A Miata is the perfect car for a summertime back road adventure with a friend. But what about every other imaginable situation? Miatas are cool, but their impractical nature is part of the reason why suggesting them to people is funny in the first place. I think the real jack of all trades is a used luxury sedan. There are just SO MANY options in the $3000 - $6000 price range, from the legendary LS400 to an E46 330i, and beyond.
You won’t find anything with a roof and 5 seats that drives like a Miata. But there’s nothing wrong with a good sports sedan! A 90s or early 2000s 3 series will be a lot of fun if you can handle the maintenance yourself. At this point, taking care of an aging NA or NB Miata won’t be dramatically different. Your luck with reliability will come down to the previous owner’s diligence. Anyway -the bigger BMW sixes are torquey, smooth, and indestructible. Just make sure the cooling system has been looked after and buy a good set of metric wrenches.
To be frank, I think that a decent sports sedan is all you need on public roads, and if you’re pushing your car hard enough to be dissatisfied with a quick 3 series, that’s irresponsible and you need to start autocrossing or HPDE. The suggestion that your average teenager will be doing enough high performance driving in a Miata to justify the loss of a roof, 3 extra spaces for friends, and massive trunk? It’s a little ridiculous IMO!
If German “reliability” isn’t a funny joke to you, maybe go for a G35 instead. 3 pedal examples will be harder to find, but you’ll be going even faster in a straight line. And like the BMWs, the G35 has the added benefit of being a pedestrian 4 door version of a more desirable coupe. Craigslist prices will be more reasonable and the low mileage examples haven’t all been snapped up and riced out by teenagers. I’m actually surprised that you don’t see more young track nut modifying these. I don’t like the VQ but I do think these are aging quite well, and aftermarket support is definitely there.
The elephant in the room. Literally. Though at around 3700 lb, the LS400 was relatively light for it’s class back in the day. My car weighs just over two tons, and a contemporary 740iL weighs in at 4,288 lb. All of the above are solid options if your priority is eating up highway miles with ease. Also, V8s. What other reason do you need? If most of your commute is stop and go traffic, it’s hard to beat the comfort of a big old boat (gas mileage enthusiasts need not apply). An LS400 will be the easiest to maintain (beyond the 1UZ’s timing belt, which needs to be changed every 60k) and E38s are like any late nineties BMW - manageable when cared for properly, but disastrous if you pick up a neglected example.
S500s from this era are also cheap (and look great, check out Tavarish’s build on his channel), but their air suspension systems are notoriously expensive to fix so approach with caution. And finally - if you’re especially sadistic, the German stuff can be had with a V12 to pour your money into. My drug of choice would be the E32 750iL. It has not one but TWO ecus to troubleshoot when you have a problem because BMW couldn’t figure out how to control both cylinder banks with one computer.
Eighties classics like the 535i and XJ6 can still be had for cheap. DDing a classic car exactly isn’t the safest thing to do, but hey, neither is driving an NA MIiata! And contrary to what people on the internet will tell you, they can be just as reliable as a new car once you iron out the kinks. The ‘89 635csi I drove for a year never left me stranded or broke in a catastrophic way. I didn’t put a dime into that car beyond oil changes and brake pads. I wouldn’t expect that from a Jag though. But eighties Mercs were just as overengineered as the BMWs, and even cheaper. 560SELs can be had in great condition, and their interiors have aged to the point of being are delightfully vintage, with the yellow gauges and unusual color combinations. There is a reason why these are still used as taxi cabs in third-world countries. They’re bomb proof and you can find examples with well over 200k on them that are still in great condition.
So - if you’re looking for a cheap first car, I’d check out a few 4 doors before committing to something small and light. You’ll have “space, grace, and pace” as Jaguar puts it. The practicality (and acceleration...) of a sports sedan or V8 barge is ideal on a day-to-day basis.