Journal: Finding a Daily Driver is an Exercise in Frustration

Finding a Daily Driver is an Exercise in Frustration

By Benjamin Shahrabani
February 26, 2014

My parents swear that my first word was ‘car’, so it might come as no surprise that I love cars. When I was young, my dad would buy me scale models and later on I had several electric slot car racing sets where I would while away the hours with ease. More recently I have had the privilege of driving or owning several interesting cars, including what I think is the most sublime combination of engine, transmission, and chassis known to man, the 1995-1998 Porsche 911 (the 993).

With my car guy bona-fides out of the way, the search is on for a daily driver. I’m not afraid to put on miles, but I want those miles and the associated wear and tear to be in the pursuit of something meaningful – a fun run in the canyons with friends, an autocross or driver’s education event, or a road trip with my girl (and even to teach her how to drive a manual transmission again). These are worthy miles. 

I’m looking for something used, relatively inexpensive, and (somewhat) reliable. It shouldn’t be expensive, but if you’re a car guy like me, you may have additional requirements even if you have another fun, sporty car(s) in the garage. For me, these are: engaging, quick, tossable, interesting, with a modicum of utility, relatively economical to run, easy to park, and without too many miles. Little did I know this combination would be so difficult to find.

I started my search by focusing on cars that are utilitarian and amusing since those were two of my criteria. SUV’s are useful, but lack sportiness; the Porsche Cayenne Turbo, Range Rover Supercharged, et al excepted. I already owned a hatchback, and found that a bit too small. Since I wanted something reasonably economical, I started looking for sporty wagons. Wagons from Audi, BMW, Mercedes, and even Volvo appealed…and some even had the coveted ‘third pedal’ option so I could row it myself. Wouldn’t it be great to have utility, speed, and style?

First, I looked at cars I had read about and coveted years ago: the Audi 200 Turbo Quattro Avant, BMW E30 Wagon, Mercedes 200-series Diesel wagon, Saab 900 5-door. Surely these cars wouldn’t cost too much now. After kicking some tires on a few of these, I started to lose faith that the vehicle I sought could actually be found. Was I being too picky? 

I found many cars were stratospherically overpriced, modded most distastefully, needed work, had starship mileage, but usually a combination of all four. One car was even missing a wheel (Note to seller: are you so lazy that you can’t even fit a replacement wheel so you can sell your precious commodity? As an added insult, this seller was ‘firm’ with his high price). In a vacuum, most anyone might have an exaggerated estimate of a car’s value. After all, it’s an asset and nobody wants to sell it for less than it’s worth. But what I don’t understand is that accurate information is readily available in the bluebooks, forums, and auction results. It’s not a guessing game. This wasn’t limited to private sellers either, it was dealers too.

My search was starting to make me feel a bit dispirited. I decided that I could raise my budget a little bit so that I could perhaps buy something a little less ‘used up’. My thinking was that the very-well used ones I had been looking at weren’t so much of a bargain after all, especially since newer counterparts were theoretically just a bit more, would have less mileage, and fewer things to fix or that would soon go wrong. All of these steeds were expensive when new, and just because they had depreciated to just a fraction of their original cost doesn’t mean their parts and maintenance have too.

Well, my hope didn’t come true either. I just found more of the same at a (slightly) higher price. Then a revelation hit me. What used car could I purchase that I’d enjoy driving, wouldn’t depreciate, and has some utility (for it seats four people, albeit very uncomfortably and with a roof rack could carry larger items)? Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the answer to my search was there all along. A 993. No, not my 993, rather a ‘beater’ 993 with higher mileage and a few dents and dings courtesy of an unappreciative owner. I think what I’m trying to say was said best in The Wizard of Oz — “Everything you were looking for was right there with you all along.” 

OK, that’s silly. And thus, the search continues for a daily driver. A 3-pedal wagon hopefully.

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Bob bmisth
Bob bmisth(@breakfast)
7 years ago

s4 avant fits the bill nicely too!

Bob bmisth
Bob bmisth(@breakfast)
7 years ago

e46 touring

Edward Keller
Edward Keller(@turbobudapest)
7 years ago

How about a Saab 9000 Aero? Has to be one of the best performing versatile every day cars available…..

I bought one as a daily driver for myself – honestly, could not be happier with my choice. And quite possibly the best seats ever made for any car.

Micah Egger
Micah Egger(@fb_1275115856)
7 years ago

For an enthusiast looking for a wide range of fun level / dollar level choices in a rwd row your own, I suggest a 3 series BMW. These can be had in almost whatever trim you are looking for because there were so many options through the years. In my opinion they are overbuilt and can still be wrenched on by you without too much trouble. I found myself in the same predicament needing 4 doors a while back and settled on a nicely cared for 00 328is for a mere $6.5k. Sporty enough, comfortable enough, practical enough, sideways enough, besides you will always have another love.

Ae Neuman
Ae Neuman(@fb_1293493178)
7 years ago

a 993 would be nice but even a beater costs a small fortune to maintain.

my choice would be a used mk5 golf gti – easily available, cheap to buy and run, fun to drive, practical.

7 years ago

Alfa Romeo 156 GTA Sportwagon. You get the fabulous sounding 3.2 V6 Busso, great performance, outstanding cornering, a good boot and just the right balanced looks in one package.
If you are after more sensibility, get a 156 SW Dieseasel.

For a more modern outfit, check out a 159 SW with either Q4 or the turbo 1750 Tbi. They are fast and beautiful with great interiors.

Doug Churchill
Doug Churchill(@decoupe)
7 years ago

2006 – 2014 Subaru Forrester XT – has WRX performance (250ish hp) in a stealthy and practical exterior. Adjustable frt rear bias control and 5spd. Super reliable boxer motor and AWD and won’t send your wallet to Europe for cleaning.

7 years ago

Fellow 993 owner from the Netherlands here. I found my, equally depreciation proof, answer to your question in an ’05 Saab 9-5 Aero estate. Maybe not the sportiest of drives out there but dead reliable, fastish, and very practical. Mine’s a auto, but over here it was also available as a manual. Not sure if that’s the case stateside though.

Good luck with the search 🙂

7 years ago

Volvo 850 t5r, if you can find one. Here’s one: Volvo 240 turbo station wagon. With a little suspension mods, it’s a surprisingly capable car. But it really sounds like a job for MK5 GTI 4 door. Pretty good value now, cheerful, and totally useful.

john tolle
john tolle(@runner)
7 years ago

2001-2005 Audii allroad 2.7 Twin Turbo Quattro six speed annual stick 3 petal ! An easy choice. Four doors,wagon,hatch,tons of room, superb builders t to drive, engine will go forever, pure luxury, rare, rare, rare. Does everything. What not to like except mileage and maintenance which you will have with any real drivers car. If you don’t need the room, then NA Series Miata 1990-97. Then you don’t even have the maintenance, just the fun.

Rod S
Rod S(@rod)
7 years ago

Wagon? How about a Legacy GT wagon? Fine examples are depreciating nicely

Chris Franceschini
Chris Franceschini(@motonerd14)
7 years ago
Reply to  Rod S

Was just looking at one of these the other day. The few turbos I’ve found with manual transmissions are all super-high mileage, but well cared for. Suppose it could go well, either way.

Andreas Lavesson
Andreas Lavesson(@andreas)
7 years ago

I think you’ll be hard pressed to find an early S4/S6 unfortunately. I haven’t personally hounded those, but I’m checking the market now and then and as you said, most of them have been driven to bits. They are after all 20 years old and bought by people who has probably driven them quite hard. I suppose it is possible to find a sorted example (at least in Germany), but those sellers know that their cars are miles above the competition and have priced them accordingly.

Joe Golliher
Joe Golliher(@jgolliher)
7 years ago

– It takes patience buying a UrS4/S6 due to their limited production numbers. I searched the country (AutoTrader, Craigslist, eBay, QuattroWorld, BAT, GCFSB, Audifans Marketplace, etc.) for 6 months before jumping on mine. Finally found a gem in Boulder, CO and dispatched my sister living in Denver to inspect it for me. Made a deal with the seller over the phone, and my wife and I flew out one-way to Colorado to drive the car back to Minnesota. We drove through the Black Hills and the Badlands in an amazing vehicle – it was AWESOME! Like having a European delivery experience but right here in the USA. 🙂 Happy hunting!

Andreas Lavesson
Andreas Lavesson(@andreas)
7 years ago

I’ve been thinking about relatively fun practical cars for a while, since that’s what I’ll most likely get as a first car when I’m out of college. In the “bigger” categories (by European standards), I’ve found:

Ford Mondeo ST220 (Don’t think you got them in the states)
Skoda Octavia RS (Don’t know if you got that)
SAAB 9-5 Aero
Alfa Romeo 156 SW
Audi A4 (B5/8E)
and different iterations of BMW 3-series (E30 or E36, since you don’t want the E46)

Don’t know if the ST220 and RS are relevant in this case. If you want to go SAAB, I’d say 9-5 Aero is quite a nice choice (got the Mitsubishi turbo and not those unreliable Garrett). The Italian and Germans come in different flavours with 4-6 cylinders and N/A or turbo, whichever you like. Admittedly, all of them are a generation newer than the ones you are referring to in the article, but getting a nice example of something “old” sporty and utilitarian seems to be damn near impossible, as you’ve already experienced.

I’d also like to throw in a joker. Albeit not really a “sporty” car and not especially economical I’d imagine and also quite rare, so probably a bit expensive. However, if I could buy a station wagon tomorrow and not have to take those things in too much consideration, I’d be really tempted to go for a Volkswagen Passat W8 (manual of course).

7 years ago

Great Article! Really enjoyed this one. Over the years I’ve played around trying to find my ultimate daily driver. I was inspired to find a car, hold onto it for a long time, look after it and use it like Irv Gordon (the guy with the highest mileage car – Volvo P1800). In the end, after going through lots of cars and never being satisfied, I finally realized I had the ultimate car all along (ultimate in my view and I don’t expect everyone to agree). I pulled out my precious garage queen which I’ve treated as a sunday driver for 8 years, a 1999.5 Audi A4 Manual Turbo Quattro (“GP Update” edition) and I now simply use it like Irv! I do over 500km to work and back every week and it’s been great.

The things I like about it:
-Quattro Grip
-Decent Power
-Luxurious Interior
-Seating for 4
-Decent safety features
-Decent fuel economy
-Lots of parts available for the 1.8T engine (and mods if i get bored)
-Got a trailer if and when I need to pick things up from the hardware store or take rubbish to the tip.

This era Audi does have it’s fair share of common problems but I’ve persisted and got a lot of those sorted. And.. I like the challenge of fixing things. I’ve changed way of thinking too – The more miles the better! – Maybe if i reach 1 million miles then Audi might give me a free car (lol).

BTW – A 1981 Porsche 911 SC coupe now sits in the garage queen position.

All the best with your ultimate daily driver quests.

7 years ago

What about a Subaru Impreza WRX Compact Wagon?
I was in more or less the same decision and I bought a MY 98 WRX sedan. Now are really cheaper but fast and enjoyable, plus 4wd… and maybe in the future they can increase a little bit the value…

Joe Golliher
Joe Golliher(@jgolliher)
7 years ago

Consider a 1992-1995 Audi S4/S6. I own one and I believe it checks most of your boxes:
– Only came in a 5-speed, manual transmission
– Inline 5-cylinder turbo engine/tranny are bullet proof (easy 300K+ miles with routine maintenance)
– Quattro for sport driving in any weather; unstoppable in the snow
– A+ build quality (mine has zero squeaks or rattles at 19 years old)
– Recaro sport seats in front are some of the best ever made
– Front/rear seat heaters
– Locking rear differential
– Analog cell phone in the arm rest!
– 10-disk CD changer in the trunk (one of the only options on the car)
– Fantastic online user communities with every bug/issue/how-to sorted out and documented
– Only 3.5K in North America so values are holding steady or increasing (a few avants were made)
– Will rarely ever see another one on the road
– Relatively easy to work on for DIY mechanics
– Plenty of mods and aftermarket parts available to safely increase starting/stopping power and handling

Routine maintenance parts are still available. S4/S6-specific body parts are becoming unavailable or more expensive. These cars are a blast to drive, have timeless styling – no one will believe you when you tell them the car is 19 years old. $8-$10K will get you a very nice example with miles around 100K.

Diego Pucciarelli
Diego Pucciarelli(@diego)
7 years ago
Reply to  Joe Golliher

1994 S4 Avant was the daily driver car of Ayrton Senna!!

Diego Pucciarelli
Diego Pucciarelli(@diego)
7 years ago

What about an E34 M5

Gianni Burrows
Gianni Burrows(@giannib)
7 years ago

I think the “wishful” pricing by sellers is a result of Craigslist. Back in the pre-internet days, sellers priced their stuff to sell, since they had to pay for an ad in the local paper or AutoTrader and they wanted it to sell within the listing period. If not, they had to cough up more money to re-list. Now that it costs nothing to put a car on Craigslist, you can put a nutty price on it and run the ad for years (and wonder why no one ever responds)…

Diego Pucciarelli
Diego Pucciarelli(@diego)
7 years ago

Go for a Mercedes wagon, any of them would do the job!!

Gabor Ugron
Gabor Ugron(@gabor-ugron)
7 years ago

E30 318is: performance (chipped) very close to a 325i, fuel economy like a 318i, cheap to run, cheap to insure, nimble, reliable, loads of pedigree. Great daily driver.

7 years ago

You will buy the wrong car if you don’t get [url=”[ALFA[][]]&listingId=362582253″]this[/url].

7 years ago
Reply to  Zeratul

Yeah that didn’t go well did it… Shortened URL:

Matthew Lange
Matthew Lange(@365daytonafan)
7 years ago

BMW e46 Touring in 330i (or 330d if they brought those to the US) form will do everything you need. Stick some Alpina Rims on it and it will look the part too.

Horaţiu Lazăr
Horaţiu Lazăr(@fb_1411441110)
7 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Lange

Or go for the full Alpina, the E46 B3 ! 🙂
Also, I agree with you on the E46 front. I’m pretty sure it’s relatively easy to find a good manual 328i or 330i/xi/d/xd. In Europe at least, you are spoiled for choice.

Emanuel Costa
Emanuel Costa(@genovevo)
7 years ago

And Mercedes is allways an option. In Europe, 80’s and 90’s station wagons are still being sold to African and Midle Eastern countries, some with enormous mileage, to be used as cabs

C Kindel
C Kindel(@cek)
7 years ago

Me thinks you are over thinking this.

Set a budget (say $4500).
Buy an E28 for budget – $2000.
Spend the $2000 fixing all the little things that are needed to make it perfect.

Emanuel Costa
Emanuel Costa(@genovevo)
7 years ago

Volkswagen/Skoda stations

Sid Widmer
Sid Widmer(@sid)
7 years ago

Sounds like a job for a 5 door GTI.