Home » What’s The Best First Car For An Enthusiast? Help A Reader Pick A Car For Their Kid

What’s The Best First Car For An Enthusiast? Help A Reader Pick A Car For Their Kid

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Buying your first car. It’s a rite of passage, a pivotal moment in the life of every car enthusiast. I remember when I was in school, getting my first car was more important than graduating or losing my virginity. Getting your first car felt like the biggest day in life at the time, especially with the huge pressure to do it right. We’ve recently been contacted by a reader named Mike whose son is about to turn 16, and he’s looking for some guidance in today’s crazy used car market.

Hello David, Jason and the rest of the gang.  Longtime reader from early lightning site days.  I need to save up some moolah to become a member but right now we are saving to help our son buy his first car in this crazy inflated market.  My article idea is this:  What fun car would you recommend for a car-obsessed soon to be sixteen year old boy?  He’s been working and saving up his money for years, has sold off his drumset, bikes and other items and is almost ready to buy a car.  Honestly, his passion for cars has kept him out of trouble with drugs and girls.  So we fully support his passion.  He wants to study engineering and get into the auto industry somehow.

The good news is that Mike’s son has a budget of $12,000, and he has great criteria. A manual gearbox is mandatory, as is a certain fizz factor once described by a floppy-haired Top Gear host. What’s more, Mike’s son wants something that’s cool, and something that can be autocrossed. Hell yeah.

As for keeping parents happy, a car needs to tick some more sensible boxes. First, it needs to be safe. I’d recommend at least side airbags and stability control, just in case. Second, it has to be reasonable to insure. This means that Hondas are out completely, as is anything with enough straight-line performance to get into modern trouble. Sorry Pontiac GTO and Ford Mustang GT, now’s not your time. Third, it needs to work most of the time. Otherwise it’s an NFT, or non-functional transportation.

Well Mike, you’ve reached out to the right people. I love dodging cones just as much as the next helmeted enthusiast, and your criteria basically matches what I search for in cars that I’d want to own. So, without further ado, here are six great enthusiast picks under $12,000.

Mazda MX-5 NC

Nc Mx 5 1

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Model Years: 2006 to 2015

Engine: Two-liter inline-four

Gearbox: Five- or six-speed manual

Power: 170 horsepower

Torque: 140 lb.-ft.

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Curb Weight: 2,441 to 2,498 pounds.

Fuel Economy: 24 MPG combined

IIHS Safety Rating: Not Rated

SCCA Autocross Class: C Street

Sure, the NC MX-5 isn’t the coolest Miata on the market, but it’s not the barge the internet makes it out to be. Quicker, safer, more capable, and more modern than the NA and NB roadsters, the NC represents a value sweet spot where you can get a very capable, very reliable little sports car for not a lot of scratch. Not only does it suffer from fewer old car issues than its father and grandfather, it’s also full of mod-cons like side airbags and available xenon headlamps. If you’re looking for something really sharp, you might be let down by the NC. While this drop-top is objectively a good performer, the stock suspension allows for plenty of roll and dive. Splashing a bit of cash on some upgraded anti-roll bars(like Eibach units) helps dial in the feel, but it’s worth paying attention to how that affects SCCA classing should the autocross bug bite hard.

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Nc Mx 5 2

As far as common issues go, the plastic coolant reservoirs are now old enough to shit their dacks, but the same goes for just about any car on this list. Plastic getting brittle as it ages is about as new information as the fact that the earth revolves around the sun. In terms of spec, I’d definitely recommend investing in a proper roll bar like a Hard Dog unit and searching for a model with the close-ratio six-speed manual gearbox and the limited-slip differential, as both are fun options to have. The NC MX-5 may not offer the best thrills under $12,000, but it’s a safe bet with low running costs and is pleasing in a slow-car-fast way if you can get around the body motions.

Subaru BRZ

Subaru Brz first car

Model Years: 2013 to 2020

Engine: Two-liter flat-four

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Gearbox: Six-speed manual

Power: 200 HP

Torque: 151 lb.-ft.

Curb Weight: 2,762 to 2,776 pounds.

Fuel Economy: 24 MPG combined.

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IIHS Safety Rating: Top Safety Pick

SCCA Autocross Class: D Street

The NC MX-5 is a great starter enthusiast car, but what if you want more? Say, more space, more power, more revs, that sort of stuff. Well, the famous Toyota/Subaru twins are more than a decade old and bargains considering what you get. Whether you call it a Scion FR-S or a Subaru BRZ, these coupes give you all the spice a sports car should while still being perfectly livable as everyday cars. They seat two passengers comfortably and two more if you chop their legs off, and you won’t struggle to get anything larger than a backpack in the trunk.

Subaru Brz 2

Dare I say, these twins offer up even more fun than an NC MX-5. Sure, open-topped motoring has its own appeal, but I reckon that stock-for-stock, the two-liter boxer engine has so much more character than the Mazda’s inline-four, and the chassis feels more buttoned-down. I’d argue the steering is sharper, too. We’re talking about a more serious driver’s car than an NC Miata, something that’s more rewarding to push through the cones at an autocross. Sure, cabin noise, vibration and harshness may feel like being in the pit at a Knocked Loose concert, but that just means the car’s nice and light. As a bonus, these cars are incredibly competitive at autocross, and a great platform to grow with. I’d recommend the Subaru version over the Scion, for one reason: Early models were affected by a valve spring recall, and Toyota dealerships unfamiliar with re-sealing Subaru engines may have used excessive RTV that could clog the oil pickup screen. Oh, and both cars have fragile original throw-out bearings, so keep that in mind. Otherwise, these cars are smiles all down. Move over Miata, there’s a new boss in town.

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Chevrolet Cobalt SS Turbocharged

Cobalt Ss first car

Model Years: 2008 to 2010

Engine: Two-liter turbocharged inline-four

Gearbox: Five-speed manual

Power: 260 horsepower

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Torque: 260 lb.-ft.

Curb Weight: 2,935 pounds

Fuel Economy: 25 MPG combined

IIHS Safety Rating: Good front offset, acceptable side-impact.

SCCA Autocross Class: D Street

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Everyone loves an underdog story. Rocky, the Miracle on Ice, Olivier Panis at Monaco in 1996. The turbocharged Cobalt SS is another one of the all-time greats. Here’s a brief list of cars it’s faster around the Nordschleife than: Mitsubishi Evo VII, Lotus Exige S, 987 Porsche Cayman S, Cosworth Type 25 Subaru Impreza STI spec C, Audi S5. Sure, it might not have a particularly great shifter and its interior feels decidedly low-rent, but this humble Cobalt is sport compact car royalty. So how did Chevrolet get one of the cheapest, nastiest economy cars in recent history to slay such automotive greats?

Cobalt Ss 2

Long story short, Chevrolet employed great suspension tuning, buckets of turbocharged thrust, and some clever performance functions. The two-liter turbocharged motor puts out 260 rampaging horsepower, and when fed through a five-speed transaxle with an optional limited-slip diff and aided by launch control and no-lift shift, it catapults this plastic-fantastic penalty box to 60 mph in five and a half seconds. Then there’s the stiffer springs, firmer dampers, larger rear anti-roll bar, four-piston Brembo front calipers, and 10 percent quicker steering ratio. It all adds up to one hell of a performance bargain. These 2008 and up turbocharged models are hard to find, but if you can find one that hasn’t been beat to death, you’ll end up with a surprisingly spicy sport compact capable of slaying giants. Don’t forget, it’s a Cobalt so it’s still a shitbox, but it’s a fast and nimble shitbox with dirt-cheap parts.

Volvo C30 T5

Volvo C30 first car

Model Years: 2008 to 2013

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Engine: 2.5-liter turbocharged inline-five

Gearbox: Six-speed manual

Power: 227 horsepower

Torque: 236 lb.-ft.

Curb Weight: 2,970 pounds

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Fuel Economy: 23 MPG combined

IIHS Safety Rating: Top Safety Pick

SCCA Autocross Class: H Street

The Volkswagen GTI is a nice enthusiast car. They’re handsome, quite fun if you’re talking about the MkV, and have massive aftermarket support. However, they are fairly maintenance-intensive. Allow me to present the alternative to German techno – a bit of Swedish metal. The Volvo C30 is a car almost everyone forgets about yet almost anyone likes. At the front, pre-facelift models look almost exactly like practical S40 sedans or V50 wagons. However, things are a different story around back. By drawing inspiration from the 1800ES shooting brake, Volvo created one of the most well-styled rear ends of any modern car. It’s all strawberry syrup taillights, cool glass, and flared hips. It’s a similar story on the inside with a waterfall of brushed metal taking center stage on the dashboard. Lovely.

Volvo C30 2

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What’s more, the C30 comes from Volvo’s Ford era, which means it’s based heavily on the second-generation Focus that America never got. This means you get a very composed front-drive chassis, well-weighted steering, and a ride that’s taut without ever being jarring. Plus, C30 T5 models came with the same turbocharged five-cylinder engine you’d find in a Focus ST. Figure horsepower in the low 200s, a torque band as wide and flat as Kansas, and a six-speed manual gearbox. Hot hatch guts with a bodyshell designed by people pathologically obsessed with safety is a brilliant combination. This little Volvo may not quite be as engaging as a GTI, but it’s still a very capable pick. Oh, and since Volvo is a premium brand, many C30s were fabulously-equipped. You could get a thumping ten-speaker Dynaudio sound system, push-to-start, xenon headlights, heated power seats, parking sensors, leather seats, and rain-sensing wipers in these practical hatchbacks. That’s a lot of kit.

Infiniti G35

0072003g35coupe Source first car

Model Years: 2003 to 2007 for the coupe, 2003 to 2006 for the sedan

Engine: 3.5-liter V6

Gearbox: Six-speed manual

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Power: 260 to 298 horsepower

Torque: 258 to 270 lb.-ft.

Curb Weight: 3,351 to 3,524 pounds

Fuel Economy: 20 MPG combined

IIHS Safety Rating: Good front overlap, acceptable side-impact

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SCCA Autocross Class: D Street

It’s easy to forget how big of a deal the Infiniti G35 was when it came out. Not only was it a Nissan Skyline for America, it offered huge bang-for-the-buck. For the same price as a decently-equipped 184-horsepower E46 BMW 325i, you could have a 260-horsepower Infiniti sedan. The coupes got a bump to 280 horsepower, and available on the options list for both cars was an awesome six-speed manual gearbox with a rifle-bolt shifter linkage. What’s more, the pedal box is set up perfectly for heel-toeing and the steering is confidently-weighted. It all adds up to a car that’s great fun to grab by the scruff of its neck.

0014 2003 G35 Sedan Source

As far as issues go, there’s not much to worry about on these cars. The VQ35DE 3.5-liter V6 engines are known for oil consumption, so it’s best to check the dipstick at every other fill-up. Front suspension bushings are quick to wear and the combination radio and climate controls are known for going out every so often, but these are otherwise very reliable cars. Additionally, they all came with stability control, a full complement of airbags, and a reasonably modern crash structure. Mind you, they aren’t hugely refined. Lots of NVH makes it up through the floor on the highway, and some of the interior materials are a bit substandard. The glued-on pleather might flop off of the door trims, for example. Still, if you want a sports sedan and don’t want to pay the IS300 tax, a manual G35 is a good bet.

BMW 128i

Bmw 1 Series first car

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Model Years: 2008 to 2013

Engine: Three-liter inline-six

Gearbox: Six-speed manual

Power: 230 HP

Torque: 200 lb.-ft.

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Curb Weight: 3,252 pounds

Fuel Economy: 21 MPG combined

IIHS Safety Rating: Not Rated

SCCA Autocross Class: D Street

I’m breaking the rules here, Mike. I know you said no money pits that are a nightmare to fix and explicitly cited BMW in your email, but the N52-powered 128i is the exception to the rule. Trouble spots? Well, the electric water pump likes to go out at between 60,000 and 100,000 miles, but replace it with a Continental unit for a few hundred bucks and you’re more or less set for life. Otherwise, the VANOS solenoids enjoy periodic cleaning, there’s a coolant flange at the top of the engine that’s best to replace with aluminum for $20 or so, and models built between Sept. 2009 and Nov. 2011 should have the VANOS bolt recall done, but that’s really it. No VANOS rebuilds or subframe mount tearing or any of the annoying E46 stuff. This is a BMW that really just works. Just fix the odd valve cover gasket or oil filter housing gasket leak as it crops up, keep gas in it, change the fluids on time, and go. No different than a regular car, really.

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Bmw 1 Series Interior

Oh, and go it will. Out of all the cars on the list, this is the one most proven to make it to 300,000 miles, most of which will be very pleasurable. The hydraulic power steering is immaculately-tuned, the chassis just the perfect balance of firm yet comfortable, the seats genuinely all-day comfortable, and the three-liter straight-six engine so impeccably smooth even surging towards 7,000 RPM. Highway slogs are a doddle thanks to extensive NVH attenuation and cruising economy in the 30s, and this thing can still tear up an autocross course like the best of them. It’s not as nimble or as raw as a BRZ, but that’s a good thing for the realities of the road. Plus, it’s still a rich communicator that makes driving slow fun, and it’s incredibly well-equipped. As far as all-rounders go, the 128i is one of the best.

So there we are, six very different but very good picks for a first enthusiast car under $12,000. As for me, I owned a G35 before ending up with the 128i’s slightly bigger brother, the E90 3-Series. Mind you, I’d be pretty happy with nearly all of the cars on this list. They’re all reasonably swift, upgradable, cool enthusiast vehicles that should put a smile on any first car owner’s face, all while keeping parents happy. What reasonably modern, reasonably reliable enthusiast car would you recommend for a 16-year-old on a $12,000 budget? I’d love to know what’s on your radar.

(Photo credits: Mazda, Subaru, Chevrolet, Volvo, Infiniti, BMW)

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TheWombatQueen
TheWombatQueen
1 month ago

The Volvo is cool for sure I but I definitely disagree about the rear being attractive

Jay W
Jay W
2 months ago

I would also suggest a manul Honda Fit Sport

Jay W
Jay W
2 months ago

I like the Volvo or infinity. G35 looks better, Volvo will take him through college and multiple apartment moves.

Peter Thompson
Peter Thompson
2 months ago

Am I the only one that thinks these are all too fast for a 16 year old?

GertVAG
GertVAG
2 months ago

My first car was a 1993 Passat turbodiesel. Rather slow, already +10 years old, fwd but a manual big wagon with sunroof. I loved it for the freedom it gave me, the comfort on long vacation trips and since it was cheap (to buy and to run) I had a lot of fun in it, taking to the back roads full of mud and gravel. Just a year later I bought my enthusiastic car which I still have but glad I started of cheap and slow ’cause that Passat has seen A LOT of mistakes and misjudgments (getting stuck on muddy hills, sliding in snow, …). The big bumpers and robust construction helped.

Love the cars on the list, but like others here, would ask to reconsider and spending first a few dollar on a cheap reliable ride to hone the skills and keeping the rest of the cash for one or two years later. Or buy a sporty four door car that is not cosmetically perfect.

Myk-El
Myk-El
2 months ago

My opinion is that most of these are good options for their second car after they have some real world experience. While most cars these days are going to be quick enough to get in trouble, I’d be more inclined to err on the slow side. Miata would be the closest to that. But you know your kid, are they likely to be reckless if encouraged by friends? Is the car obsession about driving and speed or about just freedom and style? I’d just hate to have them get something they seriously love and have it get damaged, especially if it’s their own fault.

World24
World24
2 months ago

I have no idea why it matters this much to me, but those average fuel economy ratings seem very low for everything except the Cobalt, which perplexes me that a turbo Cobalt manages better MPG than, well…. the rest of this line up.

Bags
Bags
2 months ago
Reply to  World24

I average about 28mpg with my FRS over 9 years of ownership, with a lot of my mix being city driving. 30+ is doable with more highway, and if you’re cruising at 72 all day then 34-35 should be easy if it’s relatively flat.

Arch Duke Maxyenko
Arch Duke Maxyenko
2 months ago

Lol on saying the 128i is reliable with only minor problems

Nicksuli
Nicksuli
2 months ago

Kind of an odd-ball but a Buick Regal GS (yes, they did come in manual). They have Brembos from the factory and the 2.0L Turbo engine is peppy in stock form (and can be tuned for more). It is definitely a sleeper, but a good option. Here is one for sale for under $8k. https://www.autotrader.com/marketplace/buy/buick/regal/2012/2G4GV5GV8C9136140?listingId=676995077&utm_campaign=autotrader_listings&utm_medium=Autotrader-Tred&utm_source=autotrader.com

Space
Space
2 months ago
Reply to  Nicksuli

That has to be a holy grail, someone alert the grail committee.

NebraskaStig
NebraskaStig
2 months ago

These are all perfect examples for great entry enthusiast cars, but I have a few reservations.

1) How familiar is the teenager with driving quicker cars? Or driving in general? I don’t think a G35 is a positive suggestion for a new driver that doesn’t have those experiences (thinking back to 16-yo self and getting a Civic instead of a MR2 because parents were buying, I was responsible for upkeep/maintenance).

I see the comment regarding ‘selling bikes’ to save money so could be motorbikes which is a plus given provides base for understanding the mechanics of going, stopping, turning.

2) Insurance and reliability. Who’s covering these bills? Just be sure to take these into account in the thought process.

3) It’s a 16yo who has enthusiast tendencies…and a lot of opinions. I know I was unhappy with my first car because I didn’t get to provide “reasonable” input (’88 Cavalier with an Iron Duke). I hit a deer a year-ish later so if it would’ve been sob story to be downgraded to something less if I would’ve had something nicer. I also thrashed the hell out of that Cadaverlier as I didn’t care about it so there’s that too.

I’d go in this order:
1) manual transmission. Enthusiast entry card stamp.
2) brand rank interest. Avoid the adverse brands at all costs.
3) color interest (distraction #1)
4) body style interest (distraction #2)
5) trim/features interest, unless power is the feature (distraction #3)
5) upgraded engine

Perfect first car list (in no particular order and some young builders to feel the finesse of tuning and buy lower to build): Honda Fit, Honda Civic (tuner;EX/Sport/Si), Hyundai Genesis coupe (2.0T), Nissan Juke, Kia Forte Koup, Cadillac CTS, VW Golf, Mazda 3, Mazda 5 (build), Mazda 2 (tuner), Acura TSX, Buick Verano (Turbo) (unique!), Hyundai Veloster (Turbo), etc.

Mikeinthewoods
Mikeinthewoods
2 months ago
Reply to  NebraskaStig

I agree with the reservations. As a parent I have them as well. I’ve been excited about a tuned Honda Fit for years. Light and driving 10/10ths is the special blend for fun in a slow car fast scenario.

Freddy090106
Freddy090106
2 months ago

A note for the 128i, get its brakes upgraded with ones off a 135, autocrossing can really toast the pads real quick, and you can easily modernize the interior as theres boatloads of android head units and great audio systems

Jacob Rippey
Jacob Rippey
2 months ago

I appreciate that the Volvo was mentioned here. I had a 2008 C30 T5 6MT with full bolt ons and it was an absolute riot. That being said, they are unfortunate to work on and parts are pricy. If I had that car as a teenager, I would have gone to jail. The best car for a young enthusiast is a 5,000 dollar sh*t box with a manual and some semblance of reliability. Toyota Echo, Scion XB, Civic, Corolla, Honda Fit.

Lightning
Lightning
2 months ago

Of Thomas’s suggestions, I like the Volvo.

Since Mike lives in Maine, I’ll go off the sports car track and suggest a 2000-2004 flat-4 Subaru Legacy wagon, bought from a no-rust state. Insurance is dirt cheap compared to sports car, it has AWD, great sharp/balanced handling on back roads at least with a refreshed suspension and sticky tires (better than your Outback), not-terrible fuel economy, safe, slow-car fast (I don’t need more than it’s 165hp, a 16-year old doesn’t either), wagons are cool and can carry his friends and stuff off to college, and is not highly desired by enthusiasts, which I put in the plus column because they haven’t been abused. The 2003 and 2004 L SE or 35th Anniversary models have the pretty snowflake alloy wheels that look great too. I also have a 1996 Gen 2, but they are harder to find in good shape now.

Mighty Car Mods on YT has a lot of Subaru wagon love. Over the years Marty mods his Gen 1 Liberty RS (Legacy), Gramps (Gen 2 Liberty), and Supergramps (Gen 4 Liberty) and now a Levorg. There’s also granny’s Gen 2 Legacy on NASIOC. The owner was a high schooler at the start of it. It started out as a slow, beat-up wagon that he learned to autocross with, and then was gradually transformed into a show car: Granny’s 1997 Legacy L Wagon – NASIOC

The ones in New England are rusted to hell. I saw a low-mileage 2003 automatic sell for $13K on BaT recently that was identical to mine (except transmission), so you can see how desirable a nice one still is. Mine is a manual and was only $2.1K bought sight unseen off the internet (craigslist sfbay) from sunny CA in 2019 with head gaskets and most leaks already fixed, recent timing belt/water pump, and full stack of records. I drove mine cross country just a few weeks after buying it after freshening it up (easy to justify new KYB struts all around when you get a rust-free Subie so cheap) catching up on all the delayed maintenance almost all used cars have.

Make it a project to restore it to mechanically new and it will hold up better than most newer Subarus. It’s from the highest quality era of Subarus. Oh, and do a full Fluidfilm or similar rust proofing if you find a rust-free one because you’re in Maine. Mine is parked in New England and not rust proofed (yet), but I was also not driving it in salt conditions. The dealership mechanics were shocked to see a completely rust-free, leak-free, tight suspension 2003 when I had the Takata airbag recall done. The independent Subaru guy who replaced the clutch had the same reaction, said to keep it off the NE roads in the winter.

Last edited 2 months ago by Lightning
FartyMcSprinkles
FartyMcSprinkles
2 months ago

Buying a hot car for your 16 year old is stupid (source: I have 19 year old twin boys and a 15 year old boy. Also, I once was a 16 year old boy). As much as you want to be the cool dad, DO NOT DO IT. You are asking for heartache and you will never forgive yourself if he does some douchebaggary with it and kills himself or someone else. Seriously, don’t do it. If he want’s to autocross, get a cheap car and dedicate it just to that. No insurance, no tags, trailer it to the event. Also, anything with 2 doors is going to kill you on insurance. You want something with four doors, and something with Electronic Stability Control. Driving can be fun, but it is a serious responsibility and I am yet to be convinced that any teen fully understands the consequences of their actions.

Matthew810
Matthew810
2 months ago

Lexus IS in a manual could be a good answer. Rwd. Toyota reliability and parts availability. Safety is top notch. Probably pretty easy to find one that hasn’t been driven hard.

ProudLuddite
ProudLuddite
2 months ago
Reply to  Matthew810

I have an automatic, has been my fault for years, nice sharp reflexes and very reliable. Enough power to be fun but not so much that it would be easy for a kid to get in trouble with it without trying (meaning you can do so.ething stupid with any car if you try, but it won’t spin out and take out a crowd like a Mustang leaving a car show).

ProudLuddite
ProudLuddite
2 months ago
Reply to  ProudLuddite

my daily driver for years, wtf how did it populate that with “fault”

BoneStok
BoneStok
2 months ago
Reply to  Matthew810

A great choice, but NOT easy to find a manual that hasn’t been driven hard. They never sold well, and command a 50-100% premium over automatics, to the point where manual swapping a clean automatic example is the more economical choice. The standard-issue W55 manual is also not robust enough to handle anything other than simple bolt on upgrades.

ProudLuddite
ProudLuddite
2 months ago
Reply to  BoneStok

All correct, I really wanted a manual, and even when I bought the car the manuals were few and far between, commanded a premium and were very hard to find stock. I have up and got a pristine automatic with less than 60,000. The automatic actually goes with the car pretty well. The only real fault I have with the IS the performance to MPG ratio sucks compared to modern cars.

Stephen Walter Gossin
Stephen Walter Gossin
2 months ago

All these cars are way too nice. I vote for a $2K Sebring bought with lawn-mowin’ money.

FartyMcSprinkles
FartyMcSprinkles
2 months ago

Not a bad choice, if you can find one with Electronic Stability Control. Much safer and saves on insurance cost. Cheap, slow, and safe is the way to go for a teen driver.

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