Secondhand Gems: Sensible Twenty-Something Fun

By Christopher Smith

August 18, 2011

It's Friday evening at the local pub. Or Saturday afternoon at the coffee house near campus. Or Monday morning in the break room at work. Wherever you go, you're almost always surrounded by a core group of friends and colleagues; they're young, single, perhaps a bit idealistic but also realistic, just like you.

And, just like you, they have their pulse on the automotive world. They follow Formula 1 instead of NASCAR. They've occasionally honed their piloting skills at SCCA autocross events or attended open track days at nearby road courses. They're constantly talking about the latest supercars and sharing passages from their favorite auto scribes when new issues come out. They, like you, are the people to whom their non-car-savvy friends ask for advice when it's time to find a reliable new conveyance. And you never turn down the chance to dispense some advice on cars.

So, aside from pretty much describing everyone at the Winding Road offices, we've also described a rather popular demographic. Twenty-something driving enthusiasts, up-and-coming in the world with a feverish desire for an entertaining machine and a budget that can support a monthly car payment somewhere south of $300. On a five-year finance, that roughly translates to around $17,000, and we don't need to tell you what kind of bodacious rides that kind of fundage could support.

But this demographic is also pragmatic enough to know that now is not the time to go bonkers on a hardcore performer. Such machines in the used market can very quickly become money pits if they were abused children, and not making it to work on time because your 2004 SVT Focus puked a clutch or your 2001 Audi S4 cooked another turbo is the best way to kill a career before it even starts. And we haven't even touched on the issue of insurance for vehicles assessed with performance premiums, which brings new meaning to the term debt ceiling.

So that leaves you in the unlikely position of asking your friends for advice on a reliable car but with a twist: it must have some aspirations of enthusiasm, while also slipping under the insurance radar. It must be reliable; that means no more than five years old with either a balance of the factory warranty remaining, or coverable under a respectable aftermarket warranty. It must also have some degree of all-season functionality and a bit of practicality because it will be your one and only machine. And because this demographic is dedicated to the passionate art of driving, a bona fide manual transmission is a must.

For twenty-something enthusiasts making a go of it in the real world, these three real-world choices—a coupe, sedan, and hatchback to address a variety of motoring flavors—should be on your short list.

2009 Mazda6 i
Winding Road has always appreciated the Mazda6, even when the masses were criticizing its relative lack of power, diminutive size, uninspiring interior appointments, and questionable reliability. It wasn't perfect, but in a world of yawn-inducing Camrys and Accords, the Mazda was a far more engaging mid-size sedan to drive, and we weren't shy in going against the automotive grain to support it.

We're happy to continue our support for the second-generation 6, which addresses the critics by offering more space, more sex appeal, and more power. And we're even happier that such upgrades didn't sacrifice the sportiness we enjoyed in the old car. Well, at least not all of the sportiness; there is a bit more motion in the suspension, and the steering isn't quite as sharp as it once was, but that's like saying Las Vegas isn't as much fun because Celine Dion is always there. Bottom line is you're still going to go, you'll catch her show, and you're still going to have fun.

That's because the Mazda6 manages to find an elusive sweet spot in the handling world. It's adequately taut and communicative enough to give the driver more than enough confidence to attack corners, but it's comfortable and reserved enough to give less enthusiastic passengers (or your boss) a non-intrusive ride to lunch.

And while we have to sacrifice the 272-horsepower V-6 for a considerably more reserved 170-horsepower, 2.5 liter, 16-valve four-cylinder, we do gain a mileage rating of over 30 on the highway, not to mention a pocket full of greenbacks from the insurance guy. It's also the only way to get the six-speed manual transmission, complete with a snickery short-throw shifter and a light clutch that makes zinging the four-banger not such a bad thing.

Best of all, a well-optioned 2009 Mazda 6 i, with all its size and snazzy style, is the cheapest ride on our list—$15,000 to $16,000 on eBay Motors—while also being the newest. The V-6 would be nice, but given the impressive mix of handling dynamics, handsome interior appointments, gorgeous exterior styling, passenger comfort, solid fuel economy, and a well-sorted manual gearbox, the four-cylinder 6 i would be a welcome companion for any enthusiast.

2007 Mini Cooper
As with the Mazda, opting for the base model Mini Cooper still delivers much of what makes this a great machine to own and drive. It has the iconic Mini look. It has the Mini uniqueness. It has the BMW engineering. And it still handles like a go-kart, even without upgraded sport suspension.

We could always use more horsepower, but in the name of living frugal now in preparation for Charlie Sheen levels of excess later in life, hitting up parties and dancing down side roads in a 118-horsepower Mini Cooper isn't bad at all.

118 horsepower? Yeah, don't expect to win many drag races, even if you can bang perfect upshifts from the Mini's svelte six-speed. Its first, best destiny is looking cool rolling down the road, and despite being on the road since 2003, this is a car that still gets attention. As well it should—mid-size sedans, for all their styling tweaks, kind of look the same. Little hatchbacks? More or less the same. But what looks like a Mini? Another Mini, and when you pass that driver head-to-head on the road you'll probably get a friendly wave because, unlike most sedan and hatchback drivers, Mini drivers aren't just along for the ride—they're thoroughly enjoying every moment of it. There aren't many makes and models on the road that have such a following, but it's a testament to the fun factor that exists within every Mini, from the naturally-aspirated base models to the much faster Cooper S.

And 2007 marks the debut of the revamped Mini. You didn't notice? Most people didn't, but for 2007 the Mini Cooper got just a bit bigger and ever-so-slightly more distinguished with subtle styling changes in the front clip. It's still not a comfortable family vehicle, but considering the Mini's compact size, it's surprisingly roomy inside for a driver and a couple passengers at least.

With base model prices still hovering around $17,000, it stretches the budget, but it's insurance-friendly and returns highway fuel mileage ratings well into the 30s, all while offering amusement park levels of cornering fun for weekday or weekend motoring entertainment.

2007 Pontiac G6 GTP
The G6 is a peculiar choice for our list because, frankly, it's not a superb handler. Nor is it a drop-dead gorgeous, love-at-first-sight kind of machine. It doesn't instill the undiluted levels of driving passion that one gets from the Mini Cooper, and it doesn't coddle occupants with an exquisite blend of poise and posh like the Mazda. But here's the thing—it's not really bad in those roles either, and because the G6 GTP develops 240 horsepower from its 3.9-liter, don't-call-it-a-pushrod V-6, accepting a few trade-offs for some kick-in-the-pants acceleration is, in our opinion, worth the sacrifice.

What about the auto insurance, you say? Surely the GTP must get slapped with a premium that costs as much as the car, but we didn't find that to be the case. Our search for average GTP insurance rates revealed just the smallest of increases over the Mazda and Mini, despite a very significant increase in performance.

And by significant we actually mean gargantuan—get to know the six-speed's slightly notchy action and you'll turn quarter-mile passes in the mid-to-low 14-second range. That's about two seconds quicker than the Mazda and almost three seconds ahead of the Mini. Its V-6 dishes up a nice soundtrack with a fat powerband and a surprising willingness to rev, and while the manual transmission isn't the smoothest box we've wrestled with, it's by no means the worst.

Cornering grip from the GTP's sport-tuned independent suspension and eighteen-inch rubber is pretty stout, though it lacks the balanced feel of the Mazda and the confidence of the Mini. This is especially true when scrubbing into a corner a little on the hot side, only to be greeted with torque steer on exit. Of course, you have to be pushing pretty hard to reach that limit—keep it a bit more civilized and the GTP will keep you smiling. In normal commuter duty the G6 GTP is comfortable for three adults and passable for four, but rear headroom can become an issue if your adults are adult-sized. The price is right, too—$16,000 to $17,000 on eBay Motors with average miles.

Ideally, there are other gemworthy cars on the market for $17,000 that, from an enthusiast standpoint, surpass these three machines. The Mazdaspeed3, Mitsubishi Evo, Chevy Cobalt SS, Volkswagen GTI, and Subaru WRX are just a few we considered, but the fact is we don't live in an ideal world.

To a one, those cars are terrors on insurance and often terrorized by previous owners, leaving the next person in line with a maintenance time bomb waiting to explode. For the twenty-somethings out there trying to carve a place in this world, such a purchase just isn't practical. But we're here to say keep the faith, for while your ideal car will come in time, you still have some damn fine realistic options right now.