I’m In the Market

I need to get a car. I sold my Ram 2500 King Cab long-bed diesel truck a few months ago. It was a pain to drive, but convenient for towing our travel trailer and doing hauling. Honestly, though, while I really liked the truck’s capabilities, I never liked driving it. it was, like, 30 feet long, and impossible to park. I wasn’t planning on ever selling it, though. But, as it happens, it turned out that selling it was a convenient way to round up a bunch of cash to do some landscaping, and get the house painted, so it went on the block for a good cause.

The original plan was to drive Chris’ Spyder when it was too cold or wet to ride the bike in the winter. So $3,300 dollars of the truck proceeds also went into getting Chris’ car fixed up right, and running like a top. That turned out…less well than expected, so I have to get rid of it, as it can’t be registered in CA without a couple thousand dollars more in repairs. So, the Spyder is now solely a trade-in vehicle.

The question is, “What do I want to trade it for?” Obviously not a new car. I don’t want to take on a huge new payment, so I’m looking for something used—but not abused—and something that will be fun to drive, but still relatively practical. For certain values of the word “practical”, anyway. And I’m looking for 400 HP under $20,000.

Also I want it to be an American car, to save a bit on repair costs and maintenance. I mean, I could grab an E46 M3 for around $15k, but it’s also probably cost another $6-$7k a year to keep maintained. Fun to drive, but a pricey beast. Of, course, American cars really limit my choices quite a bit, because most of the really fun cars are made by heathen foreigners. It’s a bit of a challenge, frankly.

Here are the choices I’m looking at, in no particular order.

2005-2006 Pontiac GTO

2006 Pontiac GTO

Normally, a GM car wouldn’t be on the radar, because GM’s cheap interiors make me murderously angry. But this is different, because it’s not an American GM car, but an Australian one. It is, in fact, the Holden Monaro, sitting on a standard GM Zeta platform, with a Pontiac grill bolted on front. It’s much nicer inside than the usual Pontiac or Chevy, though, because Americans don’t know how to make the inside of a regular car a nice place to be. Australians do know how to do this, so much of the plastic has been discarded in favor of more upscale materials. A good portion of those materials are leather. Really, it’s like the Auschwitz of cows inside.

Pros: Under the hood, there’s the same Chevy LS2 motor that powered the C6 Corvette, and it puts out 400 HP. Add in the four-wheel independent suspension, the limited-slip diff in back, and the availability of a 6-speed manual transmission—though, admittedly, a depressingly average Tremec unit—this would certainly be a fun car to drive, and at around 3,900 lbs., a bit lighter than the competitor’s cars.They also didn’t make many of them, so I won’t see 10,000 others on the road when I’m driving it. Despite the rarity, it’s a Pontiac, and the death of the brand really hurts the resale—an advantage for the buyer.

Cons: The styling is a bit bland, with the scoops on the hood barely hinting that this car will do a sub-5 second quarter mile. Though, the whole Q-ship vibe may actually be an advantage. Still, it’s a coupe, and the trunk is unusually small, so that hurts the practicality score. Also, because it was built in Australia, rather than the US, some components must be imported, which also hurts the maintenance cost equation.

A runner-up for this car might be the 2009 Pontiac G8 GXP, which is a much more practical sedan, with four doors and a proper trunk, though it is a bit bigger and heavier. It is also not an American-made Pontiac, but is a rebadged Holden Commodore.

Pre-2010 Dodge Charger SRT8

2008 Dodge Charger SRT8

I have a soft spot in my hear for the SRT8 Charger, mainly because of the aggressive exterior styling. The interior is a bit boring, though the leather seats are a big plus. The pre-2010 Chargers were all 425 HP beasts, though admittedly, the 470 HP of a modern Charger sounds like a bit more fun—despite the fact that extra 50 ponies are pretty much unusable on public roads—but the $45,000 price is not. The previous generation is powerful enough, really.

Pros: It looks the business, and has the power to live up to the looks. It’s pretty nice inside, and fairly roomy, too, with a fully usable trunk. It also has a huge 8-inch TFT color screen for the sat-nav, stereo, and performance readouts.

Cons: At 4,400 lbs., it’s decidedly porky, with noticeable body roll in the corners. It’s a bit of a challenge in the corners, in fact, so “slow in, fast out” is the ticket to success in avoiding the telephone poles at the side of the road. While the dash is covered with soft-touch materials, it’s all black and boring. The interior Styling in no way matches the styling of the exterior. Brakes could be a bit better, too.

The runner up here would be the Chrysler 300 SRT8, which is the same car, with a nicer interior, but mafia boss styling on the outside. Chris says it looks like a Rolls-Royce. I guess it does. A Rolls-Royce for murderers.

2002-2004 Mustang SVT Cobra

2004 Mustang SVT Cobra

Normally, the fact that the Mustang has a live rear axle would keep it completely off the list. What is this, 1975? The SVT Cobra, however, has independent suspension all the way around, and a limited-slip diff. Though all Ford would ever admit was 390 crank horsepower, owners routinely pulled 425 HP at the rear wheel. Ford was obviously trying to give everyone a cut in insurance rates. In any event, in the case of the 2002-2004 Cobra Ford did about the best that could be done with the ancient Fox body, which was, by this time, almost 20 years old.

Pros: The best of the fox-body Mustangs, with suspension that made it actually work OK on the track, instead of just in a straight line. An engine with more power than what what ridiculously underestimated by Ford.

Cons: Well, actually quite a lot. An ancient chassis/body package. The interior is the very definition of the words “cheap” and “plastic”. The driving position sucks. It guzzles gas compared to all the other cars on the list, none of which are particularly noteworthy when it comes to economy. The steering is numb. It was a good car by the standards of a decade ago, but in modern terms, it’s at the bottom end of what’s acceptable in an enthusiasts car. And, of course, there are millions of Mustangs on the road.

The only possible runner-up for this car…well, there isn’t one, really. Maybe the new 2015 Mustang would be, since Ford is finally scrapping the live rear axle. But I can’t think of another Mustang I’d want.

Pre-2009 Cadillac CTS-V

2005 Cadillac CTS-V

Like the Pontiac GTO, the CTS-V ran on the LS2 engine, set up for 425 HP output. The neat thing about the CTS-V is that you get the choice of a coupe, sedan, or wagon. The latter is, of course, the holy grail for a certain type of enthusiast: a 400 HP performance station wagon. OK. Whatever. I’d prefer the coupe, preferably with the 6-speed manual transmission. Since the advent of the second-generation CTS-V, with magnetic ride and 558 HP, prices on the first-gen models has cratered. Obviously, I’d prefer a gen-2 CTS-V myself, but not at $55,000.

Pros: The CTS has a very nice interior, as befits the flagship American luxury car. It has all the techie gadgets, too.It’s a bit on the porky side, with the coupe at something like 4,100 lbs., but GM flogged this thing around the Nürburgring like nobody’s business, so the ride and handling are very good.

Cons: Cadillac’s touch-screen user interface is well-nigh incomprehensible, and completely unusable on the move. It isn’t easy to do anything on it, beyond calling up the sat-nav or stereo. I don’t actually know if the older generation does this, but the supercharger whine on the current-model CTS-V is a bit annoying. Also, it’s a Caddy, so the engine noise is quite muted—though this is a side effect of ensuring a cabin well-shielded from the unpleasant road and wind noised that dirty, poor people have to listen to in their cars.

I suppose the runner up for the CTS-V coupe would be the sedan or wagon.

Other choices?

There are some other alternatives out there, though none rank so high for me as the cars above. There’s the previous generation of the Dodge Challenger SRT8, and Chevy Camaro SS. Both of them have 400+ HP. They’re also both too large and heavy to be proper sports coupes. The Challenger, for example, is 16 feet long and 6 feet wide.

In addition, the visibility is horrible in both of them. You need spotters in chase planes to inform you whether or not it’s possible to change lanes, because the rear windows are unusably tiny, and the C-pillar is three feet wide. Anything that’s not directly in front of you is essentially invisible.

Some foreign cars make it into the bottom of the list. Both the 2001-2006 M3 or M5 are candidates, as is the Audi S4 and Mercedes c63 AMG of similar vintage. But, again, for all those cars, the cost of maintenance sends up a big warning signal. A 2006-2007 Jaguar S-Type R might—barely—make it onto the list, though, in addition to reliability and maintenance, the S-type R has brakes of occasionally iffy stopping power. And, of course, it’s a god-awful ugly car when seen in profile, and Ford’s cost-cutters had too much leeway in cheapening the dashboard controls inside.

Anyway, that’s my list. I’d be interested in your comments on it.If you have any other suggestions, I’d be happy to read them, too.

Author: Dale Franks

Dale Franks is the former host of The Business Day, ”a daily, four-hour business and financial news program on KMNY Radio in Los Angeles. From 2002-2004, he was a contributor on military and international affairs for TechCentralStation.com. Currently, he a publisher and editor of the monthly political journal The New Libertarian, as well as an editor of the popular web log, Q and O. Dale served as a military police officer in the United States Air Force from 1984 to 1993, in variety of assignments both in the United States and Europe, where he also was assigned to the staff of the Headquarters of Allied Forces Central Europe. In addition to broadcasting, writing, and speaking on various topics, Dale has also been a long-time technical training instructor on a variety of computer software and technology subjects. Dale has also long been involved with information technology as an accomplished web designer, programmer, and technologist, serving as the corporate knowledge specialist for Microsoft Outlook at SAIC, the nation's largest employee-owned corporation. Additionally, he is the author of a number of software user guides used for classroom training by one of Southern California’'s premier computer training and consulting firms. His book, SLACKERNOMICS: Basic Economics for People Who Find Economics Boring, is available from Barnes & Noble.

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