Rob loved his Toyota MR2 and then one day a jealous Prius decided that the lovely Japanese convertible had to die. Rob’s car was hit and totaled. Now Rob is looking for something light, fun and cheap that would make for a good replacement. What car should he buy?
Here is the scenario.
My 2001 MR2 Spyder was totaled in a hit and run accident. It was parked on the street in front of my house when someone rear ended it so hard it jumped the curb, was pushed about 25-30 feet finally coming to a rest in the neighbor’s flower garden. The biggest injustice of it all was that the car that hit it was a gray Prius. My unique, cool mid-engined roadster was destroyed by the most boring car ever. I think there’s a lesson fable in there about Prii killing MR2s. So now I need to replace it.
This car will purely be a weekend fun car. I don’t want something completely unreliable that’s going to be out of service more time than driving. But at the same time, I won’t be relying on the car to get me to work every day. I looking for something that’s fun to toss around on early weekend morning drives on the empty back roads.
I‘d like something small light in quick. I’m looking for something a bit odd and unusual. I believe life is too short to buy boring cars. Also, I want to be able to track the car, so it would need to have a fixed roof or roll bar.
Also, I realize the easy answer to what car should I buy is Miata. I really like the Miata. However, the Miata is such a common car it doesn’t really stand out. I know I’m a middle-aged balding accountant, but I don’t want to be like all the other middle-aged balding accountants I see driving Miatas. Oh ya, an automatic transmission is an absolute deal-breaker.
Budget: $5,000 - $10,000
Daily Driver: No
Average Miles Per-Week: Fewer than 100
Wants: Rear wheel drive, manual trans, lightweight, fun, different
Doesn’t want: Something too common or anything with fewer than three pedals
Sorry to hear about the MR2. It sucks when we lose a good car for no good reason other than some jamoke driver wasn’t paying attention. So you want small, light, fun, and different. I get the whole no Miata thing, those are fine cars but it’s nice to buck the trend.
Since you are partial to Japanese cars with engines behind the seats I say you should get something really funky, like a Honda Beat. What these Kei cars lack in power, they make up for in personality. Now you will have to make some modifications to make the little Honda safe for racing, but I bet you will be the only one at your local autocross rocking a Beat.
Here is a yellow one for sale in Pennsylvania that is on the lower end of your budget. Now this particular car looks like it has seen better days and I don’t know what the hell that thing is in place of the manual shifter, but it just goes to show that these do pop up for sale here and there. Now the good news is that a 1991 or 1992 Honda Beat is now available for import from Japan so spending a little more may mean scoring a really nice JDM example.
I’m sorry to hear about the untimely demise of your MR2, but now you have a wonderful problem to solve. Small, light, manual, non-boring? Those are the best four words you can utter when it comes to buying a car, and boy, did I find something perfect for you. It’s so non-boring and uncommon I bet you never even heard of it: a Jackrabbit Speedster.
I hadn’t even heard of this thing, and I adore crap like this. It’s an ‘80s-era kit car that uses a fiberglass body, tube chassis, and Volkswagen Rabbit (Mk 1 Golf, to the rest of the world) mechanicals.
You want small? This thing is tiny. And it weighs only 1500 lbs—that’s a good 600 lbs less than your old MR2! It’s manual, of course, the engine in it is the 1.6-liter 70 horsepower unit from the Rabbit, but there’s plenty of options to get that power higher if you want to.
Sure, it’s up front and driving the front wheels, but I think the overall bonkers-ness of the car makes up for that more pedestrian layout. Look at those center-mounted quad headlights! Those are scissor doors, too!
Here’s a video, so you can see one at its best:
The one in the ad looks basically mechanically sound, but needs a bit of work here and there. The buy-it-now price is only $4,500, so you should have room in your budget to put two or three grand in there and get it really well sorted.
It’s got a roll bar already, it looks like nothing else, old ads said it’s capable of pulling 1G cornering, everybody who sees you will wonder what the hell that thing is. It’s perfect for you.
Now go have some fun.
The solution to all of your problems is AMC’s M422 Mighty Mite, a vehicle built for the U.S. Marine Corps between 1959 and 1962. In a lot of ways, it was ahead of its time, with its aluminum body and 1.8-liter aluminum air cooled V4 engine—both there to accommodate the low payload capacities of helicopters at the time. Total curb weight was only 1,700 pounds—that’s less than a Lotus Elise!
And it wasn’t just its light weight that made it special, the Mighty Mite had some great off-road tech, too. Suspension was fully independent and sprung by elliptical leaf springs, the tires kept their grip via limited slip differentials both front and rear, the axles had super short 5.38 gears, and the driver had four forward gears to play with.
I’ll admit that you won’t be able to track the Jeep unless you weld in a roll bar, and it’s kinda slow with only 55 horsepower. And it probably won’t handle very well, even with its fancy independent suspension. But those are just small quibbles, right?
Here’s one for sale for under four grand, and while it needs a title and a bunch of repair work, you’ve got a $10,000 budget to play with. Getting parts probably won’t be cheap or easy, but just imagine driving an aluminum-bodied, air-cooled Jeep with a V4 under the hood. Life couldn’t possibly get any better.
Obviously the right move for you is to just buy another MR2 dude. They rule. Your third-gen looks like a joy, and you shouldn’t rule out trying an original first-gen or a second gen car either. Both are wonderful, and right in your price range.
But if you’re looking to have your horizons expanded, I have one car to point you towards.
Well, I was going to point you towards the lovely Lotus Europa or a Volkswagen Scirocco, but you wanted something that runs more often than it’s broken.
And while you might not want to get a Miata, there are other Japanese cars that followed the fun-but-not-so-unreliable path. Included among them are the Honda Beat above but also the Suzuki Cappuccino.
With a 63 horsepower turbocharged 657cc inline-three, it’s sort of like the front-engined version of that sweet Beat. These cars are supposed to be absolute joys, and if you fit in one, they are legal to import to America at the moment. This one sold recently for under $10k, and I’d keep my eye open for another if I were you.