By on August 27, 2018

Image: 1994 Honda Civic

We all had to start somewhere. Most of us have turned a wrench or three on a car, particularly one in which we’ve tried — with varying degrees of success — to make “better.”

I put that word in quotation marks because some of my well-intentioned wrenching sessions simply ended up making things a heckuva lot worse. Today’s question is simple: what (realistic) car would you recommend to a kid who wants to spend their time and money hopping up a vehicle?

Surely we can all agree the beautiful coupe at the top of this post is out of the cards, as any good examples have long since returned to the earth in the form of fine iron-oxide filings … at least in most parts of the country. Nevertheless, that Civic was easy to work on and owners had an abundance of aftermarket gear from which to choose.

What’s the modern equivalent? One could argue the modern Civic, as the big H never seems to go out of style with the tuner crowd. A present-day Golf wouldn’t be a bad choice either, given its measure of handling and decent availability of tuning choices.

These days, I’d recommend the FR-S/BRZ/86/whatevernameitistoday. Used examples abound, many of which have relatively low mileage thanks to a quick trade-in due to buyer’s remorse or spousal prodding or any number of reasons. Sales drones in most Toyota showrooms don’t seem to know how to sell a cool car anymore, content to sit on their heels and shovel people into beige Corollas. Both situations — new and used — are advantageous for people like us.

What would you recommend for a budding gearhead? It doesn’t need to be a new car; perhaps you think something about five years old would turn their crank. Sound off below, and be sure to tell us why.

[Image: Honda]

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65 Comments on “QOTD: Help for Noobs?...”


  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    Used Civics are painfully overpriced. Freeze Breeze twins too. I’d look laterally at a Corolla or Sentra. Won’t be that thrilling, but you can get your hands dirty and move on. Just get a stickshift version, which will be dirt cheap.

  • avatar
    ajla

    “Power” on a tight budget: any supercharged 3800 vehicle.
    “Power” on less of a budget: solid-axle Mustang GT

    “Handling” on a tight budget: Miata
    “Handling” on less of a budget: also Miata

    • 0 avatar
      raph

      Definitely an S-197 Mustang GT – very easy car to work on and lots of aftermarket support. The pick of the litter being the coyote powered cars of course although I prefer the cleaner lines of the 05-09 cars and people have successfully swapped the 4v mill into the older cars (I also remember a guy doing a 4v 5.4 swap as well).

      The only real downside of course is that you have to put up with 3.5 billion graduates from the Robert Lane Saget School of Comedy and their beat a mustang to death “steers into a crowd” jabs.

      • 0 avatar
        raph

        Also forgot to add that the chassis can be sorted out fairly well (my first S-197 with FRPP handling kit and a switch to summer 255/45R18’s at all four corners) was a very sweet handling car. Toss in a Torsen diff and avoid all the adjustable suspension bits outside of a caster/camber kit and panhard bar and your set.

        The only real vice with the cars is the live axle of course and the propensity for people to panic and immediately lift off the throttle when they get into trouble ending up as endless fuel for the Saget School of Comedy crowd.

    • 0 avatar
      SirRaoulDuke

      Mustang is the right answer. Plenty of less than $5k V8 examples around here, sure it is the less-desirable New Edge but that’s a great place to begin with a deep aftermarket and knowledge base.

      Miata, the kids around here seem to be slamming them and making them look stupid.

      • 0 avatar
        raph

        Indeed with the Miata, meat for the near suicidal stanced/demon camber crowd who I’ve found out aren’t just satisfied with zero suspension travel and dangerously acute camber but these loons have now also taken to shaving down the sidewalls on the tires until they are smooth.

      • 0 avatar
        Erikstrawn

        +1 on the New Edge Mustangs. One of my kids has a V6, and it’s supremely cheap and easy to work on. Most stock parts are available at the local you-pull-it yard. Hop up parts are available all over the internet.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Something not too expensive, with easy access to lots of cheap parts.

    So many Japanese vehicles (Toyota, Honda, Subaru) are out of the question due to the ‘premium’ on them.

    Certainly can’t be European for the above reasons, plus cost of parts

    Can’t be too old, at least in the ‘rust belt’ as the body/frame will fall apart due to corrosion.

    Possibly be a Suzuki or Mitsu, or may be even a Hyundai or Nissan? As mentioned above, must be a MT.

    However my recommendation is a good old GM 3800. Easier to work on. Lots of cheap parts. Lots of people with knowledge of it to ask for advice. New enough to still have a ‘solid’ body, yet fairly inexpensive due to lack of ‘cool’ factor. And the engine itself is solid, and can be modified to produce a ‘prodigious’ amount of performance.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    Someone’s going to figure out how to tune an Accent, and that person will have a first class sleeper.

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      Back in the day, folks used to take late ’90s Accents and drop Elantra motors into them. For the right years, it was a direct bolt-in and even used the same ECU.

      • 0 avatar
        sportyaccordy

        It got even nuttier. The Hyundai/Mitsubishi marriage was even deeper, and 4G63 swaps into old Elantras was easy peasy. Problem was what to do with the rest of the chassis.

  • avatar
    dividebytube

    Back in the day, RWD cars with V8 engines were a-plenty. “Hopping up” just about any of those cars – even the malaise wonders – wasn’t that difficult, but may involve a whole drive train replacement if you wanted to get serious.

    These days it takes a bit more – and there are places like Cobb which will sell ready-to-go kits, including ECU flashes/plug-ins.

    I would go that route – maybe a used Ford Focus or Fiesta ST – though anything newer may be beyond the reach of your average young car enthusiast.

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      As a Fiesta ST owner, I don’t disagree so long as you dont mind making payments. You can get one new for 18k right now with all the rebates. Not sure I’d want to wrench for the first time on a new, under warranty car though but if you are talking Cat Backs, airbox mods, and ECU tunes, and can swing the payment its pretty solid.

    • 0 avatar
      raph

      As much as it pains me to say this…

      They’re plenty of LS swap kits out there to put the GM V8 in an almost endless variety of vehicles including many import vehicles.

      The aftermarket has made it fairly easy to either go carbureted or keep the fuel injection in place.

      And with pervasive swap projects like the popular 32 Ford builds you have access to parts that would make it easier.

      That said, if your looking into say anything Chevrolet with an SBC the LS would be my go to choice (I cant fault somebody there) or anything GM in malaise era of course, especially the sweet G-body cars (Regal T-type or Grand National aside. To put a V8 into one of those cars even a turbocharged V8 is heresy).

      • 0 avatar
        Art Vandelay

        I am as big of a fan of LS SWAP FTW as anyone, but it isn’t really what I’d recommend to a kid just getting into wrenching.

        • 0 avatar
          raph

          A bit pricey but on balance I did just that in my high school years. 350 into an Old Starfire. It was a pretty fun car.

          You have of course the popluar fox/LS swap which isnt that expensive at all if they stick with a 5.3 and four banger hatch plus the 5.3 will easily outpower any stock based 5.0 from the era ( GT40 and GT40P Explorer V8 heads are about the best in-line valve heads you can get for a Windsor Ford and the 5.3 heads are lightyears beyond those in terms of flow plus whatever else will fit on the smallish 5.3 bore).

  • avatar
    tylanner

    I’m seeing a ton of Hyundai Genesis Coupes here in IL…but to my surprise the market shows them commanding IMO extreme 370z like premiums…

    I don’t think you can beat the used parts, model interchangeability and massive aftermarket of the mk5/mk6/mk7 GTI….

    But then again you really can’t replicate the simplicity, efficiency and resale value of the Japanese imports from the 2000’s….I’m thinking a base RSX or EP3 at a minimum…

    • 0 avatar
      boozysmurf

      I was going to say exactly that, Tylanner (the Genesis Coupe). Where are you that they’re expensive?

      And I say this as an owner, since 2009.

      But 2010-11 are dirt cheap here in Ontario. You can get a good one (under 100,000km/60,000miles) for anywhere between $6500-$10,000CDN. If you want the second generation, you’re looking at arounc $13k CDN for a 2.0T, and maybe $14500 for the same thing with brembos, LSD, and OEM 19’s. Aftermarket parts aren’t particularly cheap, but tuning options are, and especially for the 2.0T show pretty massive initial gains without any real threat to the drivetrain (280whp is pretty normal for a second generation 2.0T with no mods other than a tune)

      If you could get an RSX from the last two years, you’re probably laughing too, those can’t be more than three or four grand now.

      GTI’s, on the other hand, serve a premium on price up here.

    • 0 avatar
      brn

      “resale value of the Japanese imports from the 2000’s”

      High resale value is only good if you’re selling a 15 year old car. If you’re buying one, it’s a terrible thing.

  • avatar
    e30gator

    The E46 BMW 3-Series. They’re a dime a dozen, can be had with a proper manual, are quick and handle decent, come with modern safety features, and have plenty of aftermarket parts sources available. Suprisingly not too difficult to work on either. Junkyards are also littered with old Bimmers, so scavenging cheap used parts should keep a kid out of the dealership parts dept for awhile.

    Plus, chicks dig’em.

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      You know, you can get into an e30 chassis for pretty cheap via the 325e models and if you are going to get into the motor they can be upgraded and that car has strong aftermarket. I’d toss the E36 in to the mix. The 46 was getting a little complex for my tastes but if you got a deal…

      • 0 avatar
        e30gator

        Yea, I threw the e46 out there because of the sheer number of sub $3k examples to choose from on Craigslist. The E30s (My personal fav) are starting to get thin on the ground for good examples. Also, most cars that old and small are rolling death traps should a kid “lose it” while driving one. A lot the e36’s I see are looking pretty ragged, but yes, that would be a nice beginner template for the budding enthusiast.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Hopping Up is the key word here. I’m not sure how much is out there for the 3800 SC motors. I’m sure pulleys can be changed to increase boost and custom exhausts can be fabbed, but beyond that what’s out there?

    If you can swing a Fox Body anything with a 5.0, that’s a candidate. Yes they are old and the Mustangs are getting spendy, but if you are talking about adding HP with inexpensive mods they are hard to beat and you wont be blazing any trails so there will be plenty of guidance for those new to wrenching. You’ll get reasonably modern drivability with the EFI models and the platforms weaknesses have been addressed by the aftermarket.

    But you will have to pay nowadays and a Civic would probably be less, in better shape, and easier on the wallet to drive. Wouldn’t knock one of the lower trim Integras either.

    Money wise, I’m thinking one of the MN-12 Thunderbird or Cougars with the 5.0. You get all of the 5.0 goodies (though intake wise youll likely need a new hood to get anything under it but the car is an excellent platform and they are at the bottom of the depreciation curve. As a bonus you wont see them everywhere. I believe they had the 8.8 rear end so you can easily regear it as well.

    If you are an import guy and willing to spend a little more, grab ab SC300. The mods will cost more but there is plenty out there that fits courtesey of the MKIV Supra. I have seen 5 speeds in the 5-6k range (though most command more) but the autos go very reasonably and pampered examples still exist. The sky is the limit on HP, but you’ll need to bring your wallet. Not an issue for some but Id prefer the T-Bird for the first timer.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      “but beyond that what’s out there?”

      zzperformance.com/3800/shop/

      http://intense-racing.com/Merchant2/merchant.mvc

      The aftermarket isn’t as deep as some others but it does exist, and the initial purchase price & spare part price/availability can’t be beat.

    • 0 avatar
      e30gator

      Good call on the MN-12. I had a ’91 Cougar XR7 with the 5.0 out of high school and that was a fun car. Too bad about those Ford 4-speed automatics though…I went through three of them. Maybe an earlier example with a manual?

    • 0 avatar
      DenverMike

      The re-gearing thing is huge. Maximizes returns on a 5.0 or 4.6 and really no other mod comes close to its bang for your buck, with no worries at the smog check. Then it’s “underdrive” pulleys and other minor/easy bolt-ons, exhaust, etc, for maximum “stock” useability/reliability, and moving on to suspension/brakes tuning, upgrades and whatnot.

  • avatar
    Hummer

    Advice to kids getting into cars? Stick with V8s or inline 6s so you don’t look like a fool trying to sink money into a lame platform that will never look interesting no matter how much money sunk into it.

    -No, no amount of money will make your 2.0Turdnugget sound like a 5.0 in a Mustang.

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      Stock Fiesta ST 0-60 6.4 seconds, 1/4 mile 14.9 seconds @ 94.6 mph (per Motor Trend)

      1993 Mustang Cobra (the pinnacle of the 5.0 iirc) 0-60 6.2 seconds, 1/4 mile 14.4 seconds @ 97.4 mph

      And one of them will turn as a bonus! And you are far less likely to get the Cobra than a tired GT.

      But if you want to learn to wrench and bolt on HP, yeah, hard to beat the 5.0 for sure

    • 0 avatar
      Maymar

      But what if you want your 2.0Turdnugget to sound like a swarm of angry Group B bees, who are also dropping cherry bombs all over the place? Cause, you know, there’s interesting cars out side of your limited standards.

  • avatar
    RSF

    Since this is aimed at kids, I’d say a 3.7L Mustang. There’s tons of aftermarket parts for them and they are cheap. Not many kids can afford a car payment, insurance(especially for a GT), gas, and still have money leftover for mods or hopping up the car.

    • 0 avatar
      raph

      The early 05-09 GT’s are a good choice as well since they were both 300 horsepower cars and equally fast.

      I wonder about insurance though??? You have the V8 stigma of course but like I said the 2011 and later V6 Mustangs are fairly quick especially in automatic form since there is zero learning curve with the powerband.

      Plus they have readily enough aftermarket support to add more than enough power to put the earlier V8 cars on a trailer.

      • 0 avatar
        RSF

        I just bought a 2012 V6 Premium Coupe for my teenage son to drive. In Houston where we live a GT would have cost us over $100 more a month than the V6. The V6 surprisingly wasn’t much more than a civic would have been.

        • 0 avatar
          raph

          Duly noted! I don’t have kids but that’s good to know.

          I wonder if the GT500 brakes are a bolt on for the 2011+ sixxers? On the older cars you would have to swap the ABS controller module as well but just as a sorta neat track car I’ve given some thought to using the 3.7 sixxer and big brakes along with a suspension, wheel and driveshaft swap as well as a nice exhaust setup using headers, x-pipe and a nice set of mufflers (I’m partial to Dynomax’s bullet mufflers but they aren’t for everybody since they tend to be a bit loud).

    • 0 avatar
      brn

      Just make sure the water pump has already been replaced, unless you’re looking for your first wrenching to be a tricky one.

  • avatar
    18726543

    I’m not sure I’d recommend a car at all. Learning to wrench on something like a Jeep Cherokee is a lot easier because of all the space around and under the vehicle. Steering and suspension upgrades go a long way in improving offroad capabilities of a vehicle and require zero electrical knowledge or computer involvement. The 4.0L I6 is pretty easy to work on and while yes, it’s not quite as robust as everyone claims it to be, it’s a fun and satisfying motor to upgrade in the ways of its failings (cooling system, timing chain, etc…).
    Also, if you get a Jeep that’s already kinda beat looking, who cares? The intention is to wheel it. When I see a not-so-nice looking road car with beginner-grade hop-ups my first thought generally isn’t “Nice car!”, it’s “should’ve saved more and bought more”.

    • 0 avatar
      18726543

      Ahh, missed the “modern equivalent” part. I wouldn’t suggest a “modern car” to a noob. Start with the cheap stuff. Less invested, less at stake. Bonus if the car already has no resale value as a modified car takes a resale hit just by the nature of the thing.

  • avatar
    slavuta

    Nissan 240SX is probably best car to work on yourself and range of upgrades you can do to it is endless. Body kits from Porsche to Ferrari, etc…

  • avatar
    dont.fit.in.cars

    None. Buy the most reliable transportation, get a job, build bank and THEN purchase car that has power you want.

  • avatar

    Pickups as simple as you can get. Plenty of room to work on stuff. Easy to change. Domestic means cheap parts. A nice 2wd reg cab Silverado or Ram.

    • 0 avatar
      MoparRocker74

      Agreed! A single cab 2wd with a decent V8 is excellent hotrod fodder. Best of all, pickups are generally simple and durable if they aren’t blinged out luxo mobiles.

      • 0 avatar
        Tele Vision

        I had to read this far to find the truth! Yep, a truck is the way to start. Big, lazy V8 that can be worked on with Dad’s tools in the driveway. Should the kid balls it up it’s dead easy to get it back to stock: just put the bits back where they came from. I type from experience. A small-block Chevy or Ford from the Eighties or Nineties, ideally. Start with an oil change an plugs/wires, then move on from there.

  • avatar
    MrGrieves

    An E46 or older BMW 3-series. You can get them cheap and parts aren’t too unreasonable. The actual maintenance isn’t too difficult, either. Plus you’ll learn about troubleshooting!

    A good project: Changing the oil separator. After you’ve removed 75% of the items in the engine bay, you’ll be intimately acquainted with your vehicle. While you’ve got it all out go ahead and replace the entire cooling system. Another worthwhile undertaking: Replace the almost certainly worn-out suspension bushings and struts.

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      No money left to “hop it up” after you’ve done all that though. Having said that, E36 M3’s are approaching beater prices, especially the 4 doors. I thought they were a little less proned to some of the issues the later models had.

  • avatar
    MoparRocker74

    Jeep Grand or regular Cherokee, preferably with either 4.0L or 318

    Jeep Wrangler YJ or TJ

    S-10 with 4.3L

    Dodge Dakota with 318

    Single cab Chevy or Ram

    Dodge Charger or Chrysler 300 Hemi

    Crown Vic

  • avatar
    PandaBear

    As a 40 yr old. I’d not give advice to kids on what is “cool” and trendy.

    3800, V8, early 90s domestic are not sexy. 90s Civic and Integra probably aren’t anymore either.

    Kids probably won’t be able to afford FRS, or Genesis, or whatever exotic stuff out there.

    The whole point of corolla is to be boring, so don’t try to tune one.

    I have a feeling Mazda3 or Fiesta / Focus ST, etc would be good. VTEC kicks in Yo.

  • avatar
    Lightspeed

    Strangely enough, the answer is ’98-05 Lexus GS300. Tons of support for the 2JZ, still lots of suspension stuff from Megane et-al. It’s a Supra MKIV without the collector premium, and cheaper than an IS too.

  • avatar
    arach

    Easy! JEEP WRANGLER!

    Preferrably a TJ or a YJ…

    Look:
    1. They won’t depreciate. Even if you run into a tree.
    2. They won’t depreciate. Even if you drive it up 100000 miles
    3. Someone will buy it. Even if you run overdynamite and flip it upside down

    OK then there’s some other good reasons:
    there isn’t a single fix to it you can’t do it yourself. Seriously, ANYTHINg can be done in your driveway, from oil changes to new transmissions. I don’t care if you’ve never touched a car before, everything is doable.

    There are TONS of how to guides on youtube and forums for EVERYTHING. I don’t care if its rebuilding an engine or replacing a radiator.

    There’s no other car I know of easier to work on yourself, with more information available.

    All the parts are DIRT CHEAP. I don’t think theres a part that costs more than 27 dollars. Radiator? Water Pump? Heater core? Power Steering Pump? about 27 dollars or less.

    Theres TONS of mods you can do, ranging from 27 dollar budget booster lifts you can do in your driveway to professional builds

    Everything you do is cool. 27 dollar cold air kits, 27 dollar grilles, 27 dollar LED taillights…

    There’s no other car on the market that you can easily mod to heck and back as a kid, fix everything on as a kid, and resell it once your old enough to realize it sucks.

    There’s also no other car you can buy for less than $6000 that will actually be cool once you mod it. Every other sub 6k car that you mod will actually lose value. Find a great CRX? The mods will devalue it. Find a great Mustang or camaro? The mods will devalue it.

    There’s also no other car that you can fix everything on. You can spray paint it. You can replace rust with new metal panels. You can replace the vinyl top yourself. You can replace broken windows. NO OTHER CAR.

    Therefore I have 100% confidence “Wrangler” is the only correct answer to this question.

    • 0 avatar
      RSF

      I like Jeeps too. I just can’t find one that’s cheap and dependable. The cheap ones all need money just to get them riding and driving right before you can even think about any mods.

      • 0 avatar
        arach

        The OP was talking about around $15k cars, and there’s tons of great jeep in the 10-15 mark.

        You can get a great TJ in the 7-9 mark, and great YJs in the 5-7 mark… so I guess it depends on what “cheap” means.

        your right though, if your talking cheap as in sub $3500, you are in for a tough find. Occaisonally you can find decent jeeps with minor repairs in the 4-5 mark, but look around in the 6-7 mark and you’ll do OK.

  • avatar

    Ford Escort, cheap as chips to buy and fix up. Also super easy to work on, and no one will want to steal your car.

    Source: I live in Portland, had a 98 SE wagon 5MT up until last Friday, and rarely locked my doors LOL

  • avatar
    gtem

    $10-$15k for a first car to screw around with? That’s doing it wrong. Buy something for $2-3k and learn how to fix and maintain it, then maybe get into some minor mods (audio, wheels, etc). Late 90s-early 2000s maxima would be my choice. Cheap and sturdy, the VQ30s will take anything you can throw at them and are much more fun to drive than some old 3800 powered boat (except a Grand Prix GTP, that’s a good choice too). The only thing to look out for on the Nissans is rust, but same applies to any other older Japanese or domestic choice. My beater 2000 Maxima SE was a hoot, even with an automatic. They’re light cars and steer well.

  • avatar
    brn

    CVPI that hasn’t been beat on too badly. Bulletproof (literally, bulletproof panels in the doors). Inexpensive. Not too bad to wrench. Parts are everywhere. Everyone knows how to work on them. Designed to take a beating.

    Bad gas mileage, but we weren’t looking for that now were we?


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