New Or Used?: The Enthusiast's Dilemma Edition

Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang
by Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang
new or used the enthusiast s dilemma edition

Sunil Shah writes:

I am wondering if you can give me some advice as I search for a used car. By way of background, I previously had an E46 330i w/sport package and manual transmission (purchased used at 35K miles and sold at 89K miles). It was a great car, but I sold a while back as I moved into a city and had a short walk to work. Now, I’m back in the suburbs and am looking for something that may or may not exist.

Here are my requirements:

– at least 4 doors, but would prefer a wagon (just had a baby and like the idea of the extra utility);

– manual transmission

– engaging to drive

– decent gas mileage (mid-to-high 20s on the highway)

– budget is $20K

– would like to keep this for 5 years (will be my daily driver)

I’ve been looking for an E46 or E39 wagon with stick, but have not come across any in the past two months (plenty with auto though). Then I’ve thought of Audis (A3, A4) but reading through various sites seems to indicate that these are maintenance nightmares as the miles pile on (moreso than BMWs). I’ve looked at the IS300 Sportcross (auto only), but the gas mileage on these is rather low (22-23, at best).

Lastly, I’ve read about (but have not driven) the Mazda6 wagon… though, I’m not sure I’m digging the interior all that much. Alternatively, if I go with a sedan, any thoughts regarding keeping and maintaining an E39 M5 or an E36 M3 sedan?

Steve Lang answers:

This is really the domain of three types of vehicles. A Subaru Impreza is a lot of fun to drive and would probably be the best overall fit. It fits all of your criteria and there are also plenty of handshakers out there that would meet your enthusiast bent. Parts should be very reasonable since Subaru tends to have longer model runs for their cars.

Two other ones I would consider are… sedans. The Acura TSX may not be a wagon. But it is a bit nicer as a daily driver and the quality of the interior is two clicks above the Impreza. Finally, you have one other near-new car that may be worth the consideration… a VW Jetta TDI. I’m sure that the Jetta is available with a stick as a wagon. But I simply haven’t seen one.

The same is true for the ‘Saabaru’ also known as the Saab 9-2X. That’s really just a Subaru with better seats. Overall if it were me, I would opt for a late 1990’s 5-Series BMW and use the remainder of your monies for repairs. Actually… that’s not it. I would really buy a well kept 1990’s Volvo turbo wagon and be done with it. Fun, luxury… and the absolute best seats in the business. Replace the shocks and put some nice wheels on it, and you’ll have the nicest ride in the car pool lane.

Sajeev Mehta answers:

I cringe when a budget this puny (sorry!) comes from someone with BMW aspirations. You’ll need a second mortgage to keep an M-series running, but even a mundane 3-series is a bit of a stretch. This is where a good Desi recommends a CamCord to a fellow brown person.

And just wait a second: did you mention fuel economy and M-series cars in the same letter?

Let’s pretend that didn’t happen, because we gotta narrow this project’s scope. Any car that fits your bill is more of a financial burden than mainstream sedans. So stick with the basics. Several Subarus come to mind, sit in a few and see if you can get over the quirky styling and boxer labor rates. Speaking of quirky, a new Scion xB with the dealer installed suspension goodies might work. Or a Mazda 3, but you’ll get your wrist slapped if you mention the Speed3 and fuel economy.

So I’m going with one of your original choices, the Mazda6 wagon. It fits the bill and pushes many of the Teutonic buttons so desirable in a Bimmer. But good luck finding one with a stick shift in the console, anywhere.

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  • Areitu Areitu on Apr 21, 2010

    Subarus would fit your bill pretty well. The timing belt service can be a bit of a pain though. Their MTs sometimes feel vague and squishy, but $70 of aftermarket bushings will fix that. I did a lot of forum-reading on the E36 M3/4/5 (four door, five speed...nearly bought one with only 72k miles on it) and found out the're generally better taken care of than equivalent Non-Ms, and are solid on the reliability/maintenance front once the major issues (water pump impeller) and the usual E36 maintenance is addressed. If it has aftermarket suspension, peek under the rear to make sure the swaybar hasn't popped off it's mounts, or for cracks. E39s have a lot of small issues in general, regardless of whether you have a 528i or M5. Dead pixels in the readout, worn suspension, interior HVAC sensors gone bad, cooling system issues, etc. It wouldn't stop the car from running, but it could be annoying or expensive. What are older CTSVs going for nowadays? I'm sure you could get decent MPG out of one if you drove it gently and used skip-shift.

  • Skurtis Skurtis on Apr 21, 2010

    I just purchased a used one year old Jetta Wagon (non-TDI) with a stick having test drove a new Jetta Wagon TDI with a stick and I would highly recommend both. When looking for the used one I did come across a TDI version with a stick for $19k ($28k new as equipped) so it falls within your budget. The gas version can be significantly cheaper to purchase used since they start at $20k new.

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