David and his family have lived overseas for the past four years. They are returning to America and have encountered a bonkers housing and car market. He will be getting the “cheap” car and wants something relatively sporty that can possibly be passed down to a teen driver. What car should he buy?
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Here is the scenario -
After 4 years abroad, we’ve just moved back to the US. Thanks to both a crazy housing market and crazy car market we’ve had to re-evaluate our vehicle budget and I’ve drawn the ‘cheap car’ short stick. The car will be my daily for a year or two, until we’re settled and confident that our financial situation is good enough for me to upgrade. I’ve driven enough cheap rental cars to know I don’t want something I will hate driving every day (read: boring). As a point of reference, my last few vehicles have been: ‘07 330i, ‘14 335i, ‘03 IS-200, and ‘99 Trans Am.
Further complicating the decision is the fact that we have a 14 year old son who will start driving in a couple years, so I’m torn between finding a purely fun daily for me to drive and getting something cheap and safe that we can pass on to him. He’s a remarkably sensible young man, so I’d trust him with something mildly sporty, but I’m certain the E90-era 335i’s I’ve been eyeing would not make appropriate first vehicles. I figured if anyone can find something that somehow bridges the vast divide of ‘sensible first car’ and ‘enthusiast approved’, it’s going to be you all.
Budget: up to $15,000
Daily Driver: Yes
Location: Columbia, MD
Wants: Sporty, Reliable, 4 doors
Doesn’t want: A truck, SUV, or something with over 150,000
Given your history with luxury sport sedans, I can understand why you would gravitate to the turbocharged E90 series cars. You could make the argument that those cars were the last “good” 3-series, but they can be risky purchases as a “cheap” car due to their maintenance costs. Furthermore, finding quality 335s that haven’t been beaten to death is a challenge.
However, during the time of the E90, Infiniti stepped up to make a sports sedan that gave the BMW (and others) a serious run for their money. The G35 and later G37 models may have not had the same level of refinement as the Germans but they made up for it in performance and reliability. The G37 cars were outfitted with an upgraded 3.7-liter V6 making 328 horsepower sent to either the rear-wheels or it could be had with all-wheel-drive. If this is a car you plan on passing down to the kiddo, it may be best to look into the AWD models since 300+ hp and rear-wheel-drive may not be the best mix for a novice driver. Infiniti G sedans are plentiful under $15,000 and you will probably want to focus on the later models for lower mile cars. Here is a nice example that seems to be well-maintained for under $10,000.
I know for the kinds of things I usually pick, this one is pretty, um, normal, but it just seemed like such a good fit that I didn’t even bother hunting down local Fiat 850 Abarths. I’m talking about a Hyundai Veloster, maybe even better, the Veloster Turbo. These are cheap, fun, non-boring, and, sure, I’m one door short of what you asked for, David, but come on, work with me here.
The Veloster always reminded me of the closest modern reincarnation of the Honda CRX: small but useful, quick but not a monster, a fun car to commute in and whip around like a go-kart when you get the urge.
This 2013 Veloster Turbo is under $12,000 and looks to be in great shape—it’s even well under your 150,000 mile limit. The Turbo ones made a respectable 201 horsepower (at a seriously impressive 125 hp/liter), and I remember driving one when they first came out and having a blast with it.
Finding one with a stick would be better, though, I think. I mean, that blue one is in really good shape, but it looks like you can get a manual one even cheaper—here’s a manual Veloster Turbo for under $9,000! And with fewer miles!
Plus, the three-doors-plus-a-hatch design is actually pretty practical; I tested one with my kid when he was a toddler and it was totally usable.
I feel like Velosters are cars that people don’t recall until you actually see one and then you think oh yeah, those are pretty cool! You could be that memory-jogger of cool cars for people, and have some fun on the cheap.
Striking the right balance between fun, safe, dependable and economical — particularly when there’s a new driver in the mix — isn’t easy. I did happen to come across a 2015 Fiesta ST for just under $15,000 in my searching, and I nearly suggested it because it does almost everything well and is an excellent car to learn stick on, as I did. But it’s just not particularly safe.
After more digging, I found this automatic 2016 Mazda 3 sedan for $14,000 with 69,000 miles on the clock. It’s being sold by Vroom, which supposedly means that it has a clean title and no accident history. Many shoppers are skeptical of services like Vroom and Carvana, but I think the horror stories just tend to gain a little more attention than the drama-free ones. A friend of mine recently got a 2018 Golf Alltrack through Vroom, and aside from delivery sliding for two days due to inclement weather, she had a straightforward, hassle-free experience.
Anyway, I always thought these Mazda 3s were attractive, well-rounded compacts — the most “driver’s car” of the Civic, Corolla, Elantra set. A manual would have made this one a hard recommend in my view, but regardless, it should be a relatively zippy, solidly-built little sedan, returning mileage somewhere in the mid 30s. That seems like a mildly sporty win to me.
David, welcome back to the States, and sorry you won’t be able to ogle Euro cars now that you’re on American roads. I wanted to recommend something that’s both European and beloved, like a Saab, but you need something reliable that you can hand down to your son. How about a Honda?
I’m recommending this six-speed manual ’14 Accord. It’s got low(ish) miles, and is not too far from you. It may not make much sense given your background with BMWs, but trust me, the maintenance needs and gremlins in German cars will make you glad you got something less sporty and more sensible. You could still have fun in this Accord, shifting your own gears and passing that knowledge down. It will certainly make a good daily driver.
I’d prefer an Accord with a six-cylinder, but you might feel more comfortable giving your son this inline-four because it’s less likely to get him in trouble.