Sunday, November 25, 2012

Used Car Review: 2004 Mazda Miata (all three trims levels)

Its been a while since the Elitist Enthusiast posted, so here's one for the enthusiast in all of us.  Most enthusiasts are either in the closet or openly a fan of the one car that brought "cheap" and "fun" into the same sentence back in the 90's, the Mazda Miata.  If you're like me, the idea of a convertible was a bit of a turn-off.  It hurts chassis rigidity and aerodynamics.  So then why was this car the holy grail of enthusiasts? 

Introduced in 1990 in the U.S., it is now known as the best selling sports car ever (yes, ever!).  Lightweight, rear-drive and (relatively) cheap, its an enthuasiast's ideal car.  The second generation started in 1999 and continued to 2005, keeping with pretty much the same car, just different exterior and interior (you can bolt on the interior of newer miatas into the older ones for a newer look...and vice versa for an older look).  I had the distinct pleasure of test driving not just one, but THREE Miatas from 2004. Today, they'll run you around $8,000 to $12,000, depending on the trim level. 

The first was a 2004 Miata, base model.  Came with a 5 speed manual transmission.  There was an option for the Suspension package that included a limited slip differential (LSD) and Bilstein shocks, but the car I test drove did not include this.  Because of the light curb weight (about 2440 lbs) and rear-wheel drive, the car was very light on its feet, unlike the front-drive cars I've driven for most of my life.  Its always willing to rotate and never gave a hint of understeer.  The engine is a 1.8 ltr 4-cylinder engine with variable valve timing, good for 142 horsepower.  The engine doesn't quite sing like the Honda VTEC motors but it still is fairly entertaining.  Drop the top down and you finally understand why this car wasn't available as a 2-door coupe.  Being able to feel the environment, the air and the wind, makes you feel even more connected to the road and a better judge of speed.  Its like being on a rollercoaster where you're in control of the direction that you'll be heading next.  Everything about the car screamed "pure sports car," even with the top down!  Thoroughly impressed, I had to see if I was missing out on anything, so I went on to the next, natural progression of the Miata, the LS trim:

The LS trim of the 2004 Miata (and pretty much all the 2nd generation Miatas) looked the same as the base on the outside , but included leather seats along with a 6-speed manual transmission and LSD.  You also get a terrible Bose sound system. The sports package also threw in the Bilstein shocks, if you so desired.  The car that I test drove included the sports package.  If you thought that adding leather and an extra gear would take some of the fun out of the car, that's simply not true for the Miata LS.  The final gear is actually shorter than that found in the 5-speed models!  The leather seats do make you sit a little higher up but there's actually no weight gain (actually, the LS models are lighter by just a few pounds!).  Being very unfamiliar with a 6th gear, I tried avoiding it as much as possible but eventually went for it (which was very awkward for me).  The car isn't much more luxurious than the base (did you really buy a Miata for luxury?) and maybe it was because the shocks were 8 years old, but it didn't feel any different in the handling department either.  Then again, we were on public roads and driving the car like you stole it shouldn't be on the list of test driving someone else's car.  Still, the car was a blast and you can't go wrong with this trim level.  But that really got me thinking...what about the last trim level?

Called the "Mazdaspeed MX-5", Mazda wants you to know this car isn't your same, tame Miata.  Boasting a turbocharged 1.8 liter 4-cylinder engine pushing out 178 horsepower to the rear wheels.  It comes with larger 17" Racing Hart branded wheels and special Mazdaspeed goodies like the rearview mirror, floormats, doorsills, gauge cluster, pedals, etc.  The front end gets a different front spoiler along with darkened headlights.  The interior also comes with special red inserts too.  Overall, its the most sought-after MX-5.  But is it worth all the extra money and complications of a turbo?  If you plan on building on the great platform, its well worth it but if you plan on keeping it stock...why not just get a non-turbo model for less?  You'll have almost as much fun without a lot of the heartache.  The test drive was a blast, but so was the previous two cars.  The extra power doesn't feel all that noticable.  If you're a good at-home mechanic with plenty of time and money to spend on the car, go for it.  But if you're like me, all you want is a simple car that's loads of fun without breaking the bank.  Which comes to my next point...
The reason why I hadn't been updating my blog was because this was one of the best test drives I had ever had.  Every enthusiast owes it to his or herself to drive one of these cars, even for just a few minutes, to appreciate what kind of car it is and how much fun that can be had behind the wheel.  So much so that I decided it would be my next car:
(Not my actual car)
I bought a silver 2004 Mazda Miata base model 5-speed! 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Used Car Review: 2005 Acura RSX Type-S

I've been looking into buying a new car and getting out of my boring family sedan.  One car that I've been eyeing for a very long time is the new 2014 Scion FR-S and its twin, the Subaru BRZ.  They're not available to test drive and buying new is killer when it comes to depreciation.  Ideally, I'd like to buy a used example of a later year of the car (like buying a used 2016 model in 2019). 

But 7 years is a long time to wait while driving my automatic family sedan, so I decided it might be a good idea just to get a used car that is similar to the FR-S/BRZ and drive it out while waiting for more information about reliability and residual value for the FR-S/BRZ.  I compiled a list of candidates for the job and came down to just a few models.  One of those was the 2005-2006 Acura RSX Type-S. 

The Acura RSX Type-S (also called the Honda Integra DC5) is a front-wheel drive coupe with about 210 horsepower, powered by the famous inline-4 cylinder K-series motors, the K20.  At around 2840 lbs, the power and weight seemed to match well with the upcoming FR-S/BRZ on paper, except for the front wheel driveness.  The fuel economy estimates are also very similar.  So, how was this 6-year old car that was widely regarded as the best sport-compact available in the US (at the time of its release)?

I test drove a 2005 RSX Type-S in Jade Green Metallic, the color seen above.  While there are about 10 exterior color choices, there's only 2 colors of interiors:  ebony (black) and titanium (beige).  Type-S models only have leather interiors.  Each exterior color has a corresponding interior color.  The Jade Green Metallic exterior color can only have a titanium interior. 

You've probably read plenty of reviews of this car so I'm going to keep it concise: 

Pros:  very refined interior that is screwed together well with little to no rattles.  Power delivery is smooth.  Transmission is easy to shift and gears are close for maximum fun.  Great amount of cargo space and cabin room (for front passengers)

Cons:  somewhat numb and heavy steering (relative to something like a Miata).  Doesn't communicate road feel as well as I'd like.  High road noise. 

The RSX Type-S is a great car.  Its a compromise when it comes to its sportiness though.  If you just want a sporty car with great refinement and utility, its awesome.  But for me, it just falls through when it comes to being completely dialed in and connected to the drive. 

The seller was asking $12,800 and the car needed an alignment and he had a small fender bender in the front bumper.  It seemed otherwise mechanically sound.  It was 100% stock.  I'm aiming for $10,000

What do you, the readers, think?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The best used cars under $2500 for the in-the-closet enthusiast!

After speaking with my coworker (see previous entry) about cars, autocross, etc, I started remembering what its like to be in college and to be pretty damn broke.  Its hard to have a nice (expensive) car when you're juggling a job and school, but you don't want to drive a car you don't like.  You want to have pride in your car and you don't want to dump money into a car you don't care for.  A job isn't guaranteed and you don't want to get into a mountain of debt with car payments and loans.  Sound like you?  Keep reading...

Most online auto authorities don't care to come out with this kind of list.  $2,500 is really reaching when you want a sporty car for an enthusiast.  On top of that, you have to deal with reliability and fuel economy of older cars.  But I really believe there's some gems to be had, so long as you're vigilant and patient.  Just remember that you're probably gonna get something that has cosmetic issues but as long as it runs well and is mechanically sound...well, what did you expect for $2,500?

So, here's the elitist enthusiasts' top picks for the 5 cars under 25 hundred dollars (alphabetical order):

1.  Honda Prelude (92-96)

This is the ugly duckling of Preludes.  Everyone knows the futuristic dash was a mistake.  Looking like a weird hatchback with an aggressive front was a departure from the previous generation's subdued and handsome coupe lines.  But get past the looks (or embrace the aggressiveness) and you've got a solid performing car, even for the present day.  The base models were pretty down on power, rocking about 130-ish hp, but the Si models (very common) stepped it up with 160 hp from the 2.3 liter H23 engine.  Even more rare was the VTEC trim which bumped it up further to 190 hp and the now famous H22 2.2 liter engine.  Weight was around 2900 lbs but its got the muscle to back it up.  Most people covet the final (97-01) generation and prefer the looks of the previous generation, so demand will be lower, thus lower prices.  It wasn't nearly as popular as Civics and Integras when it came to the tuner scene, so you'll find some nice stock ones too.

2.  Mazda Miata (90-97)

Could any list of top anything not have Mazda's famous roadster?  Lightweight (2100-2200 lbs) and rear-wheel drive, this is the enthusiast's holy grail.  With so many people racing the Miata, they'll be in demand.  But that also means lots of aftermarket support and cheap replacement parts.  Its simplistic design that lacks many comfort features and electronics makes it a reliable choice too.  From 90-93, the Miata packed a 1.6 ltr inline-4 making around 115 hp and was then bumped up to the 1.8 ltr in 94, making around 130 hp.  The car was never about power and all about an awesome chassis and handling that put most cars of its day to shame.  Even today, its loads of fun to drive.  But lets face it, its kinda scary when a semi switches into your lane at 90 mph.

3.  Mazda Protege (99-03)


The most practical and the only sedan on this list, its also the newest (most reliable) one here.  Which also means its kind of on the higher end of $2,500.  When compared to its contemporary competitors, it was the sporty econo-sedan of its day.  The base 1.6 ltr was good for 115 hp and 34 mpg and the 1.8 was 130 hp and 30 mpg.  That also makes it tied for the highest mpg car here.  It weighed in at a nice 2450 lbs.  It was fairly popular so lots of examples are still on the road.  And like every car on this list, its got a manual transmission standard.  Most people have decided to go for this car's "protege", the Mazda3, and forgotten completely that this car gets the same or better mpgs while delivering spirited performance, especially when it comes to road feel and handling.  Because its at the high end of the price spectrum, you'll get some bad examples for $2,500 and you should look out for rebuilt and salvage titles (a total no-go for me)

4.  Nissan Sentra SE-R (91-93)

The very definition of a sleeper, the Sentra SE-R is an awesome econo-coupe with a classic design.  Power comes from Nissan's legendary 2.0 engine:  the SR20DE.  Better known for its use as an engine-swap for the Nissan 240SX, the SR20-series of engines have lots of aftermarket potential and support, meaning plenty of cheap replacement parts.  This rendition of the engine will give you a whopping 140-hp, which was a lot for its time (and still is for its weight of 2200 lbs).  Disc brakes all around and a standard limited slip differential make this car a definite gem in the sea of rusting econoboxes.  Finding one will definitely be the hardest part.  Most people that own this car are well into motorsports so finding a bone stock example will be even harder.  Newer Sentra SE-R models may also be found that had the SR20DE but they may be a bit more expensive, especially the 200SX SE-R (its a Sentra coupe) and the Nissan NX2000 (super rare).

5.  Toyota Celica (94-99)

The secretary car.  This model of the Celica was widely known for its lack of power and controversial quad-headlight arrangement.  The previous generation boasted the All-Trac with a turbo engine and all-wheel drive while the generation after had the high-revving 180-hp and radical looks.  But most people don't know that this Celica generation weighed less than the earlier 90s ones prior to this at a lean 2400 lbs.  That means better fuel economy and theoretically, more potential for motorsports.  The ST base model had the 1.8 ltr that produced 118 hp and yielded 34 mpg while the GT trim had the 2.2 ltr producing 135 hp and 28 mpg.  The car definitely looks the part with a timeless sporty lift-back design, but you could also get the lesser-known coupe model too.  The hatchback will give you lots of utility and the engines are related to those found in other models like the 90s Camry, so finding replacement parts will be easy too.  With a little aftermarket work, this light front-drive hatch/coupe could yield lots of fun and be a great daily driver. 

So, what cars almost made the list?  The not-Top 5 under 25 starts here:

1.   Acura Integra:  Most stolen car in America.  Still?  The damn car's been out of production for over 10 years!  I swear people are just stealing already stolen cars.  Most are modded and are falling apart from the abuse anyways.  Any clean stock examples will command top dollar.

2.  Honda Civic:  See Acura Integra above. 

3. Mazda RX-7: Can a car be light, rear-drive, stylish and practical? Yes, but it can also have a rotary engine that is known for burning oil and apex seals and leaving you stranded. The car only got less reliable in time and turbo charging.  Any rotary-head guy will tell you I'm wrong and that rotary engines are reliable and God's gift to mankind. 

4.  Nissan 240SX:  The popularity of this car rose dramatically when the drifting scene made it to the US, meaning higher than normal prices.  Now all you see on the road are dirty, body-panel missing rust buckets.  Any great examples will probably cost a pretty penny.  And there's a whole army of wanna-be drifters waiting for a great deal when one pops up.

5.  Subaru Impreza:  Found as coupes and sedans, front-drive and all-wheel drive in the 90s.  Spunky cars with a knack for having their transmissions go out way too often.  Rare to find and even harder to find manual transmission-equipped cars.  Add in that you've got to worry about an all-wheel drive system and you've got a headache on your hands (and a handache on your head?)

So readers, what would you add to this list?  There's a lot of people hungry for your responses (the millions of in-the-closet car guys)!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Car guys: in the closet!

Recently I was at work and was speaking with a coworker about...well, small talk.  The guy is a joker and doesn't take anything seriously.  "What do you do when you're not working?" and he'd say "I just sit in a room alone and try to remain still.  I try not to breathe", all  while smiling.  After many attempts to get a serious answer out of him, I asked if he liked things like cooking, food, animals, anything.  Again, plenty of dodging and jokes.  But then I asked him point blank:  "Do you like cars?" and he said, "I love cars, but I try not to think about them".

Why didn't he just come out and say it?  Probably because we car enthusiasts have been judged...

and who could blame them?  These flashy cars got everyone's attention in all the wrong way.  When you tell people you like cars, are you afraid people will think you're a tacky car artist?

I told him I was also into cars and we had a lengthy discussion that was cut short when my shift ended.  Its hard to find car guys these days and its even harder to identify them.  The guy didn't drive a car you'd think would be driven by someone who is an enthusiast.  Then again, I don't either.  Are car guys disappearing or are they all just in hiding?  These days I can only tell if someone's an enthusiast if its a straight-looking guy driving a manual transmission Miata.  Everyone modifies their vehicle these days so you can't say someone's an enthusiast just because they drive this:

Everyone slaps on taillight mods (altezzas, blacked-out vinyls) and everyone changes out their wheels. 

So, readers (I know there's like two of you out there):  how do you find other people that are into cars? 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Drive This, not That! The eccentric way to enthusiast elitism

A lot of people drive that car.  Yes, the car you're currently driving.  There's a reason why people drive it.  Because they heard it was a good car from their "car guy" friend.  Because the automotive press loved it.  Because it's cute.  Because it "fits your style".  Because that shit was cheap as your mother and I got bills, dammit. 

I spoke with a coworker that drove an early 2000's Audi A6 V6.  I asked him why he chose it and he said "because I love German engineering and no one else drives this car."  At first I thought, "well, who doesn't love German engineering?  They only have the most premium names in the automotive world including BMW, Porsche, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz." But then he said that he used to work at a garage and loved the way German cars were put together.  He said that although a transmission would easily cost over $2000, he'd still buy one and keep the car running because he liked it that much.  He also said that most people drive the other German makes and he didn't want to be like them. 

This blog post is going to be about cars that everyone drive because of one reason or another, along with an alternative that you can consider.  Especially if you're an elitist bastard.  For our first "Drive this, not that!", we'll step into the past.  Enthusiasts love old cars but so do normal people.
This is the Nissan 350Z.  You personally know at least one person that drives this and have seen about 10 others today.  Its got an awesomely powerful V6 engine.  Its got undeniable sporty looks.  It started at less than $30,000 USD.  It says you're sporty but appreciate reliable Japanese engineering.  Getting the automatic didn't mean giving up 1/4 of your horsepower output either (I'm looking at you, Mazda RX-8)
Unfortunately, this generation of the Z-car had one of the worst looking interiors I've ever seen.  I realize this is very much personal opinion.  The steering wheel looked like it belonged in a Nissan SUV.  The dash is filled with plastic.  I guess it had to be done for the goodness of the powertrain. 

Don't want to be seen in a "me too" car?  Don't care for the plastics?  Or maybe you don't care and you already drive one.  Well, here's the elitist's choice to replace it:

Its more expensive than Z, but it'll sell later at a higher price too.  It'll give you just as much practicality.  "No automatic transmission option?" You damn right.  Only people willing to work to be an enthusiast can handle this thing.  Road and wind noise are standard along with rock hard suspension.  Only an enthusiast would put up with that.  Ugly digital tachometer? A real enthusiast doesn't need no electronic mumbo jumbo to tell him how fast the engine is spinning. Just heel-toe that shit to 9000-rpm and don't forget to double clutch like you should.  "I thought only 4-cylinder non-turbo cars were all econoboxes."  That's how its gonna feel like unless you whip the hell out of the engine so that VTEC kicks in yo. 

Did I mention the steering wheel?  A seriously compact, 3-spoke steering wheel that just feels and looks right.  You're here to race, not sit in traffic. 

So, fellow elitist enthusiast: drive the Honda S2000, not the Nissan 350Z!  But you already knew that.  Z-drivers, I've got my flame suit on, so comment and tell me I'm wrong!

Toyota's FT-86: A blessing or a curse?

You all saw it coming...we're all enthusiasts and we've been following the development of the Toyota FT-86 (aka Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ) with hungry eyes.  Why?  Because enthusiasts want that visceral feel of a Miata, S2000 and Elise plus a few seats and cargo room.  If you could have it all, wouldn't you want a Dodge/Mercedes Sprinter van's utility with the communicative feel and weight of the Elise plus a price tag of the Miata? 

However, enthusiasts are clashing with fanboys and themselves.  We always find something to complain about even though an inexpensive, lightweight, rear-drive 2+2 coupe is, by its very existence, a blessing.  Here's some of the issues on which we don't stand united:

1.  The badge.  The US will be getting the Scion.  The rest of the world will be getting a Toyota badge.  Toyota AE86 purists are either happy that its not a true replacement to their babies or are unhappy that Toyota didn't offer a continuation to the AE86's legacy.  On top of that, enthusiasts feel that the Scion brand is more of a "poser" or "immature" brand and will water down the significance of the vehicle they buy.  These enthusiasts say they don't want to drive the same car as a 16-year old high school girl that just got her license. I say a true enthusiast wouldn't care about the brand, just the car.  If you're caught up in the image of the car, you were never an enthusiast from the beginning.  Just admit you don't want to get a Miata because, while its some of the most fun you've ever had behind the wheel, you don't want people to think you're a homosexual.  P.S.:  there's something called the Volkswagen Eos.  Its taken the Miata's feminine/homosexuality crown. 

2.  The badge.  Subaru's getting the car too but some Subaru enthusiasts are in a rage about its not having AWD, like all the other cars in the Subaru line-up (in the US).  We're all enthusiasts so why the hate?  Its geared toward enthusiasts, and so is Subaru.  And for the people that don't want the Scion-branded car, the Subaru exists.  It gives us options to have the Scion and Subaru available to us, so we should be glad. 

3.  The availability.  Is this going to be the next Japanese sporty car seen at every damn red light you're at?  The elitist in me says that such a thing would be a travesty and I'll never be seen in a car that everyone's driving.  But the rational enthusiast in me says that if this thing succeeds to such a level, then maybe more car companies will see that a car like this is a viable product in their portfolios. 
Remember cars that everyone bought that were more enthusiast-minded?

Ok, maybe that Eclipse wasn't a very good example because production has stopped.  And the 370Z isn't selling too hot either.  But the cars shown (95-99 Eclipse and 2003-2008 350Z) are cars we see all the time because non-enthusiast people bought them.  The last car, the BMW 3-series is maybe the epitome of what this car should strive to be:  still in production!  So lets keep it affordable, good-looking and practical for people to buy it.  But don't soften it up or we may go the way of the Eclipse (R.I.P.) and don't make it too expensive, impractical and enthusiast-minded (like the S2000). 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

What the hell is a "Sports Car"?

I remember having a conversation with a friend about the definition of a "Sports Car".  Some of the automotive press also ponders that same question.  So, we tried to agree on a list of things that make a "true" sports car and we hit a wall.  Here's my list of "must-haves" for a "true" sports car:

1.  Traditional manual transmission (with a clutch you operate with your foot and a shifter you shift with your hand)
2.  Rear wheel drive [puts on flame suit]
3.  2-door car (or 3-door, if you want to talk liftbacks/fastbacks/notchbacks/hatchbacks)

That's all.  It can be a simple Nissan 240SX or the ultra exotic Mercedes Benz SLS.  My friend stated that cars like the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution should be added, but I argued that the Evo is a "performance vehicle", much like a Ford F-150 Lightning.  He said I'm insane and made a video of my insanity. 

So, what's your list of prerequisites for a "true" sports car? Here's some of my favorites: