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Less Is More: Five Cars Better In More Basic Trim

Posted in Car Buying, Lists by Kurt Ernst | June 17th, 2011 | 8 Responses |

The 2011 Mazda MX-5. Image: Mazda USA

As a guy, I naturally gravitate towards the biggest engine, the stiffest suspension and the nicest interior whenever I’m shopping for cars. Sometimes, I’ve learned, it’s best if you skip the deluxe model and go with a more basic one. Why? Because sometimes, less is more. Sometimes, a lower model captures more of the car’s spirit, in addition to saving you thousands of dollars on the purchase. I discovered this phenomenon when I bought my FJ Cruiser; it was meant to be a truck, so I wanted the cheapest 4wd version I could find. Later, I learned that that was a smart move, since the most important feature of the “off road package”, Active Traction Control, could be added for the cost of a $60 switch.

Below are five examples of cars that are better, in my own opinion, in their lesser trims. You may argue that some represent different purposes, but if a manufacturer builds it under a common nameplate, it’s fair game. Read on to see if you think I’m right or wrong.

Porsche 911 Carrera GTS over 911 GT3 RS

It would be easy to argue that the Porsche 911 GT3 RS is a track-day weapon, whereas the 911 Carrera GTS is a street car capable of the occasional track day. I’m not buying it, since the GT3 RS comes with automatic climate control and an audio system. Yes, the GT3 RS will positively spank the heavier and slower 911 GTS on a racetrack, but it will also beat up the owner on the way there and the way back. To me, the 911 GTS represents the purest form of the original 911 available today: it’s as much about all-out performance as it is about long distance comfort. If money were no object, a 911 Carrera GTS is the sole Porsche you’d find in my garage.

Ford Mustang GT Premium over Shelby GT500

The Shelby GT500 is faster and better handling than the Mustang GT. As far as comfort goes, the GT500 isn’t noticeably worse than the GT, so why would I take a basic model over a high performance one? It comes down to this: the Shelby doesn’t understand finesse, it understands brute force. You don’t drive the car so much as you beat it into submission, and that’s the direct opposite of the surprisingly refined Mustang GT. You’ll definitely go faster in the Shelby, but you won’t enjoy the car $20,000 more.

Chevy Camaro V6 Convertible over Camaro SS Convertible

The new Chevrolet Camaro is a big car, way too large for track-day duty in my book. I’m a much bigger fan of the convertible than I am the coupe, since the coupe seems to forgo practicality for style. The convertible, in my opinion, has better lines and you can get in it without smashing your head, something not possible on the coupe. If it’s too big and heavy to flog on a racetrack, it’s just right for top-down cruising. Save the money and go for the more fuel efficient V6 (which still nets you 312 horsepower and a zero to sixty time of six seconds).

Mazda MX-5 Sport over MX-5 Grand Touring

The original Mazda MX-5 was a driver’s car, best appreciated by those who understood that it was all about speed through preserved momentum. Customers who bought the car for its “cute” factor learned that it came at a price; to enjoy top-down motoring, you had to put up with modest horsepower, limited luggage space, substantial wind noise and a stereo that left much to be desired. Over the years, Mazda’s softened the MX-5 to broaden its appeal; today, you can buy one with a power-retractable hardtop, heated leather seats, stability control, keyless entry and satellite radio. That’s nice, but it’s not what the original Miata was about. If you want one, buy the cheapest model you can with a six speed manual gearbox. You’ll upgrade the suspension anyway, and you really don’t need seat heaters in a three season car. Upgrading the stereo doesn’t make sense (since the audio environment in a convertible is never going to be ideal), so drop on an aftermarket exhaust and enjoy that music instead.

Jeep Wrangler Sport over Wrangler Rubicon

The Jeep Wrangler is a Barbie / GI Joe doll for adults; no matter what version you start with, it’s a blank canvas to upgrade with aftermarket parts. Since you’ll be upgrading everything but the body over time, why not start with the most basic Jeep you can find? It’ll still get you almost anywhere you need to go, plus you get the pleasure of knowing that, when finished, it will be a Jeep (almost) unlike anyone else’s.

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8 Responses

  1. Taylor says:

    I’ve got to agree with every car on the list but I’ve got to admit that I skewed quite a bit when it came to my Wrangler. I got it for $28,500 off the lot so I chose to go with the Rubicon over the lesser model I was thinking about (was looking at about 25K anyway).

    And like you said, I’ve already done stage one of the build up and stage two is in the works now (speaking of……….I should have some updated photos here in a couple of weeks).

    • Kurt Ernst says:

      Sometimes you get a deal on a higher trim model that’s too good to pass up; in the case of your Rubicon, you probably couldn’t have added all the upgraded parts for the same money, so I’d say it was well bought.

  2. Canrith says:

    I’ll defend the Camaro SS. Not in drop-top form, but in coupe.

    It’s surprisingly easy to drop weight from the car, just with the removal of the uselessly small rear seat, and partial removal of sound deadening material, you are at a comparable power to weight to the new mustangs.

    And like you said with the miata, if you want it for track duty in any sense, you will most likely upgrade the (already decent) stock suspension.

  3. Jeremy Stockey- says:

    …I agree with most of what you said except for the Rubicon. The Rubicon is clearly a much better Jeep that includes lower gears in the differentials, a lower gear transfer case, a disconnecting swaybar, locking differentials and stronger Dana 44 axles in both the front and rear. These are considerable differences.

  4. Nephilim says:

    I agree with Kurt’s assessment of the Jeep. Not everyone needs or wants a Rubicon. I’m amazed at how many folks think a Jeep HAS to have all the extras. Jeeps have been blazing trails just fine in stock form for almost seventy years now.

    Except for a good set of 31×10.50’s and a CB my 2000 TJ is stock. I mainly use mine for hunting, fishing, and camping but its no stranger to trails either. I’ve made three trips to Broken Arrow in Sedona and kept right up with all the tricked out Pink Jeeps. She did great up the back road to Crown King too. Since the camping I do means several days and many miles away from a filling station I like to keep her as light and trim as possible. She’s also my daily driver so strapping on a ton of shit and lifting an already too high CG even higher are nothing but steps backwards for guys like me. Its like bringing a .378 Weatherby to a squirrel hunt.

    I figure I could either throw money into doo dads or I could use that money for gas to go out have fun and better my offroading skills.

  5. Set says:

    I agree with all of them except the Wrangler. I don’t disagree either, but the Rubicon is pretty gnarly stock. The amount of performance you get for just a little bit more is astounding. If you plan on upgrades, then I can understand, but if you just want a really good Jeep, you can’t go wrong with the Rubi. Those lockers make all the difference in the world.

  6. Kurt Ernst says:

    Maybe I’m wrong on the Rubicon, since it does offer legitimate content for the additional money. Still, I’d love to see a comparison between the “average aftermarket upgrades” for a Wrangler Sport versus the “average aftermarket upgrades” for a Rubicon. It’s just a hunch, but I suspect Rubicon owners sink a lot more cash into building their rigs than plain Wrangler owners.