This week’s challenge isn’t really much of a challenge. We could probably just title this, “Hey, Autoblog editor, what car would you go out and buy today?” If there isn’t a Miata or two on this list, I would be stunned. In years past, it probably would’ve just been Miatas and GTIs, but with VW turning over its in-car control design to an accountant who has never been in a car before, our appreciation for that particular model mostly resides in the used car realm now. It meets our price criteria, though, so maybe someone will still take the plunge.
Speaking of price, I’ve selected $32,000 instead of the neater $30,000 because cars are just that pricey now, and to be honest, there were several desirable choices that would’ve just been a tick over (including that sweet base-as-base-can-be Wrangler up there). For the purposes of a better list, I made the call. You’re welcome.
OK, onto the rules!
- It must be a new car, SUV, truck, roi des belges, whatever. New is the key element.
- It would theoretically serve as your daily driver. You may choose your definition of fun. If you think a Honda HR-V is fun, whatever dude.
- Hard cap of $32,000, but if you want to spend $22,000 and blow the rest on fake tires, whatever dude.
- EV tax credits do not count.
2023 Subaru WRX Base
Associate Editor Byron Hurd: I didn’t even have to think about this one. At $30K, there’s really no better all-around enthusiast option. The Volkswagen GTI used to be the no-brainer pick in this category, but the just-plain-awful daily user experience kicks it completely out of the running for me. The WRX gives you all-wheel drive, 271 horsepower and a six-speed manual grafted to what I firmly believe is the best economy-car chassis on the market. You’ll have to get past the looks of course, but that’s easy to do once you’ve driven it. The base trim also skips the overly contrived infotainment available on the upper trims but bakes in Android Auto and Apple CarPlay (which you’d rather use anyway). Heck, with $32,000 to blow, you can even snag the accessory CD player. Hang on; I think I left my wallet in 1997.
2023 Mazda3 Hatchback
Senior Editor Jeremy Korzeniewski: Well, Byron got here first with the correct answer to this question, but I do believe the Mazda3 deserves serious consideration in this price category. It’s available with a turbocharged engine, but our $32,000 budget doesn’t allow for that. So we’ll stick with the base four-cylinder and enjoy how sweetly it delivers its 191 horsepower to the front wheels through a six-speed manual transmission. The Mazda3 strikes the ideal balance between excellent driving dynamics and everyday comfort, and it has a usable rear seat and a decent cargo area. I love Mazda’s Soul Red paint but don’t want a black leather interior. Instead I chose a pearlescent white with red leather inside. It falls just shy of our budget in 2.5 S Premium trim.
2024 Honda Civic Si
Road Test Editor Zac Palmer: If James had given me an extra $900 to work with, I’d be staring at a Hyundai Elantra N in my garage right now. Instead, I went home with a Honda Civic Si, but I’m not the slightest bit upset at that. I just completed a massive road trip and backroad bombing session with the Si a couple months ago, and it was just the car for the job. Honda includes most of the creature comforts (save for heated seats) that I desire in a daily driver, but the Si also happens to be tuned aggressively enough to be a hoot when you want it to be. My ideal spec is the optional Blazing Orange exterior with the HPD Package that adds underbody spoilers all around for a sportier look. That leaves me with an MSRP of $30,685, which should be just enough money to rip off the standard all-season tires and fit some properly sticky summer rubber.
2023 Honda Civic Sport Touring Hatchback 6MT
Senior Editor James Riswick: At $31,705, my regular Civic actually costs more than Zac’s Civic Si. It also 20 fewer horsepower and 15 fewer torques, lacks the Si’s sport-tuned suspension and misses out on its styling flourishes. So, ah, what’s up with that? Well, the Sport Touring Hatchback effectively trades all of the above for some key equipment you can’t get on the Si: dual-zone auto climate control, wireless Apple CarPlay, Bose Audio, heated front seats, an eight-way power driver seat, and leather upholstery instead of the tacky red tech fabric that looks like it was previously used on a padded backpack strap. Other advantages? It takes regular gas rather than premium, so it won’t be more expensive for long. It’s a hatchback, unlike the sedan-only Si, which grants it superior versatility. I also think the hatchback looks better than the sedan, and honestly, the Si’s visual add-ons don’t really do much for me (unlike the Type R). Especially inside. Importantly, though, in addition to providing sufficient comfort and space for a daily driver, the Sport Touring is still a terrifically fun car to drive. And to that end, it’s even offered with that sweet, sweet Civic six-speed manual. I was blown away by this car when it showed up in my driveway as a test car. If I needed a car right now, I’d go out and buy one.
2023 Toyota GR86 / Subaru BRZ
Managing Editor Greg Rasa: Some great choices have already been taken, and Joel will always have right of first refusal on Miatas in these thought exercises. But here’s another perfectly fun choice: the Toyobaru. You can get either brand for under $32K, or even way under. And, you can get either of them with a six-speed manual transmission. The GR86 10th Anniversary Edition in Solar Orange exceeds this price cap, sadly. But stick some optional all-weather mats in a manual GR86 Premium (the upper trim with nicer interior, duckbill, more sophisticated instrumentation, etc.), and you’re at $31,714 before the destination fee. The BRZ offers a few more options. I appreciate how basic the car is — it has just about everything you really need and nothing you don’t. And the ROI as measured in fun is substantial for such a modestly priced car. Plus it looks good. If there was no need to haul people or things, and I could just drive every day for the joy of it, this is a good way to go.
2024 Mini Cooper SE
News Editor Joel Stocksdale: You may have expected me to say Miata, since I am a huge Miata fan, and nobody else has picked the roadster yet. But I’m skipping it for a couple reasons. First, as much as I love them, I really would like to write about something else for one of these exercises for once because there are lots of other fun little things out there. Second, there’s a problem with the Miata and this price point: the Club is too expensive. Yes, you can get the base one, but you miss out on a limited-slip differential, and it’s certainly not necessary, but I’d have a hard time living without it. So with that out of the way, let’s talk about what I did pick.
Since the rules only said this would be a new daily driver, and not the sole car we’d have, I figure that gives me some flexibility to have something else in the garage either already or later. That means it doesn’t have to do everything particularly well (side note: I’m really using a lot of italics). I’ve also been keen to get something electric or at least highly electrified. So that leads me to the Mini Cooper SE. Yes, its 114-mile range is pretty small, but it would handle the vast majority of my regular driving without any trouble. I could even make the odd excursion to Ann Arbor and back on a full charge (a relatively frequent thing for me). But importantly, it’s an absolute hoot to drive. It’s all the handling goodness of a Mini, with a heaping helping of torque and throttle response. Plus, the hatchback shape is plenty for my single life with my dog. And in the event I need to go farther or carry more, well, I have other cars.
It also just barely slides under the price cap. I’d have to go with the base model with no options. Fortunately, the cheery bright red color is free, and the nifty herringbone-esque faux aluminum dash trim is, too. It comes out to $31,895, and that’s without any tax credits. Now if our benevolent judge James Riswick had mercy and allowed for a little fudging (I do not and will not, -JR), I’d also add the leather steering wheel, which is $250 and barely breaks the bank. But even without that, it would be a fantastically fun and green little car.