As I’ve written before, I’ve been pondering a fun but more practical replacement for my Subaru BRZ. But lately I’ve been forming a compelling case in my head for hanging onto the Subie, and supplementing it with a cheap beater that I could buy outright instead of making a down payment on something new or lightly used.
The BRZ Is A Good Car
Sure, it’s not the most practical choice for my current needs. If it got totaled and I was forced to buy a replacement, I’d replace it with a hot hatch rather than a new BRZ or Toyota 86. But there’s nothing bad or wrong with my BRZ as it sits. The only issue I’ve had during the two and a half years I’ve owned it is a horn wire that came loose, which was fixed under warranty. It got rear ended two years ago, but the body shop did an excellent repair, so good that other body shop techs who have inspected it haven’t been able to tell it wasn’t factory original. It’s been quite reliable, requiring nothing but routine maintenance.
It’s also already set up exactly the way I want it. It has a nicer sounding exhaust, and two sets of mounted tires appropriate for both summer and winter. Inside it has my aftermarket heated seats, ham radio, and a K40 RL360i integrated radar detector / laser defuser. Even minor touches like my backup camera (which Subaru never offered in 2014 BRZs), LED turn signals, and my RAM Mount phone holder tweak the car just enough to make it mine, and mine alone. I even have a full set of brake pads for the track with lots of life left for future track days.
Even if I bought a lightly used Focus ST, which would include many of the features I added to my BRZ as standard or optional equipment, I’d still be starting over as far as adjusting the car’s configuration to my specific wants and needs. I’ve already got that in the BRZ.
I’ve been tracking the value of my BRZ versus how much I still owe on it ever since I got it, and except for the first few months those numbers have been just about the same. It’s much better than owing more than it’s worth, but if I want to trade it in on a new or lightly used car, the dealer would end up pretty much making my old loan go away and start me from scratch on a new one. I’d still need a reasonable down payment to switch cars.
I could do better with a private party sale. But since I still have a loan on my car, that would place me in the awkward position of taking the buyer’s money, then not being able to give them the title until I pay off my loan and get it sent to me. The buyer would be hanging in limbo for a while, hoping I actually come through with the title. It’s much more difficult to sell a car this way. I’ve done it before, but it was a friend buying my old car, who trusted me to fork the title over when I got it.
With these two factors in mind, what if I took the money I’d use on a down payment – say, $2,000 – and used it to outright buy an older beater car?
Our 2002 Ford Focus LX was the perfect example of this. Originally my wife’s daily driver, we kept it around after she got her Flex. It was the most basic, stripper Focus available. Its bodywork was far from perfect, with a rough but effective complete rebuild of the rusted out rocker panels. But it ran and drove perfectly. I found it a much better commuter car than my BRZ, with its softer suspension and automatic transmission. In the end, we hooked up a friend with the Focus when her old car got totaled and her insurance didn’t give her enough to replace it. Much to my surprise, I actually find myself missing this car.
There are a bunch of reasons why adding a cheap old beater to the fleet would be a smarter move than replacing my BRZ with a newer practical car.
Supplement, Not Replace
The idea with a beater would be to have it do well what the BRZ doesn’t. It would be a more comfortable car for me to commute in. It would have more space – a sedan, hatchback, or wagon instead of a swoopy coupe. It would be able to tow at least a little bit of weight – say, our ramp trailer with my motorcycle on it. While I definitely want a manual transmission, or possibly a DSG (I haven’t had the chance to try one yet to know for sure), for my fun car, I’d accept an automatic in the beater. It’s easier to commute in, and with no clutch I can left foot brake quite effectively when the going gets slippery. I’d have no problem with another manual as well, just as long as my wife can drive it without pain – unlike my BRZ.
When I attended a non-sport bike track day last month, I would’ve loved to have the option to drive down the night before, towing the bike on the trailer, and sleeping in the back of the Flex overnight. But our schedules didn’t align, and she needed a car to drive her kids around in. With a beater available, this would be possible – or I drive the beater to the track and sleep in it, depending on what it is.
The biggest problem with an older car is that it isn’t as reliable as a new car, and there’s no warranty to cover repair expenses. That can leave you in a lurch if it’s your only car and you’re short on cash. But it’s much less of an issue if it’s not your only ride. If there’s a problem with it, I can just switch back to my BRZ or my motorcycle until I get the beater fixed. Because there’s less rush to get it back on the road, I’m more likely to shop around for less expensive parts and do the work myself if I’m able, rather than pay a shop to do it. If it’s laid up in my garage for a week or two, who cares? I’ll just use something else in the meantime.
The New England Region SCCA has one of the most active rallycross programs in the country. Yet I don’t currently participate, because my BRZ is too low and too nice for me to risk tearing it up in the dirt. No such concerns with a beater, though. Throw on some knobby snow tires (or even half used gravel tires cast off by stage rally drivers for cheap) and maybe a skidplate and I’m ready to go channel my inner Colin McRae. And thanks to redundancy, if I break it, oops – I’ll just drive the BRZ to work on Monday.
So what would I be looking for, exactly? Let’s take a look on my local Craigslist and see what’s out there that would interest me. Let’s arbitrarily call my max price $2,000.
1999 Jeep Cherokee Sport
I was sad that Project MJ, our 1988 Jeep Comanche, didn’t work out. This Cherokee would kind of sort of replace it. I’m not sure if rallycross would be possible in something this tall, but light off roading would be possible, something I haven’t tried before. It would be easier to find parts for and keep running than the Comanche, which is somewhat rare these days. My only question is how’s the rust, particularly underneath? If it’s solid, I’d drop $1,800 for it.
2001 Subaru Forester
One good Subaru deserves another, I could argue. This Forester ticks all the boxes. It’s basically an Impreza under the taller boxier body, which means there are plenty of mods available for rallycross and for fun. I’d also consider an Impreza or Legacy in this price range, because all wheel drive, just as long as the body hasn’t already rusted out or the engine hasn’t spewed its head gaskets – both common problems with older Subarus. From the limited pictures this one seems to be in decent shape, especially for $1,900.
2008 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor
AWD is nice, but certainly not required. I had a P71 once before, so I know exactly what I’d do with this one. First I’d remove the smashed push bar on the front. I might replace the bumper, or not. My ham radios would go between the front bucket seats. I’d get some good tires, and then I’d feel like Roscoe P. Coltraine in hot pursuit of them Duke boys at the rallycrosses. The one time I took my 2003 P71 I had an absolute blast driving it sideways, and I brought home a first place trophy, too. For just $1,400 I wish I could go bring it home now.
2001 Toyota Corolla
Though certainly not an exciting car, the Corolla, as well as its Geo/Chevy Prizm twin, seem to be dirt cheap around here. No matter what badge is on it, you get Toyota reliability, and that counts for a lot. This particular car needs a front strut, which is an easy repair (I’d do them both), but the air conditioning blows cold and it seems to be in overall good condition. Not great, with several cosmetic blemishes, but that’s no problem for a beater. The wheels are tiny, which means tires would be cheap. For just $750 I could afford to run this car for a year, wreck it, and start over again later.
2001 Volkswagen Jetta TDI
Mk 4 Jettas aren’t exactly known for their fun or reliability. This particular example has high mileage and needs a little work, but nothing major except the timing belt. 385,000 miles are nothing to be sneezed at, but diesels have a way of running forever – though there is the risk that VW’s eventual Dieselgate fix may make keeping this car more trouble than it’s worth.
However, this could be an excellent candidate for the ute conversion by Smyth Performance. They’re local to me, so I could go pick up the kit at the factory and assemble it in my garage. That keeps the Mk 4 Jetta on my list as a “what-if” contender. (Smyth recently introduced a similar kit for the Mk 5, but those cars are more expensive.)
2003 Ford Focus ZTW
I had one before, and I’d have one again. This wagon is even more practical than the sedan I had, and has the 16v Zetec motor with more oomph than mine. I can find several cheap ones right now, but I’d lean toward this one out of the current options because wagons rule. For $900 I’d totally rock this wagon.
Sure, it’ll be more expensive to register and insure two cars instead of one. Or will it? My BRZ has already depreciated a lot, and my excise tax has dropped accordingly. An older car like these won’t be valued or taxed highly, and I won’t need to keep comprehensive insurance on it either. I guess it’ll cost a little bit more to keep two rather than one on the road, but the advantages of flexibility would be worth it.
Besides, with two nice cars already in the household, it would be neat to have one we don’t really have to care about banging up a little bit. Even after two and a half years, a small part of me dies every time I find a new scratch or ding on my BRZ. Because I bought it new, I know that every single one of those imperfections happened during my ownership. But it’s different when you inherit somebody else’s scratches, dings, and dents. I accept the existing imperfections, and if I happen to add to them, oh well. I’ll be that guy who crams into a parking space where someone else parked a foot over the line, making it impossible for the doors on that side to open. I’ll push it that much harder at a rallycross, because I don’t really care if flying rocks ripple up the sides a bit more. You get a sense of freedom when you don’t have to worry about keeping a car looking pretty.
The more I think about it, the more I think the BRZ might be sticking around my garage a bit longer.