Alright – we’re making some real progress now! I’ve started to figure out what I like and don’t like for the cars roughly within this price bracket. So far, I’ve driven things with a lot of power. In this set, I drive a few slightly less quick cars and my favorite car thus far.
Ford Focus RS
Okay – this feels like a happy medium. Also a Ford, larger than the STi and the Golf R, one of the highest horsepower cars on my list and probably the highest horsepower-per-pound ratio. I can’t verify it right now, I don’t have WiFi and – contrary to popular belief – I don’t have the gross weight for every car I’ve ever driven locked into my memory. Yet.
The actual RS that I evaluated was owned by a private seller in West Austin. A super nice guy, and enthusiastic about what he had. He was one of the first to pre-order when they announced they were bringing the Focus RS stateside, and he’d put 30,000 miles on it since taking delivery from Ford. He was eager to talk about all the things that he loved about the car and equally excited to let me take it for a spin to feel for myself.
He had some good points, the RS has some fantastic engineering that makes it a truly special car. Namely, the ability to send 90% of the engine’s power to any one individual wheel at any given time for maximum grip. That’s pretty badass, and I could tell even from a quick drive that the car absolutely devoured corners.
I was excited for this stage of evaluation because I had already driven an STi and a Golf R. But the Focus revealed itself as a completely different beast. Cheaper-feeling interior than the STi, louder than both cars combined, a seating position of a stanced Miata, and the coolest manual party trick feature I’ve ever seen on a car. When you start to let up on the clutch, it applies light power for you, which meant that rolling out of first or second gear, especially in traffic or inching up at a stop-light, was absolutely simple. I was almost inclined to purchase the car on this feature alone. It blows my mind that’s not industry standard. I would pay extra on any manual car I’ve ever owned.
I wouldn’t blame you for saying “but AJ, the dance-like balance of throttle and clutch is the last bastion connecting driver and machine!” To which I would respond, “try it first, you pompous, purist dipshit.”
The Focus ended up unable to stand on that unique merit alone. While it was wonderfully quick and improved on everything I didn’t like about the Focus ST, it came up short of an unparalleled driving experience that would allow me to look past the interior and gas mileage shortcomings when compared to the Golf R. In short, it drove 15% better, but everything else about it was 50% worse. The Golf R is still the car to beat at this point.
Honda Civic Si
When I would read about the Civic Si growing up (a common pastime), the main descriptors implanted into my consciousness were flickable, and practical. Those two things were paramount to what the car stood for; it was a daily driver with Honda reliability that existed to inject joy into the Everyman’s commute.
I had the pleasure of helping a friend purchase a 2018 model brand new in late 2017, and I called in that favor to drive his example, which is now nicely broken in and still immaculately clean, with about 20,000 miles on the clock.
Although the interior materials felt a little cheaper than some of the other cars I’d driven (and the touchscreen is a god-damned abomination), there was relative comfort and feature parity with everything else. That said, this car had a significantly lower MSRP than some of the other cars I’ve evaluated, and it shows. But that’s okay – I don’t care about how much a car costs, I’m just looking for an emotive response and experience, so let’s focus on how it drove.
Flickable is an absolute understatement. Though the Civic is now effectively twice the size of the modest 1990 model that Holly used to own, it still feels incredibly light. The feedback offered by everything from the shifter to the steering wheel to the clutch felt earnest and accurate. It is truly a joyous car to drive. Other major pros of the Civic Si were the EPA rated 40mpg on the highway, which is bonkers, and the fanatical reliability provided by owning a Honda. Sounds like an easy decision, right?
Wrong. I had been bitten by the bug of raw power. The 1.6L turbocharged motor simply wasn’t enough. The boost built well, but it didn’t push you back in your seat. It was also significantly under-budget compared to the other cars I was looking for. If you really do have seasons in your life for cars, I may have missed my season to daily drive a Civic Si. It would have been the perfect car for me at one time, but we were experiencing a missed connection two years too late. The search for love continues.
Kia Stinger GT
My true feelings emerged quickly as I started to write this, so I’ve come back to the top to say first that I was enamored with the design when it debuted; I thought it was sharp, brand agnostic, and sporty without being flashy. It seemed like a good semi-adult car. I actually fought the urge to test-drive one for a while, because a close friend and his wife have had enough trouble with a six year old Optima to cause anyone within earshot to swear off Kia as a brand. But I am a sucker for a fastback, so I figured I’d give it a go.
Walking into a Kia dealership fills you with a mixture of nostalgia, regret, and self-loathing. If you grew up in the 80s or 90s and you went with your parents to purchase a used car, that depressing memory quickly rears its head. Vultures circle the lot, and even waited outside my car door while I fumbled with my phone and keys. The walls were that weird, weak, popcorn-esque texture of a schoolyard portable building. The illumination – like the salespeople – was harsh and plentiful. The finance manager “made the rounds” with me before they even pulled the car up.
It was sleazy and a major turn-off, I’d say it was my worst dealership experience by far. Kia: get your act together. If you’re going to sell smart-looking vehicles like the Stinger and the Telluride, your shithole dealer experience is absolutely unacceptable. I would never buy more than a salvage title Soul with the crumpled bills in my pocket from one of your sales people.
But all that said, the car is incredible to drive. Situating yourself in the bolstered drivers seat immediately imparts quality. Everything is tight, close to the driver, and the car feels much smaller on the inside than it appears from the outside. It’s righteously quick with its 365 horsepower – outside of the Mustang it’s probably the quickest straight-line car I evaluated. It had a fun trick differential as well; even though it’s staunchly AWD, it happily allowed me to kick out the rear when I gave it too much gas on a protected exit turn.
I ended up disqualifying it for two simple reasons: no available manual transmission, and significant depreciation fears. While it was lovely that one of the top-trim cars had already depreciated into my purchasing orbit, that doesn’t impart confidence that its value would suddenly start to hold firm. While I do anticipate owning the car I purchase for at least three years, I don’t want to suddenly find myself upside-down in a year and a half should our financial situation change. I do believe in the economics of a held point of depreciation, but I don’t think that will kick in with the Stinger for a few more years. If I had to guess, I’d put money on them holding for a long time in the $14-$19k range for a long time, much like the second-gen G37. It’s a hell of a car, but not for me right now.
Where do we stand?
I’m extremely confident in what I like, and the availability of cars in my consideration set that I would actively and excitedly want to own. I think I’ve narrowed it down to a key few, but it depends on used-market availability (I’ve waxed poetic about buying a new car plenty), and we’ll see how much my tastes continue to change.
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to cover some other cars I liked the idea of, but opted not to drive for various reasons, and how I disqualified them.
Additionally, a wrench was thrown into my car buying thought process, which I’ll be posting about next week. Do I even want a newer car at all? Check back soon.