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Cheap fun: Cars that will make you smile on a budget

While the boy racers of the world have been in an ongoing search for cheap power for what seems like thousands of years, there are still some out there that just want to enjoy their daily commute in a car that doesn’t empty the wallet.   Well for those people, there are a couple of options out there for a reasonably priced, fun car that will make you the envy of the other road-goers.
Photo credit: Car & Driver
Photo credit: Car & Driver

1)    Honda Civic Si: Everyone knows the Honda Civic as the boring, hum-drum sedan that runs forever and hasn’t gotten anybody’s heartbeat going any faster that a slow crawl in a couple decades.  Well the Si is a tuned up version that has about 200hp and can turn any on-ramp onto something worth drooling over.  It still retains that Honda reliability and won’t break the bank at the shop or the gas pump.  Expect to pay somewhere around $15k or less for later year models with average mileage, with higher mileage or older examples going for less.

Photo credit: Super Street Online
Photo credit: Super Street Online 
2)    Subaru WRX: Probably one of the more popular cars with the tuner crowd, the Subaru has also gained a reputation as one of the best all-weather fun cars thanks to the legendary Subaru all-wheel-drive.  As a cherry on top, they come in hatchback form for added practicality and get decent gas mileage considering how much they are oriented towards driving pleasure.   They are not without their faults as they can be picky on which oil they like, and older early 2000’s models have weaker transmissions.  Prices can vary significantly, but a good, mid 2000’s model can be found for around or under $15k depending on mileage, making it a fast but relatively affordable car.
3)    Mazdaspeed 3 or 6: These left-field Mazda’s can be a little harder to find but when in good shape can be a lot of fun for a little money.  The Mazdaspeed 6 was the fast version of the last Mazda 6 sedan and is no longer made, but the Mazdaspeed 3 was, and still is, a very popular alternative to the Subaru and others.  As a bonus, they actually have very nice interiors for their class and size.  You can also find the Mazdaspeed 6 in all-wheel-drive form making it all the more desirable for those who live in inclement weather states.  If you can find them, expect to pay up to 18K for the well-cared for Mazdaspeed 3, and even more for the 6.
4)    Volkswagen GTI: Well known as one of the best all-around hatchbacks thanks to its incredibly well appointed interior and the German fit and finish that other automakers can only dream of, the GTI is a very lively front wheel drive hatchback that has a little more character than its Japanese counterparts.  Be wary though, these little firecrackers can cost a little more than average when they go in the shop as German cars in general are a little more difficult to work on.  GTI’s can go for as low as $13K for 2010 model years, and up to $20K for newer vehicles.
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5)    Honda S2000: This was Honda’s attempt at making a fun, affordable, lightweight 2 door convertible for the “masses”.  What we ended up with was a fun little screamer that handled well and looked great without sacrificing on reliability and convenience.  Made with one of Honda’s well established 4 cylinder engines, and a true manual transmission, they have a comparable recipe for fun to the legendary Mazda Miata.  They aren’t easy to find as they were never made in huge numbers, but if you can find one expect to pay around $20K for low mileage late model examples, with less pristine versions going for somewhere in the teens.
6)    Ford Mustang GT: As the only American example here among those from foreign soil, the pony car holds its own with a 4.6 liter engine offering up over 300 horsepower in earlier iterations.  As far as cheap power goes, it’s hard to find something that can keep up for this amount of money.  As newer body styles keep coming, the older versions keep dropping in price, but don’t expect to get a lot of luxury for your money, this car is about a big motor powering the rear wheels and not much else.  These will be easier to find with many examples on ebaymotors and similar sites, with models from around the late 2000’s going for a little under $20K.
7) Mazda Miata: We all know the little fun-loving roadster that is the Miata.  Legendary handling, well balanced driving pleasure in a 2 door package, it truly is hard to beat.  However, be wary when looking at used models as there is a good chance it has been tossed around a bit by the previous owner.  They are generally pretty reliable, but never make that assumption when checking one out,always get a 2nd opinion.  Prices are all over the map as they sold in high numbers through the years, so you can expect to pay over $20k for a late-model with low mileage, or around $6-8k for a well-used example with some wear and tear.  If you are going for a newer model, the third generation’s engine received an update with a higher redline being a highlight.

Budget Car Buying: Overcoming the fear of high mileage

Not all of us can afford the high sticker prices of new, high-line cars that grace the covers of automotive magazines everywhere.  Others are just looking for a reasonable daily driver to get to A to B with no bells and whistles.  Whichever camp you are in, finding a vehicle within a tight budget can be a challenge when you don’t know where to start.  We’re here to help with that search to make sure you find a well-cared for vehicle that will serve its purpose with minimal trouble.

Firstly, you shouldn’t be afraid of vehicles with higher mileage, so long as you do your research and have the history of the vehicle.  If you are looking at Car A that was driven by a little old lady for 100k miles and Car B that was driven by a teenager with a heavy right foot for 50k miles, you can guess which we’d pick.  The key is finding vehicles that have proven to be reliable, durable and inexpensive to own, which can be tricky.

There are certain manufacturers that have always been associated with longevity and quality.  Toyota and Honda are consistently rated at the top (as well as Acura and Lexus of course), and some other brands such as Subaru are slowly making their way up the list.  If you are looking at higher mileage vehicles, your focus should be on brands such as these that will run for many more trouble-free miles.

Secondly, check for rust.  A higher mileage car has generally been exposed to more inclement weather and as a result, has a higher chance of being affected by rust (especially here in the Northeast.  As with any used vehicle, have it looked over by a trusted mechanic but pay close attention to rust on the underbody as well as under the paint.  Rust is not only something that is VERY expensive to fix, but is also something that keeps eating away at your car unless you fix it right away.  Higher mileage cars are more likely to have rust that has eaten away at critical components, so it is always something to keep an eye on.

A complete service history is always a MUST!  Knowing how the vehicle has been treated is crucial to knowing how many more miles can be expected out of it.  If you are buying a vehicle with over 100k miles, be sure that the timing belt or chain (if applicable) has been changed as most manufacturers usually recommend this at or around 100k miles.

Additionally, make sure you look up the proper services that should have been performed (most can be found online) and check that with the history of the vehicle and the CarFax report.  Depending on the car and mileage, a lot of vehicles will be needing new brakes or suspension once they get a bit over 100k miles, and those are expensive maintenance items.

Other than that, just pay close attention to how the vehicle drives and behaves on the road.  If it checks all the boxes and feels solid when you drive it, there’s a good chance it has been well maintained and is ready to serve its next owner loyally!

AWD vs. FWD vs. RWD: A lesson in important acronyms

The above three letter acronyms will mean something to a few, but confuse others.  We’re here to explain the pros and cons of the three main different drive types for vehicles on the road today.  First, let’s just spell those out:

AWD = All Wheel Drive  :  FWD = Front Wheel Drive  :  RWD = Rear Wheel Drive

With that out of the way, let’s start out with one of the more useful drive types for here in New England, AWD.  All wheel drive means that all 4 wheels of the car are being powered by the engine, generally providing more grip in slippery situations.  Manufacturers known for their prowess in this particular drive type are Audi and Subaru, Audi in particular having really pioneered the movement through their early Quattro rally cars.  The benefits are numerous, more grip in the snow/rain/loose surfaces, extreme dry circumstances and generally even tire wear among others, but you do sacrifice gas mileage as there are more wheels that need to be powered by the engine.  Most would consider vehicles with AWD a great all-around vehicle for those needing one car to do it all through all 4 seasons, however, this drive type isn’t as common as the next one.

Front wheel drive is where the engine only powers the front two wheels.  This is generally considered to the most common type of drivetrain, accounting for a vast majority of vehicles on the road because of its low cost and simplicity, and is found in popular vehicles such as the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and others.  Front wheel drive vehicles can be more compact, and often have better legroom in the rear as they don’t require any mechanicals in the rear of the vehicle as in RWD or AWD.  Additionally, FWD is much easier to control in inclement conditions as you don’t have to worry about the rear end swinging out every time you touch the throttle  The downsides to FWD are few, but they generally have a greater turning radius as a result of having the driven wheels also do the turning, and they often exhibit what is called torque steer, which means in rapid acceleration the car will pull to the left or the right.  However, manufacturers are constantly coming up with ways to combat this issue and newer, sportier FWD cars are being praised for their handling similar to a RWD sports car.

If you were to take a poll amongst gearheads on which drivetrain they preferred, nine out of ten would probably answer RWD.  The simple, front engine, RWD layout is what those with oil running through their veins consider to be the purest expression of a sports car.  It allows the driver to get a little sideways when desired, and generally helps a vehicle keep close to the perfect 50/50 weight distribution.  This is probably the rarest of drive-trains and often limits the vehicle’s ability to perform well in anything but ideal conditions with anything less than a very experienced driver.  Porsche, BMW, Ferrari, and most sports cars have this layout (among others) and it will probably stay that way for the foreseeable future.  The benefits among those listed above are a higher MPG rating than AWD, lighter weight, and a generally simpler layout because of the two wheel drive instead of four.  However, as much fun as these cars are on a sunny day, when the weather turns they can be a bit tricky to handle as a slightly liberal use of the throttle can result in a spin.  RWD cars are generally found in garages as a second weekend vehicle, but there are those out there that will daily drive them as well (though they are few and far between in states that experience bad weather).  While RWD has traditionally been found in higher-end exotics, manufacturers such as Mazda, Subaru, Honda and Toyota are stepping up and making cheap, fun, and simple cars such as the long-lived Miata and the joint BRZ/FRS project by Subaru/Toyota.  This leaves enthusiasts that aren’t among the 1% to enjoy the thrills of a well-balanced vehicle without emptying their pockets.

While we didn’t cover the 4WD type of drivetrain in this article, it is very similar to AWD in that the number of driven wheels is the same, and the differences are minimal except for the fact that 4WD is generally associated with more off-road oriented vehicles and AWD is usually reserved for cars or light-duty cross-overs.  Whichever one you choose for your next vehicle, be sure to do your research before you decide so that you are happy with your purchase for years to come.

Tips for driving in the rain

With the heavy rain we have been experiencing here in Boston, we thought it best to put a quick reminder about things you should do differently when driving in heavy rain.

1)    TURN ON YOUR LIGHTS!  As hard as it can be to see a gray car in low sunlight, it is even harder when there is heavy rain involved so be sure that both your headlights and tail-lights are on.  It is now a law in the state of Massachusetts that you must use lights when you have your wipers on, so pay attention and help other drivers see you.

2)    Drive a little more cautiously, but NOT TOO SLOWLY!  Everyone treats driving in the rain differently, with some being a little too brave, and others going a different direction and going 40mph on the highway.  Do not be the latter as you are just as likely to get in (or cause) an accident as the speeder cutting people off.  Maintain an appropriate level of speed while traveling to reduce the risk of causing unnecessary braking and swerving of other drivers attempting to go around you.

3)    Watch for standing water on the shoulders and outside lanes.   The roads we drive on are designed to send water off to the side, but often the rain overcomes the drains and we run into pools of water on the edges of the outside lanes.  Be careful to avoid these, and if that proves dangerous, at least slow down before hitting the puddle to avoid hydroplaning, which is what occurs when your tires float on the surface of the water and lose grip.

4)    Overall, just pay closer attention to what is going on around you.  Drivers behave very differently when there are other factors affecting their habits and having serious rain puts most drivers on edge.   Watch the behavior of all drivers in your immediate area and keep your head on a swivel.