Ask Bark: Big Fun On A Small Budget?

Mark "Bark M." Baruth
by Mark "Bark M." Baruth
El Jo writes:Hey Mr. Bark,I’m looking for a reliable sporty or sportscar that I could get for under $6,000. This would be a daily driver, so it can’t be totally impractical, and I don’t want to have to take it to the mechanic all the time. It should be stick shift and newer if possible, at least a ’90s model. I’m not planning any track days, so the car would be something fun to drive on the street and on occasional trips through the twisties. Some obvious suggestions are a Civic Si or an NA Miata, but maybe you have a more unconventional answer?If you have any interesting ideas that stretch the requirements just a little, I’d love to hear those too. I live near San Francisco.Thanks!God bless you, El. Or should I call you Jo? Regardless, I’ve spent my fair share of time bombing around the Bay Area, and I have a few cars in mind that I believe you’d enjoy greatly.Before we begin, readers should know that the San Francisco used car market is pretty inflated in comparison to the rest of the country, due to all sorts of lightning rod economic issues, so some recommendations that I’d normally make won’t fly there. E36 and E46 BMWs, in particular, are far too expensive in NorCal.
On the practicality scale, it’s hard to beat a Scion tC in this range. Enough power to be fun to drive with a good sized hatchback and dead reliable ( just watch out for those hatch handles). If you were asking my opinion on what I’d personally buy with my money, it would be the tC all day long.But, since I’ve recommended the tC on these pages fairly recently, let’s investigate other options, shall we?
While the NA Miata is an obvious choice, I don’t know why so many people sleep on the NB Miata. The NB has a dedicated community, and clean 1999 and 2000 model year examples can be found in excellent condition at the top of your price range. The NB is also less likely to have been hooned to death than your average NA, and it’s probably a more pleasant car to drive every day.I’d also be remiss to not mention the Toyota MR2 Spyder. These are found at the top of your price range, but will also give the Honda S2000 a run for its money at autocross events with some light modifications. The MR2 Spyder of the early 2000s was known to have pre-catalytic converter issues that can fry the engine permanently, so find a mechanic who knows how to check for this issue if you’re considering one of these. The tops can be leaky, too, but we are talking about a 15-year-old car here — it’s to be expected.
The early-year Pontiac Solstice is starting to fall into your price range, too, and it’s surprisingly quick and easy to drive hard. It still looks great on the road, too; I think the Solstice has aged much better (visually) than even the NC Miata. Problem is, the build quality on the Pontiac has always been suspect. At least many of its parts are shared with other GM cars, so it would be inexpensive to fix when things go pear-shaped. Just make sure that you never, ever, ever have to use the trunk for anything at all.MINI Cooper hardtops are falling sharply into this price range now, and widely available in San Francisco, but I would avoid the temptation to look at one. They’re not particularly reliable, they’re not incredibly practical, and they’re not cheap to fix. Move along, nothing to see here.
If you’re thinking Civic Si, why not see if you can find a decent Acura RSX in your range? I’ve always been a fan of the RSX, and I think they’ve aged gracefully. The practicality factor on the RSX is very high — probably the most practical car we’ve mentioned here. They’re also holding their value, so if you sell it three to four years from now, you won’t lose much money, if any. Even an early 2000s Accord Coupe V6 could be a nice match.Finally, the Ford Recommendation Of The Week is a New Edge Mustang GT. However, even I have to admit that an old Mustang in San Francisco is not the hippest car to have. So, with regret, I’m striking it from the list.The official WWBD Top 3, in order:
  1. Acura RSX
  2. Scion tC
  3. Toyota MR2 Spyder
There you have it. Go forth and have a blast.[Images courtesy of the manufacturers.]Bark M. has been called the “Dear Abby of the Car Enthusiast Set” by noted advice columnist, Bark M. Send your car buying questions to him at, or find him in a social way on Twitter and Instagram.
Mark "Bark M." Baruth
Mark "Bark M." Baruth

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  • APaGttH APaGttH on Mar 11, 2016

    2004 or 2005 Pontiac Vibe or Toyota Matrix GT with the 6-speed manual. Nothing super special but the VVT engine is rev happy, it will take to being tossed around, you can find them for under $6K, and they are strangely practical from a passenger and cargo carrying stand point. That particular combination of engine and transmission is quite reliable. I think all the other recommendations are kind of played out above.

  • Afedaken Afedaken on Mar 11, 2016

    First year Solstice owner here. The mechanicals for the most part are reliable. Given that it's mostly a parts-bin car, this is to be expected. Things that break: Driver may brake if the airbags fail to deply. MAKE SURE THE IGNITION SWITCH RECALL IS DONE. The keyfob is crap. But all of the GM keyfobs of the same era were crap. Get a nice aftermarket one from an alarm/audio shop. Bad catalytic converter, which was covered by a recall. Diff requires an additive to the fluid, so make sure your dealer adds this. Your outside door handles will fail. Expect to replace them at least once. I think these were recalled. The passenger side cup holder will fail. Don't bother to replace this, but if you must, a nice billet aluminum one is available from The plastic trim where the seatbelt exits the cabin trim will break. I just threw some slit hose around the now larger exit hole, and called it a day. Make sure that the area the top drops into in the "Trunk" is clear of all objects before you lower it, or you run the risk of tearing the top. The bolts holding my headlights to the hood eventually backed out, leaving the light hanging. Replacements bolts should recieve loctite or something similar to keep this from happening.

  • Varezhka The biggest underlying issue of Mitsubishi Motors was that for most of its history the commercial vehicles division was where all the profit was being made, subsidizing the passenger vehicle division losses. Just like Isuzu.And because it was a runt of a giant conglomerate who mainly operated B2G and B2B, it never got the attention it needed to really succeed. So when Daimler came in early 2000s and took away the money making Mitsubishi-Fuso commercial division, it was screwed.Right now it's living off of its legacy user base in SE Asia, while its new parent Nissan is sucking away at its remaining engineering expertise in EV and kei cars. I'd love to see the upcoming US market Delica, so crossing fingers they will last that long.
  • ToolGuy A deep-dive of the TTAC Podcast Archives gleans some valuable insight here.
  • Tassos I heard the same clueless, bigoted BULLSHEET about the Chinese brands, 40 years ago about the Japanese Brands, and more recently about the Koreans.If the Japanese and the Koreans have succeeded in the US market, at the expense of losers such as Fiat, Alfa, Peugeot, and the Domestics,there is ZERO DOUBT in my mind, that if the Chinese want to succeed here, THEY WILL. No matter what one or two bigots do about it.PS try to distinguish between the hard working CHINESE PEOPLE and their GOVERNMENT once in your miserable lives.
  • 28-Cars-Later I guess Santa showed up with bales of cash for Mitsu this past Christmas.
  • Lou_BC I was looking at an extended warranty for my truck. The F&I guy was trying to sell me on the idea by telling me how his wife's Cadillac had 2 infotainment failures costing $4,600 dollars each and how it was very common in all of their products. These idiots can't build a reliable vehicle and they want me to trust them with the vehicle "taking over" for me.