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.

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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.

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