Whether you admit to it or not, we all have some sort of a bucket list. There are things in our minds that we have to do, regardless of whether or not we’ve put them down on paper. When it comes to cars, there are certain models you have to drive at least once in your life; some are sports cars, some aren’t, but all have a certain amount of hype about them. The good news is that most can be snapped up on the used car market for blue-collar wages, as long as you’re willing to do some digging. I’ve driven all of the cars below and have even owned most of them, so I’m well versed on why they’re included.
Mazda MX-5 Miata
The car that re-introduced the motoring public to the joys of lightweight roadsters remains a modern classic. A true “Jack of all trades” sports car, the Miata is equally adept at road racing, autocross and casual top-down cruising; as long as you don’t expect to win any drag races, the car won’t disappoint. Miata’s are available in just about any price range, and the first generation cars (built from 1989 through 1997) are absolutely bulletproof and easy to maintain.
BMW 3 Series Sedan
Have you ever wondered why every sedan’s handling gets compared to BMW’s 3 Series? The car really is that good, and manages to blend ride comfort and handling better than any other vehicle on the planet. Its front engine, rear drive layout helps to optimize weight distribution, and equipped with winter tires the car is surprisingly capable when the weather turns ugly. Be warned that parts can be expensive, and BMW shops aren’t exactly known for their discount rates. Still, E36 cars (built from 1990 to 1999) are relatively easy to wrench on, and a strong enthusiast community means that help is just a message board post away.
The original “hot hatch”, VW’s GTI proved that the whole can indeed be better than the sum of the parts. There were always faster cars and better-handling cars on the market, but somehow none seemed to beat the GTI’s fun factor. Today, the car has evolved into a surprisingly practical daily driver that isn’t averse to the occasional autocross or weekend track day. Early model cars are rising in value as clean examples get harder to find, but VW built plenty. Look long enough and you’re sure to find the car you want.
The Jeep Wrangler is as much of an American icon as the Ford Mustang or Chevy Corvette. If you’ve never driven one, it’s easy to overlook what all the hype is about; on road, the Wrangler is a fish out of water. It’s noisy, it’s uncomfortable and the handling is best described as “dodgy.” Off-road, however, the Wrangler is entirely in its element, and aftermarket vendors can transform the Wrangler into a go-anywhere, do-anything mountain goat of an SUV. Like the GTI, Wranglers are just plain fun to drive and will get you to places that few other 4x4s can. There’s a huge Jeep community as well, with owners happy to answer any questions or lend a hand in building your rig.
There seem to be two kinds of car guys in the world: those that love the Porsche 911 and those that simply don’t understand the hype. I’ll admit to falling somewhere in between those two camps myself, since early 911s can be underpowered, temperamental and ill-handling beasts unless driven with the utmost of care. I like the Porsche 911, but I just don’t like it enough to overlook the shortcomings of cars in my price range. Still, to really be a car person, you need to drive as many 911s as you can, since each generation has its own unique personality. If money were no object, I’d have a 911 Carrera GTS parked in my garage right now. Aside from that example, there really isn’t a 911 I have to own.
What cars did I miss? Should I have included the Chevy Corvette? The Ford Mustang? The Dodge Viper? Let me know the cars on your own “must drive” bucket list.