New or Used: Blowin' It Away, Or Not?

Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang
by Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang

Westin writes:

Sajeev and Steve,

I’m a 19 year old college student in the market for a car. I used to drive a 2006 GLI, but it has since been sold because it wasn’t really needed at the time. I’ll be living off campus next year, so I’m trying to decide on a car that I would purchase sometime in the next couple of months. It has to be under 18k, practical, at least as reliable as my GLI was, somewhat sporty, and a stick shift. I’ve been looking at Volvo S40 T5s, GTIs, IS300s, and Mazda 6s (the last being my dad’s idea, not mine). I would consider a Ford, but the other domestics are pretty much out of the question. My dad drives German and is fully aware of the “quirks” that come with it, which is why I’m a little hesitant to suggest an A4 or 3 Series. The GLI was an angel when we owned it though, and he has a soft spot for VAG and BMW, so I’m not completely ruling those out. We’re both car nuts and are pretty knowledgeable about what’s on the market, but I wanted to see if there was something that I missed or haven’t considered.

Steve Answers:

$18,000 can buy a lot of car. In many areas of this country it can also give you a healthy down payment on a house.

You’re sure you wanna blow it all on some wheels? Maybe a good $5000 car that will last you five years can be coupled with a $13,000 bump in your net worth.

Oh wait. I just realized that you’re 19. Forget what I just said. You now have a golden opportunity to buy a new set of wheels which should last you until an advanced degree yields the proverbial Yuppie union card and a six figure salary. Nothing wrong with that. Especially since you’ll likely have a debt free life by the time you get ready to settle. So with that in mind, you need a reliable car that is sporty, practical and fun.

On the new side…. Scion Tc. It bumps right near the 18k mark and comes loaded up with all the features you would want ever want in a sporty coupe. It’s quick, fun to drive, and I would be very confident of it lasting well past the 200k mark if you take care of it. Much more so than a VW Beetle, Mini, Kia Forte or… well… I don’t see a VW guy moving to a Civic.

On the used side… you have more four door sedans, hatchbacks, and wagons than I can mention here. Over the years I’ve known a lot of young folks who have benefited from the hard labor of their parents. If you want to spend 18k on a car, do it! They worked hard so that you can enjoy your life. But whatever you decide, try to find a vehicle that will truly last you a good 15 years.

That way you can enjoy the times to come without any stress or hardship from your ride. Good luck!

Sajeev Answers:

Your Dad sounds like a sharp dude, mostly because he suggested the Mazda 6…and you did not! Look, I understand the allure of these VWs and other imports, but you are a young guy who has better things to do than put up with the bullshit of a money sucking sedan.Stick with mainstream. Parts, labor and insurance is cheap. You can have money for stuff that really matters in college, like dressing sharp to impress chicks, having nice stuff in your apartment and generally focusing on things that will actually make you a better person in your future. That said, don’t have too much nice stuff in your apartment, those are the units that get broken into by inside jobbers.

No gigantic TVs and nothing except for a Mazda 6 in your assigned parking spot! Enjoy college, get good grades but don’t be an anti-social, endlessly studying/wrenching stick in the mud like I was back in the day. The Mazda 6 will help there too. Or maybe a Chevy Cobalt SS, that’s totally worth considering.

Need help with a car buying conundrum? Email your particulars to sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.com , and let TTAC’s collective wisdom make the decision easier… or possibly much, much harder.
Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang
Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang

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  • Mnm4ever Mnm4ever on Oct 31, 2011

    A used GTI can be a great value, you could get a really nice one for $18k. I have one, and I love it, since you had a GLI, you will probably love it too. But I don't think you should get one now for college. They require extra maintenance, extra care and feeding, and they are delicate. You dont need to deal with the headaches when you have school and homework and parties to go to! Here is my list: Mazda3 -- used hatch, new sedan, whatever. $18k buys you a lot of Mazda, and I had a real hard time choosing between a 3S and my GTI. Except for the turbo grunt of the GTI, the Mazda was just as much fun to drive, more comfortable, and much easier on the wallet day-today. Roomy too, for freinds. Jeep Wrangler -- No, its not a sports car. But its the PERFECT college student car when you have money. Everyone loves Jeeeps, girls love Jeeps, you can pile people in it, who cares, its tough. No worries about parking, drive over curbs, park where you want. Take the roof off, go from party to party, head to the beach. When you get older you wont always want to take your Jeep to work, sitting in traffic. But now you can enjoy it! You dad will want to borrow it, and then you can drive whatever sporty car he drives. Mustang GT -- $18k buys you a really nice 2005+ GT Mustang, definitely best bang for the buck performance-wise. I also like the suggestion of a GTO, if you can get past the GM thing... the GTO has the best engine and best interior, nothing like a typical GM muscle car. Its much better than the new Camaro even.

  • Joshua Johnson Joshua Johnson on Oct 31, 2011

    I realize I am a little late to the party, but I will offer my two cents anyways. Westin, from what I picked up in your posts, it sounds like you care about driving dynamics. Therefore, buy whatever you please as you will be the one ultimately driving the car. I bought a used Jaguar S-Type R in my senior year of college. You wouldn't believe what the naysayers were recommending, Camcord et al. However, as I was the one driving the car, and I truly enjoy driving, it was a no brainer: the Jag felt right whereas the others were lacking the requisite emotional and physical connection. On top of it all, I worked my way through college, paid my own bills and wrote checks every six months for tuition - so I was damn well going to drive whatever I wanted to if it was my own money on the line. Two and a half years later, I am still thrilled to drive that car every chance I get. Sure, maintenance hasn't been cheap, but as I don't really have any other vices, and it doesn't financially cripple me, the cost of upkeep does not bother me. Sure I cringe sometimes, but who doesn't. (And yes Mr. Lang, I have already bought a house and established a safety net; I am currently in debt paydown mode) Overall, I would not trade the memories I have had with this car for anything else. Sure, I might have had a little extra cash in the bank, but there comes a point where worrying about the bottom line causes you to miss other opportunities (this coming from a miser in just about every other aspect of my financial life). For instance, by owning my car and having it serviced for major items at the dealership, I am able to participate in so called lifestyle events hosted by said dealership. Here I rub elbows with persons of extreme interest to my professional life; we discuss cars, life and exchange business cards. Does something come of these exchanges- not usually. But, would I have met these people as organically if I had owned a different make? Most likely not. I apologize for the sermonizing, but finance and cars are passions of mine; put them together and this is the result. I also realize I may be an outlier; I've been fortunate and am ever thankful for the opportunities that have thus far been presented to me. Westin is fortunate enough to be in the position he is; he realizes this otherwise he wouldn't have asked for the advice. So buy whatever car you please as indicated by your budget; if it were me with the given list of cars, I would chose the Volve S40 (though admittedly I would skip forward to the S60R as other posters mentioned above). Nicely appointed interior, fairly reliable mechanicals, pretty good driving dynamics, and above all, insurance wont kill you. Repairs are a wild card for any car, but insurance is a known variable and it isn't cheap.

  • FreedMike Well, here's my roster of car purchases since 1981: Three VWsTwo Mazdas (one being a Mercury Tracer, full disclosure)One AudiOne FordOne BuickOne HondaOne Volvo I think I hear Lee Greenwood in the background... In all seriousness, I'd have bought more American cars had they made more of the kinds of cars I like (smaller, performance-oriented).
  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X I'll gladly support the least "woke" and the most Japanese auto company out there.
  • Jmo2 I just got an email from the dealership where I bought my car and it looks like everything has $5k on the hood.
  • Lou_BC I suspect that since the global pandemic, dealerships have preferred to stay with the "if you want it, we will order it" business model. They just need some demo models on hand and some shiny bits to catch the impulse buyer. Profits are higher and risks lower this way.
  • Probert When I hear the word "patriot", I think of entitled hateful whining ignorant traitors to democracy. But hey , meant to say "Pass the salt."
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