It was 2013 and we wanted a fun car. Not primarily a fast car, though we like speed. Not primarily a corner-carver, though we like handling. It had to be reliable enough for daily driving duties and available with a manual transmission. We leaned towards having some useful interior space, but we would still entertain a strictly two-seat car as long as increased fun factor justified reduced practicality. In other words, we were open to the idea of just about anything you might call a modern, affordable driver’s car.
It all started with the love of a Volkswagen. Our 2001 Jetta VR6 with a 5-speed had us hooked on the three-pedal daily driver experience. We liked having a torqey, multi-cylinder engine that was lazy enough to prevent shifting from being a chore. We also had a ton of fun modifying the car as it responded stupidly well to near everything we did to it. KW coil-overs and a set of forged BBS wheels salvaged from a Subaru where particularly positive changes.
When we scored a good job and the time came to buy a new ride, we were at first fixated on the MK4 Golf R32. Keep in mind, this was early 2012. We spent quite a while seriously shopping for one, but over time an example that felt perfect for us failed to materialize. So much time went by, in fact, that we had piled up a silly-big “down payment fund” and we found that we could afford to finance something worth up to twenty thousand dollars with plenty of room to spare.
So we broadened our horizons.
We got a little time off work, grabbed a friend, and hit the road with a smart phone packed full of car sale listings. We made a substantial loop across the Midwest, test-driving a string of interesting cars along the way. At first we felt doubtful that we’d be taken seriously, but in fact we managed to get seat time in a staggering array of fun cars simply by rolling up in our trusty Jetta and asking nicely for a drive. Granted, the ability to verify our buying power via smart phone definitely didn’t hurt.
Also, here’s a pro-tip: when shopping for manual transmission cars, it definitely pays to show up in a stick-shift ride of your own. On more than one occasion we went from receiving a suspicious eye, to being casually thrown the keys upon the seller seeing the 5-speed Vee Dub we rolled up in.
And so we drove. Our first stop was at the cheap end of the list, a 2009 Cobalt SS sitting on a dealer’s lot. That shopping experience ended quickly when it turned out the car had a dead battery, probably from all the lame after-market security and stereo equipment. Very shortly after this stop we decided to scratch nearly all the other cheaper cars off our hit-list without stopping to see them.
Our second listing was right across the street from the first, a Mazda dealer who had a very low-mileage 2010 Hyundai Genesis Coupe on their lot. The car was a 3.8 V6 model with a manual transmission and the Grand Touring package. At the time we considered a V6 car to be out of our price range and simply wanted to try a stick-shift GenCoupe. We figured if we actually bought one, it would be a four cylinder turbo model instead.
We remained convinced of this assertion right up until the moment we rolled the big V6 to an on-ramp and punched the throttle in second gear.
Thrust. Noise. The car hauled itself up to speed, engine pile-driving into the rev limiter before we had even reached for third. Lurch. Bounce. Next gear. Back on the power. Masses of variable valve timing produced a square torque curve that just shoved the car forward with, again, an eagerness for revs that made the 6500 RPM redline feel criminal. The salesman was laughing his ass off while we flirted with ninety miles an hour, having totally failed to notice the speedo.
Time for an impromptu brake test! Brakes were effective, back to legal interstate speeds and we took stock of our surroundings. The car settled right down into an effortless cruise. More time on the highway would have revealed its tendency for nervous bump-steer, but on our short drive over smooth roads we were amazed at its grand touring credentials.
We stepped out of the Hyundai impressed, but more so than that we were excited for our next stop. A dealer down the road had a 2012 V6 Mustang with a six speed manual. The Internet had informed us that the V6 Mustang was absolutely superior to the Hyundai, and in fact any car in the same price bracket. If the GenCoupe was such a laugh to drive then surely the Mustang would be a riot.
We couldn’t help but feel disappointed in the Mustang. This particular example was let down by lame styling, with black stripes over electric blue paint and those stupid fake vents tacked over the rear quarter windows. The interior was dark, cave-like, and impossible to see out of. The fake vents and tall hood-bulge took away big chunks of visibility from a car that was already visually impaired.
We decided to ignore the styling and focus on the drivetrain. We almost perfectly reproduced the drive we had made in the Hyundai just minutes earlier. Despite, or maybe because of, high expectations we were totally underwhelmed by the Mustang’s driving experience. The example we drove was nearly new with way under 10,000 miles on the clock, yet the shifter jumped around in the console under power. Gear positions were vague, and swapping between them was unpleasant.
The Mustang’s V6 power plant may have been equally potent as the Hyundai’s on paper, but in the real world it just felt like a van engine. It made very solid torque down low, but became totally defeated as it approached and surpassed 5000 RPM. It reluctantly huffed and wheezed up to speed, halfheartedly touching its rev limiter only when pressed to do so. The power band felt narrower as well, with nowhere near the eagerness in fourth and fifth gear that the Hyundai had.
Our sales bro could sense our disappointment. In what we must admit was a masterful bit of salesmanship, he walked straight from the Mustang and sent us off alone in a 2006 Boxster S.
Ho. Lee. Shit.
The Porsche just strolled through the gears. Its electrified Swiss watch of an engine screamed past 6000 RPM and towards 7200 with a haunting six cylinder howl. Every single driver input felt important with steering, brake, and shifter feel that was leagues above everything else we drove. It was a master class in How a Sports Car Should Feel. If driving pleasure was our one and only deciding factor for purchase then we would have left in the Boxster that day.
We returned from that test drive as a bundle of adrenalized nerves. It would later take the coma-inducing power of a Culver’s Butter Burger to fully calm ourselves down. We thanked our sales bro and promised to return after lunch (we didn’t).
The Porsche had totally skewed our perspective. We absolutely loved driving it, but knew maintaining, let alone modifying, a Boxter S over the long haul would drive us insane. Plus the 3.2 liter engine tended to blow up with alarming regularity. Having explored the reality of this problem, we knew that our favored solution would be to replace the grenaded 3.2 liter Boxster engine with the biggest Porsche 911 mill we could get our hands on. This would be awesomely fun, right up until the moment it killed us. Therefore we judged the Boxster S scenario to be A Bad Idea and moved on.
We needed to bring things back down to Earth, so we went to the only low-cost option left on our list: a 2004 Subaru WRX priced at a dollar under ten grand.
The Scoobie was a diamond in the rough, a near-stock car with only 3M window tinting and an after-market blow off valve as modifications. It had scabby brake hardware and peeling clear-coat, but was rust-free and in solid condition overall.
The WRX drove great, the drivetrain was full of character, and after experiencing it we feel like we “get” what all the hype over turbo Subarus is about. Midrange torque was hilariously stout for two liters of displacement and the fruity exhaust note made it the only four cylinder engine that we found equally lovable as our favorite six cylinder options.
We really enjoyed the Wrex, and it was so cheap that we could’ve dropped five grand worth of mods into it almost immediately. We were sorely tempted by this proposition, especially when the owner slashed $999 off the price to make it a square $9K. It would have been a great deal and a fantastic car, but in the end we decided we liked RWD tail-out shenanigans too much to go with the AWD Subaru.
We left the Scoobie and crossed town to a 2009 Saturn Sky Redline. At first we were taken aback as the Sky drove like a truck in comparison with the Boxster, despite being similar in size. Everything felt very heavy as we clunked through the gears and heaved at the steering wheel. We adjusted quickly though, and soon came to enjoy the manly, athletic driving experience. We found the car eager to rotate too as the owner encouraged us to drift around a banked corner near his home. The Redline broke into a slide much more readily than the Porsche and it was easy to balance considering the short wheelbase.
Despite all the Saturn’s fun characteristics, it was at least as impractical as the Porsche, but nowhere near as magical to drive. Also, the owner actually raised his asking price from the advertised number when it came down to brass tacks, up to a whopping $16,800. We walked away from the car having enjoyed driving it, but struggling to find reasons to choose it above any other option.
We finished our loop still haunted by the Genesis Coupe. We were beginning to feel a bit crazy, wondering if that particular driving experience had biased us towards the Hyundai more than the car objectively deserved.
We looked into other options. Older Caddilac CTS-Vs (never found a stick-shift model to test drive), the then-new Scion FR-S (too expensive for its watered-down engine), and a 350Z (impractical as the Porsche). The Infiniti G35 solved the practicality problem of the 350Z, but was bafflingly expensive at the time. Plus the G35 has one of the most douchey images of any car on sale which really didn’t help its case any.
More time passed, even more money piled up, and we became dead set on the Genesis Coupe. We drove a different one in Kentucky, a black Track Pack that was also a stick-shift V6. We hated what the shorter, stiffer springs of the Track Pack did to the ride quality. The Brembo brakes didn’t feel that much more powerful than the standard units and the Torsen differential felt weak and mushy.
At the time, Track Pack cars were quite a lot more expensive than GT models on the second-hand market and we simply couldn’t justify the price difference. We also couldn’t find a Track Pack that didn’t appear beat half to death. The black one we drove had nearly 70K miles, felt like double that, and was full of abandoned DIY wiring that had apparently powered subwoofers and extra interior lighting.
So at long last we returned to the very first car we drove on our epic shopping saga. It was still sitting on that Mazda dealer’s lot. With well under 30,000 miles on the clock it had been traded in by an older gentleman on a new Mazda 6. Still wearing its factory original everything, the car had seen nothing but oil changes for its short driving life. This un-touched example with a non-problematic manual transmission was just too much for us to pass up. The fact that it still had over one year and 30K miles worth of factory warranty left on it sealed the deal.
We were able to determine that the car had sat on the dealer’s lot for nearly twelve months, which was further evidenced by its dry-rotted tires. This turned out to be a substantial bargaining tool, one we thought carried no downside. That assumption ended up costing us, but at the time all we could see it as was a point of negotiation.
We walked away from the car twice before buying it on our third visit. By that time our price on the Hoondy had fallen from above $21K down to $17K with a very attractive financing deal. We made a five thousand dollar down payment to drive our interest rate down even further and walked away feeling like we had committed a crime.
We were certainly helped by many outside factors including the time of year (October) the economy (trashed) and fuel prices (high). Just a few months later we would be offered $18,500 for the car by a different dealer we had brought it to for warranty repair. Not bad.