I am a middle-aged, middle-class parent with a mortgage and virtually no automotive-industry connections. So no, I do not need to read yet another online review of a quarter-million-dollar car that was already sold out before I even heard of it (looking at you 911R)! I don’t begrudge those who can afford those cars; I just prefer to read about cars for enthusiasts like me, for whom a ten-year-old Miata is a major purchase!
To that end, in these “Average Joe” car reviews, I would like to share my experiences over the last twenty years owning, maintaining, and enjoying a few of the best affordable sports cars on the used market. For reference (or in other words, why should you care at all about my opinions) I am an automotive engineer by training, a reasonably skilled amateur mechanic, and an advanced-group HPDE driver on track.
First up is my black 1994 Nissan 240sx hatchback bought in 1998 during my senior year of college. I have only one, grainy picture of it, below, since this was before the advent of cell phone cameras. Unfortunately, I’m wearing cargo shorts and can’t seem to keep my eyes open long enough for the shot. Swell. But here she is, fully loaded for my trip from Houston to my new home in Washington, DC, with all of my earthly possessions, including my mountain bike stowed in or to the back. You’ve gotta love a hatchback for sheer utility!
Six months before that move to DC, I had pooled every penny I saved along with a generous loan from my parents to afford the very-reasonable $5000 purchase price. Over the next seven years I got every ounce of value out of that car. Compared to the lethargic early-80’s Blazer I drove before it, this car was a revelation. Like so many others before and after, a 240sx was my first hit at the sport car crack pipe. It was my first manual transmission car, and I loved the direct feel of five-speed. Steering and braking felt direct and reliable, especially compared to the lane-hopping habits of the aforementioned Blazer. On the auto-cross course, it felt quick and nimble, and had sufficient power to keep you engaged. I even towed a furniture-laden U-haul trailer all the way from Washington DC to Houston, Texas with it. The car proved phenomenally reliable and reasonably sturdy, even when I put it sideways into a guardrail on my favorite two-lane road in Virginia (lesson: NEVER push beyond eight-tenths on a public road). A few hundred dollars for a new lower control arm and a used front fender and I was back in business. My cost of ownership was minimal since, other than aforementioned crash repair, my only expense beyond routine maintenance was an AC compressor a few years into my ownership.
There were, however, a few significant downsides to the 240, beginning with the lackluster interior (the as-new picture above is for reference – again, mine was not this nice). The front seats felt like an answer to the question, “what can we do with burlap other than make sacks?” They lacked adequate support and their automatic seat belts frequently jammed. The interior plastics faded and embrittled rapidly (think 1980’s-GM-interior-falling-apart-rapid). The engine, while reliable, was certainly not thrilling in stock form, and was barely sufficient to place the car in any “sports car” category. 0-60 was dispatched in the mid-7’s, and only if I abused the clutch. Finally, the handling in stock form and on stock power tended towards understeer in almost every condition. These faults diminish, however, when a 240 is placed in the hands of a competent tuner. I certainly understand why these cars are so often built, boosted, dropped on coil-overs, and raced with great success on road and drift courses. They are an excellent canvas to build upon. So in summary, the 240sx in stock form makes an excellent all-purpose entry level car for a first time enthusiast… assuming any are left in stock form! Good luck finding that.
After selling the 240sx I briefly inherited a 1990 Integra with an automatic. I can’t say much about it because, like an idiot, I quickly sold it for fear the air conditioner was failing. I then bought a base automatic 2004 Civic and then, five years later, a new 2013 Honda Accord, again, with an automatic. We will not speak of these last two cars. They were a mistake made in the name of utility at a time when graduate studies followed by newborn twins dimmed my passion for interesting automobiles (or any passion whatsoever). Next up… Miata!