I need a car... a fast car... faster than that
August 23, 2007 4:21 AM   Subscribe

Help a non-American pick a car for use in the US...

As mentioned in previous questions, the job offer has worked out, and I've decided to accept. Assuming paperwork (including visas) works out OK, I'll be moving to the US early next year. While I'm waiting, I figured I'd look into potential cars for when I arrive. Unfortunately, Alfa Romeo aren't planning to relaunch in North America until 2009. This means replacing my [UK] Alfa 156 with an Alfa 159 is out of the question, so I'm looking for suggestions from MeFites for potential cars to look into when I get there.

While there is some overlap between cars available in Europe and those in the US, there are some unfamiliar manufacturers and models - there's no Acura, Saturn, Infiniti, Lincoln, Buick, Mercury or Cadillac for mainstream sale in the UK. On top of this, deservedly or not, US-built (or at least, US-designed) cars have a very, very poor reputation over here, specifically regarding handling (and in some cases, build quality).

So, what am I after? Well, I'm trying to balance performance with practicality and price - a Coupe, small Sedan or small wagon ("small" by US standards, that is - i.e. european market "midsize" to "large") body, ~250BHP and, if possible, 4-wheel drive. A manual gearbox is a must, although I might consider something like VW/Audi's DSG box. I'm definitely not after an SUV or pickup truck. Thanks to the weak $/£ relationship, budget is around $30-35k, although I'd also consider second-hand cars instead of buying new. I'll be living in Texas (where I'll buy the car) for about a year, and then be moving to Maryland.

Above all, I'm after a driver's car, something that's engaging and fun to drive. So far, there are a few possibles: Subaru Impreza, MazdaSpeed 6, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo, Volvo V50 T5 AWD and BMW 328XI, with the Mazda currently top consideration. Any suggestions as to other cars to look into? Anyone drive any of the cars I've listed (or any suggestions anyone else makes) who would like to provide feedback?
posted by Nice Guy Mike to Travel & Transportation (38 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I drive a Mazda3, but I know a few people who love their Speed6 (including my friend's brother who sold Mazdas for years -- he says they're one of the best cars they've ever built). I'm very happy with my Mazda, for what that's worth, but I've only had it seven months or so, so I can't speak to anything regarding reliability or long-term performance.
posted by olinerd at 4:37 AM on August 23, 2007

With those qualifications, I'd get an Acura TL and never look back.
posted by sanka at 4:38 AM on August 23, 2007

Seconding Mazda. I also have a 3, but know of several people are have been nothing but impressed by the Speed6. I've had my Mazda for half a year now, but drove one a few years ago and never had a problem. Fun to drive too!
posted by sephira at 4:40 AM on August 23, 2007

Acura = Honda but nicer.
Infiniti = Nissan but nicer.
Buick=generic General Motors
Lincoln, Mercury = rebadged Ford

If you'd consider a Honda or Nissan, you should also look at Acuras and Infinitis. They are the same cars with higher trim levels, and sometimes higher performance. In the same way, Lexus = Toyota. However, pickings from Lexus, Acura, and Infiniti will be a bit slim in your price range.

Buick, Lincoln, and Mercury will probably not interest you.

If you're actually worried about cars built in the US, you should be aware that many "foreign" cars are assembled in the US, and many US models are not.

For sure test drive a WRX and whatever the turbo model of the Legacy is. IIRC, Legacies are built in the US.

Also, be aware: because you will not have a driving record that is visible to US insurance companies, you will likely be treated as a new driver. So your rates will be *very* high, especially as a new driver in a zipmobile, and Texas has high rates to start with. No reason you shouldn't get a fun car, but be prepared for your insurance to be up to $100/month.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:51 AM on August 23, 2007

If you're actually worried about cars built in the US, you should be aware that many "foreign" cars are assembled in the US, and many US models are not.

Sorry, I don't think I worded that part of my question very well. I'm not hugely concerned about where the car is built; my concern is the market the car is designed for. Legacies are available in Europe, and like Mazda, Subaru don't seem to vary the car behind the name - a US Legacy/Impreza will be (I think) very similar to one available in Europe. By comparison, European-available Hondas and Toyotas may share names like Civic and Corolla but the cars they refer to are very, very different.

The vehicles I list in the question are all available (at least in variant form) in Europe and as such I'm presuming will be designed for european driving styles and tastes. I've heard horror stories about many US cars' and their handling, stuff like leaf springs and live rear axles giving them the handling and roadholding of a bowl of jello.

I'm aware this makes me sound like a car snob, which, in all fairness, I am. :-)
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 5:03 AM on August 23, 2007

Our family has 2 Acuras and is very happy with them; for your use you might want to look at a TSX. Be aware that in the US you may have a hard time finding a sedan with an actual clutch, but there are a number of manual shifting automatics out there.
posted by TedW at 5:04 AM on August 23, 2007

Other "driver's" cars you may want to keep in mind are the Honda Civic Si and the Volkswagen GTi.

The foreign-domestic debate tends to mean less and less as more foreign cars are built here (I have no interest in getting into that debate here). And if you put any stock in JD Power's dependability ratings, Lexus has been the top manufacturer (dependability-wise) for ages, but this year Buick tied with Lexus, so don't discount "American" cars out-of-hand without doing a little research.

And for what it's worth, some Saturns are essentially rebadged Opels if that helps familiarize you with some of our cars over here.
posted by awegz at 5:11 AM on August 23, 2007

Today, we take delivery of our 2008 Scion xB.

Six air bags standard (much safer then previous models)
Camry engine.
lots and lots of room inside.
iPod/aux inputs
a really interesting intstrument panel
not boring outside (gotta love the box).

Worth a look.
posted by 4ster at 5:26 AM on August 23, 2007

You might want to look at the MazdaSpeed 3 (you didn't mention it before). It's a hatchback (five door) and definitely a drivers car, 256 HP, but it does have an electronic throttle and is front wheel drive. Subaru Imprezas in general are pretty softly sprung and have alot of body roll (I own one). Also the standard Mazda 3 was a top level national autocross car in stock form. Also look at the Subaru Legacy GT Spec B. Larger than the Imprezas and more subdued looking. Turbo, AWD, and Manual Transmission available.
posted by senador at 5:39 AM on August 23, 2007

be prepared for your insurance to be up to $100/month

Or higher. Rates vary according to zip (postal) code.
posted by gimonca at 5:41 AM on August 23, 2007

I also see you mentioned Saturn as not being available in Europe. The new saturns are now starting to become imported Opels/Vauxhalls. I think the new Saturn Aura is a rebaged Vectra. Also the Astra will be coming stateside as a Saturn. No VXR's in the US yet.
posted by senador at 5:43 AM on August 23, 2007

(off topic: Many extra points for the Smokey & The Bandit reference.)
posted by Jofus at 5:44 AM on August 23, 2007

Another Mazda3 owner here, and I love the car. The Mazdas in the US have done very well in crash tests and repair/maintainability studies lately - there was a study recently about cost to repair bumper damage in a 5 mph collision test and the Mazda6 beat out all the other midsize sedans they tested.

My parents have an Acura TL which is nice, but doesn't seem to be a terribly sporty car to me. It's got a huge engine but it just feels... heavy, I guess.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:47 AM on August 23, 2007

And if you put any stock in JD Power's dependability ratings

When you own an Alfa, I'm not sure if 'dependability' is that important. So I'm not sure how the Alfa's, um, idiosyncracies translate across to the US market. The Japanese marques are going to be reliable, and have character at the sporty end, though I'd guess an Alfa owner isn't likely to buy into the whole spinners-and-LEDs thing associated with bits of that scene.

So I'd be half-tempted to go a little bit native and plunge for a muscle car, especially since you'll be in Texas. A translation in spirit, rather than style, and a chance to drive a car that you just don't see back home, for good reason. The Shelby GT is in your budget.

At least rent one when you get over, just for the experience, even if it convinces you to get a Subaru.
posted by holgate at 5:54 AM on August 23, 2007

Oh, another possible option is the Saab 9-3, if you can wait until January for the 2008 Aero XWD version, which takes its styling cues from the Aero X concept.
posted by holgate at 6:04 AM on August 23, 2007

The Subaru Impreza has the best ratings by Consumer Reports of all the models you mentioned. It comes in a sport wagon model and the WRX model is fast as all hell. Also, reasonably reliable, which you won't really find in VWs or some of the other cars you mentioned.
posted by electroboy at 6:11 AM on August 23, 2007

Audi A3 is a nice choice as is the GTI. I drive an RX8 and love that but no 4WD (and it's thirsty). Mazdaspeed3 is fast but not exactly a looker. The Infiniti G35 is worth a look too.
posted by zeoslap at 6:15 AM on August 23, 2007

If you really want a drivers car, the RX8 is hard to beat. I was trying to find something as fun to replace it at the end of my lease, fast, fun, manual and narrowed it down to a BMW 330i ZHP, Volvo S60, Audi A3, and the Golf GTI, none of those were as engaging and sharp as the RX8 so I kept it, fast, four seats (I have two kids), and looks great, pick up a used one for a song.
posted by zeoslap at 6:19 AM on August 23, 2007

I really don't know why you're looking for a sporty AWD car in Texas and Maryland. If you're not going to be off-roading (which, in something with little ground clearance, you're not), you may as well save yourself the weight and driveline drag and go with RWD. You can probably manage a G35 in your price range, and it's a nice car for the money. The BMW 328i would fit the bill too, and probably handle a little better, but it's not as well-equipped for the price.

If you insist on a fun-to-drive AWD car, though, the Mazdaspeed 6 is a good choice, although the body kit is a bit ridiculous. The Legacy GT is pretty great, though large, and more refined than the smaller WRX. Unless you're looking for a rip-snorting, no-refinement drive, you might want to avoid the WRX STi and Evo. They're terrifyingly quick and nimble, though.

You might also want to consider an Audi A3 or A4. The 2.0T is a very nice engine (much better than the 1.8T it replaced, which everybody seemed to like anyhow), and the fit and finish is quite good. The A4 is also just about the safest car on the US market. (Note that the A3 is only available in FWD with the 2.0T engine.)
posted by uncleozzy at 6:29 AM on August 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

Only the sti version of the WRX is speedy; the base car has nice numbers on paper but feels anemic. The sti will snap your neck, as will the EVO and both are 4wd. They are still just glorified econo-boxes though, so the fit and finish is not really up to snuff of a $30K car. The Accura and BMW models mentioned are nearly as quick, and probably faster at high speeds, have better suspensions, and much better fit and finish.
posted by caddis at 6:40 AM on August 23, 2007

Unless you are going for the WRX model of the Impreza, it won't really be the "drivers car" you are looking for, but it will be a pretty good car in general. I've had my Impreza wagon since 2001 and it's always been good to me.
posted by zackola at 6:47 AM on August 23, 2007

but be prepared for your insurance to be up to $100/month
Hee, god if only our insurance was so cheap.

The Mazda is going to seem like a throaty hoover after the Alfa. Have you thought about the new TT? It's much more of a driver's car than the last one (which was basically a Golf in a frock).

However: It's worth also considering that the roads are going to be pretty different. US cars have a shit reputation over here because they are shit when forced into our narrow winding godawful B-roads. On a freeway the demands are very different and the cars stand up better.

The things you (probably!) value just now -- like enough poke to get away from the lights, not tilting you into the door at a roundabout and easy parking in tight spots -- are going to be largely irrelevant when what you're doing is driving in a virtually straight line for an hour :)
posted by bonaldi at 6:50 AM on August 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

I had a boss once who drove a Saab -- an EXCEEDINGLY nice, fast, sport-model one that purred like a kitten (I got to drive it a few times and was quite in love). But she never got over getting rid of her Acura, for what it's worth.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 6:52 AM on August 23, 2007

I live in a snowy climate, so having AWD helps. If wish I lived in a warmer climate (Texas/Maryland), so I could consider some of the great RWD (and even FWD) cars that are out there now.

AWD doesn't do a whole lot for you on dry pavement, other than slow you down.

In addition to the cars you mentioned, here are some I would look into:
- BMW 1 series
- A used BMW 330i/330ci or M3
- Infiniti G35 and G37
- Mini Cooper S (may too slow)
- Mazdaspeed 3
- Acura TSX (based on the euro Accord. Probably too slow)
- VW GTi
posted by Gojira at 6:58 AM on August 23, 2007

Sorry Gojira, BMW starts at the 3 series in the US. I have a Subaru Impreza Wagon, and I love it, but I also live in a place that gets snow.
posted by mkb at 7:14 AM on August 23, 2007

I second the RX8 and the Mazdaspeeds (6 or 3)
posted by crewshell at 7:15 AM on August 23, 2007

- A used BMW 330i/330ci or M3

If considering a used 3-series, might I also suggest looking for a 2006 330i (sedan)? Plenty of grunt (255+bhp), great stereo, and it drives like a bimmer. In fact, I might suggest a certified pre-owned 2006 330i over a new (2007/8) 328i for a little extra power and more standard equipment. Hell, if you can stretch a bit, the 335i is fantastic (and way under-rated at 300bhp).

Sorry Gojira, BMW starts at the 3 series in the US.

They'll be selling a 1-series coupe starting in spring of 2008, right about in line with NGM's timeframe. Of course, it's hideous and a little heavy, but many bimmer fans love it.
posted by uncleozzy at 7:16 AM on August 23, 2007

Mini Cooper S! With the John Cooper Works package, it's a car that should be plenty fast enough, is in your price range, and is SO fun to drive!
posted by TochterAusElysium at 7:46 AM on August 23, 2007

You should buy my car, or something like it:
Well under your budget ($15k) and much nicer than most other cars you listed. Performance is excellent, handling is sublime. Pretty reliable. Looks are subjective, but I think it's a gorgeous and timeless design.

I'd like to think I know a fair amount about these kinds of issues, and don't think you can do better price/performance wise than a used bmw.
posted by milinar at 8:15 AM on August 23, 2007

Let's try that link again: my car

p.s. I traded up to an m3.
posted by milinar at 8:16 AM on August 23, 2007

Nice Guy Mike writes "stuff like leaf springs and live rear axles giving them the handling and roadholding of a bowl of jello."

You're going to be had pressed to find that combination in a car. I can only think of a couple examples out of the hundreds of cars available here.
posted by Mitheral at 8:31 AM on August 23, 2007

Look at the Audi quattros. Also, the Saab 6/7. Lancer Evos are terrific cars, but expensive (you might also look at the Subaru WRX STi if you like that type of rally car, although WRX STis have that annoying air scoop on the hood that looks like piss). Personally, an Audi S4 (or S1, which I have no chance of acquiring) would be my preferred car at the moment, since I can't get a Lancia Delta in the states. The Audi S4s have 4.2L engines.

You might also look at VW Jettas. There are some faster ones out there. The 1.8L & 2L models are ~ 200hp iirc, and there's plenty of mod work for them.

You could also buy an old alfa gtv6. Which I might do anyway.
posted by devilsbrigade at 8:40 AM on August 23, 2007

Just to reiterate what bonaldi said: certain cars just don't transpose well to certain environments, a bit like how that bottle of local grog you buy on holiday tastes like shit when you get it back home.

I live in Subaru country: snow in winter, mountain roads, people who live up gravel tracks and beyond the gritters. People own TR6s and MGBs for weekend drives on the Parkway. It's not north Texas.

If you're going to be living and working around DFW, then your everyday needs may (alas) turn out to be air conditioning and comfy seats; having a drivers' car that spends most of its time inching along in first is a recipe for frustration, unless it's one that does duty in commutes, like the 3-series.
posted by holgate at 8:52 AM on August 23, 2007

You might consider:

The speed6 (your first choice)
Saab 93 sedan
Infiniti G35

I suppose you could consider a dealer certified preowned if its only a year or two old and still come in on your budget.
Good Luck and I hope you enjoy Texas and Maryland.
(my best friend has the saab 93 and moved from Texas to Maryland with it - nice car)
posted by clanger at 9:06 AM on August 23, 2007

At $35K, you should be able to find a used Audi S4, which is pretty much the ultimate fast little driver's AWD.
posted by nicwolff at 9:59 AM on August 23, 2007

your everyday needs may (alas) turn out to be air conditioning and comfy seats

You would have trouble finding one in any case, but do not under any circumstances even begin to think about considering any car without air conditioning. D/FW summers are horrifying.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:20 AM on August 23, 2007

I see there are lots of excellent suggestions, so I'll just second (third?) the Jetta, or any VW really. I've had mine for six years and various members of my family have enjoyed it so much that they've bought them as well. Also, they're safe, nice and fairly popular...it's kinda like the US equivalent of the Golf.
posted by lhall at 5:20 PM on August 25, 2007

Oh, also, I'm in Dallas, so if that's where you're moving, let me know and we'll organize a mefi meetup! (Ditto for those above discussing DFW.)
posted by lhall at 5:21 PM on August 25, 2007

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