Doug wants to get a cheap car for his 16-year-old son. Unlike most parents who just want safe, reliable, and boring, Doug wants something that the two of them can tune up and make faster. However, he doesn’t want to buy an obvious performance car out of the gate. What should he buy?
(Welcome back to What Car Should You Buy? Where we give real people real advice about buying cars.)
Here is the scenario:
I’m looking for a cheap first car for my 16 y/o son. I’m a decent shade-tree mechanic and I’d like to pass along some skills and experiences to my boy. I know we could do this with any run-of-the-mill beater, but I’d like to find something with some hidden sleeper potential. (And when I say hidden, I may or may not be talking about my wonderful yet over-protective wife.)
I’m thinking along the lines of a boring car that shares a platform with a high performance cousin and would give us lots of opportunities to swap out parts and make improvements. I think that would add another fun dimension to this project —we aren’t just fixing a broken part, or performing routine maintenance, instead we are making the car better/faster/stronger.
We can probably spend up to $5,000.
Budget: Up to $5,000
Daily Driver: Yes
Location: Troy, MI
Wants: Cheap, Safe, Tunable
Doesn’t want: Something with expensive parts
Expert 1: Tom McParland – Wagons Are The Best Sleepers
Doug this is certainly a cool project to do with your son. Of course, any cheap car can be made faster if you really believe in yourself, but I understand what you are saying about finding something with a decent amount of aftermarket support.
I’m of the opinion that if you are going to make a “sleeper” do it with some kind of wagon because it’s a body style that the average person would not expect to be a “fast” car. I found this 2005 Legacy GT wagon near you that is already pretty fast, but according to the ad it doesn’t run and likely needs a bit more work than they are describing. I have a soft spot for these cars having once owned one, but if the Subie seems like too much of a hassle, here is a pretty clean-looking 2011 Jetta Sportwagen.
It does not have a “V6” as the ad indicated but rather a pretty punchy 2.5-liter 5 cyl. The VW aftermarket community is very robust and I’m sure you can find a turbo kit for that motor in addition to plenty of mods for the suspension, exhaust, and so on. Of course, you will want to find a balance between adding mods and maintaining some level of reliability.
Expert 2: Adam Ismail – A GTI, But The Sleepiest GTI
As Tom has already pointed out, Volkswagens are an excellent place to start for a project like this. There’s no shortage of Golfs and Jettas in your general vicinity on Craigslist, if you’re set on finding something ordinary and unassuming to transform into a fun driver’s car.
A GTI probably isn’t what you had in mind, but this one appears to be just the right combination of “good starting point” and “needs some work” for you and your son to make faster, plus it’s well within your budget. The Mk IV GTI has never been a beloved member of the family to begin with, so there’s lots of room for improvement on this 1.8-liter turbocharged hot hatch right out of the gate.
This example is just beyond the 150,000-mile mark and is said to have recently received a decent service, but you’re not looking to just do routine maintenance anyway. It’s also not excessively modded, outside of an aftermarket muffler — so there are plenty of opportunities to add power, tighten things up and firm up the suspension. And if you’re looking to pass on auto body or paint skills, the new driver’s side front fender could use a coat.
Expert 3: José Rodríguez Jr – A Different LS Swap
Good on you for wanting to pass your gearhead wisdom and car enthusiasm on to your son, Doug. I think that begins with passing down the joy of rowing your own gears, which means we’ll need a five-speed daily driver. I’d recommend an E36 from BMW, but I am admittedly biased, so I’ll refrain.
Instead, I’ll recommend this 2000 Lincoln LS, which is not too far from you and just within budget. This is the rarer of these Lincoln sedans, which came with a manual transmission. The LS seems well cared for and it’s got a decent amount of miles. I bet its front end will come back to life with a little headlight TLC.
This sedan isn’t going to attract any attention, unwanted or not. By most accounts, though, it’s a fun car to drive and will likely provide good lessons on wrenching. Even if you’re not doing the kind or work where you LS-swap or add forced induction to the thing, at the very least you’ll have the chance to master preventative maintenance and the odd broken window regulator.
That’s not to say that there are zero upgrades for the LS and its Duratec V6. Upgrades range from mild mods like cold-air intakes and aftermarket exhausts, to possibly installing SVT cams in there. Go crazy, or don’t. Either way, this manual LS should be a fun car, and one that will not arouse any suspicion.
Expert 4: Raphael Orlove – Faster For Sure, Just Not Fast
These are all great modern answers, and about as aftermarket fun-and-friendly as you’re going to get. But if you want something that’s absolutely dead simple, you can’t beat an aircoooled Volkswagen. This lovely yellow Karmann Ghia for $4,600 just needs a dual-carb kit and it will feel orders of magnitude faster than it was. Will it actually be dangerously fast? Of course not, but making big progress on a car this straightforward is easy! If it’s not a total rustheap (or if you want to learn how to swap most of a pan in your garage) I’d hop at it.