Cars I'd Buy with My Own Money – Part 1 (the under $40,000 Edition)

As an automotive journalist, I’m regularly asked the question: What’s your favorite car? Unfortunately, that question is almost impossible to answer; there are just too many variables. It’s an understandable query, however, and I think the best response is to tell people what new cars I would buy if I were shopping. As we roll into the 2015 model year, it’s the perfect time for me to revisit that list:

Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ

It’s flawed. It’s not exactly fast. The engine isn’t especially impressive. It’s not exactly practical. The car is rather wearing on highway journeys. And I love it nonetheless. The excellent steering, low-grip Michelin tires, and fabulous chassis balance combine to make this rear-wheel-drive coupe so much fun to flog. The gearbox is wonderfully mechanical and positive. The seats fit me perfectly. It’s good on gas. It’s cheap to buy: $25,470 gets you a Scion FR-S, $26,490 buys the slightly better equipped Subaru BRZ. They’re both gems that sparkle in the often-boring sub-$30,000 price bracket.

Volkswagen Golf GTI

The Volkswagen GTI in the same price range as the Subaru/Scion pair but it’s a totally different animal. The seventh generation of VW’s iconic hot hatch carries the GTI torch perfectly. It’s an inexpensive performance car that is also easy to live with. It’s comfortable even on long journeys. Sure, it doesn’t offer the outright fun of the Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ, but it makes up for it in refinement, power, and the ability to swallow lots of gear thanks to its hatchback layout. For $28,305, you can get a four-door Golf GTI with a 6-speed manual, summer performance tires, the $1495 Performance Package (220 hp versus 210 hp, bigger brakes, and a trick limited-slip differential), and the $995 Lighting Package (adaptive Bi-Xenon headlights). That’s a fantastic package and quite possibly the best car for the money on sale today.

Ford Fiesta ST

I ran a Ford Focus ST for a few months in 2013. There are things I really like about the Focus ST, but I prefer the Volkswagen Golf GTI for day-to-day living. The Ford Fiesta ST is a different animal. It doesn’t suffer the torque steer that curses the Focus ST. It’s smaller and cheaper, starting at only $21,740. It’s also more fun than its bigger brother. As with the Focus ST, there is no need to make a transmission choice here: the Ford Fiesta ST is only offered with a 6-speed manual. The only real decision when it comes time to order is whether to pay $1995 for the heated Recaro seats and heated mirrors package. If you fit in the aggressive chairs, you’ll likely love them. If not, you’ll be a very unhappy owner. If Ford just offered a less constricting but still supportive sport seat, there wouldn’t be much to complain about on the Ford Fiesta ST. Well, other than the horribly frustrating MyFord Touch infotainment system. Unfortunately, it’s standard on all Ford Fiesta ST models in America.

Volkswagen Golf TDI

The GTI is the enthusiast’s choice, but if I put a ton of miles on the odometer each year, I’d seriously consider a Volkswagen Golf TDI. A practical, refined hatchback, this diesel VW is very hard to beat. The latest oil-burning iteration of the Volkswagen Golf packs 150 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. EPA fuel economy numbers peg it at 31 mpg city and 45 mpg highway. $22,815 gets you a Volkswagen Golf TDI S with a 6-speed manual gearbox. I’d likely go for the better-equipped Volkswagen Golf TDI SE, with the $995 Lighting Package (adaptive Bi-Xenon headlights) for $27,310. You can pay an extra $1100 for a 6-speed dual-clutch automatic, but I prefer a manual gearbox. The Golf TDI takes the value, refinement, and practicality of the entire Golf lineup and adds the torque and economy of a diesel engine. It’s a tempting prospect if you can live without the focus and outright fun of the Golf GTI.

Volvo V60

Volvo is back a proper station wagon, and what a beautiful wagon it is. The Volvo V60 is so much cleaner and prettier than the wannabe-an-SUV Volvo XC70. As with many Volvo models, the pick of the litter is the lesser-equipped version of the V60. Stick with a minimalist, Scandinavian-simplicity theme with the V60. The front-wheel-drive, turbo four-cylinder Volvo V60 T5 starts at $36,675 and is rated at 37 mpg on the highway—versus 28 mpg for the six-cylinder, all-wheel drive T6 model. I’d add the $1550 Climate Package, because Michigan is cold and I want heated seats all around and a heated steering wheel. Volvos usually drive and ride best on small wheels, and the base Volvo V60 T5 avoids the larger wheels fitted to the T6 model. When you buy a Volvo, it’s all about rolling refinement and trying to be as close to a pipe-smoking college professor as possible. Too bad you can’t still get the 240 model’s ladder-style headrests and toggle switch on the shifter for overdrive.

Stay tuned for Part 2, later this month, where I (theoretically) spend a little more of my own money.

Ken Cavallo
Your list is off. These are sub 30k cars. For sub 40k you can have fun with a 235i, WRX STi, Audi TT, Cadillac ATS, Golf R or even a GT500.
Alexander Stewart
STI or Miata
Brian Parker
Single turbo supra
Kyle Hubick
Used Honda S2000
John Kulp
Volkswagen R, no need to say more, unless they want to release the R400 to the states.
Nanda Kumar
Now i hate volkswagon
Levy M'lenga
Mini cooper
Anjith Kumar
My favourate car is Tata Safari
Raymond Doherty
I have a Focus ST but less than 40K I would go Golf R (or wait for the Focus RS)
James Brooks
Subaru WRX STI, agreed. 4wd at a bargain price.
VeeDub4LF
The wait for the performance pack GTI release (December) in the US has been near unbearable... what the crap VW..
Satish Binjhade
Bmw
Michael Keil
a Honda Accord
Maulik Lunagariya
BMW “GT“
Maulik Lunagariya
BMW GT
Christopher Kennedy
Thanks! Mine is just an S. It has pretty much no options. Still has 8 speakers, Bluetooth streaming audio, heated seats, and sport, normal, and individual modes for the steering and throttle mapping.
Matt Simmons
VW service is worse than being mugged at gunpoint on your birthday, otherwise I would still own a GTI.
Marc Noordeloos
If the G8 GTP was still a new car, it might just have made my list.
Marc Noordeloos
What options are on the car? Looks great.
Marc Noordeloos
What are the options on your car? Looks great.
Marc Noordeloos
I'll chime in here, as I wrote the article. The latest Subaru WRX is a nice step up from last version and an impressive car overall. I wish the standard WRX had a bit more sparkle at the limit (limited-slip rear diff would be nice, like my old 2002 WRX). I'm also not sold on the looks of the new WRX. I'd like to see the WRX STI get a 300+ hp version of the new 2.0-liter motor. The 2.5-liter is very thirsty. I'm also hoping for a wagon version of either/both. I'm a hatchback/wagon kind of guy. Regarding the Mustang, the outgoing GT and Boss 302 are my two favorite modern muscle cars (vs the Camaro and the Challenger). We'll see how the new Mustang drives. Some other great ideas in the comments but I was only listing new cars for under $40,000. Look for the over $40,000 (but still reasonable) list later this month.
Randall Cheng
R34
Christopher Kennedy
My 2015 GTI.
Sudipta Maity
Lamborgini
Dammy Onafowokan
Agreed Robert, but when I factor in usable back seats and all weather all season traction, it's the STi that gets it for me, plus it's super mod friendly via the Cobb AP.More reliable horsepower and torque at the push of a button. Still, the stang is incredible value
Tim Galian
Miata. My perfect Mustang won't squeeze under 40k anymore.
Rick Mente
I'll wait for Mazda to get it right.
Rob Eckaus
Fiat owns Ferrari and Masersati as well so what's the problem?
Rob Eckaus
New Mustang GT may take that title. The current one is much quicker than the Subaru.
Shane A. Force
You haven't been waiting long enough?
Jason Mosery
I don't have $40,000 to spend on a car.
Zane Cramer
Mercedes GLK 350 with appearance package
Bill Seaton
Used C6 Corvette coupe. Yellow please.
Bill Seaton
Used C6 Corvette coupe. Yellow please.
Robert May
XJL starts at $82,000. XJ starts at $75,000. But as nice as the new ones are, I'd rather have a 2008 or 2009 XJR for about $20,000.
Mike Latimer
E46 M3
Rem Ster
IROC-Z
Drich De Guzman
Vw gti
Chris Prather
STi
Richard Boissonneault
$40,000 pour une Golf meme s'il elle a un gros moteur ?? ouf pas pour moi, une Mustang ou Challenger ou Camaro pour le même prix ?? oh que oui
Arthur Lariviere
Love my VW GTI. Quite possibly the perfect car.
Joseph Herbias
I wonder if youd be able to get the performance pack on a gt and still come out under $40k
John Shamieh
Sti limited
Eric Klein
Very well researched, but at some point it becomes a matter of semantics. We both know something about these cars. Let me put it this way - would you spend $100K on a Tata XJL?
Johnny McQueen
2014 Impala 2.5 LT
Richard Hawkins
I'd take a 1ss chevy camaro, easily out the door under 40k, the v6 isn't half bad either (I bought one), a new mustang, a 370z, a ram rt 1500, if I'm gonna spend almost 40k I want power, not a scion with 200hp, a fwd VW or a Volvo......just my opinion
Robert May
If you don't believe me, read it straight from Wikipedia
Robert May
I know Fiat owns the group, but the Dart is NOT built directly on the Giullietta platform. The Giullietta is built on the Fiat compact platform, and that said platform was made wider with a longer wheelbase to make the Dart. So both the Giullietta and Dart have Fiat platforms, but the Dart was made larger for American roads.
Dammy Onafowokan
New? WRX STi Limited. Best bang for the buck at that price range. Any car? Pontiac G8 GXP.
Marc Noordeloos
Hi, Ken. The Golf R is not on sale in the States yet. I prefer the GTI to the regular WRX and would wait for the Golf R over the WRX STI. I also prefer the Golf R to the TT. The M235i is good, as is the ATS. 

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