(*Again, sorry for the cheesy neuro-blank title, but I’m sticking with it.)
I wanted to add a brief interlude here to advocate a personal opinion I have about how to decide what car to buy:
I think people should buy cars that are one “degree” more fun than they are prepared to do. This is because life is short, and it is fun to have a car that you enjoy driving.
My last post was meant to showcase how we can use different emotions to make complex decisions. Some emotions are built on long term rewards, others on short term rewards. Different emotions will arise when you focus on different aspects of a decision and we use these emotions to try to predict how one option will feel compared to another.
Re-reading my original post, I am thinking that it was a little bit dry, and maybe a bit too long-term focused. That is why I want to spend time advocating for a balanced approach that sees people buy a car that is a little bit more fun than they have previously planned.
disclaimer: I am not, and will not, ever, advocate buying a pre-owned European car. Unless you’re rich and love it so much that fixing a rapidly depreciating 7-series BMW is appealing to the point that buying a new one is out of the question. Expensive cars are for rich people, if you’re not rich, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all, you shouldn’t buy one of these cars. If you swear up and down that you can afford a new-ish one and will get another one every two years, fine.
You also still will not want a fun car if it means you cannot afford the car in the first place. If you’re scraping by to buy a reliable car, for heaven’s sake, just buy a Corolla or a Civic and mind your finances.
So let’s assume you have a little bit of extra money, and some flexibility in what car you’re going to buy, a not-too-deadly commute and reasonably accommodating life-comrades that can deal with a slight uptick in ridiculousness. As a personal anecdote, when I was shopping for a new car in 2008, I had saved up a considerable amount and was going to finance a new car with a significant down payment. I obsessed over the decision, finally settling on a Honda Accord LX-P, which is a mid-level 4cyl model. This has been a fantastic car, but you know, I think for the cost and sacrifice, I would rather have gotten the V6. I consider the V6 one degree more fun.
As a car guy, I think I should have weighted the near-term fun of the bigger motor a little more seriously. The mileage penalty is not too bad; and in terms of handling, the V6 will handle a little more poorly since it is a lot more weight in the nose. But I think it would have been a little more gratifying to have lived it up a bit and have a little more beef under the hood.
My advice is built on this experience. Which is to say, that it is a good idea to be sensible, but if you’re a car person, not too sensible. Here are some of vehicle-specific tips to sensibly decrease your sensibility:
1. Pre-owned Lexus or Acura. These cars are bullet-proof, nice to drive, and very good cars to own (in case you didn’t know, Lexus is made by Toyota, Acura is made by Honda). They cost a premium over their mainstream counterparts, but if you get a car with a little more miles the cost may be offset. Many of the cars will be well taken care of, and with single owners. Buying the sportier ls-300 Lexus, or the RSX/TSX/TL Acuras will probably mean that the car has been used a little harder, but these are still very good, reliable cars.
2. Get a restored old car. You’ll think I’m crazy, and you’re right, but there are a lot of very nice old cars, like 60’s Chevys, that have modern drive trains and new motors, and nice interiors that are seriously daily drivable. This is not for the faint of heart, but if you have the gumption, you’ll be pumped up for this. Also, if you have a long or traffic filled commute, this may not be the best, but if you have an easy commute, this could be cool. If you can settle for something with 4-doors, which is always cheaper than 2-doors, there are a lot of great examples to be had for pretty good money.
This is not entirely stupid: if you get a car with a new drive train and good build quality, the car will be pretty reliable and, best of all, will theoretically gain value over time. Caveat emptor: not every old car will return your investment. If you’re in it for the money, stick to the holy trinity: Chevy, Ford, Dodge, and get the desirable models. A Bel Air is a better investment than a Corvair. A Nova is better than a Vega. A Dart is better than a Belvedere. A Mustang is better than a Falcon. Chevys are cheaper to buy and own, Fords are next cheapest, Dodges are the most expensive.
3. Get a convertible. Only do this if you can accept the sacrifices of a convertible, and you live in a place where you will lower the top at least once a week. Seriously, you must have a strong desire, at least once a week; otherwise you probably don’t need to deal with the crap that a convertible comes with. Some convertibles scream middle management, i.e. Camry Solara, but are good buys. Other convertibles scream mid-life crisis, i.e. Corvette. But, convertibles are indeed super fun. Good bets here are the Mazda Miata, and even the late model Mustangs are decent cars that are cheap to maintain (but pre-owned examples in good condition are rare). If you want to be amazing, get an 80’s 4runner with a removable roof, or a pre 73 Chevy Blazer–not recommended for daily driving.
4. Get a V6 Accord, an Accord EX stickshift, or a V6 Camry with a stickshift. This is a nice balance for a sensible car that will last forever and provide some entertainment. Stick shifts are the best, but tough to find. This is one fun-notch up from the standard commuter appliance that is the standard sedan. If you think that a stick-shift is too much work, and you want a fun car, I would say that you probably are less sold on having a fun car than you think. The mental/physical cost of pushing in a clutch pedal is a great analogy for the extra sacrifice of having a fun car. If you think it’s too much work to use a clutch, then the other costs of a fun car should be treated as roughly equivalent (i.e. filling up more often at the tank, higher repair costs, etc). Fun cars have a penalty, but it can be mitigated.
5. Get a fun small car. Small cars are a lot more fun than big cars for zipping around. The old Acura Integra was a fantastic car, really fun to drive and handled great. The follow up Acura RSX is medium to okay, but a fine car in general. The TSX is fun but too slow to be called fun; don’t get one of these. Si Civics are also great and pretty affordable. If you’re looking for a new car, the WRX is not insanely expensive, but I would not buy a used one since they are all beaten to crap and used turbos are a disaster. These cars are usually owned by paste eaters that have beaten these like a wet anvil, so be careful if you want a pre-owned.
6. If you like trucks, get a 98 or newer Tacoma with the V6. Some Jeeps with the 4.0l straight-six are good, but will nickel and dime you (i.e. everything but the motor and transmission will break). C10 Chevys are shooting up in value and popularity and are nice to drive.
Okay, so those are some of my suggestions for good fun cars to buy, that won’t get you laughed at too badly and are a little less likely to put you on the side of the road. Just don’t go spend a bunch extra on a car if you only need a commuter and you have a strict budget. If money’s tight, don’t spend it on a more expensive car. Otherwise, I say live it up if you can and get a fun car!
My next post will discuss how to evaluate a used car once you see it (and how to use emotion to guide your negotiations and decisions).