I'm Looking For A Zesty But Sensible First Car! What Should I Buy?

Illustration for article titled I'm Looking For A Zesty But Sensible First Car! What Should I Buy?
Image: Fiat

Hisham is a high school student in New York who just got his driver’s license, and now he needs a first car that will be what he calls “zesty but sensible.” It obviously needs to be safe, but he wants something fun though not too sporty, as his parents still need to approve. What car should he buy?



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Here is the scenario -

I’m looking for a zesty but sensible first car. Needs to have side airbags, no glaring reliability problems, relatively good fuel economy, subtle but not boring, under $7000. As for deal breakers, any notorious or glaring reliability problems, or anything that’s blatantly a sports car (my parents wouldn’t approve of me bringing home a Mustang or anything but wouldn’t really care about a sporty Sentra). I can’t drive stick but I am willing to learn.

Quick Facts:

Budget: Up to $7,000

Daily Driver: Yes

Location: Long Island, New York

Wants: “Zesty,” fun, reliable

Doesn’t want: A rear-drive sports car

Expert 1: Tom McParland - Zesty!

Illustration for article titled I'm Looking For A Zesty But Sensible First Car! What Should I Buy?
Image: Hyundai

Hisham, welcome to the world of motoring! I love the term “zesty” to describe a car — that is fantastic. You may have a future in automotive marketing ahead of you. So you need something fun, safe and fairly reliable that will still get parental approval. Furthermore, you also want to land on something that has reasonable insurance costs. You are a match for a Hyundai Veloster.

The Veloster is a compact hatchback with a bit of character but has all the benefits of a small Hyundai, like solid fuel economy and a reliable platform. The Veloster’s size makes it easy to park in the city. But it has some of the interesting style elements that can make the sightlines a bit awkward, so that will take some getting used to.


Here is a 2012 in a “zesty” blue not far from you, it has 120,000 and is within your budget range. Now I have my doubts that the car is in “like-new” condition, and it certainly isn’t a “midsize” car but Craigslist shenanigans are part of the fun of first-time car buying.

Expert 2: Mercedes Streeter - Better Than Zesty, Weird!

Illustration for article titled I'm Looking For A Zesty But Sensible First Car! What Should I Buy?
Photo: Jason Torchinsky

I’m a firm believer that a first car should be something safe, cheap and not too fast. One of the worst things for a new driver is a car that encourages them to make bad choices while they’re learning. Likewise, your first car can also be an awesome introduction to wrenching on your own vehicle. So ideally you will also want something that takes cheap parts and doesn’t require an engineering degree to work on.

Meet the 2016 Smart Fortwo. The third generation of the famous city car does away with many of the quirks of the past while keeping the car solidly funky.


Gone is the single clutch automated-manual transmission everyone hated, replaced with a competent and snappy dual-clutch transmission. If you want to learn manual, a three-pedal option was available, too. These cars are remarkably safe for their size and actually quicker than advertised. My 2016 Fortwo Edition #1 consistently lays down seven-second 0-60 times in Sport mode. Mine gets about 42 miles per gallon on the highway.

There are only two seats. This means you won’t be distracted by backseat passengers and you’ll never be asked to cart the whole gang around. As a bonus, the body panels are plastic. So when you inevitably bump into something (this is your first car, after all) you can cheaply and easily fix the damage. One potential downside is that there are few dealerships to work on these, but in my experience any mechanic worth their shop rate can easily turn a wrench on one.


Here’s one out in Minnesota that’s a fantastic deal. Even after shipping it should remain under budget.

Expert 3: José Rodríguez Jr. - Not Zesty, But Sesty

2011 Honda CR-Z
2011 Honda CR-Z
Photo: Honda

Hisham, you can’t go wrong with the Veloster Tom is recommending. But if you want fun, reliable and safe there is another. It’s also a hatchback, and it’s made by the other company that wears an “H” proudly. It’s a Honda! This Honda CR-Z, not too far from you, might fit the bill — and it comes in just under budget. This is a sporty car at heart, and it ticks most of your boxes. It’s front-wheel drive and is a hybrid so it will save you cash at the pump. It has modern safety features and again, it’s a Honda, so it’s reliable.

I do think a pattern is starting to emerge here, one that discloses my affinity for small, slow hatchbacks. The CR-Z is not a fast car in the least, but it’s a fun car. You don’t need to drive fast in this hatch, with it’s relatively uncommon six-speed and well-appointed cockpit. Look at that wrap-around dash. It’s so driver-centric. It has some high-speed tech in there, too! It’s very Pacific Rim. All you’re missing is a neural link interface, but in place of that you do get a factory nav, so you can pretend you are in a slow moving jaeger.


The CR-Z was underappreciated during its time, but we at Jalopnik are coming around to its charms. Not only is it a rare hybrid that came with a manual, but it is very practical for hauling things. Be warned, people are not things; they are either drivers or passengers. You only get a plus one in the CR-Z, but you can carry lots of things. The CR-Z has a rear hatch and rear storage bins that look like little seats for your bags and cargo.

Oh, and you want zesty? Well, the late CR-Z hatchbacks came with zest from the factory in the form of an “S+” button. A sesty button, if you will. Jason Torchinsky went into detail over the button, which he described as something like a real-life Mario Kart mushroom boost. Such performance enhancements may have disqualified this model from consideration, but luckily, this button did not make it onto the hatch’s steering wheel until after the 2013 refresh. Your parents may well approve of this slower, more sensible CR-Z.


Expert 4: Adam Ismail - Now For Something Different

Illustration for article titled I'm Looking For A Zesty But Sensible First Car! What Should I Buy?
Image: Volvo

“Zesty but sensible.” A great many cars veer too closely to one end of this miles-wide range or the other, but there’s a name for vehicles that somehow manage both. They’re called Volvos, and they’re amazing.

My choice for you, friend, is this 2012 Volvo S60, which will set you back $6,500. Now, having seen the other choices from my colleagues, I’m starting to think my definition of “zesty” doesn’t quite mesh with the prevailing one, but nevertheless: This is a Volvo, which means it is impeccable in practicality and fashion, plus your parents will be cool with it. I’ve especially always liked this generation of S60 too, because it’s a bit more elegant and organic looking than those of the early 2000s.


This particular S60 is an automatic, front-wheel-drive model. While the listing doesn’t state precisely which powerplant it’s got, the five-cylinder designation suggests the 2.5-liter turbo with 250 horsepower and 266 lb-ft of torque. Those are good numbers! Fuel mileage could be better, though — you’re looking at up to 20 mpg city and 30 mpg highway — and with 125,500 miles on the clock, it’s not the freshest example out there, although the current owner does say it’s been “lightly driven” the last three years. Still, these cars seem to be pretty solid from what I can gather, and this one looks clean inside and out from the pictures. It’s the one I’d have, because nobody does sensible zest like the Swedes.

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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)


Stapleface-Now Hyphenated!

Zesty is relative, and any car can be fun when driven at the limit.

Get a manual Honda Fit. Honda manuals are a joy to drive. Plus, assuming he will be going away to school, the Fit can handle a ton of stuff to make moving around a bit easier.