There are days when I get into my Toyota Echo and head to my job as a wholesale car-auction driver/transporter, and I can feel just how old my cars suspension is, how rattly the interior panels, the road noise, and just how upright the seats are… also how slow and quiet it is even with a TRD muffler, header, and cold-air intake. Days like driving a 650hp, $120,000 Cadillac CTS-V, and realizing just how easy they can be at a cruise, yet how much of a landmine lives in the throttle pedal for a brief freeway passing (leave it in sport, not full manual mode for the transmission). Or days when stepping out of another ex-rental Versa Note which corners the understeer market at any hint of enthusiasm. A short-list of cars I’ve driven thus far that I would own, recommend, could take-or-leave or improve upon is in order. Lets make this a series. Motorweek may not have the most entertaining presentation, but they tend to retain reviews of all kinds of vehicles, so they’ll be posted when possible to share more about what makes these vehicles what they are.
-Mk5 VW Golf R32: This is a low-production AWD hatchback which combines being comfortable, sporty, and practical into one package. The interior controls are easy to work, thanks to being the usual VW fare as opposed to some of the Audi silliness, exterior styling is muted for what lies under the body (AWD and a punchy V6 mated to a six-speed dual-clutch automated manual), and a soundtrack that rivals Porsche.
Of course there are downsides to the R32, like a slightly firmer ride than some vehicles on this list, a transmission that doesn’t take well to much more than standard horsepower (which is a fine amount), and being a limited production they cost a pretty penny and would equally be expensive to fix.
Essentially you get an Audi TT V6 with a useable back seat and trunk. I just wish the U.S. had the five-door version, not just the three-door which means a harder-to-access rear seat.
-Dodge Magnum SRT8: While I can appreciate the ease at which a Challenger SRT8 drives with a manual transmission—not at all heavy in clutch nor cumbersome in shifter—the larger SRT8 Magnum is a willing partner for drivers. While portly, it drives smaller than its 4,000lb+ weight would suggest. An old five-speed automatic with manual mode will make quick work firing through gears, and firing is indeed the correct term as each shift sounds like a shooting range. Brakes are just as adept for the heft, and suspension is balanced when transitioned right with the throttle and steering. All this while seating five in comfort, and cargo-hold to boot. What’s more, the visibility that seemed awful in 2006 has suddenly become on-par with the average family car. Vehicles from this platform are also plentiful, and seem to age quite gracefully which is a good sign for longevity. Other benefits specific to the SRT8 are the seats, which seem to sit lower and feature suede inserts (which make for excellent seat-heating) and large form-hugging bolsters. The normal and even RT models be it a 300C or Charger tend to have a higher, less secure seating position.
Sadly, the fuel economy would be woeful, some interior (and exterior) pieces are cheap and/or fragile, and these vehicles hold their value well enough to be just as out of range as some buy-it-new vehicles on this list.
-Ford Fiesta ST: Yes, of course the FiST on the list. And over the big-brother Focus ST, no less. Having driven the Focus ST on numerous occasions (one of them was even modified, moving more like a Mitsubishi Lancer than a FoST), the Fiesta still made me laugh and love the drive. The Focus never did. What the Focus does wrong are little things that add to big disappointment. For one thing, the large Recaro seats never seem to fit right for me, making the steering wheel, clutch pedal, and shifter always seem to be in the wrong place. This seating issue from the Recaro’s is further augmented by the center armrest, which makes the shifter location feel even more awkward. In the Fiesta ST, however, this never seemed to be an issue. It’s a smaller, more fleet-footed car begging for fun without being terrifying. Taking it through a small hilly road or tree-lined canyon treat would be more enjoyable because the Fiesta footprint is so much narrower than the Focus, let alone in the city. Also being slower but just as eager, the Fiesta lets the fun last longer in a “more fun to drive a slow car fast” mantra, with 200hp instead of 252.
Usual complaints of cheap interior materials in bad places (window sill… I’m sorry, but I want my arm up there sometimes), small back seat, and lack of a genuine exhaust note are all minor issues all told. I’m not too concerned with track-related issues such as lack of tow-hook in front, true limited-slip differential for the front tires, etc.
The FiST offers about as much room inside as my Echo, with hatchback useability for bulkier items, coming in at around $24,000, and getting in the 30’s for MPG. All Fiesta’s are a good driving package, with this being a well sorted topper for the model.
-Mazda Miata MX5 NB: More specifically, I’d love a green 2001 with the silver five-spoke 15” wheels, tan cloth seats, and wooden Nardi steering wheel and shift knob. Some of that is likely not in the package, but I’d swap out leather for cloth no issue. I wish I had more time in the silver example I was in, but while I was it was simply natural. At the very least, trying the six-speed would be nice, having the hard-top added would be practical, and minor stuff like a mild exhaust would happen. Probably not over the Fiesta ST just for the sake of the impracticality. But as a drivers car, it’s truly amazing how easy and at-one it can be when behind the wheel.
-2005 Mazda3 manual [nixed, high seating]: A middle-road between the Mazda MX5 spunk and the Fiesta ST’s hatchback usability, the Mazda3 is a common enough vehicle to find to split the difference. I drove the 2.3L sedan with a manual, and that was enough to make me forego any of my Toyota fanboyisms leading me to familiarity in the Yaris, Scion xA, or Matrix/Vibe family. Steering, interior, shifter, seating position, power delivery—everything was orchestrated and put together in a way Mazda didn’t even replicate in the next generation [edit: and even in the modern generation]. Mazda had a solidity to this car, and a certain austere sportiness that made it almost BMW-meets-Audi to the interior. While there may be a few things to improve, they don’t immediately come to mind. Downsides are the big-brother Mazda6 exists, offering V6 power with automatic or manual transmissions, multiple body styles (four door, four-door hatch, and wagon), and handling like a grown-family Miata. The Mazda3 also has a back seat is relatively small even for the class, and that it’s a bit of a stylistic mix of boy-racer and late-high school/early-college girl chic (much like the Scion tC… except I consider the Mazda3 a worthwhile car to own). Nevertheless, the Mazda3 has aged well enough and performs acceptably over its modern rivals to make a solid case as a more visceral experience than the more vague 3’s that replaced it.
-2015 Mustang V6 automatic: Speaking of high school/college girl chic, this is pretty much the epitome of such a horrifically cliché aspect of life that, frankly, I’m very distant from but don’t see changing any time soon. What makes the 2015-2016 Mustang V6 coupe so special is that it is so hated on because the EcoBoost and V8 exist. Ford has gone out of their way to make the V6 as drab to the enthusiast as possible by highlighting the new turbo-four and ‘Murca V8 that the very capable V6 is left out in the cold for no good reason. Ford even dropped it by five horsepower just to make it even less attractive to the EcoBoost. I’ve driven the old 3.7L Mustang’s with that live axle (think of a truck, and that unsophisticated hopping feeling on full throttle bumpy roads), and while plenty quick, they weren’t something to be proud of unless you optioned them up a bit with performance parts and packages Ford offered. Not so for this new style. Now it comes standard with hot looks inside and out, decent materials, a push-button start, leather-wrapped wheel, huggy cloth seats—I could go on for a while.
All said the V6 Coupe is a viable means for a bargain enthusiast coupe because it offers all. It rides better than the early Genesis Coupe, visibility is better than any modern Camaro and Challenger (the only modern coupe I can think of that’s this good might be the second and third-gen Audi TT), and it keeps up fine with 2005-2010 Mustang GT’s in a straight line. I understand how awesome the GT feels, having driven the 2014’s both manual and automatic, but the V6 is so balanced that it’s a shame the 2017 is booting it all together. Nothing seems to overpower each other in this package: brakes work with handling works with power works with ride—at least with how I drove it. But like the Miata, it’s not the practical choice.
-2009 Subaru WRX: While what I drove was a 2008 (most hated of this generation by enthusiasts), and though it was a slightly trashed repossession car, I was amazed at just how nice it was. Mostly the seats and ride were noticeable in this package. Supportive, comfortable sport-buckets that I missed as soon as I was out. What’s more, I know these Subaru’s have more room inside than its predecessor (which in looking back it looks like they share the same headlight design).This repo also had an aftermarket exhaust, but with the windows up it was quiet, without drone like some other vehicles, but it still had lovely fuel-pops when relieving the throttle. A tight turning circle also makes the WRX a handy car for maneuvering in town or tight backroads.
Bad things this generation of WRX brought from the old generation was a somewhat rubbery shifter (forgivable), and a fairly heavy clutch pedal (not kind over time). On modern (2015+) WRX’s and faster STi’s, the shifter and clutch are light and smooth like a Honda (a trait of the 5.0L Mustang GT’s of recent years, and the Dodge Challenger Hemi’s, oddly enough). What’s sad is the current Impreza performance hatches don’t come in a hatchback, while this older generation did– and I’m a sucker for that hatch usefullness.
Why did I specify the 2009? First of all the power rose from 230hp to 265, which is nice. More importantly, the later model WRX became too much like the more butch STi. Flared arches, scoops and vents everywhere, large wheels and big exhausts… it diluted the STi look while at the same time being a WRX that looks like the faster STi without the go-fast bits. Subaru shot itself by making the WRX so much more aggressive later on, as it was too close to the top-tier. Sure they looked cool, went great (nearly as fast), and sold well, but the 2010-2014 simply doesn’t do it for me. The 2009 fits the gap of the bland 2008 by adding some modest changes like charcoal colored wheels and a WRX badge in a new sport-mesh grille, but being less “look at me!” machismo of the faux-STi.
-2013 Lexus GS350: How can this be so good? I mean, as a drivers car in an age where Toyota is the laughing stock, and Lexus is its soft luxury cousin who tries to take on the Germans. But really, it does. The GS has a wonderfully done up suspension, accurate steering, and great interior materials. For being so massive, the turning radius is superb for U-turns, and when it comes to ride and handling it’s a breath of fresh air for not being overdone. Too many German and American (Cadillac) luxury-sport sedans go for heavy steering and harsh rides to take back some of the hard-core feeling of the “good ol’ days.” But we don’t live in the old days, and even though I’m in love with the idea of hating technology, Lexus did right by making this a comfortable and competent machine. Most of the throttle noise is a trumpeting from the intake up front, otherwise being a smooth and unnoticed engine. The transmission is on par with most in this class, revving the engine to smooth downshifts with the best of them. What’s more, the traction and stability aren’t very intrusive, and work quite well even in the genuinely wet.
Of course, Lexus has things wrong, like their dashboard screen controlled by a mouse-like feature near the gear selector. BMW and Audi have better systems than this, and while Lexus does have some of the important controls as redundant buttons, it’s not enough of them. This forces you to clonk around through menus through an non-intuitive interface. I also wasn’t a fan of the windshield wiper stalk, which doesn’t have the usual detents, but that’s aided by an automatic mode which makes it less hateful.
As long as I don’t have to use the menus on the screen, this car would be an excellent vehicle for nearly anything– a blast across the U.S., a night out with friends or family, and even out in a canyon alone. This isn’t even the sportier F-Sport package I’m talking about, here. The GS350 is a V6-powered rear-wheel drive car with over 300hp. The Hyundai Genesis, Infiniti G35, Camaro, and Mustang V6 come to mind alongside the Cadillac ATS (a class smaller than the GS), and the GS would still easily be my choice for the size, materials, and driving capabilities. That’s how capable and confident it is, and how surprising it was both times I’ve piloted one.
-2010 Cadillac CTS Wagon [nixed; visibility and wasn’t find of some sedan handling traits]:While I haven’t driven one of the wagons (or coupes), the 3.6L sedan takes what the Camaro V6 is built on, but it’s in a body that can be used. Unlike the 2009 Camaro– or any modern Camaro– the CTS wasn’t designed for pantomime and Transformer whoring. It was a Cadillac. Leather. Wood (ish). Comfort. While the interior was a bit too similar in material quality of lower-wrung GM’s, that’s not horrible to say for this era. The Malibu LTZ’s are fine for interiors compared to the 2004 predecessors. A CTS Wagon does what a Magnum SRT8 offered on a smaller and slower scale, but with better fuel economy and nicer treatment in the cabin. There are more surfaces with richer tones, less cheapy exterior with jeweled lamps littered with modern LED’s and projector-beam headlights. No need for a V8 here, with a potent enough 306hp V6 and a choice of six-speed manual or automatic transmissions. Camaro’s offered a dual-mode exhaust that could probably be fitted to open up (and sound awesome over 3,000rpm when the valves open in the mufflers). That automatic isn’t infallible, nor does the CTS offer an obvious paddle-shifter steering wheel like the Camaro, or newer ATS line, but as a touring wagon it’s a commendable piece that still comes close to mixing comfort with pony-car fun. Sadly the rear corners are so blocked by sheetmetal, I may change my mind on the wagon aspect. The CTS is at least a bargain GS350 contender.
-Ford Flex EcoBoost: While I’m more a believer in minivans, the Ford Flex makes a nice case for large cross-over vehicles. The long, low shape is a breath of fresh air for the segment that tries too hard to be rugged in looks. The interior cargo volume is apparently smaller than some of its competition, but that’s a surprise at it actually feels quite roomy over-all. Later Flex models had an improved interior with better seats, materials, and steering wheel for a richer feel and more comfortable driving. The base V6 is adequate, but the EcoBoost and all-wheel drive puts the EcoBoost into an easy roadtripper with family or stuff. Handling for such a large vehicle is surprising, with just enough rear-end rotation to make corners a bit more of a joy.
Element: I don’t care if it’s a boxy, top-heavy CR-V with less practicality—I’ve always liked them. And now that I’ve driven a few of them (both manual and automatic), I’m fine with it for sure. It’s amazing willing to be wrung-out and driven like a Honda. The stereo is crappy for the acoustically challenged interior, but I’m no audiophile (which I suppose really hits home how bad it can be). Mostly I just want this as a joint vehicle for me and my long-time, live-in girlfriend to take day or weekend trips in, with the E-Camper up top. The Element offered curtains the entire way around the interior, and a pop-tent that mounted to the rear lift-gate for over-night campers. Having the E-Camper with these already availible features makes for sleeping for up to four people (which is all the Element will seat), and the popped-roof and curtains make for an at-beach changing room… not that I’m active, but the Element would help push that along.