As a writer, I get to spend a lot of time putting myself in ‘what if’ situations when I piece together an article or post. Often, what I write here is based on real experiences either I personally had or those recounted by my friends. This week, I want to take a look back at my early days as an enthusiast to provide insights for people who might be just starting to find their way into the world of automotive modification. First up on the docket, I’m going to go back in time to when I bought my first car with the knowledge I have now to recommend what I think, after years of experience, are the best European cars for new drivers or enthusiasts.
First, what qualities are important for a 16-year-old new driver? What do they absolutely need, what are their priorities for wants, and what is their level of knowledge?
At 16, I was aware I had an interest in cars, but not all that knowledgable, despite what I told myself then. In the infinite wisdom only possible from the mind of a teenager with a little bit of summer job money in his pocket, I thought I made the best possible choice for my first car. I wanted something sporty, reliable, good on gas, something with aftermarket support, and space for sports gear, camping equipment, and friends. What does all this amount to for priorities? Teenagers (generally) lead fairly active lives, so their cars need to do a lot. That’s why so many first cars these days are those amorphous crossover things. I think I proved in my younger years that a hot hatchback does all that and more from arguably a cooler package. So let’s get on with the list.
You already knew this was going to be first on my list if you have read any of my other work. The E30 is a versatile platform with an intensely passionate community and extensive aftermarket support. Everything from full DIY breakdowns to step-by-step drivetrain swaps can be found online, which means even the most mechanically challenged can confidently tackle extensive repairs. This quality alone makes the E30 desirable to a new driver, since running examples in passable condition can still be found for next to nothing, parts are inexpensive and abundant, and the community is still very much active. Additionally, the E30 offers rear wheel drive, manual transmission, straight six fun, has the ‘cool factor’ of looks, and can be had in a coupe, convertible, sedan, or wagon depending on your preferences.
Volkswagen MK4 GTI
The Godfather of hot hatchbacks, the fourth generation GTI has modern conveniences but still relies on fairly seasoned technology. This makes the MK4 relevant in its looks but still incredibly easy to maintain. Once again, this car has tons of aftermarket support, is inexpensive to own, and makes cool turbo noises. With almost endless modification opportunities, a roomy hatchback, manual transmission, and easy to drive FWD layout, the MK4 GTI is arguably a perfect beginner car for the future gear head.
Audi B7 A4
Along the same lines as the MK4, the Audi A4 from the B7 generation offers tons of potential for fun while remaining affordable. It was when new, a luxury car. This makes it appealing now, as most of its features are still quite catchy. Leather interiors, premium sound systems, hearty performance, a manual transmission, and the Quattro AWD system make the B7 A4 a fantastic first choice. It may have slightly less of an enthusiast community, but aftermarket support is still widely available as are cheap parts to maintain the car on a budget. If you are above the snow belt, this would be your first choice to pursue.
The Porsche 944 is an underappreciated gem. It has excellent weight distribution thanks to its rear-mounted transaxle, makes plenty of power from the factory to have fun, has tons of space thanks to the glass liftback trunk, and is a rear wheel drive car with a Porsche badge. What 16 year old doesn’t want to say they drive a Porsche?
Mercedes W124 300d
Okay, it isn’t sporty. In fact, it might be slower than walking. At least you are transported (slowly) in possibly the most comfortable lounge a first-time car buyer might ever have experienced. A bulletproof engine, four doors, rear wheel drive, and the quality only found in classic Mercedes’ makes the 300d an excellent option for a teen with a penchant for finer things on a limited budget. The 300d is exactly perfect for anyone that just wants to look good, get where they’re going, and be transported in luxury. Compared to the untold millions of boring first cars out there, you could do worse than drive a 300d every day.
I already know what you’re thinking: why no E36? First, the E30 fills the sport-compact BMW segment with better quality, easier maintenance, and more class. Second, the E36 is just above the power threshold that can make them more difficult for novice drivers. The E39, however, is big enough to reign in some of the power from its 2.8, 3.0, or 4.4-liter engine options while still being fun. Paired with a manual transmission, the E39 has tons of equipment like heated seats, steering wheel, and even side view mirrors. It also has quite usable back seats and is incredibly smooth to drive. The E39 530i 5spd would be my pick were I to go back in time and have to buy my first car all over again simply for its well-rounded character and stunning good looks.
Volkswagen Type 1 (bug)
Lastly, and mostly a joke since this was almost my very first car, the VW Beetle Type 1 is almost synonymous with ‘car.’ Millions of the little German coupe were produced between 1946 and 2001, which makes them incredibly available. While definitely not luxurious, quiet, comfortable, or remotely fast, the Beetle is still loads of fun. A four-speed gearbox fed by a rear-mounted flat-four air-cooled engine delivers the few horsepowers available to the bug’s rear wheels, which means it has all the boxes checked for that cool factor. It is unbelievably simple to repair, parts are almost falling from every tree within a ten-mile radius of junkyards, and the beetle is notoriously long-lived. If you have the right hipster attitude and a little more than the average first car budget, a VW Beetle could be just the identity for which you were searching as you come of age as a car enthusiast.
These are just some theoretical examples based on my experience, of course. In case you were wondering, my first car was a 1994 Acura Integra GSR 5-speed Coupe. Clearly, given the criteria mentioned above, I was on the right track when I bought something I felt would be fun, practical, affordable, and livable. Now, though, I would have to encourage all new drivers to go German simply for the fact that my first experience behind the wheel of a German car made everything else feel like a cheap imitation. Learning the good stuff early will set you up for success. If this is your first time going car shopping, don’t leave these models off your list. When you inevitably pick one, check out our catalog of maintenance and performance parts to make your new to you car everything you want.