Suppose you’re looking for one car that’ll do it all. Slip into compact spaces with ease. Accelerate and handle with grace. Fit four adults and their luggage in a well-appointed interior with little apparent cost-cutting. Command the road at highway speeds. Let’s throw in 30 MPG fuel economy for good measure.
Now suppose you’re looking to spend $15k or so, and the cheaper the better.
If you’re thinking about new cars, don’t waste your time. Even the cheapest new car on the lot will likely surpass the $15k threshold, and the only boxes it’ll check are the ones pertaining to parking and fuel economy.
But for the same money or quite possibly far less, you could have a sixth-generation (Mk6) Volkswagen Golf. Step up to the 200-horsepower GTI version if you’re feeling frisky; it’s in your price range too. As the final Golf built in Germany before VW shifted to a more global (read: cost-conscious) product strategy, the Mk6 arguably represents the pinnacle of Volkswagen’s small-car engineering.
Thanks to the magic of depreciation, a gently used specimen can now be yours for pennies (okay, quarters) on the dollar, promising years of delightful motoring with hardly any age-related drawbacks.
It’s pretty much common knowledge among car enthusiasts that if you really get a kick out of driving, it doesn’t get much better than wheeling a Mazda Miata down a road that on a map resembles dropped spaghetti. In fact, when you factor in its great reliability as well as its low acquisition and running costs, Mazda’s sporty roadster is a strong candidate for “Bang for the Buck” champion of all time.
But even after you’ve decided you want to join Miata Nation, you’ve still got a tough choice to make. The model has been on the market for almost thirty years now, and for less than ten grand, you can pick up great examples from any of its first three generations (which Mazda engineers have dubbed, respectively, “NA,” “NB,” and “NC”).
With pristine early examples, rare MazdaSpeed specimens, and even late-model retractable hardtops all within relatively easy reach, the hardest part of buying a used MX-5 may be figuring out exactly which one to pursue.
Not to worry. Below we’ve identified the pros and cons of each to make it easy to find the Miata that’s perfect just for you.
For the last few decades, Honda’s influence on the auto industry — and its corresponding sales volumes — has been nothing short of revolutionary. Consider that the latest Accord just made Car and Driver’s 10 Best list for a record 32nd time; meanwhile, the Civic recently became the top-selling car in America. This makes the underperformance of Acura, Honda’s luxury division, somewhat puzzling.
Acura was the first premium Japanese marque to launch in the US, with sixty dealerships by 1986, and its early years were heralded by world-class machines like the Legend and the NSX. But since then a mix of uneven investment, marketing, and styling choices has positioned Acura well behind its rival, Lexus, as a credible challenger to long-established luxury marques like Mercedes-Benz and BMW.
Though the Acura brand as a whole underwhelms, looking across its history one can find a handful of machines beyond just the original Legend and NSX that deserve respect and admiration. Judged on cost-to-quality ratio, perhaps none is more deserving than the third-generation Acura TL (UA6 / UA7 chassis), which debuted for the 2004 model year and ran through 2008.
The third-gen TL is thankfully devoid of the overly-complicated styling and engineering gimmicks – like crazy metallic beaks, Jewel Eye LED headlights, Precision All-Wheel Steer, 9-speed hybrid torque converter/clutched transmissions, and so on – that have afflicted the automaker’s more recent products.
Instead, it delivers on attributes that Acura, perhaps with better focus on its original slogan, “Precision Crafted Automobiles,” ought to have stood for through the years: a characterful, sonorous V6 that loves to rev and builds power beautifully, well-designed, durable, and high-quality interiors, remarkably tight styling that is distinct from the German brands and their imitators, and quality and reliability that regularly sees these cars exceed 200,000 happy miles.
Buying a used car is smart for a variety of reasons, and one of the best is that it saves you a ton of money. This is fairly obvious, right? But you might be surprised by exactly how much cash that new car is costing you. Let’s explore.
Sure, new cars are lovely, shiny things, as yet unsullied by parking lot dings and travel mug mishaps. But their values drop — precipitously — especially in the first few years of their lives.
This, friends, is known as depreciation, and it’s the surest way to kiss your hard-earned money goodbye, short of setting it aflame.
Many enthusiasts hold that the E46 3 Series is the pinnacle of the BMW formula: a marvelous combination of sporting character and everyday usability in a timeless design. In fact, we heartily sing its praises in our E46 buying guide, calling it “one of the most enjoyable drives available in an affordable used car.”
But there are downsides. For example, the E46 interior can age poorly. Rubberized plastics on the center console and the door cards tend to scratch and flake; headliners are prone to sagging. And there are a few dogs in the range with sub-200 hp ratings that can feel pretty anemic compared to more modern machines.
Fortunately, the next generation 3 Series, the E90, along with its shortened-wheelbase cousin, the E82 / E88 1 Series, largely rectified these problems. Both are terrific cars. And the latter, with its tidy, E30-sized footprint and significantly lower price point, is possibly the last, best way for a budget-minded enthusiast to experience the purity of BMW’s original engineering magic, which has sadly been diluted in most of the automakers’ more recent models.
While there are some excellent battery-powered vehicles like the new Chevrolet Bolt trickling into our garages, the good, old fashioned, oil pumping, octane swilling, internal combustion engine is still at the heart of the automotive experience. It has been ever since, some 130 years ago, Karl Benz bolted a one banger of his own design onto the back of a three-wheeled cart.
And it’s been a glorious run. Sure, there were low points, like the anemic power plants that wheezed through the 1970s while automakers struggled to cope with strict new emissions and fuel economy regulations. Anyone remember the 1975 Ford Granada? Its 4.1 liter inline six had a California variant that puttered out just 71 horsepower. Folks, that’s less than 20 horsepower per liter.
These days, though, your average minivan throws down 250 ponies and still gets nearly 30 highway MPG. Meanwhile, muscle cars like the Camaro ZL1 routinely deliver 600+ horses, and supercars are converging on the magic 1000 figure. These numbers would have boggled the mind not long ago — and likely would have caused poor Mr. Benz, whose motor wobbled out just two-thirds of a horse, to burst a mental gasket.
It’s clear that we’re in a golden age of engines. And that’s great news. Because who doesn’t want more power? Or more efficiency? Or both? The more great mills that are produced, the greater the chances that one will find its way into a budget-minded enthusiast’s heart… and driveway.
Which got us to thinking, what are the very best engines to be had in cars that most anyone can afford? The Klipnik brain trust gathered recently to hash it out. We gave ourselves just two simple rules: 1) keep the picks from within the last 25 years and 2) make them choices that can easily be attained for less than $25,000 — preferably much less.
Here are the ten exceptional motors that made our list (in alphabetical order by automaker).
Long a favorite of driving enthusiasts, BMW’s 3 Series has nonetheless gotten bigger, heavier and less engaging with each successive generation. Nowadays, even a car buff could easily mistake a newer 3 Series sedan for a 5 Series. Make no mistake, the 3er’s performance is still impressive, but for many who relish time behind the wheel, the less quantifiable “fun to drive” factor has dropped off.
Indeed, many enthusiasts feel that the E46 generation marks the last time the 3 Series was truly engaging and true to its roots — a spry athlete of a car that offered not only quick reflexes but communication through the steering wheel and seat of one’s pants that let you know in no uncertain terms what the tires were doing.
And with cars from this generation now at least ten years old, depreciation has already taken its toll, making good examples as cheap to acquire as they’re ever going to be.
If you are considering the purchase of a gently-used older car — perhaps something like the 51k-mile Mercedes-Benz S-class pictured above, which originally stickered for sixty grand but recently sold on eBay for just $5300, or even just a practical family hauler that you plan to drive until the wheels fall off — congratulations. You are well on your way to eliminating from your budget the costliest of all car ownership expenses.
However, there’s more to buying an older car than just forking over some cash and autographing the title. While you won’t be signing up for staggering new car payments or steep depreciation, you will have to navigate a few other pitfalls inherent to a taking on a second-hand vehicle.
So before you click Buy It Now on that oh-so-tempting auction, take a moment to consider these five important — and perhaps surprising — guidelines. They will help to ensure that you end up with a car which is not only cheap to acquire but also a joy to own and drive for many years to come.
The ever-increasing mania and resulting skyrocketing values of air-cooled Porsche 911s have put those cars way out of reach for most buyers. Meanwhile, prices for the 996 generation, the first 911 with a water-cooled engine, have languished, in part because the prevailing wisdom among Porsche collectors is that the sun rises and sets only on the air-cooled cars.
Values are depressed, too, because of a known design flaw in the standard 996 engine that can, if not attended to, lead to a catastrophic failure, costing tens of thousands to repair. While this understandably gives most buyers pause, the truth is that a preemptive fix is readily available — and, even better, that many 996 examples on the market today have already had it applied.
This is all great news for the more practical enthusiast who wants to get in on the all-around goodness of Porsche’s iconic and entertaining sports car but without breaking the bank.
Buying a used car is not only the best way to get the most car for your money; it also helps you dodge a massive hit from depreciation. And, in some cases, older models are actually better than newer ones.
However, no matter how well you do your research or how great an example you find, a used car is a complex machine with pieces that, after five or ten (or more) years on the road, are sometimes going to break.
That’s why you should make identifying a great local mechanic the very first step in your used car buying process.