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

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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.

Buying Guide
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2015 Volkswagen GTI

2015 Volkswagen GTI

MSRP $25,385 S (Manual) 4-Door Hatchback

0-60 MPH:

6.1 SECS


25 City / 33 Hwy

Horse Power:

210 @ 4500