Top 11: Good Cars For An Aspiring Teenage Gearhead

Top 11: Good Cars For An Aspiring Teenage Gearhead

We hear it all the time. “There are no cool cars available that kids can afford.” Well, that depends. Clearly you have to keep your standards within reach, and also be realistic about the cool you can afford, but if a teenager wants it they can roll a first project that nobody will be ashamed of.

Our buddy Matt Cramer sent an email to us saying that he wanted to write a blog item on this very subject, and it has sparked a lot of discussion here at We’ve got some ideas of our own, on cars that easily could have been added to the list, but we’re going to let you stew on Matt’s list for a bit and then we’ll bring in some additional hitters we think are worth paying attention to.

Words by Matt Cramer

    We’ve had a lot of discussion about what difficulties kids getting into the car hobby face lately.  It’s not easy getting started when you have very little money, little experience, and don’t have the luxury of a separate project car and everyday car.  But let’s not forget the advantages of getting started today. Sure, you can’t pick up a clean Chevelle SS for pocket change anymore, and it’s not easy to score a 440 Wedge at your local Pull-A-Part for $150. But there’s still overlooked gems on the used car market, and the Internet makes it a lot easier to be in touch with other enthusiasts.
    So, I’ve put together a Top 11 list of great cars for a teenage hot rodder just getting started.  This is kind of like Rough Start in that I’m capping the budget at $5000.  All of these cars will have a least some entertainment factor out of the box, with the potential to add more. But unlike Rough Start, there’s a lot more restrictions here to deal with the realities of getting started.  $5000 will have to get you a car in good enough shape to drive to school and work everyday, not a used up track rat or a project where one cylinder head is in the back seat.  I’ll try to keep this list free of weird unicorn cars too; these should be something relatively easy to find anywhere.  I was able to find examples of all of these cars on Atlanta Craigslist that show some promise without having to expand the search to other cities or go over budget. And in light of that “find anywhere” theme, we’re staying with cars built in 1980 or later to minimize tinworm infestations for those in the Rust Belt.
    We realize there’s another variable in play here – parents.  And if you’re still living with them, what they allow can be all over the map.  You might have parents who insist on a late model import – or the sort who insist you get your motorcycle license at 16 on the grounds you’ll learn more defensive driving that way.  So we’ve put in a few cars that may be a bit more likely to get parental approval – plus a few options for if your parents are a bit more permissive.

1. 2002-2006 Acura RSX. Are your parents insisting that you drive some sort of sensible late model Honda or Toyota? Get one of these with a stick shift, and that won’t be quite so bad. These had 160 hp in the base model or 200 on tap in the Type S, and the Fast and Furious crowd didn’t take to them as well as earlier Acuras, meaning they’re a bit less likely to have questionable mods or abuse.
Craigslist example:

2. 1992-2005 BMW 3 series. The entry level BMW can be had with a four cylinder if you need good mileage or a silky smooth inline six.  You won’t find a good top of the line M3 for that price, but the regular versions still are plenty of fun to drive.
Craigslist example:
bmw 3 series

3. 1997-2004 Buick Regal GS / 1997-2007 Pontiac Grand Prix GTP. The Regal GS and Grand Prix GTP (known as the GT from 2006-2007) were in some ways an effort to build a sequel to the Grand National. Like many sequels, they copied the same formula (in this case, take a midsize car with the 3.8 V6 and add boost) but didn’t exactly live up to the original. Still, they’ll run high 14’s to low 15’s stock, and you can turn up the boost as your budget allows.
Craiglist example:
Regal GS

4. 1982-1992 Chevrolet Camaro / Pontiac Firebird. Collectors are starting to notice the IROC-Z, but you can still pick up a Z28 or Trans Am for cheap. And don’t forget that the Camaro RS at this time was V8 powered, unlike the fourth generation. You might be able to ship a bit newer and pick up an LT1 powered fourth gen in this budget, but finding the ’98 and later LS1 powered examples for under $5000 is a tall order.
Craigslist example:

5. 1984-1996 Chevrolet Corvette. Sure, it’s got a gold chain poseur image, but that doesn’t change the solidly engineered chassis and amazing handling.  Sure, the TPI motors these had in the ’80s didn’t make the best power in stock trim, but it’s a small block Chevy.  Keep your eyes out for the Z51 handling package.
Craigslist example:
C4 Corvette

6. Cop cars. You can get an ex-police Crown Vic for $2000 if you buy one from an auction, or pay a bit more to get one that somebody already bought but at least lets you take for a test drive. Sometimes Chargers will also pop up in this price range.  Rear wheel drive, V8 power (OK, some Chargers have V6s, but one with the 3.5 V6 still has some get up and go), and you can tell your parents you’ll be safer in something this big.
Craigslist example:
Crown Vic

7. ’94-’04 Ford Mustang. $5000 won’t get you the best of the breed, but you’ll have better luck finding a good, solid SN95 Mustang than the older Fox bodies.
Craigslist example:
SN95 Mustang

8. ’89-’97 Ford Thunderbird, ’93-’98 Lincoln Mk VIII, ’89-’97 Mercury Cougar. With the 4.6 V8 and an independent rear suspension, these cars offered a high tech interpretation of the classic muscle car formula. You could also get a supercharged 3.8 in the Thunderbird and Cougar, which was the only way to get these with a stick shift.
Craigslist example:

9. ’90-’05 Mazda Miata. OK, the econobox sourced four cylinder will bore you to tears if you drive it in a straight line. So don’t drive it in straight lines (and don’t get an automatic if you have two operational legs). It’s meant for autocross or winding mountain roads. Think of it as a modern version of the tractor powered Triumphs.
Criagslist example:

10. A pickup truck. Any pickup truck. The aftermarket has cranked out a surprising number of parts for just about any sort of truck made in the past 30 years, from Japanese minitrucks to American full sized rigs.  And if you later find yourself in a position to have a separate daily driver and project car, a pickup will make a great support vehicle.
Craigslist example:

11. SAAB 9-3 Turbo. The trouble with shopping for a factory turbo car on a $5000 budget is that you’re likely to run into cars “tuned” with an unholy mixture of no-name eBay mods and aquarium plumbing parts. The SAAB quirkiness, however, has kept most of these out of the hands of Fast and Furious wannabes.
Craigslist example:
Saab 9-3

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15 thoughts on “Top 11: Good Cars For An Aspiring Teenage Gearhead

  1. Crazy

    I see a list of vehicles that parents will say no way to, most of them..

    Chad my boy, go price insurance for a teen in those rides..
    Ya, that min wage job isn\’t gonna afford the car,insurance gas and __________.. And most teens want the \”fill in the blank\”
    hormones and all.

    1. Matt Cramer

      My goal here was to get a mix of cars that a teenager might be able to get with rather permissive parents, and ones that would fly under the radar. I’ll concede that some of these cars aren’t easy on insurance – but often the ones that really get you are the somewhat newer cars that a lot of teens get put in, like Honda Civics.

  2. Bryan McTaggart

    Actually, I see a well-sorted list that most parents would approve of. The BMW is a stretch for a teen to afford and the Camaro, Mustang and Corvette are the kinds of cars that push luck, but if you don’t think that both parents and insurance companies wouldn’t be ok with seeing Junior in a Buick Regal, color me surprised.

  3. 79TA

    Forget the ’92-’96 Corvettes. The LT1 electronics were so poorly sorted in those years. Your kid can shell out money to solve issues with the Optispark, VATS, and the ECM all in the same car just to get it somewhat reliable. Short production runs of certain parts make them expensive and hard to find. Few component groups are easily accessed for maintenance. A Corvette with an automatic is huge missed opportunity. The ergonomics are just weird. The whole car is an exercise in layering frustration and disappointment.

    I would only encourage my theoretical kid to get an LT1 Corvette if I felt like discouraging him/her from working on cars.

    (I own a ’92 with a 6 speed, care to buy it?)

    1. jerry z

      I disagree on the LT1 cars since I’ve owned them the past 15 yrs. Stay away from the Vette/Z28/Trans Am because insurance bill will be big! The B-body will be a better alternative.

  4. PJ

    Honestly my parents couldn’t car less what I drove when I was a kid. They didn’t care what I did to the car either. But I did have to buy the car, and pay for the insurance.
    You missed all of the G-bodies, the FC Rx7, of course the non mustang fox chassis cars. I would say adding VW’s to the list would be good to. Since they are cheap abundant and have an amazing group of passionate people to help with the car. Plus they have everything from new to old and any kind of modding you may be into (scene, drag, auto-x, etc.)

  5. Oklxs03

    I’m looking for my sons first car and I agree with the general list. I really want his first car to be a manual trans and the lower ins. and less cab space has me looking at trucks. Being a Ford guy I have thought a lot about T-bird/Cougar but a manual means an S/C and I figure that jacks up the insurance. I agree with the ins. hurdle in some of these picks but I’m sure there are kids that won’t be an obstacle for. I’d love to put him in s Mustang but ins. Would be an issue. So it’s looking like a ranger or F 150. The Focus ZX3 is another option. Prices are good and most haven’t been run through a ricer- but again an SVT ZX3 prob prices out in insurance. Guess it’s back to a truck …..

    1. Matt Cramer

      Another possibility if you specifically want a Ford with a stick shift would be the Escort ZX2, or even a Probe GT if you can find a nice one. But check with your insurance company – it would not surprise me if many of them don’t charge very much for the Thunderbird Super Coupe, and the ZX2 might be one of the worst to insure as actuary’s tables often don’t match performance potential very well.

  6. Patrick

    The BMW e46 is a great choice. Parts are cheap, easy to fix, 328 had a 2.8 straight six that will run forever. Huge aftermarket. Ray to find 2500-5000 all day long. I put 246k on one same motor and trans

    1. Adam

      Me and my sister went in together on a 330I, great car. You can find DIY guides online for anything you might ever need to do to it. BMW did do lifetime transmission fluid in the automatics, so I would avoid those unless it’s been well maintained or has really low millage.

  7. Chevy Hatin' Mad Geordie

    Oh to be in the USA!

    Here in the UK my son’s first car was a dodgy Vauxhall Corsa that before it systematically self-destructed tried to drown him due to a built-in hole in the floor that meant the interior was always soaking wet….

  8. Mopar or No Car

    Once again Mopars get short shrift from BS.

    2004 Chrysler Crossfire — a Mercedes SLK in Mopar skin. 2-seater with a stick and attitude to the moon and stars. I owned one as a daily driver and it was a great car. I only sold it because I couldn’t stand it any more and had to have an SRT-6.

    Sample craigslist ad:

  9. Matt Cramer

    I’m a Mopar guy too. I’d missed that Crossfires are now cheap enough to get at that price; they could be a workable option for someone not as tall as I am, although I am a bit worried about replacement part costs. But here’s why other Mopars I could think of didn’t make the cut.

    – The LX platforms got a mention under cop cars. Good civilian models haven’t quite made it into that price range yet.

    – A Dakota would be an excellent choice; they fall under the catch-all “any pickup”, however.

    – First generation Neons were treated as expendable economy cars, and as such, most of them have been expended.

    – Most SRT4s you see on that budget have had some rather questionable mods.

    – Finding older 2.2 / 2.5 Turbo cars in good shape is not impossible, but is a tall order.

    – M bodies might be an option, but aren’t particularly fun out of the box.

    – Jeep Cherokees are great choices, but I was thinking more street than dirt for this list.

  10. Brucie Cooke

    When I retired and moved away from the support for my 12-second 70s street car (1971 Dodge Charger 340 727 with 1.7 second 60 foot), I found a Chrysler PT Cruiser with factory turbocharger, paid $7000, and it runs quarter-mile drags in 15 seconds. Incredible fun with less maintenance.

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