So you’ve decided you’re ready to derail your financial security and upset your significant other with a project car. You’ve got five grand to your name, and you daydream of bombing down back roads, banging gears and relieving some stress. You want a fun car that’s reasonably reliable, attractive, tuner friendly and not a murder on your insurance rates. Luckily for you, I’ve made a small list of cars I’d recommend to fulfill this task. Go grab a cold beer, turn off the television and fire up the printer, I’m about to take you car shopping.
Don’t worry, I’m looking out for you so you don’t end up sleeping on the couch. I’ve set a minimum price of $1,500 dollars to weed out rolling shells and basket cases. The max price as we established earlier is $5,000. I’ve elected to search Autotrader due to ease of use and general popularity among sellers. I’ve taken future depreciation into account, and I’ve compiled this list based on availability of aftermarket parts, decent reliability and ability to retain a fair portion of the original purchase price.
The Miata is an excellent choice for so many reasons, it’s lightweight, rear wheel drive, reliable and very tuner friendly. Insurance rates based on my information were lower than the average newer model Honda.
The Miata has a very cult type of following, and companies like Flying Miata have done some impressive things with the factory motors. Regardless of what you’re trying to achieve, the Miata is a solid choice. I can’t imagine values will ever drop much below what they are currently at, so losing your ass in resale shouldn’t be a major concern. Focus on the fun of ripping a lightweight convertible down a twisty road and let the stress of your workday just melt away.
There were ten listings that I found, with the average price sitting right at $3,500. There was an 86,000 mile example with some maintenance receipts and new tires that looked pretty promising. The 944 non turbo models are pretty reasonably reliable, not a complete nightmare to service at home, and values have been pretty solid over the years.
Plus, it’s hard to beat the fun a Porsche can offer. If you’ve never driven a 944, it’s an absolute blast. Sure the turbocharged 951 is where the real thrills are at, but reliability drops into the basement right about there and the price goes straight through the attic. The naturally aspirated models are more than enough for weekend duties, and are a popular choice for new track enthusiasts. Sharp handling, slick five speed gearbox and excellent steering make the 944 a no brainer. You can’t go wrong with this choice. You won’t have a high horsepower monster on the cheap, but you’ll own the twisties with nothing more than a new set of shocks and struts, some sticky tires and some upgraded brake pads.
BMW 325E E30
You didn’t think I was going to leave out the legendary E30 did you? Superb reliability, insanely easy to work on, a five speed Getrag transmission that is so good it’s almost a privilege to use, and precise handling are just the basic selling points of this model. The E model meant a lower revving, longer stroke engine that makes powering through corners very exciting, and fuel economy through my experience is in the low thirties. I found two really nice examples for $3,400 and $3,250 respectively.
The BMW E30 met legend status long ago among amateure and professional racers alike. There are tons of aftermarket goods that can transform your BMW into a razor sharp precision instrument without blowing through your retirement fund. Just watch out for rust on the shock towers and in the trunk areas. Other than basic rust, these cars are an intelligent buy and have actually been appreciating in value. Buy one now and start taking the long way home.
There was only one turbocharged TSi model on Autotrader, but take my word for it, you can get a beautiful all wheel drive model under $5,000 if you’re willing to take a trip to get it. There are plenty of Facebook sale groups for these cars, and they’re definitely out there. Anyhow, this car is an excellent choice for many reasons. Fuel economy is mid to low thirties, extracting more power is simple if you have basic knowledge of a turbocharged vehicle, handling isn’t terrible and you can enjoy it through any weather.
The 4G63 engine is extremely receptive to performance upgrades, and bulletproof reliable if the maintenance is up to date. Beware of rusty examples, spend the money to get the cleanest example you can find. Don’t buy somebody else’s headache and buy the most original example you can find. Assuming you bought a car that has had a recent timing belt replacement and other associated maintenance performed, you’ll have a car you can start making fast for pennies on the dollar, and enjoy daily driving as well. Values on first generation models have started appreciating recently assuming you buy an all wheel drive model. I want to stress again to avoid heavily modified and rusty examples. Spend the money and buy the most virgin example you find.
Of course I’m going to mention the coolest car on the list, the Volvo 240. Quirky cars are my speciality, and the 240 checks all the right boxes in my opinion. This model has been shooting up in value recently, and turbo models are experiencing collector status. There was one turbo example with a five speed manual for $4,999 which honestly blew my mind. There were thirteen examples overall under the five grand mark, and let me tell you, this car is a safe buy.
Reliable, beautiful, collectible, and highly regarded are all things that come to mind for me. These cars just never die, companies like iPD have been offering goodies for years, so you won’t have to worry about parts so much. Handling can be very good when modified and the turbo models are capable of making huge power. Overall, this is one of the slower cars on the list, but it would be one of my first choices. There’s very few cars that are as cool as the 240 at this price point. Buy one and don’t think twice. Take it to cars and coffee, you’ll be a hit, I can promise you that.
I’m referring to the “URS4” which means the first generation S4 with the famed twenty valve five cylinder. This is the engine that dominated group B rally, the engine that pushed the envelope and raised eyebrows everywhere. Over 200 horsepower in stock form from the turbocharged 2.2 liter, and they’re capable of over a thousand if you want to spend the money.
I wasn’t able to find a single example on Autotrader, so you’ll have to take my word for it. There are several Facebook groups for these cars as well, and they sell for between three and five grand for a nice example. Reliability is somewhere between death and taxes, these cars are tanks assuming they haven’t been neglected. Look for the obvious service records and you’ll be fine. Values have been steady and the market is reasonable. These cars are absolutely gorgeous and have an amazing interior, highly tuneable motor, Quattro all wheel drive, and the sound of that five cylinder symphony. Look out for rust, questionable repairs, and don’t buy a model that lacks service records. Follow those little guidelines and you’ll have a car you can count on and bring you enjoyment for years to come.
Yes I know, there’s plenty of other amazing choices out there, I chose to highlight a few well known examples, and a few you probably didn’t think of. I’m in no way telling you I guarantee stellar reliability, guaranteed resale market outlooks or anything of that nature. I’m simply offering my advice, based on my experience with owning quirky cars of all shapes and sizes. There isn’t a single car on this list that I wouldn’t run out and buy right now, so my advice is truly from the heart. If you want a car that is so much more than just basic transportation, a car that begs you to take the long way home after work even after a fourteen hour day, a car you can take to a car show and get attention, this is a great place to start.