 with reasonable miles and an excellent set of rims.
Alex, a fun, cheap, tossable manual is an excellent choice for a first car. Unfortunately, we’re quite limited in options for such vehicles in this country, which is why I have to be honest with you — I like but don’t love my choice for you here.
The tiny Mazda 2 doesn’t quite match the chic style of the Fiat 500 that Tom recommended, though I’d argue it might stand out more in the excellent shade of green Mazda offered it in. I find it to be a very charming-looking little hatch, particularly in that color. Fortunately, there’s one such vehicle not terribly far from you in Omaha, with the proper five-speed manual, 67,000 miles on the odometer, and a clean bill of health. Also, it’s going for almost half your budget.
I’ve never driven the Mazda 2, but I do own its sportier cousin, the Ford Fiesta ST. Handling-wise, you should have a blast in this thing. Where you may come up a bit disappointed is with regard to power. The 1.5-liter four-cylinder in the Mazda 2 makes just 100 horsepower and 98 lb-ft of torque, which is just fine for city driving but might run out of steam on the highway, during that cross-country trip you plan on taking. Bearing that in mind, this lime on wheels checks all the other boxes.
Alex, you might be late to the world of state-sanctioned driving, but you can never be late to the car enthusiast party. Welcome! I love the way you’ve put this prompt, because I can relate to the feeling you’re describing. My face lights up every time I see my car waiting for me in a parking lot. I want that for you, too, so I’m recommending this bright 2007 Mazda MX-5.
Yup. I’m going to be the guy that tells you to just get a Miata. The other guy that’s gonna tell you to just get the GTI is around here somewhere. Listen to us. We are right. These cars have a following because they were built for a singular purpose: to make driving enjoyable. Everything else is just icing on top.
I think this MX-5 fits great! It’s the prettiest generation. It’s also within your budget at $11,000. The color rocks, and it has a six-speed manual transmission. That sixth gear will feel so smooth, and it should since this is a long drive away from you. But the miles are right (66,000) and so is the Grand Touring trim.
This Miata has a hardtop, which some might dissuade you from, but I think it’s best for splitting the difference between top-down drives in the city and long highway drives. Don’t be afraid to be like the many drivers that love this car, because there’s always the aftermarket if you want to tailor it. I think it’s excellent as-is, though. Don’t rush to change it, just feel the rush of that lightweight chassis surge ahead as you chase the perfect upshift.
Alex, it’s important to ask yourself, “how unique is unique?” What are you looking for here? Are you looking for a surprisingly mint first-generation Pontiac Fiero for $7,000? Are you ready to patch up the fading vinyl top of a 1976 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme for $3,000? I have a feeling that these are excellent choices for someone looking for less reliable transportation. You do want something unexpected and enjoyable, though maybe not sitting on the side of the road waiting for a tow.
Sure, you could get one of the Mazdas above, but I think you might want something that even I forgot existed: a manual Cadillac CTS.
Manual Cads are a treat, a weird mix of luxury and sport. This generation of CTS was a good one, and you’re basically buying a good BMW E39 that’s not creaky and rusty. This one is well within your budget at $5,300, and you won’t lose it in a parking lot.