Glen has a lease expiring on his Nissan Pathfinder. Now that his kiddos are bigger, he wants to go back to something fun with a manual transmission. It can’t be a pure sports car, however, as he needs a functional back seat. With up to $50,000 to spend, what car should he buy?
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Here is the scenario:
My lease is ended on a Nissan Pathfinder that I absolutely hate. My kids are a little older now (6 and 4) and we no longer need a giant three-row SUV. I’m going back to what I love. I need a sedan or hatchback that must have a manual transmission that is a blast to drive. Big horsepower and torque numbers are nice, but I care more about conquering windy roads then winning a drag race. I can’t have a pure sports car (no BRZ or new Z), I need something my kids can fit in the backseat as I drive them to school every day. I could not care less about MPG, but I would like it to be a car that I can have for 5-7 years that won’t be a nightmare or crazy expensive to maintain. Most important, again, is super fun to drive. AWD would be great, RWD totally acceptable, prefer not to be FWD. Prefer something that looks more grown up - not a fan of giant spoilers, gauche color schemes, etc. No hybrids or electrics.
Budget: Up to $50,000
Daily Driver: Yes
Location: Northern, NJ
Wants: ICE, Manual, usable back seats
Doesn’t want: A sports car or anything electric
Glen, seems to be that you want to check off that “sporty car” box one more time before manuals and gas motors are phased out. Luckily there are still a few options available, but those are getting fewer and fewer as time moves on. I get the feeling that you are a guy who always wanted a BMW M3, but could never quite justify the purchase. If you really want one those are possible but they will be about six or seven years old and have some mileage on them.
You admit you don’t need that level of performance, so perhaps the near-M car would do the trick. There is a good selection of late-model 340s with manual transmissions and you don’t even have to go far to find them. You can still experience that BMW straight-six goodness and have around 320 HP under the hood.
Here is a nice Certified Pre-Owned example with around 18,000 miles. It has all-wheel drive which would be a bonus in the northeast and red seats if you dig that kind of thing.
It’s true that if you want a sporty sedan that’s fun but still practical, you can just buy a BMW 3 Series. It’s as true today as it was 30 years ago, and it would probably be a perfectly fine companion on a trip down to NJMP or up to Lime Rock for a track day.
But you don’t need us to tell you that! Every time you go outside, you see five BMWs go by, making their way from Alpine to, uh, some other fancy town in North Jersey. You could use something different. Something with a little bit more style.
For about 10 minutes here in America, you could buy one of these, an Australian Holden imported and rebadged as a Chevrolet SS. A successor to the wonderful Pontiac GTO, you got six speeds and eight cylinders, rear-wheel drive and ... not much else.
I’ve actually driven one of these SSs (in this color!) in 2014 and remember it fondly as much more grown up than I expected:
It’s easy to see the SS as a car that falls between the cracks for a prospective buyer. It’s not brash enough for the muscle crowd, it’s not cheap enough for the budget crowd, and it’s not prestigious enough for the sports sedan crowd. Even Chevy admits that next to nobody is going to like this car.
But when you drive, you start to fall for its charms. It’s a full size car that gives you a lot to enjoy, but doesn’t let the rest of the world know about it. You get the performance, you get the V8 rumble at idle, you get the space, but everyone else just thinks you’re driving a Malibu.
Are you the kind of person who likes a Q-ship?
This one is priced high at $50,000, but it looks like it’s in great shape. Try it out, you might be surprised.
From one former Jerseyan to another current Jerseyan, enjoy your next ride Glen. Whatever you choose, I’m sure you’re going to have a blast.
I believe that WCSYB is an allegory for life in so many ways, and in your particular case I think it reminds us that sometimes we simply need to be told what we already know. You mention the BRZ in your post, but say you need a car with a functional backseat. You say all-wheel drive would be ideal — I assume for those surprise North Jersey snowpocalypses — and a manual’s a must. You know where I’m going with this and I’m sure my suggestion isn’t about to shatter your world: The WRX was made for you.
More specifically the STI, because your budget is comfortable enough that you can afford one. I know spoilers and the boy racer shtick isn’t your bag, and I can totally relate to that. But the outgoing STI is actually pretty tame overall, aside from the rear wing which is probably one of the more tasteful implementations of a true rear wing on a modern car. Plus, you can always get it removed if you can’t stand it.
Also, the old WRX is less boy racer-y than the new one, which is egregiously, offensively terrible on the eyes. Here’s an STI in Tony Soprano’s country with under 10,000 miles and one owner for $42,000.
This is a hard one because $50,000 should be enough to buy a new car, but the market sucks right now. It’s hard not to recommend a compact sedan, because cars like the Volkswagen GLI come with a manual transmission and could be bought new for under $50,000. But your backseat is going to be used daily, so a bigger car is better. The only problem with other kick-ass sedans that come with a stick shift and are new is they’re way over budget.
You’ll need something that is a few years older, such as this 2017 Audi A4. This specific one isn’t a performance Audi, but since it’s a Quattro, the handling will be better than a standard A4. Also, the six-speed ought to make it feel lively. It’s not as gaudy as a Subaru WRX, which ticks many of your boxes but errs on the side of raucous design. The Audi is understated or looks more grown-up.
The price of the A4 is more or less in line with the low mileage (16,734 mi.), but still kind of high. It’s a Certified Pre-Owned car, so I guess it stings less. There are some funner choices from Audi near you, but with less doors.
Let’s break this down. You want a canyon carver that still has room for two kids and all their stuff, and you want it to be reliable for years to come. You want something fun, more interesting than your Nissan. What if I could offer you something that’s probably more fun than anything else on this list, and better than most of them in those Northeast snowstorms? Allow me to present the Civic Type R.
Sure, it’s front-wheel drive, but its limited-slip front diff will be far more useful in the snow than most AWD systems. It’s a Civic, so it has four doors and a massive hatch, and will mechanically outlast your children’s children’s children. But most importantly, the Civic Type R is the single most entertaining car I’ve ever driven. Not even an ethanol-fueled, built-engine STi could hold up to the sheer enjoyment the Civic provides — it’s manic, it goads you into always pushing harder, braking later, cornering more aggressively. It’s the car that sold me on front-wheel drive.
But, speaking of aggression, you said you want something that looks “grown up.” I get that, to many, this maybe isn’t that. But I’ll point you to the look of every other tenth-generation Civic — no modern car is all too subtle. To non-car-folks, this is just A Car. Maybe it’s A Honda, if they know their stuff. But to you, the driver, looking out rather than in, it’ll simply be a joy. Here’s one, nearly brand new, under your budget in Brooklyn. Have fun.
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