Great-but-Forgotten Cars You Can Buy for Cheap
Some cars are like the Mick Jaggers and Bonos of the automotive world: loved by the masses from the moment they’re unveiled, never going out of style, and refusing to disappear. Other cars are more like Blind Melon -- just as great, but woefully underappreciated in their heyday, fading all too soon from our collective memory.
The good news is that most of these cars still have passionate fanbases keeping the dream alive. They're all reasonably affordable -- or, like a Blind Melon CD, absurdly cheap. The only catch? Putting in the effort to find one. But they're out there.
Price: $5,000 - $8,000
The Corrado was conceived as a low-cost alternative to the Porsche 944 (since VW and Porsche are part of the same company), and if you find one today with an SLC trim, it has 180hp under the hood. That might not sound like all that much nowadays, but given the car’s weight -- around 2,800lb -- it’s more than enough power to run afoul of the law.
2. Datsun 510
Price: $8,000 - $12,000
The 510 never dropped off the map for serious car enthusiasts, but for everyone else it faded quietly out of the limelight. That’s a shame, since in the late 1960s it was competing with the likes of BMW on the front lines of the then-new sports sedan category. Early in his career, Paul Newman raced one as part of a very long relationship with the brand, and today, they still make for pretty fantastic performance cars.
3. BMW 318ti
Price: $1,000 - $6,000
The 318ti, otherwise called the Compact, was an odd mix. From the front, it looks like a normal 3-series, and from the back it, uh, doesn’t. The most unique part of BMW’s oft-forgotten hatch is actually hidden out of sight: the rear suspension is more or less the same as an older E30 BMW, making it a favorite amongst car guys.
4. Lexus SC300
Price: $5,000 - $12,000
When it came out, the SC300 was somewhat overlooked by its bigger brother, the pricier V8-powered SC400. That’s a shame, because what people overlooked was a reasonably luxurious Lexus with a manual transmission that shared a lot of important parts with the now-legendary Toyota Supra... including the same straight six engine.
Price: $9,000 - $14,000
The Crossfire was a Mercedes SLK 320-based US-German hybrid that’s best remembered (well, "remembered" might be an overshot) as a mismatch, emblematic of the brief Daimler-Chrysler era, when Mercedes and Chrysler/Dodge were part of the same group. The SRT-6 version, though, is an SLK 32 AMG, with every single one of the 330 horses still stuffed under the hood.
6. Volvo P1800
Price: $10,000 - $18,000
Most people today would never associate Volvo with a stunning and sexy sports coupe. Nevertheless, for nearly the entirety of the 1960s, that’s exactly what Volvo had on its hands with the 1800. For a few years it was a celebrity in its own right, as Roger Moore's car in The Saint. While it was by no means the fastest car on the road, you would be hard-pressed to find a more elegantly beautiful car for the money. Fifty years later, that’s still true.
Price: $1,000 - $2,000
That's right, there’s an Isuzu on this list. It’s a rear-wheel drive hatchback whose shape was originally penned by Giorgetto Giugiaro (see: BMW M1, DeLorean, Lotus Esprit) in the late 1970s. The Impulse was built starting in 1980, but in 1987, an Impulse RS version existed, with handling tweaked by Lotus to improve cornering. If you can find a 1991-1992 model RS, it even has all-wheel drive and an early rear-steering set-up developed from an expanded partnership with Lotus.
Price: $8,000 - $15,000, depending on condition
In the mid-1980s, and long before it started building supercars, McLaren partnered with Detroit-based American Sunroof Company on a handful of projects, starting with the nearly identical Ford Mustang and Mercury Capri twins. For the Capri, this meant adding not just distinctive body styling, but souping up the engine, tweaking the suspension, and including a permanently installed radar detector. The next project done by ASC and McLaren? The now-legendary Buick GNX.
Price: $12,000 - $17,000
Essentially a long-awaited sequel to the original Lotus Elan from the 1960s, the early ‘90s bore witness to a front-wheel drive Lotus... and it was actually good. It shared an engine and transmission with the aforementioned Isuzu, and, at less than 2,500lb, that was enough to make it reasonably quick. But it’s a Lotus. It’s all about the handling. And like I said, it was good.
10. Merkur XR4Ti
Price: $3,000 - $5,000
Ford took one of its European sedans, the Sierra XR4i (shown), gave it proper performance credentials -- courtesy of the same turbocharged four-cylinder engine found in the Mustang SVO and Thunderbird Turbo Coupe -- and sold it in the US under a new (and short-lived) brand, called Merkur. The German-built XR4Ti had a relatively advanced suspension and was, in many ways, everything the much-revered SVO and Turbo Coupe tried to be.
11. Subaru SVX
Price: $4,000 - $6,000
In the early 1990s, Subaru wanted to up its game in a big way. So the company brought in Giorgetto Giugiaro (see: the Isuzu Impulse, above) for the SVX's sleek design, and gave it a 230hp flat six to accompany the all-wheel drive one generally associates with Subaru. At the time, the car was a little underwhelming compared to the flashier competition, but today, think of it as a 230hp AWD toy that’s perfect for gravel roads.
Price: $2,000 - $4,000
The Starion was one of a few cars that fell under both Mitsubishi and Chrysler badging. Starting in 1986, it was available with a wide-bodied version and 200hp, effectively putting it on pace with the Mustangs and Camaros of the day.
13. Opel GT
Price: $8,000 - $12,000+
Imagine a Corvette-esque sports car, made in France, with a four cylinder instead of a V8. Now imagine driving that in America, where you’ll be asked a million questions along the lines of, “What kind of Corvette is that?” by people who don’t know. An Opel is certainly a unique way of going down the road.
14. Buick Reatta
Price: $3,000 - $6,000 for the coupe, $15,000 - $20,000 for the convertible
The Reatta is a truly unique car in the automotive world. On one hand, it’s a two-seater with not much emphasis on performance. On the other hand, it’s a reasonably affordable hand-built car, assembled by groups of skilled craftsmen and women in Michigan. Considering it came out in the late 1980s, the fact that it had a touch-screen display in the dash was pretty advanced.
15. Ford Probe
Price: $1,000 - $5,000
Imagine a world where the Mustang was a front-wheel drive car built in Japan. The Probe brought us uncomfortably close to that reality -- underneath the unique body styling, it's essentially the same as a Mazda 626, and was originally intended to become the new Mustang. Fearing full-scale rebellion, those plans were scrapped, and the Probe was a fine car in its own right. Depending on the year, it had up to 165hp, handled surprisingly well, and was considered one of the best bargains of its time by those in the know.
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