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.