Home » One Car From Above The Border And One From Below: 1997 Acura EL vs 1992 VW Beetle

One Car From Above The Border And One From Below: 1997 Acura EL vs 1992 VW Beetle

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Happy Friday! Today, we’re taking Shitbox Showdown international and visiting cities just to the north, and just to the south, of our fair country, looking at cars that were only available there, but are now old enough to import. But first, let’s finish up our business in Albuquerque:

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Now that is a surprise. This might be the only time a Porsche has lost anything to a Fiero. Perhaps if the 928’s running status were known, the outcome may have been different. Oh well.

Anyway, for Fridays, I still like to do something a little special, and I got today’s idea (well, half of it) while listening to an old album by The Refreshments at my day job: why not look for cars in Mexico? Well, apparently, Craigslist isn’t all that big south of the border. I found one interesting car, but not two. So I thought: well then, let’s go north as well, and look in Canada. After more searching than I was expecting, I came up with one car from B.C. (Baja California), and one from B.C. (British Columbia). Let’s check them out.

1997 Acura EL – $2,950 Canadian (about $2,200)

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.6 liter overhead-cam inline 4, four-speed automatic, FWD

Location: Delta, BC, Canada

Odometer reading: 182,000 kilometers

Runs/drives? Sure does

“You know what would be great?” asked Acura Canada execs in the late 1990s, “If we sold a car that was like the Integra, only frumpy!”

OK, I can’t prove that that’s the genesis of this car, but it sure seems to fit. The Acura EL is nothing more than a gussied-up Civic sedan, and it’s as Canadian as poutine and Degrassi Junior High, having been built in Alliston, Ontario.

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The EL features a 1.6 liter single-overhead-cam engine with VTEC (yo) variable valve timing, in this example bolted to a four-speed automatic. With the equivalent of only about 114,000 miles, this engine should be just nicely broken-in; these Honda engines run forever. And the automatic transmissions either work or don’t; there is rarely any in-between. This one works, at least at the moment.

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Cosmetically, this car is a little scruffy. The front bumper is mismatched, there are some dings and dents here and there, and the leather of the driver’s seat is cracked. But for the price, it looks like a decent little runabout to me.

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Since it is just a Civic, I’m not sure why anyone would import this car to the US, other than the novelty value. But you could, now that it’s more than 25 years old, and maybe that’s reason enough, just to give the finger to that silly import law.

1992 VW Beetle – 180,000 Mexican Pesos (about $9,500)

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.6 liter overhead valve flat 4, four-speed manual, RWD

Location: Tijuana, BC, Mexico

Odometer reading: unknown

Runs/drives? Yep

I can practically see the excitement on Jason’s face as he reads this. What we have here is a Volkswagen Beetle, built in Mexico in the year Bill Clinton was elected President in the US. It’s also a full eleven years older than the newest Beetle built in Mexico, and one of twenty-one million built worldwide over a span of seven decades.

[Editor’s Note: The idea of a not-old-as-hell original Beetle is so appealing to me. In 2000 I drove one in LA, where they were being sold via the loophole of using old pans/VINs, which got shut down within months. But it was incredible: all the old Beetle feeling but everything new and tight and not dealing with the wear of a half million miles or whatever. I wish I had the money back then. – JT]

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Mexican Beetles look weird to anyone familiar with air-cooled Volkswagens; all the little details are wrong. Body-colored bumpers, black trim, clear turn signals, the exact same steering wheel as my old 1985 Golf, and a single exhaust tip all add up to one uncanny bug. It looks like a custom job. It has a carbureted 1600 cc engine (electronic fuel injection would be added a year later) and a four-speed stick (of course).

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This Beetle appears to be in immaculate shape, practically new. It may be new, for all we know. The interior is claimed to be leather (“piel”), but is almost certainly vinyl. White with a brown interior is a good color combo for a Beetle, and I like the plain steel wheels on it.

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Obviously, nine and a half grand is a lot for a Beetle, but bring this car to any VW gathering in the States and you’d draw a crowd. It’s too bad it isn’t one of the zillion special editions cranked out by the Puebla plant in the 1990s, but it’s still special just by virtue of being a late-model Mexican car.

And there they are: two cars each from their home countries, both old enough to bring into the US if you so desired. Both are uncannily familiar, but just a bit different, and either one would be a conversation starter. What’ll it be?


(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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53 Responses

  1. So give your ID card to the border guard, your alias says you got John Luke Picard, of the united federation of planets, cause they won’t speak english any ways…

    Anyhow, it’s a bit much for it, but VW all the way. It’s just so much more interesting

    1. Well the good guys and the bad guys
      They never work past noon ’round here.
      They sit side by side in the cantinas,
      Talk to senoritas, and drink warm beer.

  2. My vote is for the Beetle because it is a much more interesting car. If you need a cheap set of wheels though, that Acu-Civic is a steal.

  3. mmmm maybe I was lucky because I only paid 8K for my 1973 Super Beetle with 29K original miles, immaculate condition but 9.5K for something so common in Mexico, I think its overpriced.

    Some people say you can bring a mexican beetle to the US, get a US VIN, go to secretary of state in Michigan and finish the process lol they dont even check your vehicle.

    1. Yeah, we don’t check shit here in the mitten. Give the State their money and you can drive away in style with your fright pig that has rust holes in structural members and rear shocks that threw in the towel years ago.

    2. Back when Beetles were still being made, there were companies that would take the floor pan from a 1970s US-market car and weld it into a new Mexican Beetle and import it using the old VIN, which was actually legal (technically), as well as other, less than legal, importers who would just swap the VIN tag on the dash.

      None of that hassle seems necessary these days, since only the last 6 years of production are still too new to just import as-is, just find a car made in January 1997 or earlier and bring it in. Unless you really, really want a 2004 Ultima Edicion or something

        1. LOL. Lord British. Thats a name I haven’t heard in years. I’ve still got the original games (some on 5.25″ and some 3.5″), cloth maps, and their boxes stored in a closet. Maybe I could sell them for enough cash to pay for a trip to Sosaria.

  4. Yeah, I didn’t even read anything here. Beetle. As close to a brand new Beetle as I’m likely to see? Beetle all day.

    Now I’ll go back and read and see if anything is off.

    Nope. Just read it, no thoughts, no notes. Gimme the “new” Beetle. Do it. Do it now.

    1. At four and a half times the cost, the Beetle is not four and a half times better. Noise, crashworthiness, handling, performance, fuel economy, luggage capacity and comfort will all be much worse than the Acura.
      I understand the novelty of the Beetle, and for the same price, you can not find anything comparable in the US. But having grown up in a VW family, I know first hand how mediocre Beetles and Buses are. Charming, unusual, cool, and so on, no doubt, but as transportation, they are, honestly, not up to par with practically everything else on the road.

  5. This beetle is missing the “sesame seeds on hamburger bun” signals on the front fenders, and they’ve been moved… to the bumper. That’s the bit that is making me uncomfortable (my first car was a ’74, and I still think fondly of it).

    1. I don’t hate the bumper-mounted signals, but I cannot abide the body-colored bumpers & headlamp trims. Even contrasting paint on those bits – silver or black – would be enough.

  6. Had an EL when I lived in Canada. Great car. Fancy Civic, stone cold reliable. They were made to fill a niche and were only minimally more than a tarted out Civic.
    They don’t need to wait for the 25 year rule, as Canada has a reciprocal agreement on new cars. Just need your clearance paperwork from the manufacturer for the EPA and you’re good to go.

    1. Glad you pointed that out because I believed that was the case, I think it’s as long as a “like” vehicle was available in the US (i.e, the Civic)

      1. FMVSS and the Canadian equivalent are roughly the same. If a car was manufactured for the Canadian market, you can import it legally, regardless of age, as long as it complies with FMVSS. So things like daytime running lights (Canadian requirement) and the like need to be disabled or removed. Then you need a clearance letter from the manufacturer saying that the emissions meet US standards, and you’re good to go.

  7. How difficult would it be to import and register that Beetle? A Beetle in that condition could be a $20,000 car in the US, assuming it could be registered and driven here. I’m surprised more of these haven’t found their way north of the border. It seems like there could be opportunities for Beetle arbitrage if $9500 is a fair price for this car in Mexico.

      1. Are there any import taxes or other fees? Is there an unreasonable amount of paperwork or other tasks needed to import a car? I am aware of the 25 year rule, but I assumed there would be a lot of expensive bureaucratic nonsense to deal with. If it is easy and inexpensive to import a Mexican Beetle, I’ll have to look into that. I am skeptical that it is that simple to import one of these to the US, though. If it is that easy and the cars are that cheap, why don’t we see more of them here?

        1. once it’s 25 years old, it should be pretty easy.

          You might have a hard time in California with their onerous emissions shit that’s overly strict, but otherwise it should be no problem.

          If it was made in Mexico, there shouldn’t be any import duty due to NAFTA. If it was made in Brazil, then it’s 2.5%

  8. I hate Beetles, they are just slow and noisy tin-cans. That Acura on the other hand doesn’t produce any feelings whatsoever so I still voted for the slow noisy shitcan.

  9. Sorry i get it everyone loves the Beetle and noone is allowed to mock it. Hey i dont get ugly underpowered easy to fix is just marketing BS for no frills. Talk about no room in the back seat. Maybe grandma and grandpa who hunch over due to low calcium but nay on the nazimobile. I would not mind a squareback but $10,000. No Honda. so many people here complain about unsafe old cars and the tincan coffin gets a pass? Yeah i rolled a DX it turned over 4 times before resting on its tires. It looked beat to hell but some air in the tires and it drove, $400 in parts and it was legal. Sold it for $1200.

  10. The EL was interesting, but I’ve heard that cars manufactured in Canada to seat five passengers will only fit four Americans, so …
    Beetlemania, baby!

  11. First car I owned was a white 70 Beetle with red interior. Would have preferred red over the tan but who am I kidding? That think is absolute light years in better shape than mine ever was.

    Beetle all day.

  12. Beetle, because it’s interesting. The Honda/Acura is interesting, but it’s interesting the same way that it would be interesting if you found a number 3 pencil mixed in with all your number 2 pencils.

    The Beetle is always interesting. Perhaps this is a little more interesting, and you could dress it up like a “real” Beetle. Get the old style bumpers and fender top turn signals. Drill a hole into it. Who cares? Or you could get it painted like in the 70’s, where they’d paint an old MG sports car on the sides, using the fenders as the fenders for the painting.

  13. It might be a small thing to fixate on, but that EL is wearing 1.7 EL rims (so, next generation, equivalent to the 7th gen Civic), and missing at least one lug nut. Pair that with the different bumper, and it just seems too scruffy to spend $3k on. It’s not as if EL’s are that hard to come by up here either (although it’s looking like the 1.6s are mostly gone at this point, and your choice is even cheaper but scruffier examples, or spending about twice as much on a decent one).

    I was curious to see if there were any CSX Type S’s available (particularly at a price roughly equivalent to the Beetle), but there aren’t any currently, at least on Auto Trader nationally or Kijiji in the Toronto area. If Mercedes sees this, a luxury 8th gen Civic Si is a pretty decent Holy Grail.

  14. My wife had one of those ELs. It was a fantastic car. It was basically a well optioned 4 door SI. The Civic SI only came in 2 doors at the time. The Honda dealers around Toronto were pretty arrogant and unpleasant to deal with, but Acura was still building it’s brand, so the dealer experience was very good. Interestingly the better equipped, premium dealer experience and fancier badged EL was quite a bit cheaper than a loaded SI. It was a good deal.

    She got about 10 rock solid reliable years out of it before a street racing moron ran a red light and totalled it.

  15. Hey… I had one of kinda imported Beetles. “Converted” in Nagales AZ to a 1968 pan. It was a 2000 Mexi with Bosch Fuel Injection and A/C. Totally legal in TX as it was titled as a 1968. A beautiful blue/purple color. I replaced the Mex bumpers with 1968 style bumpers so it looked correct. Bought it for 10K and sold it for 10K 2 years later. Fun project!

  16. in 1992 it was the “21 Million” year, but it did not yet have Fuel injection. I would prefer a non special edition year and subsequent price delta, but I would still in this case prefer the New/Old Beetle over a high mile Honda. Once things actually start breaking in those older Honda, price for parts and complexity can be non starters.

  17. Why the fuck are Beelte prices so high for something so common? WTF? LOL

    I chose the Civic. You get all the good shit from Honda but with some more luxury and prestige. Also, the EL cluster has orange markings, which is cool

    1. They’re not that common anymore, not rare, but not truly common in comparison to the amount of people that still want them.

      As with most things, condition is everything. Rusted-out project Beetles are still cheap, it’s just the values on the remaining good ones that have surged

  18. “Obviously, nine and a half grand is a lot for a Beetle”

    Sadly it is not. Take a look at eBay Motors: decent-looking Beetles start around $10K and they are not as nice as this one.

    1. Yes, that’s a big part of why I wound up with the Beetle’s failed American challenger instead of a Volkswagen.

      I had a Super Beetle as my first car in high school 20 years ago, and had been thinking about getting another one for a few years, but holy crap, have prices gotten crazy. Air cooled VW enthusiasts were always lukewarm on Supers, but nice ones (not project cars or cosmetically ratty drivers) are like $15k now, and standard sedans in the same condition are more than that. And Type 3s and Ghias are more still. I suspect part of it is driven by the ridiculous surge in air cooled Porsche values, people priced out of the market there are dropping to the next-closest alternative and pulling all of it upward

      Fortunately, Corvair prices are still pretty much exactly what they were 10-15 years ago with no change.

    2. $9500 was a lot for a generic Beetle 3 years ago, but not today. I bought a ’76 in good condition for $13,000 last June. I thought I substantially overpaid at the time (I don’t care since I really like the car), but from what I have seen over the last few months, I think $13,000 was actually a reasonable price. Hagerty values a ’76 Beetle sedan in #3 (good) condition at $16,900, up from $12,500 a year ago. It is incredible how much Beetle values have increased. I miss the days when you could buy a decent Beetle for $2,000.

    3. I’ve had my 1972 Super Beetle for 19 years–since I was 11. It’s remarkable how prices on aircooled VWs in general have shot up. I remember being able to pick up a running, driving bay window bus for under $2k. Good luck with that now. Thankfully parts are still plentiful and relatively inexpensive. It’s crazy to see Super Beetle prices going up now too, they were always the unloved stepchild by all the “purists” in the hobby, but a great way to get into a Beetle for cheap.

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