Buying a fun car
December 14, 2004 10:52 PM   Subscribe

I would like to buy a car. Fun to drive (think handling, not necessarily pickup) is paramount, everything else is negotiable: 2-seaters are fine, I'm willing to shift for myself. My price tops out at $16k and I live in Los Angeles. Recommendations? I'm leaning towards a Porsche Boxster, which Consumer Reports says is surprisingly reliable. (more inside)

I thought my criteria sufficiently different from reynoj's to warrant a new post. Basically I'm hoping that allowing 2-seaters opens up new possibilities for fun. (I've thought this through - for as often as I need more than 2 seats, I can rent a car.)

Yes, I realize manual transmissions are dumb in LA, especially since 75% of my driving is to and from work. Tiptronic would be ideal, I guess.

Thanks in advance.
posted by lbergstr to Travel & Transportation (57 answers total)
Response by poster: renyoj, sorry.
posted by lbergstr at 11:11 PM on December 14, 2004

A used 2000 Audi TT should be in your range. Driving enthusiast will tell you Audi makes better cars than the TT, but it's the most fun I've ever had driving a car. Of course, it's a matter of opinion. The car drives, when your driving responsibly, in a manner that can best be described as anxiously. It handles beautifully. On the other hand, it's not inexpensive to maintain.

In LA you won't need snow tires, but given how you all react to 40 degree weather or the wet stuff the rest of the nation calls rain, I'd recommend you either cool it in inclement conditions and get snow tires if you ever move to a snowier climate. The car runs on high test only and is ridiculous to insure if you're under thirty. Tires, parts and repairs will be expensive, but in the three years my father has owned his used TT, he's had no real problems and a whole lot of fun owning it.

No matter what kind of car you get, if you enjoy driving, but don't often drive for enjoyment, find a way to get on a track with whatever car you get. There are car clubs around the nation, one specifically for Audi owners that I know of, that gives you this and other kinds of opportunities. I recommend against trying any Need for Speed or Fast and the Furious stuff on the regular streets.
posted by sequential at 11:15 PM on December 14, 2004

This may or may not be much help, but ... I have an Acura RSX. I would not reccomend the manual transmissions on the base models, and there have been recalls on the type S's. (Sorry, I love the car, but the trannie just has more problems than I can shake a stick at, and I've had it replaced twice now.) Apparently they used flimsy brass synchros and there are also machining quality problems. The automatics are available with 'sportshift', though, and that's a blast to use. (Sportshift is Honda/Acura's name for Tiptronic.)

Quite honestly, in LA, you're going to want something that's exceptionally comfortable to spend a lot of time in, and a Boxter or TT does not fit in this category. The roads in LA are crap and the tight sport suspensions make it feel worse than it is. I quite literally ratted a filling out in an S2000 once. I'm going to jump slightly off the beaten path and reccomend a Honda Accord Coupe V-6. Not only will you have more power than you can shake a stick-shift at, but the car is exceptionally comfortable, quiet on the crappy roads, and they're easily available. The car handles exceptionally well (esp. with some tasteful suspension mods), and they're readily available on the used market. If you can swing it, the 2005 3.0 V-6 with sticks go like something that goes really fast. I can't remember if you can get them with sportshift packages or not.

I really like Honda/Acura. I'm exceptionally brand-loyal, because I've never had a problem with them (6-year honda/acura owner, hate driving anything else that's not german) until I had a problem with this past RSX. I've driven just about every car in Honda's current line, and a significant number of the Acuras. My parents live in LA, and I've considered moving there but it would require me to live with them and my expenses would still go through the roof. With my checks into my costs in mind, I would reccomend against buying something as high-end as a Boxter simply because the repair costs are outrageous and the insurance costs for anyone under 30 in LA on a sports care exist simply to be disbelieved. Not to mention the singling out you get by the cops if you, as a young white male, get close to the border between a nice area and an undesireable area (easy to do) in LA in a sports car. (Just ask me how I know this...)
posted by SpecialK at 11:36 PM on December 14, 2004

I'm not sure how easy it is for you to get this car in America, but if you can find it: a Ford Puma. Excellent handling, lovely little sports car, car of the year 97, should be quite cheap now. But I believe it's a European car.
posted by Skyanth at 11:49 PM on December 14, 2004

generation-3 honda prelude. this from someone who has owned gen3, gen4 and gen5 models. personally I'd consider an rsx, too.

also, screw the fucking slushbox.
posted by dorian at 11:58 PM on December 14, 2004

Response by poster: I would reccomend against buying something as high-end as a Boxter simply because the repair costs are outrageous

Actually, according to Consumer Reports the Boxster breaks down very rarely. This matches with the anecdotal reports I've been hearing also. I guess you've got a point about the insurance, but that's not enough to tip the balance for me.
posted by lbergstr at 12:00 AM on December 15, 2004

Response by poster: Grumblegrumble, I guess maybe I could call around to some insurance companies before I commit to a car. It would take a lot to dissuade me, though...
posted by lbergstr at 12:19 AM on December 15, 2004

lbergstr, If you want a boxter, buy a freakin' boxster and just be done with it. Why even ask us if you're so sure?

I'm not so concerned about repair costs from the boxter breaking down, but repair costs from the boxter getting keyed, dinged in parking garages and lots, in fender benders and rear-enders from humvees on the freeway, etc. so on so forth -- all things that have happened to nice cars of various types I've driven for the small amount of time I've spent in LA over the past two years. (Apparenltly, when a really young-looking geeky white guy takes a nice car to run over to the grocery store to pick up extra ingredients because mom didn't know his new girlfriend was a vegetarian, it's open keying season on said car for poor fuckwits. And then I got yelled at for being 'one o dem prissy ****ing dot-com millionaires.') When you're on your fifth or sixth rear quarterpanel, tell me that a porche is not expensive to get parts for. Oh, but you'll have comprehensive insurance, ... and your premiums will skyrocket after the first comp claim. (Clutches are expensive too, and commuting in stop and go traffic has a tendency to eat them. Just sayin'.)

And quite honestly, repair costs and insurance are the least of the concerns I'd have. I think the "driving on shitty LA roads daily in a car with a tight-ass suspension and a racing clutch" would top that list. Mark my words: in four months, you'll hate commuting in it so much that you'll wish you had a comfortable, yet nice handling commuter cocoon with an automatic or an easy clutch, a great sound system, and a big cup holder.
The Boxter's controls are horrible for commuting; they're so twitchy that you need to keep both hands on the wheel and god forbid you spill coffee on your leg and dump the clutch in traffic. It'd only take a one second twitch to do it. And when you are moving, road noise is going to be so obnoxious that you won't be able to hear the radio or a passenger talking to you.
Heck, I started resenting the RSX's suspension and stick so much on my 20 minute commute into downtown portland that I started riding my motorcycle on the commute every chance I got ... rain or shine, cold or hot. And when I left that job, I got an office that's nearly within walking distance of my home.

If you were buying it as a second vehicle, the way my dad's sports car is, I'd say go for it. But as a daily driver and commuter? You'll be trading it in shortly, no matter how much you WANT that car right now.
posted by SpecialK at 12:40 AM on December 15, 2004

Audi S4. I've driven a Boxster, a TT, and an S4, and the S4 has all the handling, performance, and sweet sweet looks, without that overly tight sport suspension. If you get one that's under Audi's extended (read: used car) warranty, repair costs are covered, to a degree. And you can commute in it, because the suspension leans more towards luxury than the TT, but the handling (cornering, etc.) is very sporty.
posted by bedhead at 12:45 AM on December 15, 2004

how on earth could you afford a boxter for 16k? Are there boxsters with 100k miles on them or something going for half their cost?
posted by mathowie at 1:17 AM on December 15, 2004

Yep, there are Boxsters and their ilk going for relatively cheap prices, once they're 4 years old or so - which also makes them ineligible for the extended warranty from the manufacturer. But, you know. It's a Porsche. Chicks dig 'em. (Disclaimer: I am a chick, and do indeed dig 'em, but it's completely platonic.)
posted by bedhead at 2:01 AM on December 15, 2004

You are not getting a Boxter for $16k. No way. If you see one offered, buy it.

But back in the realm of reasonability:

I recommend a Miata. Reasons follow:
  • You can pretty much weld the hood shut. I drove across America and back in a 5 year-old Miata, and didn't have a single problem. Not even a flat. They've got all the Japanese reliability you could ever ask for.
  • They're cheap. A used 1999+ Miata will run you about $13k, tops. If you want to go with the M1 Miatas, here's a 1990 with racing clutch, adjustable shocks, new top, high performance cat-back, and new racing tires (with a spare set of snow tires) for $3,500. For example.
  • Aftermarket, aftermarket, aftermarket. The Miata has the second largest following of any sports car (2nd only to the Mustang), and the aftermarket options are simply astounding. By far the most popular upgrade is the addition of a supercharger, but there are several turbo options as well. The people who manufacture them have been doing it since '89, and because the car hasn't fundamentally changed under the hood, the things are reliable. So reliable, in fact, that Mazda put out a special edition of the Miata with a factory turbo that was actually just the same one the aftermarket fans have been using for years.
  • Here's an example of a supercharged Miata for sale. 200 horsepower, intercooled, badassity. 0-60 in about 5.5 seconds. Drives like a kitten around town.
  • They only come in convertible.
  • The car's handling is simply perfect.
  • The M2 version looks more "muscular" than the older "pillbox" design, akin to the 3rd generation RX-7.
  • The shifter is the best I've ever used. Shifting in a Miata is click-click-click. If you've never experienced how tight the shifting is, you really can't appreciate how something like this would be an issue.
The other thing, and this is pretty subjective, but I've found that Miata drivers are some of the nicest auto-enthusiasts in the world. They wave to each other. Seriously, it's pretty corny. I was at an SCCA track meet a few years ago, and saw a guy with a turbo'd Miata, and asked him how it drove. The guy gave me his keys.

The single best forum for the Miata is, and the single best place to purchase used Miatas is their classifieds.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:26 AM on December 15, 2004


Some questions that, if answered, could improve my answer - have you ever driven a sports car? How far is your commute? Do you want the car to impress (a Porsche is overkill if you just want something fun to drive)?

As others have alluded to, the reliability evaluation in CR is a statistical average. Out of x number of cars, x number have had problems, with x number of parts. The lower those last two numbers, the more reliable the car. However, if you get one of those x with problems, you still have problems whether the car is reliable or not. Then you get the Porsche repair bills. You can limit your risk not only by selecting a reliable car (as you have done), but by selecting a car that has low repair bills.

I've owned three Mustangs (66, 67, 86) and two Mazda RX-7s (85s), as well as various other cars, trucks and vans. Some thoughts - if you haven't driven a sports car, I wouldn't jump to the Porsche. I worked my way up to my current car - from a 66 Mustang to 67 (mildly tuned) to the RX-7 (special edition) to now, an 86 Mustang SVO (turbo, five-speed, hard suspension). It helps to appreciate the driving having used the other cars.

Also, consider buying two cars. This is how I solved some of the problems mentioned so far. I bought a 2000 Ford Ranger and a 1986 Ford Mustang SVO for $9000 total. The Ranger is as plain jane as you can get (allowing me to spend on the SVO). I drive in Detroit, so I needed something that could do stop and go and three-foot potholes - the Ranger (4-cyl automatic, fuel economic, durable, easy). When I want to drive sporty, I drive the Mustang. I am 29, also, so I have collector insurance on the Mustang, which does limit the mileage. The Ranger's insurance is low, but would be lower if it wasn't relatively new.

In this way, you could buy a used sports car and if you have a problem you are not dependent on it immediately. You can wait until you have the funds or the time to fix it (I had my Mustang parked in my garage for months waiting until I could fix its brakes).

My recommendations - check out Sport Compact Car (it's a magazine with a web site). Click on Features. Or click on the other magazines (Turbo Magazine, for instance) at the top of the page. The kids today seem to like Mitsubishi Lancers, Subaru WRXs and Dodge Neon SRT-4s. I obviously favor the Ford and Mazda families.

Hope that helps.
posted by Slothrop at 5:07 AM on December 15, 2004

I forgot two other tips I have for general car buying -

Get rid of as many options as you can stand, especially on something like a sports car. So no power windows, no power door locks, no dual zone climate control, etc. My exceptions are CD player and since you are in LA, air conditioning. I could skip AC in Michigan. CD players are somewhat plug-n-play in a car (you can connect new ones by yourself). The less options, the fewer things to break, and in a sports car you'd be surprised at what you won't miss.

Also, I don't generally buy European, fwiw. American cars have now surpassed the Euros in overall quality (this is, as a lump). More importantly, there are vast networks for fixing American and Japanese cars in the states. Not so much for European cars. These networks and resources drive down the cost of repair.

Most of my comments, if you can't tell are aimed toward being frugal. I don't prefer the 'rolling house' style of car.
posted by Slothrop at 5:23 AM on December 15, 2004

there are vast networks for fixing American and Japanese cars in the states

Unfortunately, this does nothing to stop the repair shops for tacking on an extra $10/hr. because it's an "import". (Don't try explaining that a lot of 'em are actually produced here.)

I forgot about the Suburu WRX -- it's (IMHO) ugly as sin, but apparently tears the shit out of the pavement. I mean, crazy-sick performance. But it looks like something smelly that you'd scrape off your shoe and go "Ewww!" And no convertible.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:42 AM on December 15, 2004

I'll second the Miata suggestion..

a great car! I bought one new in '99, haven't put a penny in it other than a pair of good tires and regular oil changes.

Without doubt the most fun car I've ever owned!

The hard part is letting it sit in the barn during long snowy Michigan winters... but, L.A.... the perfect place to own one!
posted by HuronBob at 5:42 AM on December 15, 2004

With no other expertise than reading a lot of reviews and watching way too much Top Gear, I'd have to recommend the Miata as well. It has been consistently described as a fun car, so it should fit the bill exactly. The Miata also fits your budget much more comfortably. The Boxster is not a bad car and I'd love to recommend it, since it's manufactured here in Finland. And of course, it's a Porsche, rather than a Mazda.
posted by lazy-ville at 5:46 AM on December 15, 2004

More info on the Subaru WRX STi and it's sickliness. 300 hp. No radio (fuck that weight). 14.5 lbs. of boost. User defined power diferential. 0-60 in 4.87 seconds.

Then there's the Mitsubishi Evo, which is a few thousand less, and it gets 0-60 in 4.59 seconds. Both of these cars are out of your budget, however.

The hard part is letting it sit in the barn during long snowy Michigan winters.

Dude, you need to put the crack pipe down. One of the most fun things about the Miata is slapping a set of 4 Blizziks and tearing through the snow. Man I miss my Miata.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:49 AM on December 15, 2004

FWIW, my anecdotal experience was that the early Boxsters had horrible build quality. I know of at least two that Porsche had to buy back under MD's lemon laws. Perhaps they've improved dramatically, but an early one is what you'd be getting for under $20K
posted by mojohand at 5:53 AM on December 15, 2004

I'll concur with the Miata suggestion. I learned to drive manual in a 1990 and it was quite an easy lesson, very smooth shifting. I just realized as I was reading Civil_Disobedient's response that I never once had a mechanical problem with it in the three years I drove it in Chicago, putting around 45k on it up and down the pot-hole infested I-55. Handling was fantastic and it was a cheap enough car new (when you could find them) that it never got attacked in parking lots.
posted by FlamingBore at 6:21 AM on December 15, 2004

My husband got a Mazda 3 last December and loves it. It's really fun to drive, reasonably priced, no mechanical issues so far. No ragtop, but 4- and 5-door options make it slightly more convenient than a 2-seater IMHO.
posted by SashaPT at 6:35 AM on December 15, 2004

I have a 5th generation Prelude that's nice. Good enough handling and pickup to be fun, and comfortable on long drives (as in, 2 12-hour-day long). Feeling the VTEC kick in on an on-ramp makes me smile every time. Standard Honda reliability. They stopped making them in 2000 or 01 though, so any you see will likely have some miles on it. It has a back seat that's basically a package shelf; I wouldn't put a person back there for more than a half-hour. If you can find one, I'd get the SH version; mine is not an SH and has more torque-steer than I'd like.

Miatas are just... wow. I've only had the chance to drive one a couple-few times, but every time I couldn't stop grinning. On the other hand, when we pulled up to a light, I found myself looking *over* the windscreen at it, which brought to mind Very Unpleasant Possibilities in the event of a wreck.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:53 AM on December 15, 2004

I've got a 2004 Audi TT, I love it. I've got the 3.2 liter engine with the DSG which is more than 16K but the less powerful engines are still a lot of fun. Before I decided on the TT I tested BMW M3's (fast but not visually appealing to me), Nissan 350Z (it shouldn't be called a Z car), Chrysler Crossfire (Chrysler has gotten good at risky body design, pity they won't hire somebody to design an interior) and Porsche Boxster (fun but it seemed like a dumbed down 911 so I'd rather get a used 911)

The Audi TT had a good combination for me at least. Fast, good handling, a visually appealing look, at least to me and the local dealer treated me well. (I told the salesman that I didn't want to haggle, if he makes me haggle I walk out and he made me a good offer based on the data on actual pricing I collected from Consumer Reports)

If maintenance was a concern for me though I'd go for a Mazda Miata or a Honda S2000 though. If you're buying any used German car you'll have a cardiac if you do need a repair.
posted by substrate at 7:25 AM on December 15, 2004

A slight derail: The MOST important thing about driving in LA from my experience is paying for the best insurance you can afford. Get less car and better insurance. I can pretty much guarantee that if you drive the freeways down here regularly you WILL get hit. Most likely hard. And most likely by an SUV. Because the popularity of SUV's skyrocketed so much about 5-8 years ago you are going to see more and more poorly maintained and thus more dangerous SUV's on the roads. Not related to your question but something to keep in mind.

Ok, now to answer your question: Special K is wise. Listen to him. I live and commute daily in LA and I would echo pretty much everything he said, emphasizing the honda/acura thang. Those accords are incredibly smooth, yet they have the guts to get up and go when they need to. And they are Low Emission Vehicles! Like we need more smog in LA.

Anyhow, do you really want an early boxter that, as others have stated, is known for questionable quality if you're just going to be sitting in traffic in it? Seems like a better second car for driving down PCH on the weekends.

I know you're probably going to get your boxter as I can see you drooling over it even over the internets. But make sure you consider ALL the options. Take the boxter for a test drive in traffic for 20 minutes and really feel what it will be like on a day to day basis, not just what it feels like on Laurel Canyon road at midnight with no one in front of you (watch out for that possum!).
posted by tinamonster at 7:54 AM on December 15, 2004

1999 Porsche Boxster Cabriolet convertible, 47,000 miles. 15.4k.

Uh, Kaiser, I think this small point justifies the blink tag:
(Reserve not met)
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:59 AM on December 15, 2004

The Accord V6, manual transmission, is a nice car, very comfortable and very quick - zero to sixty in about six seconds and a quarter mile in the fourteens. However, it is no sports car. Compared to a Miata it feels like you are piloting the QEII. It is more like a luxury coupe at a Honda price. New they are $26k, so I doubt they have fallen to $16k in the used market, but who knows.

In heavy traffic I actually prefer a stick, you get very good speed control just be lifting your foot off of the gas so you can easily keep your following distance just right. The Miata is a great car and seems to fit all of your requirements except for the triptronic. My only issue with them is that you feel only mildly better protected riding in one than riding a motorcycle. Watch out for errant SUVs.
posted by caddis at 9:27 AM on December 15, 2004

I'd like to put in a vote for the Audi A4 with the 1.8T engine. Mine is a 2001 model, with front wheel drive (I know, not what you'd expect in an Audi). I get good acceleration, crisp handling, and excellent gas mileage. A few modifications in the engine compartment and under the car gave me a nice increase in horsepower and substantially reduced turbo-lag. I have a car that looks good, has enough room to carry people AND luggage, and will still go 150 mph if I'm so inclined (yes, sometimes I am so inclined).

AudiWorld is a site that is filled with good information, especially in the forum area. Audi of America can give you more information on new models. I really like This site for information on used cars, and they might be able to help you better narrow your search.
posted by PossumCowboy at 9:30 AM on December 15, 2004

I've had a Miata for 18 months and I still smile at the idea that people would pay 1.5X or 2X more for any open two seat roadster. In its category the Miata is basically perfect, and part of its perfection is that you can get one, brand-new and tricked-out, for something like $25K. Or you can go to Carmax and get one that's been pampered and garage-kept for a year or two and sells in your price range.

(The aftermarket thing is really special: I found a hideaway trailer hitch for mine so that I could haul my bike around.)

Having said that, sitting in gridlocked traffic, surrounded by SUVs, is not what this car is for. I don't think it's a bad commuter car, particularly if there's no snow where you are, but it's not much fun in heavy traffic. You can't see around anything, and the Hummer behind you won't even know it's run over you.

The Subaru WRX is a genuine screamer.
posted by coelecanth at 9:54 AM on December 15, 2004

He asked about fun to drive and no one mentioned the MINI? You can get a new standard mini for about your price range - so no dealing with the crap shoot that is a high mileage used sports car. They outhandle most cars on the road. Granted - handling is pretty irrelevant at 0 mph in LA traffic. It really only matters when you are turning quickly. I love my S - even more fun - but likely out of your price range even used.
posted by Wolfie at 10:02 AM on December 15, 2004

Response by poster: SpecialK, sorry if I came across as ungrateful for your advice. It's sound and I appreciate it.

Slothrop, I grew up driving BMWs (ten years ago - E28 535, '72 Bavaria). My dad went to a lot of effort to teach me to drive responsibly and well: racing driving school, time on the track. Don't worry, I have no plans to double-clutch around Hollywood.

Everyone, I really appreciate the thought you've put in to advising me. I'll try to deserve it by thinking carefully before I commit to something. Some context: I've been driving a '93 Volvo around, simply because I've been too lazy to replace it. Great car that has taken good care of me, but I hunger for joy.
posted by lbergstr at 10:10 AM on December 15, 2004

Response by poster: Oh, Slothrop, your other questions: my commute is 45 minutes through Hollywood, the 10 and Santa Monica. Surprisingly little of that is spent in stop-and-go traffic - average speed on the 10 may be 15mph through Robertson, but at least it's moving.

As far as wanting to impress goes - no. But something in me resists an Accord or a Miata, so I must be lying to myself. So I'm going to go test-drive those cars. If they live up to what you guys have said, I might not be able to pay the insurance premium for something else, knowing that it's because I care what other people think.
posted by lbergstr at 10:18 AM on December 15, 2004

Yes, yes, the Miata is a fun car, a great car, et cetera, but over the past redesigns, the designers have applied the Lotus philosophy: If it doesn't break, make it lighter. Unfortunately, as they made many of the crucial suspension and steering bits lighter, the interior got a little bloated. The drawback to this is that you have a heavy car built on a light car platform. The swaybars are barely thicker than toothpicks, the transmission mounts are half the size of a roll of quarters, and the oil pan is paper-thin. If you'll baby this car, never bottom it out, and never curb your wheels on a long sweeper, you'll probably be okay.

All I'm saying is that if you have any appreciation for engineering, you ought to look at the Boxster and the Miata from underneath, on a lift, where you can see the real and palpable difference between the two.

Acuras are nice, but aren't they all FWD?

And the TT is a hoot, but it's slow in comparison, and the Audi/VW Parts factors are the embodiment of evil.

The Boxster is awesome, no doubt. But, whether it knocks out your fillings or not, the S2000 is the real category killer here. A bulletproof car that handles like it's on rails. And if you really drive spiritedly, and you keep the revs up, its absolutely awesome to feel it push through a corner.
posted by Kwantsar at 10:19 AM on December 15, 2004

If I had 16,000 I would be looking at the:
  • E36 BMW M3 (a touch on the heavy side for my taste)
  • 3rd generation Mazda RX-7 TT (expect lots of maintenance costs though)
  • 93 to 95 Toyota MR2 turbo (will cost $10k for a nice one, then add the other $6k to give it 400HP)
I'm a total RWD purist, although I'd consider AWD in bad climate areas (and I don't consider New England, where I live, bad enough to need AWD). I have a 93 MR2 turbo currently.
posted by knave at 10:24 AM on December 15, 2004

Kwantsar is right. If your commute through Santa Monica involves sliding into curbs and bouncing your oil pan off the pavement, definitely get something sturdier than a Miata.
posted by coelecanth at 10:30 AM on December 15, 2004

i suggest a new mazda3. i bought one when i moved out to boston. i love it. i don't know what else to say other than 1) it's fun and 2) it fits your price.
posted by sachinag at 10:36 AM on December 15, 2004

All I'm saying is that if you have any appreciation for engineering, you ought to look at the Boxster and the Miata from underneath, on a lift, where you can see the real and palpable difference between the two.

Well sure, it's a $15,000 difference. Come on, the two aren't just in different leagues, they're playing different games. And I disagree with the ruggedness assertion after several years of Boston driving and parking (city Boston, as in, pot-hole central; snow plows do a number on the roads every year).

In a battle between an SUV and a Miata, well, be thankful for the dual air-bags. But what's your driving preference? Survive the crash, or avoid it in the first place? Anyway, don't take my word for it. Here's some pretty pictures and statistics for ya'.

So I'm going to go test-drive those cars.

That's definately the best decision. I felt the same way about Miatas before I ever drove one. Personally, the 3rd gen. RX-7's are pretty much the epitomy of sexiness to me (too bad Mazda killed the line). Pity they never made a convertible version.

The magic of the Miata is that it feels fast without having to actually go fast. Of course, if you want to go fast, you do have options.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:01 AM on December 15, 2004

I'm really surprised that no one ever mentions Mercedes Benz in car threads. Seriously, does no one here have a good story about them?

About six months ago I was in the process of trading in a C-Class for a 230 SLK. I test drove it, absolutely loved the handling, it had tiptronic, and had a decent price (2000 can be found in your price range). I've driven a bunch of cars, including BMW and Audi, and I believe that Mercedes is just a smoother, more luxurious ride. The SLK has a lot of pep and is rear wheel drive (I hate the Audi TT; feels too much like a tin can).

Anyway, I never did get the car (I live in Pittsburgh and winter was coming) but in a couple of years, after I get the hell out of here, the SLK will be my next car. BTW, the 2005s are completely redesigned, which means all the previous models will lower in price dramatically.
posted by BlueTrain at 11:09 AM on December 15, 2004

Seriously, does no one here have a good story about them?

Sure, I've got a great story.

Once upon a time, I went to a car dealer to test drive some cars. I looked at the Mercedes SLK and it was VERY FRIGGIN' EXPENSIVE. The End.

If you know of a sub-$16k SLK, by all means buy it and re-sell it on eBay for $profit.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:42 AM on December 15, 2004

I'm not sure how easy it is for you to get this car in America, but if you can find it: a Ford Puma. Excellent handling, lovely little sports car, car of the year 97, should be quite cheap now. But I believe it's a European car.

Sold in the US as the reincarnated Mercury Cougar - not particularly loved as I recall - the Puma may have had a better level of spec.

If you want handling, get a MINI, though as noted, a used Cooper S might be a bit above your cutoff - At the time of Road & Track's initial test drive, it was the fastest car ever tested through their slalom course. The handful of cars that have since bested the MINI's time are mainly six-figure exotics.
posted by jalexei at 11:50 AM on December 15, 2004

the S2000 is the real category killer here. A bulletproof car that handles like it's on rails

For pure driving enthusiasm, I'd second this (but again, we're over the price limit). The S2000 is basically a Kawasaki motorcycle with four wheels. Insanely fun.

If you want handling, get a MINI

Eh. Yes, the handling of the Mini Cooper S is phenomenal. But the actual driving experience is so much less visceral. There's a lack of immediacy with the Mini that I hate. Three words for you: drive-by-wire. UGH. Every time I stamp on the gas, I want to GO. NOW. FAST. And it's FWD with what feels like a boat anchor for a flywheel. Ugh again. I just felt no connection with the car when I test drove a Mini. There's a discernable driver/machine connection missing. The Mini C-S goes faster than, say, the Miata, but the Miata feels faster. Really, this isn't just psychobabbel!
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:17 PM on December 15, 2004

While it's not exactly a car, I love my 1998 Jeep Wrangler soft-top. It's a four seater and the back is surprisingly roomy. I'm sometimes neglectful of its regular maintenance, but have yet to have any major problems.

I bought it while still in Texas. The soft-top isn't quite as fun now that I'm in British Columbia, but it would be great in LA.
posted by deborah at 12:40 PM on December 15, 2004

I've had an s2000 for two and a half years as my daily driver with no problems whatsoever. In my opinion, it's much more fun to drive than a Boxster and it does indeed handle like it's on rails (most fun track car ever!). In the crazy LA traffic, I think you would quickly get tired of the heavy clutch in the Boxster. This would not be a problem in the s2000.

If that's out of your price range, I would go for a WRX or a supercharged Miata.
posted by Wendy at 12:51 PM on December 15, 2004

I've never driven one but the Ford Focus has been in Car and Driver's 10 Best list since it debuted in America. Bonus: it falls within your price range brand new.
posted by mauriteb at 1:12 PM on December 15, 2004

Response by poster: So far, these are the cars I'm going to look at:

Accord and/or RSX

...if I trip over a Boxster on my way to something else, I might think about it, but I don't count Porsches when I go to sleep any more thanks to you all.

C_D, blue book value for an S2000 (a 2000 model, good condition, 70000 miles) is under $16. I'll check what insurance would slam me for, and I drive on horrible roads, but from what you all have said, damn, sounds tempting.
posted by lbergstr at 1:47 PM on December 15, 2004

In fact the car that I was shopping for was a 2000 SLK 230. The price was 18,000 with 65000 miles. They are rare cars because so few are produced every year. Just goto the MBUSA website and search for them. Plus, on the website, they're all certified pre-owned.

You could get a lower price if purchased privately. But buying any used car without certification is a gamble, and, for a luxury vehicle, too risky.
posted by BlueTrain at 2:07 PM on December 15, 2004

Oh, I will so third, fourth, and fifth the S2000. Damn, that's an awesome car. I'd give my left nut to have one.
posted by SpecialK at 2:43 PM on December 15, 2004

I think it would be a tough choice between an ultra tricked-out Miata and the S2000. I'm going to take your Kelly BB for the S2K at face value and not consider the autoweb prices I saw from dealers).

For ~$16k you could get an all-leather, all-option, low-milage supercharged Miata, or a base S2000. Even with the options, I'd probably side with the S2000, and I'm a Miata fanatic. It's crazy-cool. Don't buy it if you're afraid of shifting near red-line. It's designed to be driven hard, and will not appreciate early shifts. :)
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:59 PM on December 15, 2004

Oh, yeah, you'll never find an s2k in LA for $16. You're looking at $18 to $20 at least for a 2000 model, from a private seller (unless it's been a collision rebuild, and there's tons of these on the market. DO NOT BUY A REBUILT s2000. The 'frame', per say, is a large aluminum I-beam that the rest of the car sits on. If the I-beam gets tweaked in a wreck, which is not hard to do, you'll never get the car straight again. Ever.)

These things don't stay on the market for very long, either. While the MSRP is in the high 20's, the car has always sold in the mid 30's.
posted by SpecialK at 3:42 PM on December 15, 2004

Actually, what amazes me in these car threads is that noone ever mentions Peugeots. Do they not sell them in the US?
Cos if you, you lot are missing out on some _fun_ cars!
posted by coriolisdave at 4:31 PM on December 15, 2004

coriolisdave: They do not sell them in the US. Not that their lineup would have anything that would really fit this category.
posted by lazy-ville at 4:53 PM on December 15, 2004

Which category is that, sorry? The "fun-to-drive" catagory? Check. Two-seater? Check (306cc, 206cc, come with fold-down hard-tops too). Luxury car? Check. Auto? Check. Triptronic? Check. Ability to mod it to go stupidly fast? Check check and check.

As I said - it's a pity you don't get them :)
posted by coriolisdave at 5:18 PM on December 15, 2004

Have you looked at a new Scion tC? It's pretty sporty styling, has a nice engine, and is about $16k for the manual.
posted by smackfu at 6:02 PM on December 15, 2004

If the I-beam gets tweaked in a wreck, which is not hard to do, you'll never get the car straight again. Ever.

Just a sidenote: that's not entirely true. You can pull the frame of a car to straighten it out, but generally it's more money than it's worth. I've seen it done on a vintage Shelby Mustang; for a new car, just consider it totalled and get the insurance to buy you a new one.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:58 PM on December 15, 2004

coriolisdave - I take it you're talking about the 306 Cabriolet? It's nice and sporty, but unfortunately it's got 4 seats, so no dice.

Just kidding. :)
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:12 PM on December 15, 2004

CD - actually, I misspoke. I was referring to the 206ccc and 307cc which both, as you so accurately note, have four seats ;). Still, they corner like they're on rails...
posted by coriolisdave at 7:56 PM on December 15, 2004

Actually both the ccs weigh more than their hardtop versions and handling has not been improved from the normal family cars at all. They're not very fast as is. They're front wheel drive, which does not exactly make them particularly fun to drive or better handling. And they're french so you won't get the same reliability you get with a miata or a boxster or an s2000. Peugeot doesn't really have a sportscar in their lineup, sure you can tune them, but they still won't be sportscars.
posted by lazy-ville at 8:51 PM on December 15, 2004

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