Here’s $20,000. Buy a fun car for the weekend


Sometimes you don’t have to care about practicality or efficiency. In this week’s fun game of spending imaginary money, even reliability isn’t as important as affordability and the ever-important fun factor. We’re diving into the world of vehicular play things; cars that aren’t meant to be daily drivers and don’t really need to be relied upon for anything other than having a blast on the weekend.

Of course, the budget is important. A whole lot of people would love to have the kind of cash necessary to blow a couple hundred thousand bucks on a stable of fun cars and trucks. We want to be more rational than that. We set the bar at $20,000 or less for this exercise, which seems about right at less than half the cost of the average new car. It’s also a sufficient amount that there are plenty of interesting choices, some old and some comparatively new. On-road sports cars, off-road roamers and even some vehicles you can sleep in overnight could all qualify.

Here are the rules:

  1. You can spend no more than $20,000.
  2. You can spend less than $20,000, but buying a crapper for a few Benjamins and pocketing the rest just means you’re not good at playing this game.
  3. You have to prove that your chosen vehicle can actually be bought at this price in drivable condition.

And here’s what we picked …

 

 

Jaguar XJS V12

Senior Editor Jeremy Korzeniewski: A guy on the street I grew up on in Suburban Toledo had one of these, and my pre-teen self thought it was just about the coolest thing I had ever seen. It’s definitely a classic, but it’s an attainable one. The big grand-touring Jag was popular when new, and that means they aren’t hard to find on the used market. I’m pretty sure I’d look for one with a V12 engine in order to fulfill a twelve-cylinder hole in my car ownership history. I’d go for a late-model example from 1992 or later to benefit from streamlined manufacturing techniques introduced by Ford after it took over the British operation. The 6.0-liter V12 produces more than 300 horsepower and sent those ponies to the rear through a bulletproof GM 4L80-E transmission, incidentally the same tranny that can pull 10,000 pounds in my big block Suburban.

I’m sure much of our staff is going to choose a lightweight coupe for this exercise. Well … I’m getting older and crankier by the day. Grand Touring sounds relaxing and rewarding for me, my wife and our fluffy dog. Point us in the direction of a winery several hundred miles away. We’ll put the top down and see you in two days.

 

E39 BMW 540i M Sport 6-Speed Manual

Senior Editor James Riswick: I already have a fun weekend car with only two seats and minimal practical value, so with $20,000 in fake money to spend on an additional fun car, I’d want something I could bring my 3-year-old son along in and also go someplace to have fun beyond the drive itself. I considered an Audi S4 Avant (be it the supercharged first-generation or V8-powered second-generation) as well as a BMW 135i and Honda Prelude, but ultimately, I couldn’t get the E39 BMW 5 Series out of my head. I really want one of these. An M5 is out of the question at this price point, but you can get a seriously nice example of the next best thing for less than $20,000: the 540i M Sport with the six-speed manual. Ideally, it would be in an actual color such as Sienna or Royal red or this Topaz Blue example that sold on Bring a Trailer back in May for $19,500. Titanium Silver would work too, as it just fits this car. There’s also a world in which I’d find a 540i Touring, aka the wagon, and do a 6-speed manual swap and still be under $20,000. Now I want to do this for real.  

 

1972 Mercedes-Benz 350SL

Managing Editor Greg Rasa: Mercedes sold hundreds of thousands of SL roadsters in the U.S. over the decades. The pagoda-roofed cars from the 1960s are worth a lot of money now, but you can find loads of 1970s and ’80s SLs in your local Craigslist for under $10,000. Nicely kept examples, however, are pushing their way to $20,000.

Now, in searching for a summer fun car, there was also a nice, very-low-miles 2002 Maserati Spyder slathered in red leather at $20,000 along with tons of Jaguars a la Jeremy’s pick, but the potential for maintenance nightmares there is just too scary. That’s the nice thing about these SLs — because they were so popular, presumably they should be easy to find parts for and get fixed. (That’s not to say it’ll be cheap.) I’ve heard tell of a legendary mechanic close to me who specializes in these. 

Of all the nicer SLs that popped up in my search, let’s go with this 350SL. Because it’s from 1972, it doesn’t have the cowcatcher bumpers. It has extensive service records, with over $55,000 spent on it over the years, and an owner dropped $17,000 on it relatively recently. But the most attractive aspect of all is this lovely Moss Green paint. And it’s on offer from the Beverly Hills Car Club, so maybe it belonged to some B-list movie star. The BHCC has a whole stable of nice-looking Mercedes and other classics, by the way, including many of those 1960s SLs. Note that SLs from 1970 and ’71 are being offered at much higher prices, so this 1972 model, though it’s of a different generation, could be on the verge of significant appreciation.

But above all, wouldn’t it be lovely to cruise around with the top down?

 

Jeep CJ-2A

Senior Editor, John Beltz Snyder

This is a hard one. I, too, was going to pick an R107-generation SL for many of the reasons Mr. Rasa listed above. In order to keep things interesting, I’ll go with one I’ve always loved: the Willys CJ-2A. This is the car that I, my sister and my maternal cousins all learned to drive in, on the trails of a hunting/fishing ranch on northern Michigan’s Black River. It (pictured above, with my sister at the wheel) belonged to my grandpa (not my namesake Oldsmobile grandpa — my grandma had remarried before any in my generation were born), who flew a P-47 Thunderbolt in the Battle of the Bulge. Grandpa Deac’s Jeep was blue, and he eventually had to replace the starter button on the floor when all our small feet had pushed it out of place stretching to reach it with our toes while teasing the throttle with our heels. We’d ford streams in this beauty, trailed elk, drove over things we probably shouldn’t have and learned to double-clutch and use a transfer case long before we were old enough to have our licenses. I’d love to have one of these up at my cottage now, reliving memories on similar trails in the same part of the state that provided all those memories. Pickings are slim at any given time (yeah, I look at listings for these often), but with patience, you can find good examples for around $20,000. 

 

2000 Porsche Boxster S

2000-2004 Porsche Boxster S

Road Test Editor Zac Palmer: I quite literally just did exactly this. My budget wasn’t as strict as our $20,000 limit, but I certainly didn’t want to spend much more than that. The Boxster S I ended up with is the 550 Spyder special edition model from the 2004 model year, but for the purposes of this game, I’ll have to stick with just a regular S to stay under the $20,000 mark. This amount of money can still buy a super-rad Boxster S, though, like the Rainforest Green over beige example in the photo that sold for $19,000 a few months ago. Having owned and driven my Boxster S frequently this summer, I can safely call it a hit for its price. You can find cheaper examples, but properly maintaining a cheaper one with tons of miles could be just as expensive as spending a few extra bucks on the front end for a fully-sorted Boxster S. Some others on this list might be more interesting and rare, but if you care deeply about how that fun weekend car drives and still want the drop-top functionality, the 986 Boxster is going to scratch that itch.

 

2009 Mazda MX-5 Miata

2006-2015 Mazda MX-5 Miata

News Editor Joel Stocksdale: I’m a little shocked that no one else brought this up, but hey, I guess that means the resident Miata person at Autoblog gets to pick it. While I have an NB Miata that I cherish, if I had a $20,000 budget to buy a Miata, I’d probably be looking more at the NC. Yes, it’s the heaviest Miata, but it’s still incredibly light compared with most contemporary and current cars. It also has the most powerful Miata engine save for the refreshed ND Miata. And it boasts the roomiest interior and trunk, not to mention the most comfort and refinement of any Miata. That means that you’ll enjoy it on the weekend not just when the roads are sinewy, but on the way to said roads. It also has just as much of an aftermarket as predecessors, plus the option of a power hardtop if you’re so inclined. As an example, I went with this gorgeous Competition Yellow 2009 model with an asking price of $17,980 and located relatively close to my home of Metro Detroit. It’s a high trim Grand Touring with a six-speed manual and limited-slip differential. With 72,000 miles, it still has loads of life left in it. Of course, opting for older models, ones that are lower specced, or checking out auction sites, you may be able to find something for less. Even modified examples can be found in this budget, if you want a jump start on upgrades.

 

2006-2010 Pontiac Solstice GXP

Associate Editor Byron Hurd: I see your yellow roadster, Stocksdale, and raise you approximately 100 horsepower. I was actually torn between this and the (also available in yellow, because that joke needed to work) 2005-2006 GTO, but in the true spirit of weekenders, I opted for the drop-top. In fact, I think I win this round based on that angle alone. Even among budget-minded convertibles, the Solstice was notorious for its janky packaging and impressively convoluted drop-top. Plus, the Solstice and its badge-engineered twin, the Saturn Sky, were 400 pounds heavier than a Miata before you started adding turbochargers and the like to the equation. In short, apart from the styling, the standard Solstice was a bit of a forgettable mess. 

But the GXP is a different story. Sure, it’s even heavier than the standard Solstice, but with 260 stock horses and factory power upgrades available directly from GM, it got real interest, real quick. So what if nobody fits into it comfortably? It’s still the fastest oversized roller skate in this price range… and quite possibly the quickest car on this list. Score one for the General. 

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