Top 10 Cars I Recommend For Enthusiasts on a Budget
It’s always fun to talk about what kind of car you want. I remember being 16 years old and dreaming of the car my parents would buy me when I got my driver’s license. I dreamt of a Corvette, a 240Z or maybe a 1969 Boss Mustang. Instead, this is what I got. A 1981 Isuzu I-Mark four door sedan. Of course, I modified it, but as is the case whenever you put lipstick on a pig, you end up with shit. And this car was shit, despite spending $5,000 on the paint, parts and stereo. I could’ve had an epics 240Z with that kind of money.
Over the years and through my experiences of owning more than 40 cars, I learned a valuable lesson: never, EVER spend GOOD money on a mediocre car.
What do I mean by that? Let’s say you wanted a V8 Mustang, but because of your budget and insurance costs, you can only afford a 4 cylinder or 6 cylinders. Don’t spend money on that car trying to make it faster because you’ll end up spending the money that you COULD HAVE used to buy a better car….and your car will still slow. More on that in a minute.
I thought it would be helpful if I shared my picks for Top 10 cars for enthusiasts because no one ever helped me with my choices – and I sure wish someone had.
First off, I’m not sure if young people today are being realistic in their expectations. Unless your family is wealthy (and are terribly irresponsible), the chances of you getting a Mustang, an M3 or fulfilling whatever unrealistic expectation you might, are slim to none.
The costs of buying a car for a 17-year-old are high enough as it is. Add to that the car insurance that can cost hundreds per month, depending on a variety of factors, and you can see why so few young people are rolling around in $100,000 cars in most parts of the USA.
Money aside, no responsible parent is going to turn a kid loose in a 500hp M5 when the child has little to no driving experience. Where I live, which is near Irvine, California, there are a lot of foreign kids going to University. Their parents have more money than most and about once a month, we see one of their kids wrapped around a telephone pole in a $100,000+ car. It’s a tragedy and one that is totally avoidable.
Realistically, kids 16 to 21 years of age and find themselves still living at home with a family of modest means can, at best, to hope for a base model econobox (think Toyota Yaris or similar) as their first car. Some might not be so fortunate and might have to settle for a 10-year old hand-me-down car from a relative. “Suck it up, buttercup – there are people starving in the world,” at least, that’s what my dad used to say. Hate to say it, but he was right.
This is why when kids DM me on my Instagram asking what car they should buy, my first question to them is “who’s paying for it?” If the answer is that their parents are paying for it, the conversation is over.
A teenager who expects a parent to buy them a car better than the car their parents are driving is just not being realistic.
With that said, let’s assume that we’re talking about a person in their early to mid 20’s and they want suggestions as to what car they should buy. IThere are a few variables that need to be considered:
Where you live. Does it snow there?
Will this be your only car?
Do you have kids or will you be having any in the next 3-4 years?
What’s your budget?
Have you checked insurance rates?
What are your goals with the car?
How much is gas in your country?
All of these things would play a role in my answer to the questions. If you’re from Britain where gas is $8 a gallon, I’d probably advised against a Dodge Demon. If you’re a young person with two kids who lives in Montana, I probably won’t be recommending a 350Z.
Assuming you’re in your mid 20’s, accident-free and making decent money (and hopefully, not paying rent), you have some reasonable options. Keeping these considerations in mind, as of 2019, here’s a list of (moderately priced used) cars worthy of consideration, in no particular order. These are my picks for the Top 10 cars for enthusiasts:
Ford Mustang GT
Scion FRS/Subaru BRZ
Ford Focus ST or better
Lexus IS 300 (2001-2015)
E92 BMW M3
Other noteworthy mentions of decent used cars:
Mazda 3 (Turbo version)
R32 GTR (they’re about $30,000 in the USA right now)
You’ll notice I didn’t mention SUVs or pickup trucks. We’re talking about cars, so if you need to haul shit to the farm, move on, this post isn’t for you. You’ll also notice that I didn’t mention any FWD older American cars (because anything before 2014 was shit, anyway). Going one further, I would strongly advise staying away from GM FWD cars, used BMW 5, 6 and 7 series cars (I’m mentioning this because used BMWs are very cheap and tempting after they’re 5 years old) because they’re mechanically garbage and expensive to fix.
I also realize that some of you live where it snows, so many of these cars might not be practical. I’m talking about fun, modifiable cars – cars that have performance capabilities on a relatively small budget.
I know people are going to email me with one of two questions:
1) “Hey, what do you think of this car?” Which will likely mean they’re looking for validation for whatever jalopy they have parked in their driveway.
or 2) “I know you said this, but I’m thinking of this.” The typical response of the type of dude who will end up marrying a stripper. (LOL). I’m generalizing in jest, but I fully recognize that some people buy a car just because of how it looks. As I said, it’s like marrying a stripper – it may look good at first, but it’s almost always a bad decision.
Either way, it’s your decision and your money.
I’m fully aware that some of my readers are from European or Southern American nations. Cars there are very different from cars here in the USA, so I’m sorry, I don’t have any recommendations for you.
MODIFYING MEDIOCRE CARS
I strongly advise against spending a bunch of money on a mediocre car. If you’re the type of person who might be tempted to buy/build a turbo kit for a 2003 Toyota Corolla, smack yourself in the head with a ball peen hammer.
Listen, I get it. The family handed you down a 2005 Chevy Cobalt and you’re stuck with it. You’re tempted to do wheels, springs and an exhaust system. Don’t do it. Drive it till the wheels fall off and get your ass a job (or finish school) so you can get a good job. Then you can go out and buy a decent ride. There’s no shame in this. Out of the global population of 7.3 billion people, less than 16% even know how to drive.
Yet another favorite argument I get from young people goes something like this: I can’t afford the V8 Mustang with a 6-speed so I’m gonna buy a V8 motor and trans and get the swap done. No, you’re not. 99,9999% of the people who say that usually live to see their dream shattered.
If you can’t afford the payments on a V8 Mustang with all the bells and whistles, they surely don’t have $15,000 in cash lying around to pay for that kind of swap.
Here’s what usually happens in that scenario:
- A person buys a car that needs a lot of work, or one that has the crummy engine and transmission option.
- Same person starts shopping for parts to do the swap and either a) buys crummy parts that also need rebuilding or b) realizes that he should buy good parts, but they’re all too expensive. Game over.
- Or, he buys the car, gets REALLY lucky and buys decent used parts, then takes it to his local mechanic (who usually works on farms trucks) because the mechanic is a “friend ” or “someone told me he was good,” and winds up getting a hacked together abortion of a car. Game over,
- Or, the person gets REALLY lucky all around – he found good used parts, he has a REALLY good mechanic and, SOMEHOW he came up with the money for the base car, the tranny, the ECU, the wiring harness, only to find out that the installation and custom fab work will cost another $10,000-in cash. Game over.
IN SHORT, IF YOU CAN’T AFFORD THE CAR YOU REALLY WANT, YOU PROBABLY DON’T HAVE THE CASH TO BUY THE BASE MODEL AND TURN IT INTO THAT CAR.
Moving on, let’s assume you do buy yourself a halfway decent car….say, a Scion FRS. What should you do to the car? Step one is always wheels/tires. Japanese wheels are always classics and bring great street cred, so look at Volks, Works, Advans or something similar.
Ricers are going to want a fart can exhaust – smart modders will be a properly engineered, dyno-tested by the manufacturer exhaust system. Stick with the big names – HKS, GReddy and other top brands. If you’re shopping for parts on Ebay, you’re a ricer, period, and everyone knows it.
Getting the right ride height is subjective. I know there are some fans of airbags, while some prefer “static” lowering (aka coil overs). The choice is yours, but neither option is cheap. Spending $4,000 on a $10,000 car isn’t typically a good idea, though.
Personally, if the car is a daily driver, I’d recommend Eibach or H&R Springs. A car that is too low brings all sorts of problems and it makes for a terrible daily driver.
My rule is generally to keep a car clean and simple. Doing so gives you a tastefully modded vehicle that makes a statement, but doesn’t scream “hey, I know all the characters in the Initial D series!”
This Evo is a good example – nice wheels, proper lowering springs, a modest front splitter and some other trim bits. A car like this could be driven every day would look great for years.
The car below is an extreme example of spending good money on a bad car. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s here in America, we used to see this type of car often. People would often spend $20,000 or more to build such a car. Every one of them ended be sold and trashed by subsequent owners, partly because the quality of the parts was so poor.
Your styling preferences are your own, of course, but know this: if you’re going to spend $20,000 to build a car like this, you will never, EVER get that money back when you sell it.
The parts you install on a car add very little value to the car’s resale price. If you spend $5,000 on parts, you can expect to get no more than 10-20% of that back. In most cases, it’s less than that.
YOU’RE GOING TO HATE THIS PART
I have a son who is in his late 20s. He’s owned almost ten cars since he started driving. I bought the first one – a badass Vertex 240SX drift car. It looked exactly like this car:
In his youthful exuberance, he got greedy and wanted more. So he stripped this car to the bare metal shell, sold off the parts and junked the chassis. He then went on to build another 240, which turned out to be a piece of shit and then sold that. Several cars (and motorcycles later), he had burned through more than $60,000…and nothing to show for it.
By 2011, he bought a WRX. A few years later, he sold that and bought a WRX STi. His wife, however, had a 2013 (or so) Focus ST. Upside down on that car, they traded it for a more practical Tundra. That was another $5,000 pissed away.
Ironically, the car he always wanted, a GT-R, costs about $65,000 used.
The point I’m making is this:
Every nickel you spend on modifying a mediocre or crappy car pushes you further away from owning the car you really wanted.
I’m not so old that I don’t remember what it was like to be 25. I wanted it, and I wanted it NOW! You need to wait. It will be worth it.
I will also say this: if you truly want something, you have to work for it. This means that almost every waking moment should be spent learning the skills you need to develop a career. If you’re smoking a blunt and playing video games 3 hours a day, the chances that you will ever own your dream car are probably close to zero. In fact, I love getting messages from young people telling me how they’re gonna work so hard to get their dream car – then when I look at their IG page and their extracurricular activities are smoking a bong, playing video games and hanging out at the mall.
That’s no way to work to the goal of a cool car. Young man’s dreams, as they say, die without a thought-out plan.
If you want it, go get it.