The five best first cars (for enthusiasts)
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Thursday five: rejoice, your first car doesn't have to be grandma's old Starlet!
The process of buying a first car is hallowed territory for any young car enthusiast. Ahead not only is a mode of transport and wallet shrinker, but ones first ticket to freedom and independence.
But the first car is often a land of compromise for a teenager; particularly if they’re still living under the same roof as their creators. And while old sports cars and coupés are often the temptation, mum and dad more often than not are more likely to push you towards something more modern, safer, boring.
Here’s five cars from all over the spectrum that could fit your bill, whack a big smile on your face, and maybe keep those parental relations in check.
Honda EK Civic SiR / VTi-R — the obvious choice
Small, quick, fun — things with the ‘Type R’ emblem typically deliver strongly on all three of these fronts, making them a very popular car among the often maligned, backwards-hat generation.
However, they’ve been around long enough that elders have cottoned on to the label, and all the ‘boy racer’ culture it connects to. So, an EK4 SiR or VTi-R alternative is a sound idea, where you’re purchasing most of the 'kicked in yo' performance of an EK9 Type R, but without some of the image.
And it’s not much of a stretch to engineer your own Type R out of a lesser EK platform. The only big downside is that more and more people are buying these puppies up, so prices are holding steady — if you can find them at all.
Honourary mention to the Nissan Pulsar VZ-R here — its humble exterior conceals an SR20 engine, while it's also a better handling and cheaper car than the Honda.
Suzuki Swift Sport — the safe choice
I have one of these, and it’s bloody brilliant.
If your parents are pushing for you to have a boring, safe hatchback with a microscopic engine, suggest the Swift Sport.
Yes, it’s one of the slowest cars in its hot-hatch class, and yes your friends will think that it’s a car for pensioners. But, the current model has a five-star ANCAP safety rating, thanks to seven airbags, strong construction, and various other measures. Its 1.6-litre engine also sounds economical and subtle on paper.
And most car-illiterate parents won’t register the fact it’s got twin exhausts, a six-speed manual, a diffuser, or Recaro seats.
You can snag a current-gen version for around 15 big ones, while an older 2005–’10 shape model will be a snip under 10.
Honourary mention to Ford’s Fiesta. The S, the Zetec, the ST; they’re all good.
Jeep Cherokee XJ — for the traveler
There is nothing tougher on the roads today than the ubiquitous, slightly dilapidated, ’90s four-wheel drive. And watercooler talk at Driven suggests that Jeep’s boxy XJ is the one to have.
The XJ platform came as the manufacturer movement to SUVs started to take place — when all four-wheel drives were still considered serious tools, and not just jumped up hatchbacks for soccer moms.
It’s also just plain retro cool, as one of the longest-lasting four-wheel drive platforms — production of the XJ spanning across three different decades and four American Presidents.
Honourary mention to the 1997+ Honda Accord SiR wagon: great to drive, reliable, handsome, very roomy, and absolutely plentiful in New Zealand.
BMW 3 Series (E30) — the hack
I highly doubt that even BMW themselves would have been able to predict the cult following their humble E30 would have all these years later, after it first debuted in 1982.
Formerly a car pitched as a statement of success, the E30 now enjoys a reputation as a superb-handling base for a track car; not to mention it’s got a well-rounded aftermarket landscape.
Add to that that the E30 pre-dated BMWs iDriveist technology boom. It’s a simple car that anecdotally can be mended with a spanner, a can of WD-40, and a rubber band.
Honourary mention to the original Mazda MX-5, which loses points due to that image problem.
Alfa Romeo 33 — the wildcard
Of course, if you’re a true blue, dyed in the wool, bleeds-motor-oil car enthusiast looking to get their hands dirty in the mechanicals of their first car, why not start with an Alfa Romeo? As Jeremy Clarkson himself once said; “you can’t be a true petrol head until you’ve owned an Alfa Romeo.”
I normally ward away from recommending Alfas. They have the reputation of being temperamental, stubborn things — though this is balanced by their often beautiful designs, and touches of Italian passion.
While the 33 isn’t necessarily the most beautiful Alfa (cough), it is a very cheap platform to start from, and does have a thriving community surrounding it.
Honourary mention to just about every other Alfa in the sub-10k bracket here; from the cute 147, to the heritage-packed 155, to the gorgeous GTV.