The Third Car Short List

Each year I field several hundred questions about one specific topic: a third car. We all used to call it a “second car”, but since most people are married (or cohabitating) with two cars already in the garage, an extra car just for sunny days and weekend trips is more often the third.

Some people are specifically interested in classic cars, but that opens up a whole different discussion. Instead today we’ll focus on the other type of third car shoppers: those that want a convertible cruiser or sports car. Maybe there are other third car shoppers – probably the truck and SUV people out there, but considering I tend to gravitate towards convertible sports cars, I think the mud and snow crowd aren’t as eager to ask me for opinions.

Usually people want to know what the best options are for a fun, safe, affordable fun car. Since the majority of consumers in the segment want a used car, I have assembled my top picks for best used sporty convertibles for the buck.

BMW Z3: Plain and simple – you’re not going to find a sportier, more luxurious, more fun to drive, better built roadster for the price. The initial anemic four cylinder cars can be purchased for $7500 or less. The 2.5 liter and 2.8 inline six cars start around $9500. Buying a 2001 Z3 will cost basically the same money as a Miata.

Z3s have plenty of options, ranging from engine (including the 2.8 liter six cylinder), to automatic transmissions, to removable hard tops.

If you plan to keep the car long-term, consider finding an M-Roadster. This was the Z3 offered with the M3 engine. Made in low production, these cars are usually around $20,000, but recently some have hit the market closer to $15,000. Not only will these M Roadsters (and the style-challenged, but more solid-handling M-Coupe) remain desirable, but they can also run door-to-door with Corvettes and Porsches.

Speaking of Porsche, if you like the idea of the Z3, but want something prettier or need more trunk room, you can go for a Porsche Boxster. Stay away from the initial year of production, because quality was lousy, but by 1999 Boxsters became fun, reliable and plentiful. Look to spend $17,500 or above. Boxster S models, which offer more horsepower, are still above $20K, but are well worth it, because they’ll continue to hold value.

Mazda Miata: Anyone who calls a Miata a “girl’s car” either never has driven one like the engineers intended, or is referring to Denise McCluggage, Dana Patrick, Donna Mae Mims, or any of the other girls that could kick your ass around any track on any day with any car. Apply partial throttle and shift below 3500 rpms, and the MX-5 Miata is a bore. Plant your foot the floor, wind it up to 7,200 rpms, rip a perfect shift, and fly through S-curves, and you’ll find out why the Miata is the best-selling two-seat roadster of all time.

First generation cars are cheap, cheap, cheap. Get a 1990-1993 for as little as $2500. There’s very little difference until 1999, when the body style changed and power increased. 1999 and newer cars still go for $9500 or more, especially with hard tops.

Miatas are almost bulletproof. Change the oil and keep coolant in them, and they’ll go 250,000 miles. There are some weak spots, like exhaust manifolds that crack, but because these are mass-produced cars that are raced extensively, OEM and upgrade parts are inexpensive and easy to find. Hoods are aluminum, and early panel fit was lousy, so just because gaps are uneven, don’t assume the car has been wrecked before.

If you want the general Miata feel, but are willing to pay for significantly more power, go for the Honda S2000. Still fairly expensive on the used market, the S2000 is a car for people who drive like F1 racers. Under 5000 rpms, the engine delivers the same experience as an Accord. Bring that tach up past 6,000 rpms, and the whole experience changes.

A great mechanical-feeling shifter and wonderful steering are offset by a claustrophobic interior, terrible LED gauges and plastic rear window on early cars. Also, with such a high-revving small-displacement engine, longevity is always a question.

Ford Mustang:Clunky, chunky, ergonomics by the guys who dreamed-up Chinese foot binding…still people love this American pony. V8 cars provide great growl, and are reasonably well built. Upgrades and replacement parts are cheap. Convertibles from the 1990s start at $6,000, but if you’re willing to put up with a still powerful, but less impressive V6, cars can be below $5000.

Cobra models are much more expensive, but are guaranteed collectables like the Boss 302 of the Trans Am era. They’re also fast, and with the right tires and suspension modifications, make fantastic autocross racers.

Mercedes SL500: If you’re more interested in cruising, and are slightly image conscious, the Merc SL500 is a great convertible. Interestingly, the sleek-looking 1990’s cars are now cheaper than the final 560SLs from the 1980s. Built like brick poop-houses, SL500s will run forever, provided they are maintained. Don’t even think of buying one with valve train clatter, though, because one design flaw resulted in the occasional engine suffering from poor oiling. Also, it is so expensive to repair the interior, that nice leather is almost more important than shiny paint.

$8500 gets you into this league. All Mercedes SLs have come with matching hardtops since LBJ was President, so make sure you get yours with the car. (Current generation SLs have a power-folding hard top.)

The obvious downside of the Mercedes SL is cost of ownership. Bosch parts are as cheap as a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon. And contrary to what you might think, the seats in the SL are not that comfortable, so make sure you take a long test drive before committing to a purchase. They’re also not particularly involving to drive, with numb controls and significant body roll. Still, they are great luxury cruisers in terms of bang for the buck.

Here are cars one might consider avoiding:

1984-1996 Corvettes: I consider myself a hard-core Corvette fan. I’ve owned plenty of them. Unfortunately, the fourth generation cars have so many issues that unless you’re well-versed in the dos and don’ts, you’re bound to have an unhappy ownership experience. All suffered from crappy ergonomics to the point that my father once described entering a C4 coupe’s interior like “putting on a full body condom”. Cheap and crack-prone plastic parts are everywhere. Digital gauges fail faster than a Bush Administration appointee, and wheel bearings are crazy-expensive to replace.

All C4 Vettes before the LT1 debuted aren’t really that fast. Convertibles have a flexible chassis, so getting great handling means ultra-stiff springing. Beyond that, the drop-tops have luggage space for no more than a change of clothes and a sandwich.

C5 Corvettes (1997-2004, with the first convertibles appearing in 1998) are a whole different ball of wax (or composite, as the case might be). Much more comfortable (even with the Z51 performance suspension) and more reliable, they are better in almost every conceivable way. Unfortunately, they’re still rather spendy, with 1998 drop-tops still commanding around $25,000. The targa-topped coupes can be had for as little as $17,000. Seats aren’t particularly comfortable, interior noise from the Goodyear Run-Flats (commonly referred to in Corvette circles as “Run Craps”) is deafening, and there’s the whole steering column lock failure problem that plagued the whole damn series production, but otherwise they are pretty great cars. Plus, the six-speed cars can get 36 mpg on the highway.

Lotus Elise: Unless you’re a die-hard racer type, the Elise will seem more like something used in a CIA Black Site interrogation center. It takes a shoehorn to get in, and the Jaws of Life to get out. With such a short wheelbase, the Elise gets very unsettled over potholes and expansion joints, plus is very easily spun near its handling limit. For those that are first class drivers, though, the Elise is the closest one can get to being in a pure race car.


2 Responses to The Third Car Short List

  1. I *really* want to drive an Elise. I’ve sat in one (at a Park Place display at the vintage races at PR) and it seemed fine to me… and I’m not a small guy. I love the idea of a smail, lightweight roadster. My frustration with most cars of today is that they are heavy when they should not be. Pick any car today and it is probably 500-1000 lbs heavier that it needs to be.

    Most folks would call me crazy for this but I REALLY want to have something like an Elise fitted with VW’s wonderful little 1.9L TDI engine. I bet in a lightweight machine like the Lotus you would see upwards of 70 MPG… all while having more fun than should be allowed. Sure, you won’t be winning any drag races, but pure speed is overrated and rarely needed.

    I’ve driven an S2000 and I agree that they are very nice, very fun little cars. I do have to agree that getting in and out is a real pain, and they did some very goofy things when designing the car (that transverse stiffener right where your feet go?? WTF?)

    BTW I once took a ’79 450SL out on a racetrack (very twisty road course) and posted the 3rd best time of the day (behind a modern Ferrari and a very well driven 67 ‘vette) ahead of many cars & drivers that should have cleaned my clock. The great thing about the Sport-Licht Benz’ is that they perform VERY well right up to, and even past the limit. Very predictable handling, and reasonable speed… even with the slushbox. For high-speed autobahn cruising they are the ultimate cruise missile.

    What do you think about the first gen Audi TT?


  2. The Elise becomes a pain when the targa roof panel is on. With it off, entering and exiting is much easier.

    I also fully agree with the fact that cars have become too heavy. This was a part of my Thanksgiving dinner table discussion when arguing that mpg hasn’t come far (if any) since the 1950s and 1960s. Let’s face it, all those heated seats, 30-speaker stereo systems, dual climate controls, and eight-bag safety restraints add quite a bit of weight.

    As for the TT, I was expecting someone would ask pretty quickly. While I love the coupe styling, most people feel the convertible isn’t as pretty. More importantly, not only do the TTs have pretty sketchy quality records, but also the dealers tend to treat TT owners as second-class citizens. (Confirmed by a friend of mine with a TT coupe who just bought an A8 for his wife and experienced this firsthand.) The TT also is quite expensive, yet doesn’t offer quite as much performance as others in the price range.

    The TT is in no ways a bad car, it simply just doesn’t offer the bang for the buck as others, especially in convertible form.

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