Automotive Matchmakers, Match Me With A Premium/Sports Compact Car?
June 27, 2016 12:40 AM   Subscribe

I'm finally retiring my well-loved 2001 Volkswagen Jetta 1.8T after 14 years of use and looking at replacing it with something in the "premium compact" or "entry-level sports car" segment costing under $35K (new or used). Driving enjoyment and safety are relatively higher priorities than fuel efficiency, luxury accoutrements, or technological bells and whistles. Brand status does matter a little. Snowflakes lie within.

My Jetta has, overall, been a great fit for my needs—fun to drive, comfortable for long trips, small enough for urban driving but big enough to support trips to Costco and a couple of long-distance moves. I find the current incarnation of the model a little too big, otherwise I'd consider getting another. More about me and my automotive desires:

* I live in the San Francisco area and do most of my routine driving in San Francisco and the urban East Bay. I want something compact that I can squeeze into small spaces and easily parallel park.

* On a day-to-day basis I don't drive all that much. I drive to work once or twice a week (about 10 miles each way in rush-hour traffic) and use my car a few more times during the week for short trips to run errands and such. My average annual mileage is under 10,000 miles. That said I also take several longer driving trips every year, including trips like San Francisco <> Los Angeles or San Francisco <> San Diego at least once a year. I appreciate having something quiet and comfortable enough that I can make a 10 hour drive without getting overly fatigued.

* I enjoy driving for its own sake and having a car I can go fast in and fling around windy roads makes me happy. I don't want a boring car or an econobox.

* My Jetta is a manual and I would really like my next car to be a manual also. I am aware that this narrows the field considerably, but the only ongoing exposure I have to automatics is via rental cars and my girlfriend's Prius C (a joyless driving experience indeed) and I don't love them. However, recognizing the annoyance involved in driving a manual car in hilly San Francisco I suppose I might be open to a "manumatic".

* I don't need to carry more than one passenger, and I don't routinely need to move large items or equipment. However, the surprisingly generous cargo capacity of my Jetta has come in handy many times. Unless I suddenly find myself married and starting a family (and, thus, shopping for a station wagon) it's likely that I'll be keeping this car for several years.

Cars I have looked at so far:

*Volkswagen GTI. I love the intersection of fun and practicality with this car, and I was just about to buy one when the VW diesel emissions scandal happened. Also, I have some first-hand experience with VW reliability and repair bills.

* BMW 135i (used). A joy to drive but I know I don't really need the luxury car finish and there are those German car repair bills again.

* Subaru BRZ. This car came enthusiastically recommended and I wanted to love it, but I felt the torque curve might not be great for urban driving and that the noise and stiff suspension might be tiring on long drives. However, the salesman stuck me with a test drive like we were taking Granny down the street for Sunday errands. Maybe I should give this car another chance?

* Mercedes CLA. Nothing motivates me to spend $32K+ on this car.

* Mini Cooper S. Fits the size/performance/practicality requirements pretty well but, due to personal/emotional factors, I won't be buying one.

* Nissan 370Z. This is the car I can't get out of my head. Completely impractical but oh, what fun! However, maybe the poor visibility and being unable to carry anything bigger than a box of Kleenex would get old after a while?

What other cars should I be considering? Any comments on the long-term prospects of the choices above?
posted by 4rtemis to Travel & Transportation (28 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Mazda 3 checks all your boxes except brand status. I suggest your drive one first for a baseline to compare the more expensive cars against. Mazda doesn't self-promote how some of their cars seem to have been designed from the beginning for driving enthusiasts, not something added as a trim package. They leave that to (former) magazines like Road & Track.
posted by Homer42 at 1:25 AM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Completely impractical but oh, what fun!

If the above criteria is possible, even as an outlier, then you might give some consideration to the newest version of the classic Mazda Miata - - the MX-5 RF with a retractable hardtop.
posted by fairmettle at 2:15 AM on June 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

Have you looked at a Subaru Impreza hatchback?
posted by carter at 3:05 AM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Ford Focus RS.

It's a road legal touring car with Isofix anchors, just in case you need to have your baby in a child seat while you do laps round the Nürburgring.

I had the pleasure of test driving one recently. It's as practical as a family hatchback, even to the point of being understated for such a high performance car, but that just means you have all of the useful features and human factors engineering that goes into the modern Focus. It's a sport car that I'd more than happily use for the school run.

In sport mode it blew my tiny little socks off.
posted by Eleven at 3:09 AM on June 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

Top Gear had a segment on the Focus RS a week or two ago and it made me sit up and take a look. Before seeing that I would have scoffed at Eleven's suggestion. I can't find a video but track it down if you can.
posted by supercres at 4:21 AM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you can wait a bit, the new Fusion Sport is coming out later this summer. Twin-turbo V6, AWD, 380 lb-ft of torque. Checks every box except, sadly, manual transmission.

This is a tough price range, because it's hard to get both sporty, fun, practical, AND comfortable without getting into the BMWs.

I think the GTI is a fine choice, though. Reliability is leaps and bounds ahead of your current VW and it's the perfect car for a person who only needs one since it checks all the boxes. Other than that, I'd recommend the Audi S3, but that's just a fancy GTI.
posted by hwyengr at 4:46 AM on June 27, 2016

Mazda. Zoom, zoom! I read a review recently that compared the Mazda drinking experience to BMW.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:49 AM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Along with the GTI, did you look at the Golf R? That would seem to hit many of your desires, albeit with the same concerns about reliability that always come with a VW.

On the Subaru side, you might want to take a look at the WRX as well.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:53 AM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Get a used SL500, there are plenty around, metal retractable hardtop, it's a Mercedes.
posted by fixedgear at 5:08 AM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Audi TT, Infiniti Q60.
posted by box at 5:35 AM on June 27, 2016

The Mazdaspeed3 is definitely worth checking out.

I was going to suggest a used Mini Cooper S with the JCW package but you binned that'd consider going with a slightly-used/certified GTI and spring for a super-extended warranty. I've owned a number of VWs over the years and it's about the only model of car I'd ever seriously consider doing that with.
posted by Thistledown at 5:47 AM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Go drive an Audi A3. I have the baseline model and I didn't think I was a car person until I got it. I love it so, so much. There is nothing I don't love about it. You should be able to get one for significantly under $35k. (It's not a true manual but you do have some options on level of control.)
posted by something something at 5:47 AM on June 27, 2016

The Mini Cooper S JCW is a rocket.
0-60 in 5.9 seconds.
Can you reconsider?
posted by littlewater at 5:56 AM on June 27, 2016

I drive an '05 Mini Cooper base model. When I got the Mini I also had an older, modified Japanese GT that had 260 horsepower and 299 ft/lb of torque in a 3,000 lb curb weight. The Mini turned out to be way more fun. If I actually got into taking my car to the track, maybe I'd prefer my tuned Starion, but the base model Mini proved to me the old adage: "It's more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow." Since I live in a city, there is no responsible way to enjoy the Starion's power, but I can certainly sling the Mini around occasionally and feel like I'm having lots of fun while going 35 mph. One thing I think the Mini has over most other cars, too, is that the windshield is much closer to vertical than most modern cars, so the driver's view is incredible! Even though the car is small, I don't feel claustrophobic because the cockpit is not so sloped.

I would say a great blend of urban-space-snagging and responsive-driving-dynamics might also be the Ford Fiesta ST. Ford has probably had the greatest rise in quality over the last decade of all automakers save maybe Hyundai. They didn't have to take any bailout money in '09 because they had been steadily improving their products since 2000. The Focus and the Fiesta are both European-designed cars that they sell in the American market. The Focus RS that others have mentioned is meant to compete with the WRX STi, so I believe it has north of 300 hp. The Focus ST (there's both a Focus and a Fiesta ST) was considered pretty rowdy by automotive journalists, so for city driving there is surely more than plenty of power.

If you really feel drawn to the 370z (which I think is a pretty aging platform if you're buying new), you might consider the Ecoboost Mustang. Probably all of the same sports car experience (maybe more since it's a pretty new platform), with way better gas mileage.

Good luck! I wouldn't begin to know what to do with a $35k car budget! I could buy two used cars with that (I'd do a Ford C-Max plug-in hybrid and a low-mile '05-'06 Mini S) and still have $10k+ left for repairs!
posted by Slothrop at 6:10 AM on June 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

The Lexus IS250 is lots of fun to drive and moderately high powered but may not be as "sporty" as you want. You can get it with paddle shifters but it still doesn't feel as "manual" as a stick.

The IS350 has a more powerful engine (300hp for a 3400 lb curb weight) but might push you outside the budget unless you go for a somewhat older one (perhaps 2011-2012).
posted by theorique at 6:24 AM on June 27, 2016

The Audi A3 is a nicer version of the VW Golf GTI, if you liked one, you'll like the other. Most of the major mechanical bits will be the same so you can expect similar reliability.

The Toyota co-developed the BRZ with Subaru. Toyota's version is the FRS. It supposedly has a little bit different suspension tuning. Otherwise the cars are identical and yes, I would test drive the BRZ again with someone who actually wants you to buy the car (which means letting you drive the car the way you'll normally drive the car).

There are a lot of other Subarus that are small, fun to throw around, and have little turbo engines as a small sports car should.

Mini's will tick a lot of your boxes too.

I really don't think the Nissan Z is right for you. It's bigger than you think and you'll feel the weight around the bends. It handles well and feels solidly attached to the road but it does feel a bit heavy. You will like the torque curve on the engine as it's more of a long flat plateau.

An infinity sedan based on the same platform would probably be a better fit but I think all of them are going to be larger than you'd like. That said, having sold cars for a living, I can tell you that it's VERY common for people to make a totally irrational decision when they buy a car. You might know with every rational fiber of your being that a 370Z is the wrong car for you but you like driving it so much that you buy it any way. I have a big stack of old buyer's contracts copies here as examples if you'd like.

You are exactly who Mazda targets with pretty much all of their cars. Some version of Mazda 3 is going to be on your short-list. A Miata, while a lot less practical, is the best selling convertible of all time for a good reason. Fiat also has a roadster coming out based on the Miata platform that is supposed to be a TON more fun (and the Miata is already tons of fun).

Take it from a former car salesman and buy used. A two-year old car is in basically the same shape as a brand new one but someone else will have done 20,000 miles or so of quality assurance and given you a giant discount on the price (over a new car) in the bargain. That also opens up a lot of more luxury entrants like a Lexus IS300 or Audi S3 (and if so I would look REALLY REALLY HARD at an S3).
posted by VTX at 6:31 AM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

I had a strange experience with driving the Audi A3 a couple of times (Zipcar) which made me not like it. This was weird to me because I fully expected to like it. (I had driven the Q5 a bit and had a very positive experience with it, so I don't think it was an Audi thing.)

The A3 felt to me to be underpowered or have some latency (electronic?) between applying foot on the accelerator, and the response if the car. Whatever it was, it bothered me. But I liked the other features of the car and would definitely give it another try. This was only a few hours of Zipcar driving, after all, and I may not have had time to get used to it.
posted by theorique at 6:42 AM on June 27, 2016

I asked a similar question last year after my BMW 325i was totaled. I ended up ignoring the answers and getting a Ford Focus SE, which has surprisingly good handling but not nearly as much HP. The RS would be far better in that regard. Anyway, some of the answers may be useful to you if you can let go of the attachment to brand status a bit.
posted by AFABulous at 8:29 AM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I just went through and liked all the Mazda answers because you are exactly who Mazda is trying to appeal to - take a look at a fully loaded 3, or maybe even the MazdaSpeed3. My husband's fully loaded 3 is nicer than most BMWs or Audis I've been in.
posted by notjustthefish at 9:10 AM on June 27, 2016

To chime back in - besides the Mini and the Starion, our family has a Protegé5, which is the forerunner to the 3 series Mazdas. It has 189,000 miles and has needed pretty much nothing but routine timing belt changes and brake pads. It handles quite well, too, although I prefer the Mini's heavier pushback on the steering.

Given your location and your budget and your interest in purer sports cars, one thing I'd look for is a used Tesla Roadster. You may not care about gas mileage now, but I am pretty sure prices will go back up (and when they do, probably nothing will be able to bring them back down). Further, I think Tesla and others will make our roads considerably more electric by 10-15 years time. Given that you're in San Francisco, you should be able to find plenty of charging stations. The Tesla Roadster should out accelerate any sports car you consider, because torque is instant in an electric car (0-60 is 3.9 seconds in a Roadster). Maybe prices are still high on them, but I'd check Craigslist.
posted by Slothrop at 9:25 AM on June 27, 2016

BTW, my Mazda with automatic can also be paddle-shifted. (Just like the F1 cars. :)) I find it pretty tricky to do smoothly, but at least I don't grind the gears.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:14 AM on June 27, 2016

I'm going to hop in and say that the Mazdaspeed 3 is something that you should definitely test drive. I'm car shopping right now and have settled on something else, but if I were operating with your criteria, that car would be my choice.
posted by destructive cactus at 11:09 AM on June 27, 2016

Have you checked out the Fiat 500 Abarth? I have the base-model 500 Pop, and it's way peppier than I expected. Upgrading to the Abarth, I'm not sure I'd be able to handle it. Plentiful manual transmission options, and we've never had a problem fitting a Costco-load in the trunk. Comfy, smooth ride, and my favorite car I've ever owned.
posted by themissy at 11:54 AM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. I'll definitely take a close look at a Mazda 3 (although alas, I hear rumors that there won't be a Mazdaspeed version for 2017 after all) and try to get a better test drive for the BRZ.
posted by 4rtemis at 2:10 PM on June 27, 2016

The Mazda3 is a great car, but if you thought the BRZ was under-torqued, you're going to be even more disappointed.
posted by hwyengr at 2:10 PM on June 28, 2016

Best answer: I had very similar car requirements, if not more specific: 2-door only. I had the same reservations about German "luxury" brands, but ended up with a BMW 228i. It's small, it's fun to drive, it gets good gas mileage. I paid about $31k for a current year dealer loaner with 4k miles with the tech options I wanted (tech package, parking sensors, camera). Since it was a loaner, the maintenance transfers (yeah, it's basically oil changes and 1 set of brakes, but still...) and I got 0% APR. It's a world apart from the 1-series - the 1-series interior just feels basic and economy-car in comparison. Arguably the 1-series is a better driver's car...

A couple years ago, I drove about a dozen Zipcars. The Audi A3 was the only one I enjoyed driving -- just a perfect, compact, responsive car with all of the controls in exactly the right place. If I could've stomached a 4-door, I probably would've gone that route.

Ruled out BRZ/FRS: love the look, but the interior is cheap and you need to drive the crap out of it to make it fun. Ruled out Miata and upcoming Fiat 128 for lack of space/backseat. I need those things about 5 times a year, but still...

My previous cars have lasted long-term: for example, an Acura that was 11 when I got it, 23 now. I don't have any expectations of the BMW sticking around that long...
posted by ortoLANparty at 8:35 PM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Audi TT! My ice and I have one (our only car) and it's great. Fun to drive, surprisingly efficient, and surprisingly versatile because it's a hatchback. True, the rear seats are only useful for people under 5'4" or shorter for any kind of medium-duration trip or longer.
posted by reddot at 6:27 PM on June 29, 2016

Response by poster: After reluctantly ruling out the GTI and all other VAG products for ethical reasons due to the diesel emissions fraud, I did test drive a Mazda3 but found that I just didn't feel at home in it. Its specifications are good but in practice it felt a little too soft and underpowered. I've now come to the same conclusion as ortoLANparty and am looking for a lightly used BMW 228i, which is a great fit for my size/power/enjoyment priorities.
posted by 4rtemis at 10:40 AM on August 17, 2016

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