Soon it will be time for me to pack my bags and move across the world again. Once more, I will own a car. This time of being carless hasn’t been horrible, occasional dealings with wretched rental companies aside, but I think the superb public transport in this amazing city has helped mitigate the frustration. I actually know with near certainty what car I’ll buy upon my return: a Ford BA or BF Falcon XR6 Turbo, essentially the turbo version of my previous car. Unoriginal, yes, but a fantastic stopgap car with a lot of grunt for not much money, plenty of space, low running costs and a very nice interior. What I want your input on is the car after that. Here’s a list of everything from stick shift pocket rockets to luxo barges to muscle cars to European and Australian cars y’all can’t get your hands on.
I never bothered with financing when I bought my second car. I had simply saved the money and cut a check. I like to save money diligently and I don’t yet have a credit card – although I won’t be able to stave that off forever – but I’m too eager to rejoin the world of car ownership to futz around with loans or financing for my third COAL. My fourth COAL, the one I’m asking you to help me pick, is at least a year away and may be financed. Ideally, I’m looking at something in the $15-20k AUD range; for perspective, $15k would buy you a new, base-model Fiesta, and $20k an entry-level Focus. As much as I like both those cars, I’m a firm believer in getting as much bang for my buck as possible and buying used is a great way to get that bang. I’m also a simple man: I like a car with plenty of grunt, a ride that doesn’t rattle my bones like a wooden rollercoaster and a decent amount of equipment. It doesn’t matter if it’s FWD, RWD or AWD, however I would prefer something not too expensive to run and repair.
European cars are, generally speaking, going to cost more to repair and maintain. I absolutely see the appeal in a BMW or a Mercedes-Benz, but I’m not passionate enough about them to take the plunge. One European luxury sedan that is more my style is the Volvo S80 V8. First of all, it’s a Volvo with a V8 engine! Shared with the XC90, this 4.4 Yamaha V8 pumped out 311hp and 325 lb-ft of torque through a six-speed automatic to all four wheels. 0-60 was a rapid 6 seconds, and barely noticed from the cocooned comfort of the plush interior. The S80 isn’t a canyon carver, instead offering a smooth ride and a lot of features. The 2007, according to Red Book, narrowly enters my price range; 2008’s slightly slower, turbo six AWD T6 variant also makes it. The V8 was just shy of $100k new, so picking one up for a fifth of the price only seven years later shows how much they depreciated. Of course, they depreciated that much because they weren’t terribly popular, despite being a better value than the tepid first-generation S80. This is plainly obvious when you try to find an S80 V8 on an online classifieds site. Despite being sold for several years, there are just three on Carsales and those sellers believe the rarity of their car commands a premium. That rarity seems to knock this dashing Volvo out of consideration.
So an unobtanium Swedish luxobarge might be a fool’s errand. Why not a sensible Japanese luxobarge instead? A used Honda Legend (Acura RL) tickles my fancy for lots of gizmos – like a sunroof, active noise cancellation, and heated seats – and like the S80, it has standard all-wheel-drive. Instead of a throaty V8, though, the Legend offers a decently quick V6 (290hp, 256 ft-lbs; 0-60 in 7.3 seconds) and a five-speed automatic with paddle shifters. Critics praised the Legend upon its 2006 arrival for its attractive interior and quite capable handling, hampered only by particularly feel-free steering. Overall, the $74k Honda was a huge leap ahead of its predecessor, which retailed for a laughable $85k. Yes, the exterior is visually very plain, but the interior is aesthetically pleasing and the Legend is probably the most sensible left-field choice I could make. Thanks to sales mirroring its North American Acura counterpart, it has depreciated quite nicely too and is more interesting on a technical level than most Japanese sedans.
But a Japanese V6 just doesn’t have the devilish lure of a good old-fashioned American V8. A Chrysler 300C, cool gauges asides, doesn’t have an interior anywhere near as nice as the Legend, but the exterior is as bold as the Legend’s is anonymous. Unfortunately for a used car buyer, they have held their value remarkably well in Australia. This is likely due to the 300C being arguably the most successful Chrysler in Australia since the Aussie Valiant. Perhaps the extra cash is worth it though for that Hemi, with its 340hp and 390 ft-lbs of torque and a 0-60 time of 5.5 seconds. A clever cylinder deactivation feature helps mitigate the gas-pump agony of owning a big, honking V8 in a country where gas is more expensive than in America. There was an available 3.5 V6 and a 3.0 diesel V6, but a car like the 300C deserves nothing less than a Hemi.
A big engine in a big car is cool, but how about a big engine in a small car? The 2003-07 Alfa Romeo 147 GTA is just 166.3 inches long and weighs under 3000 lbs., but comes packing a 3.2 V6 with 247 hp and 220 ft-lbs (0-60: 6 seconds). All of that grunt is going through the front wheels, but critics praised the GTA for its delightfully chuckable handling, rev-hungry engine and decent ride. I love the idea of a six-cylinder engine in a compact, and the 147 is probably one of the most beautiful hatchbacks ever made. Of course, buying a 147 GTA is a purchase of the heart. Gas mileage is terrible and so is maneuverability, with its truck-like turning circle. The clutchless manual Selespeed transmission is apparently jerky and unintuitive, so I’d have to buy the 6-speed manual (note: I love manual transmissions but my horrible knees don’t). It’s a small car with only three doors and the interior is plasticky (despite costing $60k new, it was based on a car that started in the $35k range). Alfa Romeo’s reliability record isn’t exactly confidence-inspiring, either. The cons really stack up for this fun little hatch, and the GTAs for sale online are listed well above RedBook value.
So the concept of the 147 GTA is fascinating, but there seem to be too many red flags. Perhaps a colder, more rational, German alternative would be preferable? A Mk5 Volkswagen Golf R32 takes the solid base of the Golf – consistently one of the best mainstream compacts on the market – and adds 4Motion part-time four-wheel-drive and a 3.2 V6 engine with 247 hp and 236 ft-lbs. 0-60 is 6.2 seconds with the slick DSG transmission, which sounds great until you realize the lesser Mk5 Golf GTi is almost as quick (6.7 seconds; 197hp, 207 ft-lbs), was several thousand dollars cheaper new and remains that way on the used market, sitting much closer to the middle of my price range. I imagine the R32 and GTi feel quite different to drive, with the R32 likely boasting more grip and perhaps a more sonorous engine note, but I think a GTi and change would make me just as happy. There’s still the same high-quality interior and the GTI can be had with those awesome tartan seats; in fact, I think the GTI looks better than the R32 inside and out. I’d also consider an Audi A3 3.2 V6, which boasts an even nicer interior, but they seem to be at an S80 V8 level of rarity in Australia and I’ve never been much of an Audi man.
The GTI has a turbo four, the R32 a naturally aspirated six. Why don’t I buy a turbo six? The Ford FG Falcon G6E Turbo was the first Falcon to combine the gutsy, smooth 4.0 turbo inline six (now up to 362hp and 393 ft-lbs) with a luxury Falcon trim level. Climate control A/C, a reversing camera and leather seats were standard, and the suspension tune was somewhere in between the base model’s plush tune and the firmer set-up of the XR6 Turbo. Unlike previous luxury Falcons, the G6E Turbo was much more differentiated visually from lesser models, with a bold eggcrate grille and air dam. One thing I love about these turbo Falcons, too, is that I can get more oomph than the base inline six without having to get a V8 and deal with the associated running and registration costs of that. Although the FG Falcon has been one of the least-marketed, most-overlooked Australian cars ever made, it is easily one of the best. Of course, that would make me a three-time Falcon owner and as much as the G6E Turbo sings to me, perhaps I should explore the greater automotive world.
But maybe I shouldn’t go too far from home. Perhaps crosstown rival Holden could steal my heart? I’ve always been a huge GM fan but have never owned an Aussie Holden (although I did own a Holden-badged Opel). The VE Commodore was the first Commodore to be designed and engineered from scratch by Australians, a source of great pride for an Australian car enthusiast. This generation of Commodore was exported globally, and was available in the Australian market in several trims, body styles, interior styles and drivetrain combinations. A 2009 onwards Holden VE Calais V, with the 6.0 V8 and Active Fuel Management, would be the most alluring VE. That L76 V8 puts out 350hp and 381 ft-lbs and gets 18MPG combined. The Calais V is the most luxurious Holden short of springing for the long-wheelbase Caprice; like the Caprice, it comes with the more luxurious-appearing interior (not the base interior used in American PPVs, or the sports interior used in Pontiac G8s). Initially, the VE Calais V rode on the firmer FE2 suspension used on performance Commodores, but later this was switched to a “pleasant compromise” FE1.5 set-up. These Vs are the most beautiful Commodores, and look even better in the metal with their athletic, rear-wheel-drive proportions. I could get a decently quick 3.6 V6 in my Calais V, too, but sometimes you have to live a little. Still, even with the V8, I’d be getting a car with excellent handling that has been likened to a budget BMW 5-Series and yet parts and servicing would be a doddle because it’s Aussie.
The Calais has crossed my mind many times over the past few years, but another car I have been tempted to pull the trigger on is the Saab 9-3 Aero 2.8 V6 turbo. I love an underdog, and if this perennially unlucky Swedish automaker isn’t an underdog, I don’t know what is. There’s an Australia connection here too, as the 2.8 V6 was built right here by Holden. 250hp and 240 ft-lbs is much less output than a certain other turbocharged engine built here, but the 9-3 is a much more compact package. These V6 Aeros were front-wheel-drive only but torque steer wasn’t Viggen-bad. Due to slow sales and Saab’s demise, these Aeros are on the lower end of my price range. Of course, due to slow sales and Saab’s demise, these Aeros aren’t terribly common and parts and servicing could be a hassle. Their interiors, also, are plasticky and of lower quality than my old Falcon; gas mileage isn’t exceptional, either. As much as I love an underdog and I find these 9-3s extremely handsome (especially in Aero SportCombi wagon form), it’s probably not the best pet to adopt.
A 9-3 Aero SportCombi is an intriguing proposition: turbo performance and wagon practicality. Perhaps a better execution of that concept is the Skoda Octavia RS wagon. Essentially a Mk5 Golf GTi underneath, the RS shares its wheelbase, 2.0 turbo four and available DSG transmission. The Octavia is longer and slightly softer dynamically, and was, like the VW Jetta, positioned as more of a mid-size offering in Australia. Sadly, the RS wagon didn’t get the DSG until 2009 (two years after its launch) and those auto examples only just enter my price range. But if one were cheap enough, the Octavia RS wagon offers a compelling proposition: Golf GTi performance with a plusher ride and wagon practicality.
The 9-3 Aero wasn’t the only European luxury sedan to boast an Australian-built GM engine. The Alfa Romeo 159 Q4 came with a 260hp, 237 ft-lb 3.2 V6 derived from the GM’s ubiquitous 3.6 High Feature V6. The Q4 logo indicates standard all-wheel-drive, and this model was at the very top of the 159 range from 2006 to 2012, retailing for a cool $75k AUD: right in the heart of 3-Series pricing territory. Despite all-paw grip, these 159s were not a deadly threat to the 3-Series in terms of dynamics. However, they made up for that with a throaty exhaust note, drop-dead gorgeous styling and a very attractive, driver-oriented interior. There was even an available 6-speed manual and a wagon variant, as well as a range of lesser gas and diesel engines. Quality and reliability were much improved over previous Alfas and despite a curb weight of around 3,700lbs and a relatively small, naturally aspirated V6, these 159 Q4s could get from 0-60 in around 7 seconds. Unfortunately, people were much more willing to spend their $75k over at the BMW or Mercedes dealerships, and these flagship 159s are quite rare, although generally well-priced by private sellers. A less complex, front-drive, 4-cylinder 159 would be slower but still an extremely cool and expensive-looking car, and easier to find.
Tom Klockau will be happy to see the Volvo V50 T5 on my list. Although I find the styling a little cutesy (the S40 is even worse in that regard), it’s hard not to be impressed by a compact Swedish wagon with a turbo five-pot and all-wheel-drive. The fact that underneath is a Ford Focus/Mazda3 means the little Swede is imbued with the same crisp handling and comfortable ride, and the turbo five produces 218hp and 236 ft-lbs (good for 0-60 of around 7 seconds). The little wagon certainly is a quirky alternative with sensible bones, although the interior doesn’t wow me, free-standing center console aside.
The Opel brand was introduced in September 2012 to Australia. Positioned as a slightly premium European brand and proudly announcing its German origins with the tagline “Wir leben autos”, the Opel range experienced slow sales. Shockingly, GM chose to withdraw Opel after only 11 months and after a great deal of money had been spent on dealerships, marketing and compliance. There are now talks of Opels reappearing as Holdens, but one Opel that may not return to Australia is the Opel Insignia (Buick Regal). I find these to be one of the most beautiful Opels ever made, and I was impressed by the 2.0 turbo sedan I inspected last year. These came fully loaded, with even the base model offering heated leather seats and climate control, and the up-range Select adding ventilated seats, 19-inch alloy wheels and satellite navigation. 2.0 turbo diesel and wagon variants were also available. Remarkably, despite an MSRP of around $38k, there are many examples on Carsales of Insignias still in warranty listing for $25k. The rapid withdrawal of Opel has done a number on resale values, and they will possibly fall into my price range soon. If I could get one still in warranty, that would be quite a pleasant surprise; Holden dealerships have taken over servicing, so it’s not as though Opel is a complete orphan brand. These cars feel extremely high quality, and performance is quite good with 217hp and 262 ft-lbs of torque and a 0-60 of 7.2 seconds. I would be very happy to own one of these, and maybe I’d stick a couple of Tri-Shields on it!
There are other options, too. If I wanted to row my own gears again, the mid-sized Ford Mondeo XR5 Turbo offers liftback practicality and the same turbo five-pot used in the aforementioned Volvo V50 T5.
Although the G6E Turbo and Calais V are auto-only, if the stickshift bug bit me, I could opt for a manual Holden VE Commodore SSV or Ford FG Falcon XR6 Turbo.
How about a manual-only HSV VXR? That acronym-heavy nameplate sits on the previous-generation Opel Astra OPC/Vauxhall Astra VXR, and its wild 237hp, 236 ft-lb 2.0 turbo four was made famous by Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear, when the presenter wrestled with its prodigious torque steer.
I test-drove a grey-import Cadillac Seville STS last year, one of the few modern American grey imports available here due to their sales in the Japanese market. These Sevilles are easily one of my favorite Cadillacs ever, and I have lusted after them for years. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense though paying considerably more than one would in the US for one of these babies, and parts and servicing would be a nightmare and finding another 2003 like the one I test drove (the only year with Magnetic Ride Control) would probably be a wild goose chase. I do love them, though.
I’m also a fan of the quite common grey import Nissan Skyline V35 and V36 (Infiniti G35/G37, before they were officially sold here), as well as the Skyline-derived Nissan Stagea which I find to be one of the most beautiful station wagons ever made. Grey imports, despite their often quite low prices, just seem to be a bit of a risk. If any of our Australian commenters have thoughts on buying grey, though, I’d love to hear them because I once saw a 2004 Stagea with a saddle leather interior and I fell in love.
Finally, the Subaru Liberty (Legacy) looked damn good in fourth-generation guise. I was absolutely crushed when I saw the fifth-generation’s simultaneously narrow and tubby proportions, although I appreciated its slightly nicer interior. I love the sound of a Subaru engine, and this generation of mid-size Subie was available with two higher-performance engines: a 3.0 flat-six, and a 2.5 turbo. The whole Liberty range was deeply confusing in Australia, and I regretfully have not followed Subaru closely enough to speak on their cars at length. However, I’m intrigued by the idea of a wagon with Japanese reliability and a Boxer engine, and I will diligently do my research on these handsome wagons over the next year or so and vow to stop being distracted by Swedish wagons. Perhaps someone here with first-hand experience can tell me about the inherent virtues of these?
What say you, commentariat? What should be my frontrunners? What should I avoid like the plague? Have you owned any of these?