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Thursday, August 21, 2008

The $25,000 sports car question

Chismillionaire votes for the Acura NSX- low cost maintenance, proven 150,000 mile durability, great looks and an even better engine note at 7800rpm.

Given 25 grand to spend on a car that’s fun to drive, what would you buy? Would you take the safe road and get a new car such as a Mazda MX-5 Miata or a Volkswagen GTI, which come with the security of a warranty? Or are you a risk taker willing to go after something special that might be a decade old and have serious wear issues and plenty of miles, maybe a used Acura NSX?

It’s a dilemma that will be argued noisily forever, but we’re here to stick our collective necks out in hopes of providing some answers. We’ve gathered nine cars—two are new and seven are used—that can be purchased for about $25,000.

The cars were chosen by the staff for a lot of personal reasons, including performance, style, and relative practicality. Several are cars that we have long lusted after but most of us never could have afforded when they were new.

Used-car prices fluctuate all over the place, so we relied on the Kelley Blue Book 1993–2007 Used Car and Truck Guide—using the estimated prices for cars in good condition that are sold between private parties—as well as the used-car Web site

We don’t own a used-car lot, so we had to borrow cars from owners. We asked the owners to meet us at GingerMan Raceway in South Haven, Michigan, for a free-for-all day of driving. We cycled through the cars, driving both on the racetrack and public roads around it. Since all of the used cars were in varied condition—the 1999 Mercedes E55 AMG we borrowed had almost 200,000 miles on it—we didn’t rate them by our ritual rules that govern comparison tests. In the pages that follow, we recount what the cars felt like and what items buyers should be wary of. We also rate the used cars in three categories—operating costs, curb appeal, and fun to drive.

So which one is the most fun? Which one would we buy? That depends on whom you ask.

For enthusiasts on a limited budget, a new VW GTI or Mazda MX-5 is tough to beat.

In addition to being wonderfully entertaining, the five-door GTI featured here is a remarkably well-rounded car. Fold the rear seats, and it’s a pint-sized minivan. Jump on the interstate, and it tracks as straight as its German heritage suggests it should. Most importantly, it’s as fun to drive as it is practical, with an eager turbo engine, a good gearbox, and a frisky chassis. If you can only have one car, the GTI is close to perfect.

The MX-5 Miata, on the other hand, exists purely for the joy of driving. Sure, it has a reasonable trunk—and pricier models can be had with a folding hardtop—but at its core, the Miata is a driver’s car. It’s wonderfully balanced, with an engine that’s willing but not overpowering, a gearbox that’s one of the best in the business, and handling that makes running an errand an enjoyable experience. There are certainly faster cars, but few are as satisfying.


As a testament to just how far Honda pushed the envelope with its 1991 Acura NSX, compare it with the most sophisticated machinery of today. That first NSX’s 3.0-liter V-6 made 270 horsepower and revved gloriously to its 8000-rpm redline. Almost 18 years later, BMW’s direct-injection 3.0-liter (in the Euro-only 330i) makes 268 horsepower.

The NSX’s lightweight aluminum sheetmetal surrounds a fascinating 3000-pound wedge that still looks fresh today (if you don’t count the tiny 15- and 16-inch wheels). Combined with first-rate comfort and ergonomics, and a docile, aluminum-intensive unequal-length control-arm suspension, it’s easy to see how the NSX quickly won our hearts as well as a distinguished victory over a Porsche 911, a Corvette ZR-1, and a Ferrari 348ts in a 1990 comparison test.

Having purchased this Formula Red example new in December 1990, it’s safe to say Ken Sax (which he amusingly writes “keN SaX”) of Evanston, Illinois, is quite familiar with his 78,000-mile car as he’s exercised it to the tune of 13,000 on-track miles. The car has held up well, mostly needing replacement of such predictable items as worn brake pads (25 front sets, 16 rears thus far) and chewed-up tires, although his NSX suffered a rare catastrophic engine failure caused by a broken harmonic-balancer pulley that led to a jump of the timing belt. Sax replaced the engine with a $4500 used one, which was the cheapest fix.

We all were impressed at how solid and modern his NSX felt. Sure, there were a few squeaks and rattles, but it rides forgivingly, is quiet, and still feels structurally sound. Sax’s car does have some minor scuffs in the interior and noticeable wear on the seat bolsters, which is common.

The manual steering is just as alive as we remembered, its on-track poise is phenomenal, and the five-speed manual’s short, precise throws are still a benchmark. Sure, a 0-to-60-mph time of 5.2 seconds doesn’t qualify as blazing anymore, but the flexible engine absolutely wails above 6000 rpm. We nominate it as the best-sounding V-6 ever.

From 1991 until it was discontinued in 2005, the NSX’s price ballooned from $60,600 to $89,765, even though it evolved very little. A targa model was added for ’95; a 290-hp, 3.2-liter V-6 and a six-speed manual were new for ’97; and the NSX got a fixed-headlight face lift for 2002. The ’97-and-newer cars still fetch $40,000 to $50,000, while the ’91–94 models have held steady in the range of $25,000 to $35,000 for almost 10 years.

By exotic-car standards, NSX ownership is painless, but there are a number of known problem areas—a faulty transmission snap ring and fragile power-window regulators on ’91 and ’92 models, as well as a history of rapid tire wear. So do your homework first. Be especially wary of the service history, as many lower-mile examples haven’t kept up with recommended maintenance such as timing-belt replacement. Fortunately, houses a strong and knowledgeable owners’ community and is bursting with information.

The NSX was truly an exotic turned everyday friendly. It’s no wonder owners of these inexpensive, high-mileage cars are so enthusiastic.


It’s hard to believe, but Horst Reinhardt’s E46-series BMW M3 has nearly 67,000 miles on its wrinkle-free body. Except for some road rash on the wheels and front bumper, and a bit of wear on the driver’s seat and a few of the interior panels, the car he bought in May 2003 looks new. You’d be lucky indeed to find an M3 that has been looked after as fastidiously as this 2003 example, but there are cars of this age and mileage out there for less than our $25,000 target price.

Reinhardt bought the car new, and its only major options were heated seats and a navigation system. There’s no sunroof, and the material covering the seats is cloth. Reinhardt runs VR Performance, a tuning business that specializes in these cars, so he fitted his M3 with Eibach springs that are about 10 percent stiffer than stock and added a CSL-like carbon-fiber rear valance, trunk panel, and front air-dam extensions.

Reinhardt has racked up about 10,000 track miles on his M3 but says the car is so sturdy that he has basically just changed brake pads and rotors. He adds: “The only real problem areas are rear subframes that can crack if stiffer springs are fitted for track work. Early cars had problems with their big-end bearings—but all of those engines were replaced by the factory.” Our local BMW dealer in Ann Arbor said that the rear coil springs also can crack.

If our test crew had voted, the M3 would have been the standout among this group of cars. While the newest M3 is a magnificent machine, the previous E46 model is just as practical and nearly as entertaining to drive, and its performance is more accessible to more people.

Performance is strong—back in the day, we recorded 0-to-60-mph times in the range of 4.5 to 4.8 seconds—and the inline six-cylinder engine is both willing and sonorous. On the track, it’s fast, immense fun, and beautifully balanced; on the street, it’s refined and easy to live with, thanks to a great driving position, a decent back seat, and a sensibly sized trunk. Plus, it’s new enough that it has a full array of safety features, with airbags and stability control heading the list.

The only catch is that parts for this car are expensive. A surf around cyberspace reveals that rear brake rotors retail for about $150 each, with fronts going for about $200. Replacement OEM catalytic converters are $1250 each. Reinhardt notes that there “are now lots of aftermarket bits available, from body panels to steering racks and brake rotors.”

We suggest looking for E46 M3s on used-car Web sites and trying the BMW Car Club of America ( On the evidence of Reinhardt’s M3, you’ll be getting one hell of a car for a relatively modest outlay.


In the speed-per-dollar column, the Z06 dominates, just as it did when new. A 2002 model such as the one we rounded up here ran 0 to 60 mph in four seconds flat and hit 100 in less than 10 seconds. Mark Benson’s car felt every ounce as strong as the original.

“Spectacular,” one of our test crew wrote. “This car still feels tight and very strong.” We all marveled at how new this car felt—with just 21,000 miles, it was almost new. Still, we have found that if a car is going to develop a severe case of the rattles, it usually happens during the first 20 grand on the odometer. This car was simply shake-free. We also couldn’t find a blemish on it. The only problem—and this is an uncommon one—was a passenger-side window that wouldn’t go down.

All the things we salute in a Corvette were present. For starters, the 405-hp, 5.7-liter V-8 is impressively flexible. It supplies snappy throttle response just off idle yet still pulls like mad to 6500 rpm. The shifter in this example is particularly light and direct, better than we remembered. The chassis delivers a good ride and loads of grip and is so predictable that the car can be driven in hooligan mode—the tail sliding out—or smooth and tidy. Finally, the Z06 has great brakes and a firm pedal.

On the other hand, all the things we’ve never liked about the Corvette also were present. The flimsy seats still feel woefully inadequate, and the plain, black plastic dash reminded us how far the latest Corvette interior has come. Those are minor quibbles, though, and shouldn’t detract from a relatively easy ownership experience.

“In terms of maintenance and reliability, Z06s aren’t much different than a Malibu,” says Jason Haines of the Corvette tuning house Lingenfelter Performance Engineering. The engines are bulletproof, and most of the running gear is robust. As always, potential owners need to watch out for excessive abuse. If the transmission is hard to get in gear, or if it pops out of gear under acceleration, a repair bill of several grand soon follows. Inspect the lower front air dam because it ducts air into the radiator: If it’s damaged, the engine may have overheated. Another potential trouble spot is the battery—if it ever leaks, the acid usually eats the engine’s computer. Benson has had just one problem: A faulty body-control module (which performs a variety of functions including traction control) cost him $600 to replace.

The Z06 seems to goad many owners into taking part in track days—once that bug hits, owners learn that going fast can cost money. Brake rotors are affordable at about $100 each, but a set of pads runs twice that. And tires are very pricey: Four of the original Goodyears run more than a grand. At least owners are less likely to crash their cherished Z06s if they can remember to use the excellent stability-control system, standard on all of them. The first-year models are usually a good bit cheaper because they had 20 fewer horsepower (385) than the ’02–04 models. But either way, it’s a helluva way to go fast on the cheap.


Is it safe to assume that car owners who lend auto writers their personal vehicles to hammer mercilessly on a track probably don’t coddle their cars themselves? While swapping stories one night at dinner, we asked Daniel Palacino, owner of the Ram SRT10 shown here, how far he’d seen the needle on his speedometer go.

“About a buck and a quarter,” he deadpanned, quickly adding, “I’ve got plenty of other cars to screw around in—this is my work truck.”

We laughed, but Palacino was serious. He’s a carpenter. A year ago, he walked into a Dodge dealership planning to buy a four-door four-wheel-drive Hemi-powered Ram to haul lumber and tow his trailer but left driving an SRT10 pickup with 13,000 miles on it, for which he’d paid $27,700. He’s put on another 30,000 miles since then, most while hauling tools and lumber, many pulling a trailer (though Dodge says not to tow with the SRT10), and more than a few with the throttle mashed flat and an opponent screaming to redline in the adjacent lane.

Despite its working life, this 2005 truck feels remarkably solid. The interior is clean and well preserved, and the heavily bolstered XXL Viper seats are still firm and supportive. The bed is a mess from the truck’s daily labors, but the sheetmetal is unblemished.

Palacino’s only problem was a failed clutch slave cylinder at 20,000 miles that was covered under warranty. No one writing on Internet forums reported this problem, and none of the three dealers we spoke with had encountered it before.

As much as a lumberyard may not be the natural habitat of this 500-hp exotic Ram, neither is a racetrack. It’s fast in a straight line—we recorded 0 to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds and the quarter-mile in 13.6 at 105 mph in our original test—but the clutch travels more than LeBron, and the shifts are weeks long. The shifter and knob could stand in for the bat and ball at a Thursday night softball league. The brakes were grabby at first but went soft on us after about 15 laps, likely due to the Ram’s 5100-pound curb weight.

The steering is twitchy, but the SRT10 moves surprisingly well for its size. It defaults to mild understeer in hard cornering, but poke the gas a little and the Ram sashays into nicely controllable oversteer. From such a high throne, it feels like you’re riding a slightly sedated rodeo bull.

Our first encounter with the Viper-hearted Ram polarized our office the way only something this utterly bizarre could, but this time the logbook was filled with nothing but praise. Despite being so out of place on a road course, the SRT10 won us over with its sheer ridiculousness, straight-line prowess, and the glorious trumpet of the big V-10. It’s the automotive equivalent of being at your hillbilly cousin’s wedding when you give a hearty rebel yell and join in the square dance. You know it’s ridiculous and you feel a bit foolish, but it’s shameless, giddy fun all the same.

In our original road test, John Phillips wrote: “I’m willing to accept the concept of a 153-mph hot-rod truck the day I see it carrying a load of drywall to a job site, you know?”

The time has come, John.



“The shift lever, which is roughly the size of the late John Holmes’s . . . [You’ve been warned, Yates—Ed.], rattles under hard acceleration like a porn star’s vibrator.” —Brock Yates, FEBRUARY 2004

"Fuel mileage? With high-test still less than $2 per gallon and OPEC on the ropes, who the hell cares?” —Brock Yates, IBID.



Perhaps you’ve noticed that gas is no longer the price of rainwater, and you’ll be lucky to squeeze 10 miles from a gallon of it. Figure $150 for an oil change (10 quarts of Mobil 1 synthetic). To have a dealer replace the brake pads and turn the rotors is about $450 per axle. Add another $300 per end for new rotors.


One hundred and eighty-three thousand. That’s how many miles have been rolled up on the odometer of the 1999 E55 AMG currently owned by Bryan English. English has driven the hell out of the big Benz, accruing all but 16,000 of those miles since purchasing the car in 2003. His E55 feels extremely tight and is in exceptional condition despite the high mileage, a testament to how well English takes care of his ride as well as to the Germans who built it. Squeaks and rattles are nonexistent, and the Mercedes dealers and independent specialists we’ve spoken with characterize the W210 E55 as bulletproof.

Still, bulletproof engineering combined with attentive maintenance couldn’t keep every problem at bay. English was forced to replace the transmission in late 2006, costing him $6500 (a Mercedes dealer we spoke with suggested $5660 should get the job done). More-recent services resulted in replacement of a ball joint, a few bushings, and the cam and crank sensors, and we’re told to expect bills totaling near $1000 for that kind of work.

Unlike most of the cars on this list, the E55 is meant more for screaming along the autobahn than for ripping off laps at the local raceway, and it wasn’t very happy at GingerMan, especially so because it wore all-season tires, stock-spec brake pads, and the original shocks. But it’s not as if the AMG handles like a bucket of pudding.

The steering is dead accurate and provides more feel than a handsy high-schooler; it’s the sort of communication that’s rare in most cars made a mere decade later. The ride is firm but never harsh, and there’s no inclination toward dive, squat, or roll. The real superstar isn’t the fantastic chassis, though—it’s the 5.4-liter V-8, a masterpiece of a motor that pumps out 349 horsepower and 391 pound-feet of torque.

Hammer the throttle and you realize in a hurry that the E55 can get down. Our original testing resulted in 0-to-60-mph times ranging from 4.9 to 5.5 seconds, and English’s well-worn veteran feels every bit as quick. The V-8 doesn’t deliver quite the same sledgehammer-to-the-sternum punch as do today’s V-8 AMGs—they currently have at least 74 more pound-feet of torque—but the E55 does share their ability to pull like a drop-kicked mule, and it actually gets stronger as you near the top end. The five-speed automatic (no manual was offered) is as smooth and silken in operation as any of Mercedes’ modern gearboxes.

The W210 E55 AMG may be the ultimate Q-ship; it’s a perfect combination of performance, ride, luxury, and low-key looks. The closest you’ll come today is to visit a Mercedes dealership and drive away in a brand-new E63 AMG, but at nearly $90,000, it’s almost 20 grand more than what the E55 cost when new. Covered with flares and vents, the E63 isn’t inconspicuous, either. Pick up a well-cared-for E55, on the other hand, and you’ll get 80 percent of the car for one-quarter of the money. That’s one heck of a discount for what we once called “the best E-class ever.”


A Porsche needed to be on this list. Admittedly, a first-generation 986 Boxster might be more fun on a track, but the almost mystical allure of an air-cooled flat-six overcame the pull of a water-cooled modernist.

We tapped Victorymotorcars ( of Houston, Texas, a purveyor of used Porsches, for a 964 model of 1989–94 vintage. They kindly agreed to extend to us a 1990 Carrera 4 with 84,000 miles on the odometer. Salesman Jason Fletcher came along to look after the car because it had already been sold, for $25,500, which didn’t stop one of our crew from spinning it. For the record, examples of the last generation of air-cooled 911s—993s—sell for well over $25,000.

Victory specializes in air-cooled Porsches, selling about 40 of them per month. The flagging dollar, weak against foreign currencies, is a big help to Victory’s sales, as 25 get shipped overseas, mainly to Europe, while five go to Canada and the remaining 10 are sold in the U.S.

With any old Porsche, the cost of keeping it on the road is a very real fear, though some wear items are not startlingly expensive. A set of Porsche brake pads (which works for the front or rear) costs about $135, and rotors, good for any corner, run $155 apiece. The original Bridgestone tires are no longer made, but a replacement set of Potenza RE-01Rs is less than $500. Everything else gets expensive in a hurry. A catalytic converter touches tuition-payment territory at $1800, and Porsche mechanics charge at least a hundred bucks an hour.

There are a few genetic problems associated with the otherwise indestructible powertrain of the 964. The valve covers came painted from the factory. This paint eventually chips off, and the seal between the head and valve cover weakens, causing a leak. The repair (removing and sandblasting the covers) costs about a grand. Another common failure is the anti-lock brake pump. When this goes, find $2000.

When we first drove these cars nearly two decades ago, rear-drive 964s hit 60 mph in less than five seconds, a feat still respectable by today’s standards. Cosmetically, the 18-year-old 911 was showing its age. The headliner was sagging, the switchgear showed signs of repeated use, the power-mirror button was missing, and the paint was, as they say, “Good from far but far from good.” Still, the 911’s signs of age could not diminish the driving enjoyment.

Compared with today’s 911s, the steering feels heavy and deliberate. The awkward floor-hinged pedals take some driver adjustment, especially for smooth heel-and-toe downshifts. The handling is less than sharp. But when the air-cooled 3.6-liter boxer engine is roaring, all of the car’s faults—dynamic, cosmetic, ergonomic—are simply drowned out by the urgent sound of the engine and a feel that can only be provided by an old Porsche.

The appeal of a 911 goes deeper than the basic connection between man and machine. Because it’s one of the most iconic sports cars of all time, there is a certain level of celebrity associated with owning a 911, something that’s difficult to equal in any other car purchase. Still, don’t buy one without a good service history or at least a thorough inspection by a mechanic.


What you see here is as rare as a rock star groupie who’s also a virgin: a Toyota Supra Turbo in original condition. Rarer still: a Toyota Supra Turbo that’s had multiple owners. Many—most?—of the force-fed Supras from the ’94–98 era have been subjected to the tender mercies of tuners, professional and not-so-professional, who have tweaked up the boost of the sequential twin turbos feeding the car’s 3.0-liter straight-six well beyond the stock max of 11.6 psi, frequently to the threshold of meltdown.

Introduced in 1993 as a 1994 model, the Supra Turbo was rated at 320 horsepower and 315 pound-feet of torque. It was pretty hot stuff for the day, capable of 0 to 60 mph anywhere from 4.6 to 5.2 seconds. But with a base price over $40,000, it was also expensive, and Toyota sold only 8611 fourth-gen Supras before pulling the plug at the end of the 1998 model year.

This 1994 example is owned by Jeremy Feller of Carmel, Indiana. He’s a 33-year-old field clinical engineer for CVRX, a company that produces medical equipment. He bought the car just three weeks before our derby, and it came to GingerMan as acquired, including a mismatched set of all-season tires.

“I haven’t done anything to it,” he said. “Yet.”

Feller found the Supra in Chicago and paid $33,000 for it. He said he researched others, some below our $25,000 target, but popped for the Chicago car because it was in original condition—clean, free of rust and dents, well preserved within, and untouched under the hood. The car had just more than 60,000 miles on the odometer, accumulated by three previous owners in locations ranging from New Jersey to Washington state before Feller brought it home to Indiana.

We couldn’t drive the Supra as hard as some of the other cars, owing to its odd collection of tires—Yokohama A520s front, Pirelli P600s rear, well worn at both ends. Nevertheless, we were impressed with the Toyota’s solidity—no squeaks or rattles—and with its benign ride and handling. Braking was just so-so, limited by the tires and stock pads, which began to stink and fade after just a couple of laps. And a reluctant upshift to sixth gear marred an otherwise snick-snick transmission.

But the turbos asserted themselves decisively above 4000 rpm, yielding a gratifying rush, though there were a couple of testers who expected a little more punch.

This last reaction may be due in part to experiences with Supras boosted to double stock output.

Feller, a Ford man who also owns a 1969 Boss 429 Mustang, a ’68 Shelby GT350 convertible, and a 1970 429 Cobra Jet Torino, plans to make the Supra his daily driver and intends to make increased power one of his first priorities.

“Nothing radical,” he said. “Not like all those guys who go for 1000 horsepower.

“I’d just like to get about 400 horsepower, which is very easy to do in these cars. Uh, 400 at the rear wheels, that is.”