Ron currently drives a Lincoln Town Car with 200,000 miles on the clock. How he came to acquire this ride is a long story, but he is ready to move on. He wants something he can modify that works as both a road trip cruiser and an occasional autocross machine. What car should he buy?
(Welcome back to What Car Should You Buy? Where we give real people real advice about buying cars. )
Here is the scenario:
Due to some poor life choices and unfortunate circumstances, I’m currently driving a 2001 Lincoln Town Car with over 200,000 miles on it. The car is reliable enough (A/C still works, yay me!) but I know eventually it’s going to need a repair worth more than the car. I’m very handy with a wrench so reliability isn’t a big concern but it will come to a point with my current vehicle that it’s not worth it to try and fix.
I’ve always worked with my hands and modified my cars to make them “mine” and keep them maintained. I’ve lost that love with my current ride and I want the spark back in my life more than anything. I have owned many fun vehicles in my life: two Fiero GTs, two Probe GTs, a ‘69 Impala Wagon, a Chevette with a hood exit exhaust, the list goes on.
I want to get into a fun car, something I can modify and still enjoy on a cross country trip, or an Autocross event. I like the weird and the rare.
I am a 6’7″, 350-pound burly guy with a big beard and a love for small cars. I also have a soft spot for wagons as they are just as fun as a coupe! I am soon to be married to my fiancee of three years. She loves Jeeps and SUVs; she hates to be in “small cars” as she can’t stretch her legs. We have one dog but plan to expand to two We love cross country road trips and autocross events, which I haven’t been to lately as I no longer have a car worthy of taking on an autocross. Also I prefer an automatic transmission.
Budget: up to $15,000
Daily Driver: Yes
Wants: Fun, Interesting, Good for mods, Automatic
Doesn’t want: Something too unreliable
Expert 1: Tom McParland – Good Vibes
Ron, I understand not wanting to live the Town Car life for much longer. While the big boat may be fine for road trips it’s probably not the ideal car for carving cones (though you can and should autocross anything). You like small cars, your partner likes larger cars and you need something durable that you can wrench on.
I think the Pontiac Vibe is your ride. It’s a “small” car with Toyota bones that is incredibly spacious on the inside for doggies, luggage and whatever else you bring. Later GT examples have a 2.4-liter motor that’s basically indestructible and returns respectable fuel economy. And because the Vibe shares many of its parts with the also excellent Toyota Matrix, there is solid aftermarket support for all kinds of mods from engine to suspension tuning.
The best news of all is you can pick up a Vibe with reasonable miles, considering the Toyota parts, for cheap. This GT with 140,000 miles is $7,000, which means plenty of money left over to make it how you like it.
Expert 2: Jason Torchinsky – Would You Like a Lakewood?
Oh, Ron, you big crazy kook, have a got an idea for you. I like your approach to cars, and I think your overall automotive mindset is so admirable, it deserves something great. Something like this stunning 1961 Chevrolet Corvair Lakewood wagon.
Ron, Ron, look at this: It checks off pretty much every box you have! Weird? Oh hell yeah—it’s a rear-engined air-cooled flat-six-powered station wagon! It’s a wagon, which you like, and which will be great for the dog and potential other dog, its smallish by modern standards but roomy enough inside for your respectable size and your soon-to-be wife’s leg-stretching desires.
Oh, and it’s a wagon with a front trunk, too! Cram the bags in there, and just enjoy all the space inside!
You can work on this car yourself, parts and support from a number of enthusiast groups are around to lend support and direct you to parts and ways to make it go fast, if you want. It’s even an automatic!
This glorious, two-tone Corvair wagon feels like it was made for you with a computer connected to your brain—and it’s in fantastic shape and under $10,000. What the hell are you waiting for?
Expert 3: Patrick George — To Infiniti And Beyond
So you want something fun, mod-able, comfortable, small but not too small, with an automatic, that’s decent at autocross. For something like this I’d normally suggest a rear-wheel drive sedan, something like a used BMW 3 Series, but you stressed a need for reliability too. Friend, how about the best Japanese 3 Series knockoff there ever was?
You need to get yourself an Infiniti G35 or G37 sedan. The coupe is good too, but given your needs I think the four-door is the way to go. And you made it easy to find by wanting a slushbox.
If you can get past the droning noise of the VQ V6 engine—some people like that, for whatever reason—you’re getting a comfortable, compact sedan that’s essentially a Nissan Z in a blazer and a button-down. There’s a great aftermarket for these cars, and from everything I’ve heard they’re pretty solid on the reliability front. I’d put more faith in a used Infiniti G than a German car of a similar vintage. They’re also common, too, so you can find one for well under budget.
Here’s an AWD model in your state for $9,999. I’m sure you can find a rear-drive version for cheaper. I’d lecture you about snow tires, but you’re from Wisconsin so I assume you know what’s up.
Expert 4: David Tracy — Make Your Home State Proud
A sensible person would recommend that for someone who’s after a car that’s small but not too cramped inside, can carry dogs, and can be modified and raced in autocross competitions, the play is to just get a lightly used Volkswagen GTI. But I’m not a sensible man, and I’ll be damned if I suggest something that modern to someone who says “I’m very handy with a wrench,” especially if that someone lives in Wisconsin.
Your state, and particularly the city of Kenosha, is hallowed ground, since it’s in many ways the spiritual home of American Motors Corporation, a company that built plenty of cars for someone like yourself, a dog-owning wagon lover with a fondness for the “weird and the rare.”
Among those suitable cars is the AMC Pacer Wagon, a more practical version of the famous hatchback model. There’s tons of room (52.5 cubic feet of in the cargo area, according to AMC), it’s small but still roomy for passengers (AMC used to advertise pacers as “the first wide small car”), and while I doubt it’d be great at autocross without modifications, the engine options were awesome. You could get either an AMC inline-six or AMC V8, both of which offered lots of reliability and reasonable torque, but honestly not a whole lot of speed. Admittedly, they’re not the greatest motors to modify, but who doesn’t like a challenge?
There’s an absolutely gorgeous example for sale for $10,000 right now in Toledo, another home of AMC-designed machines. I suggest that you buy it and make your state proud.
Do you want us to help you find a car? Submit your story on our form.