How to drive fast while sparing the planet?
June 7, 2007 3:02 AM   Subscribe

Hypothetical-sensible-dream-car-boyzone-filter: After a long phase of big-city living, I may have to drive a lot. I don't want to be a total pig about fuel consumption or emissions. But I want serious performance. Let's say I have $25K . . . .

So, let's say you were an old (as in 40-something) gearhead who hasn't owned a car (or shopped for one) in 10 years, because you live in a major metropolitan area where a car is only a pain in the ass. But let's say you faced the prospect of relocating to a place where the driving is not only easy, but fun (mountains!).

And let's say your heart belongs to products of the Chrysler Corporation ca. 1968-1972, the glory years of the 318ci small block V8, which kicked up an enormous amount of dust very, very quickly when seated under the hood of a (he wells up) 71 Plymouth Sebring you loved like a bride once upon a time (not that you'd kick a Charger out of bed either. Or a suitably juiced Duster, even).

Sigh. But suppose further that you were a sensible person, and not the sort to want to get 14 miles per gallon and spewing a superbly noxious cloud while the sea swallows up the coasts. And even though you liked working on cars, you didn't want to spend *every* weekend under the hood. Safety ain't a bad thing either, I guess, though it's not a top priority.

And let's say you could drop something around the mid-20s, which is to say, not that much for these days. Something used -- up to 4 or 5 years old -- would work fine (I'd prefer it, actually, especially if I can work on it). Availability of manual gearbox a must. FWD is fine (once I would have laughed at that), or AWD if the mileage is OK. Otherwise I am open to suggestions. Power, handling, road-feel, and general hotness, in that order, are my priorities, but I won't accept less than 25mpg average fuel economy, and would like to do better. Small is fine, too.

What Would Burt Reynolds Do? Would he drive a Subaru WRXsti (one that caught my eye, I like their looks ca. 2002-4)? A similar pocket rocket with character is probably the right category.

Gentlemen (and Lady Speedsters), start your engines, rev up your biases, and let the arguments fly.
posted by spitbull to Travel & Transportation (53 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I had a 98 VW GTI. Waaaay too much engine for such a small car. It was a fun little toy, and it still got about 27 mpg with city and highway (only highway would shoot the mpg up to 31). My brother (previously owned a 77 Corvette) loved to drive my car. My dad (a car tinkerer and motorcycle enthusiast) also loved to be behind the wheel. You can get a decent used one (perhaps at a dealer) for a great price. I got mine in 2002 for 12k with a 2 year warranty. One huge plus is that since the car is a hatchback, it has major storage without sacrificing speed and smallness. Also, tall people can drive it (I'm five ten, brother's six four, dad's six three)
posted by nursegracer at 3:23 AM on June 7, 2007

Are you biased against Japanese cars? Sounds like you want to look into the Honda Type-R phonomenon... great fun, fast, economical, and not mad expensive...
posted by Chunder at 3:47 AM on June 7, 2007

"sensible-dream-car" sounds like a cross between the sensible four-door and the sporty two-door.

Have you looked at the Mazda rx-8? They have suicide doors! :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 3:59 AM on June 7, 2007

Focus SVT
Lancer Evolution
posted by caddis at 4:00 AM on June 7, 2007

There's some disparity in what you say, spitbull---

Your heart belongs to cars that go fast in the straight-away, and you're looking at (and being recommended to look at) cars more along the european road-race styling/rally cars.

I really recommend wrx's though---but buying one used can be risky, as people tend to drive the hell out of them.

WRX's are a lot of fun, as would be something like a VW Golf GTI, the one w/ the 1.8T in it. Problem being that unless you're an electrical engineer---you're not going to be able to do much work on either.

You can get into a new Charger SS for not much more than your price range, or even (not nearly so cool) a cobalt SS. Both are more the fast-in-a-straight-line powerful, and slightly less technically impossible.
posted by TomMelee at 4:50 AM on June 7, 2007

Tricked-out Miata.

Or, if you really want something like your old muscle cars, a new Mustang is pretty close.
posted by box at 5:01 AM on June 7, 2007

You might want to check out these cheap speed car comparisons here and here.

It covers a few of the cars you may want to consider (Mazdaspeed3, GTI, Civic SI, Cooper S, etc.) in chart form.
posted by awegz at 5:15 AM on June 7, 2007

Oh, almost forgot... full disclosure, I write for the site linked above.
posted by awegz at 5:26 AM on June 7, 2007

You're probably not going to get 25+mpg combined in anything fun, and certainly not in anything AWD, unless it's very, very small. Take a look at -- the new, more realistic, 2008 mileage calculations are on there, and everything looks bad. From this angle, a Cooper S might be your best bet. Personally, I think they're a bit too small.

That said, if you want to go fast in a straight line, get a current-generation Mustang GT. You can definitely get one in your price range, and it is, almost without question, the fastest you can go in a straight line at that price. It's the closest thing to a classic muscle car you can buy.

I'd rather have a 1.8T GTI with a turbo tuner. It'll be quick off the line and nice in the twisties. Or a WRX, if you'd rather have AWD (I might; even my little 160hp FWDer gets a little squirrelly under full throttle sometimes). If you want to go a bit bigger and nicer, the Audi A4 Quattro 1.8T would be a good choice, but be aware that it is heavy, and lots of that weight is ahead of the front wheels (and without a turbo tuner it's a bit sluggish).
posted by uncleozzy at 5:43 AM on June 7, 2007

From this angle, a Cooper S might be your best bet

A new, fleshed-out Cooper S ends up in the high 20s, low 30s. Something used might work within the budget, though.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:55 AM on June 7, 2007

Even though I am a GTI driver, I would second the recommendations for the Civic Si. That's a seriously fun machine. And as well-built as they come.

VW's are just too much of a crapshoot, quality-wise. You might get lucky and get one that never gives you a bit of trouble. On the other hand, you are equally as likely to be spending as much time at the shop as on the road. They're sure fun to drive, though.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:11 AM on June 7, 2007

25 combined in a performance car is unrealistic. unless its that sharp new all eclectric car they have rolling around.

I would say if you can deal with 20ish combined, your best bet is an 04 or 05 Mazda RX8

Simply Amazing Handling, Car and Drivers top 10 best, Consumers digest best buy. VERY SAFE (6 air bags) seating for 4 in a 2+2 arrangement and sleek looks.
posted by crewshell at 6:16 AM on June 7, 2007

Most of these cars are just names to me, but I never liked to drive till I took my Mini up to the mountains. It might be illegal to have that much fun behind the wheel.
posted by libraryhead at 6:30 AM on June 7, 2007

I'd say you can have plenty of fun with a non-STi Impreza, or even the normally aspirated one (with a manual transmission, of course)
posted by mkb at 6:59 AM on June 7, 2007

Yeah, the regular WRX is a kick, and modding it is cheap and easy.

My MY05 Saabaru (which is a re-badged WRX wagon), with the Cobb Stage 1 ECU tune-up (which adds 25 hp, 25 ftlbs and almost eliminates turbo lag) gets between 21-25 MPG combined, depending on the weight of my foot. Just a guess, but you should be able to find one used in the low 20s.
posted by notyou at 7:44 AM on June 7, 2007

The WRX STi gets bad mileage, but I am sure is a riot (never been in one).

I've got the plain-old WRX wagon, '02 model; its nominal combined mileage is around 25. In reality, I get about 21 city, 29 highway if I'm driving conservatively. Driving 80 mph on the highway I get 25 mpg (as measured on a recent road trip). It's a fun car. Probably not great for grease-monkeys because there are so many pipes and crap under the hood, but good to drive and practical.
posted by adamrice at 7:47 AM on June 7, 2007

Yep, a modded turbo Miata can throw down 250bhp -- doesn't sound that impressive, but it only weighs 2300lb or so. I've easily outrun M3s, Boxsters, 350Zs, Evos, many Mustangs, many modded Civics -- and I want another shot at that Z06! Grabs rubber in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, if my tires are getting old. It's not a straight-line car, though -- the handling is where it really shines. I think of it as a poor man's Ferrari. Most fun I've ever had in a street car. Image suffers, cuz it's a Miata -- not something people think of as fast. Here's one for under $8k. Mine got 24mpg city (I drive hard), 29-30mpg highway. Daily driver for 4+ years.

Do you want to drive a fast, fun car, or do you want to be seen in a car that people think of as fast? (Most people want the latter.)

The new Mustang GT is better than the old muscle cars in every way (except "style"), if that's your preference.

The new Mazdaspeed3 is a great, fast, cheap FWD hatch. The Mazdaspeed6 is a good alternative to the WRX/Evo crowd if you can't stomach their boy-racer styling.
posted by LordSludge at 8:01 AM on June 7, 2007

My MY05 Saabaru [...] Just a guess, but you should be able to find one used in the low 20s.

I think these went for at or under 20k new briefly, with all the GM incentives, when they weren't selling (or so said FatWallet). You should be able to find one for a song if you're willing to shop around. Definitely a good buy if you're going down the WRX road.
posted by uncleozzy at 8:01 AM on June 7, 2007

You've ruled out anything with a turbocharger (WRX) or a Mazda rotary, thanks to your requirement for mid-20s fuel economy. Also, those cars and possibly the Mini require premium fuel.

I have three suggestions: The Honda Civic SI and Mazdaspeed 3 are front wheel drive, will be fun to drive and get you mid-20s fuel economy. Subaru's coming out with a new, less-ugly Impreza, which in non-WRX form is fun to drive, has AWD and gets decent mileage.

The current Mustangs would satisfy your power lust at the expense of economy.
posted by SteveInMaine at 8:02 AM on June 7, 2007

Go test drive a Subura WRX. You will not be disappointed.
posted by oddman at 8:04 AM on June 7, 2007

Yeah, I think that combination of fuel efficiency, performance, and price is impossible.

If you prefer to compromise on fuel efficiency there are plenty of choices including the WRX, and most everything else people have mentioned.

In a higher price range there's the Lotus Elise. Maybe one of those fancy electric cars would fit the bill. Or else take some old classic car chassis that's relatively light-weight and aerodynamically good, and swap in a modern efficient engine.

If you want to sacrifice power instead, then the Mini is probably the most likely candidate. But since it's already so far from the Charger/Sebring ideal, I gotta give a shout to the even slightly more remote from the idea Honda Fit, since it's what I bought after a similar struggle to find something good. Fuel economy is good enough that you can afford to considerably improve its straight-line speed to a level that may be acceptable, and it wins at everything else. There's a turbo kit that might be worth considering. Anyway, it's the most fuel-efficient of the inexpensive cars that can be adapted for high-performance.
posted by sfenders at 8:08 AM on June 7, 2007

Isn't there also a Saab out now that is built on the WRX frame or something like that? One of my friends has it but I can't remember the model name or number. It's a sharp little bugger and gets decent mileage.
posted by spicynuts at 8:12 AM on June 7, 2007

On further review, Yahoo has some interesting info. It has a "green rating" which measures a cars overall environmental impact.

A WRX turbo scores a 63
A Mustang V6 scores a 62
A Prius Touring an 86
Others (a Lotus Elise gets a 70).
posted by oddman at 8:14 AM on June 7, 2007

Oh. A used Honda S2000 could probably be had in the low to mid-20s. You're not gonna get 25 mpg combined (20-24), but you'll make up for it in the hotness, handling, and road feel categories.
posted by notyou at 8:17 AM on June 7, 2007

I got 25 mpg + in my '02 Acura RSX, and I don't think a used one would even be $25k. I had the base model with a leather interior upgrade in stick. The fit and finish is equivalent to a BMW. It's a perfect city car -- fast and peppy, easy to park, not likely to get stolen.

The base model had plenty of pep and a 5-speed; the S-model has a six-speed.
posted by SpecialK at 8:18 AM on June 7, 2007

used 350z?
posted by clanger at 8:19 AM on June 7, 2007

I loved my 2002 WRX. But mileage was not it's best trait. Usually I got about 20mpg, but that can easily drop to 15-17mpg when you start playing around.

The WRX-based Saab is called the 9-2x. It is a 5-door hatch, and is available in turbo and non-turbo.

Honestly, if you don't mind FWD, I'd really look hard at the new Civic Si. You could have it loaded with NAV/Sat radio for under $25k, and it comes in either sedan or coupe.

posted by ninjew at 8:32 AM on June 7, 2007

Something to think about with the Minis, if you're thinking about the S models. The new ones are turbocharged. The previous S models were supercharged.
posted by ninjew at 8:44 AM on June 7, 2007

I bought a WRX and some carbon credits.
posted by IvyMike at 8:56 AM on June 7, 2007

I basically had the same dilemma, and I ended up getting a VW GTI.

You can get good deals on used models, particularly since they just changed the styling for '06, and it's not hard to find a manual that has the 6-speed (Getrag?) gearbox, which is definitely something you'd want.

People have strong feelings on the V6 engine versus the 1.8T, and it mainly depends on your style of driving -- whether you want something that has low-end torque or one that feels "turbo-y." Personally I like driving turbo'ed cars, but it sounds like you might be a match for the V6. I'd go test drive one and see what you think.

Particularly with the manual, when you want to be economical, locked in 6th gear on the highway, you should have no problem getting 30MPG out of it. But if you start pushing it on the mountain roads, you're obviously going to start burning gas. But you knew that already. :)

Go test drive one, I think you'll like it. The only other thing I could recommend might be a used Ford Focus SVT, if you could find one that hadn't been abused, but that might be a little too boy-racer for you.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:11 AM on June 7, 2007

Hmm, mountain roads, good performance, good gas mileage? I think one doesn't actually want a car, one wants a motorcycle.

At 25K you could buy a monster street bike and a cheap beater car for when it rains.
posted by quin at 10:28 AM on June 7, 2007

Before you buy anything, at least test drive a Mazda Miata. (and then buy one, add a real role bar and a stick a turbo on it)

...or a Honda S2000.
posted by 517 at 11:00 AM on June 7, 2007

er, uh, roll
posted by 517 at 11:01 AM on June 7, 2007

Response by poster: Wow, thanks y'all. Yeah, a motorcycle would be fun, but I'm a dad and not *that* suicidal. And I know I am comparing apples and oranges by throwing in my love for the old muscle cars. I just meant that those were the last cars I loved driving, and I am a speed demon even in a shitbox rental. (Had some fun with a Pontiac G6 rental a few months back, though, and managed 28mph). I want the joy back, not the same exact experience. Anything that can push 100 easily and get there fast will do. I don't need the 130+ top end of my old Sebring, which was indeed only meant to be driven fast in a straight line. Now I'd like to try it on curves. Nothing at all against Japanese cars -- I love them, and think of them as the best built machines. (The last *vehicle* I loved rather than saw as a functional machine was a 1988 Mazda pickup.)

Also, hot looks are way down the list for me. I love the idea of a modest looking car that kicks ass more than vice versa.

I've considered many of the suggestions in this thread in my mind. I guess I'm looking for love stories.
posted by spitbull at 11:05 AM on June 7, 2007

Mazdaspeed 3... Stupid fast, 263 hp, hatchback, good storage, great handling, decent gas mileage for the performance and starts around $22,500. I would buy it in a heartbeat if I had the scratch.
posted by wonderwisdom at 11:06 AM on June 7, 2007

Fast + cheap + efficient + can work on it yourself == Honda.

My old 2003 Civic EX with manual tranny (totally stock) got about 30 and would frankly beat 9 out of 10 riceboys off the line.
posted by ilsa at 11:08 AM on June 7, 2007

Response by poster: Duh, 28 mpg, not mph.

And I will be able to afford premium fuel if necessary (though it's not my first choice). The fuel mileage issue is not as much about money as about not wanting to be quite as destructive as I could be to the planet. (Not that I mind saving money either.) And it's an absolute condition. I want the best performance, overall, balancing speed and handling about equally, and the most fun to drive, overall, without dipping below that 25mpg mark for city/hwy average economy. It amazes me there aren't new choices that deliver kickass performance at 30+, actually.

Also, I will never be seen in a Mini Cooper. Don't even think about it. I don't know why. A Miata, maybe. I considered it, but they seem a little dainty to me.
posted by spitbull at 11:09 AM on June 7, 2007

And oh yeah, 280 ft-lbs of torque, and a top speed of ~155 mph. And it doesn't look like a race car, but it has nice styling. You could dust most cars on the highway. Wheeeee!
posted by wonderwisdom at 11:09 AM on June 7, 2007

I was still talking about the Mazdaspeed up there... At it gets 20 city, 28 highway.
posted by wonderwisdom at 11:11 AM on June 7, 2007

Response by poster: Yeah, that Mazda 3 is tempting indeed. Mmmmm. Zoom zoom.
posted by spitbull at 11:18 AM on June 7, 2007

A very nice used Boxster can be had for that kind of money. Plus, they carry a lot more than you would think with two trunks and all.
posted by hatchetjack at 11:38 AM on June 7, 2007

Good luck working on that Boxster without your own lift and engine cradle, though. I'm not kidding.

I'm in much the same dilemma as you, spitbull, and have basically come down to three choices (I'll be plunking down cash in about two months):

1) RX-8 - stunning handling and great looks at the expense of peak power, modding ability, price, and economy. Reports from friends tell of 18mpg city numbers and mid-20s highway numbers. But the handling... and it really does seat 4 tall adults with ease while doing it. Not much of a trunk, tho. Did I mention that handling?

2) Miata - A used Miata (any year, really) with a turbo kit will outhandle anything its side of $40k and can make serious, serious power. It's droptop fun at its best, and the only reason I'm not getting one is that I already have a motorcycle and don't need one with two extra wheels...

3) WRX - Good for up to about 300hp with modifications, and we're talking about a 2.5L flat-4, so if you're careful, you can get good mileage. AWD is my compromise here (I hate, hate, hate FWD cars). It's the cheapest of the three and will actually hold race rubber, tow a bike, and carry camping gear... all at once.

(Other cars I considered:

BMW 3-series - too expensive, all 'round
Elise - not great for highway driving, and $40k isn't cheap
S2000 - Another 4-wheeled motorcycle
Mazdaspeed 6 - Great car, but for the price I'll go RX-8
Mercedes C230 - Only Merc with a manual, but uuuugly
Various VW - Great, if they don't fall apart on you like my dad's 2001.5 5spd V6 Passat did
Mustang - A Ford? Are you kidding? Ick.
G35 Coupe - Awesome car, but if I'm going to drop that much dough, it's going to say Lotus on it

posted by TheNewWazoo at 12:59 PM on June 7, 2007

I love my Mazda Protege 5. The new 3's, 5's and 6's are fun and zippy too. Zoom-zoom right?
posted by Pollomacho at 1:05 PM on June 7, 2007

Spitbull, if you want something that is an insane amount of power and just ludicrous amounts of fun (and is one of my loves...) check out the Honda Accord V6 with a Stick.

230 hp of japanese high-revving V6 torque with a stick. It's got a racing clutch and a six-speed in standard config, but works fine for driving on the highway on long trips. Practice with it a bit before you take it into heavy traffic. ;)
posted by SpecialK at 1:59 PM on June 7, 2007

The Acura RSX is a great car. I've averaged 29 MPG over the past 2 years with mostly commuting miles. I don't drive like a nut all of the time, but when I do, the fuel economy doesn't drop all that much. The lowest I've gotten is around 25/26MPG, and that was a week in the winter (in Boston) when there was terrible traffic. I'm sad that Acura has dropped the RSX from the new model line. The Honda Civic Si would be the logical replacement.

Also, I hear that the RSX Type S had some issues due to having a higher compression ratio in the engine or something?
posted by reddot at 3:15 PM on June 7, 2007

I'm not sure how literally you meant the question to be interpreted, but..

The actual driving fast, rather than at the speed limit (say 75mph in a 55mph zone), will have as much impact on your fuel economy as going from the most efficient econobox to the most gas guzzling 1/2 ton pick up, assuming both are driven at the same speed.
posted by Chuckles at 4:06 PM on June 7, 2007

I bought a 2003 Toyota Matrix XRS on Monday and will say that it's by far the nicest car I've ever owned.

That's not really saying much, but it's very quick for me (6spd manual mated to a 1.8L w/variable timing/lift for 180hp) and the handling is great.

Plus it'll hold an elephant on the inside once you lay the seats down.

Don't know the mileage yet, I filled it up for the first time today ($38, ouch).

Oh, this has the same engine as the Lotus Elise, but I think they might put a turbocharger on the Elise (not to mention the Elise is a lot lighter).

Definitely check out the WRX STI. Definitely.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 4:59 PM on June 7, 2007

Response by poster: Chuckles, not that literally. I don't plan to exceed the limit significantly most of the time. Therefore, most of the time I should be enjoying the benefits of better fuel economy. Once in a while, you get the chance to open it up. And then I will waste some fuel. And want the ability to do it quickly. I'll make it up somewhere else in my carbon footprint, I swear.
posted by spitbull at 6:04 PM on June 7, 2007

Response by poster: SpecialK, very cool. Hmm.
posted by spitbull at 6:05 PM on June 7, 2007

Response by poster: And thanks everyone. It's a while off yet, so I get to really dwell on this, and start doing some test driving. Except test driving where I curently live means seeing how good the AC is while stuck in traffic.
posted by spitbull at 6:09 PM on June 7, 2007

Surprised no one has mentioned a used Vette. For 25K you can put yourself in a 99-01 easily and you might even be able to find a Z06 in that range. At 405HP, it's probably one of the greatest performance bargains out there. Even the base models have 350 hp out of the box and all the creature comforts. Much higher top end (around 150 mph)than the Subies and VWs too. You won't average 25 mpg, except on the highway.
posted by reidfleming at 5:09 AM on June 8, 2007

Surprised no one has mentioned a used Vette.

yeah, that's a planet saver.

As for the Accord 6MT, it is pretty quick, one mag got it to 60 mph in 5.9 sec, but it's only OK in the corners. It is a true wolf in sheep's clothing. There comes a certain satisfaction in smoking an audacious looking sports car with a Honda Accord. It also feels like a million bucks inside for far less than such luxury should cost. Even new it isn't that expensive and used Hondas are worth the money. I'd take the turbo-Miata for fun, but the Accord is more practical.
posted by caddis at 5:20 AM on June 8, 2007

Mr. aimless drives an Acura RSX-S and loves it. He gave up his Infinity G35 because it was difficult to drive in town. It had too much pick up or jerkiness from a stop, or something (not an expert, here). The RSX also gets good mileage, compared to my Forester XT, which only gets 18-21 mpg with the combination of the turbo and my foot. Mr. also had a WRX wagon, but it was also too peppy for stop-and-go driving. I think the car of his I miss the most, though, is the Audi TT. He sold it before the warranty ran out because of a bad record, so probably not good used, but so fun!

The RSX feels slower than my Forester, because its power comes at the higher RPMs. That seems to be what gives it its good mileage--when you're in town it's like driving a Civic, but if you have room to accelerate, it really pulls your head back. I like that flexibility.

I drove my sister-in-law's Mazda RX-8 and was surprised at how slow it is. It's sleek looking and handles great, but it's not fast.
posted by aimless at 1:07 PM on June 8, 2007

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