The ones I shouldn’t have let get away
I’m the type of person who looks forward, not back, in life. I don’t struggle with an attachment to material possessions. When I sell something, I usually have a “don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out” attitude and move on. But there are a handful of automobiles I’ve owned that I miss and I’d love to have back in my garage.
1986 Audi 5000CS Turbo Quattro
An Audi 200 Turbo Quattro won the 1987 Safari rally outright, the first time an all-wheel-drive vehicle finished on the top step of the podium at the grueling African event. Being a rally nut, when a close friend’s father decided to sell his 1986 Audi 5000CS Turbo Quattro (the U.S. version of the 200) in the early 1990s, I couldn’t say no to the opportunity.
I loved that big Audi. The off-beat five-cylinder engine had a glorious soundtrack and the addition of the optional factory Fuchs 15-by-7-inch forged wheels shod with sticky Yokohama AVS Intermediate tires meant summer dry and wet grip was enormous. For winter duty, I fitted a set of Pirelli winter tires to the stock 15-by-6-inch wheels. I felt like rally god Hannu Mikkola as I dominated the snow-covered roads of Michigan in the Audi sedan, tapping the ABS off button to fully disable the antilock brakes for maximum left-foot braking fun.
There was one particularly snowy day when a friend’s pickup couldn’t make it up a steep hill, but a flick of the rotary switch in the 5000 locked the center and rear differentials, allowing the seemingly feeble German sports sedan to claw its way effortlessly to the top. When the snow melted and the Fuchs were bolted back on, I saw nearly 140 mph on the speedometer more than once. The Audi 5000CS Turbo Quattro was a jack of all trades sedan, and I loved it.
2002 and 2003 Mini Cooper S
I put a $500 deposit down at two Mini dealerships in Chicago before there were even Mini dealerships in the U.S. Logic told me the two biggest BMW stores in the Windy City would get the Mini franchise, and I was right. As such, I secured one the first Mini Cooper S models to land in North America in the spring of 2002. What a fantastic car.
The characterful supercharged engine and slick, six-speed manual gearbox worked brilliantly together. Its large, 17-inch wheels with run-flat tires gave an extremely harsh ride, but the wonderful steering and overall grip compensated. I felt like a rock star around Grand Rapids, Michigan.
It’s easy to forget just what a crazy concept the Mini was for the U.S. some 15 years ago. It caused both enthusiasts and the car clueless to stop me for a chat about my British hatchback. I sold that first red with a white roof 2002 Mini Cooper S for a profit in the fall of 2002 and ordered a silver 2003 with a black roof to my exact OCD specs. I also binned the standard run-flat tires for more conventional performance rubber, improving the ride quality and overall handling tremendously. That second Mini stuck around for a year or so, until I decided it was time to return to my all-wheel-drive rally routes.
2002 Subaru Impreza WRX
The WRX was my first Japanese car. I was a tried and true Euro snob until I began to realize that most Audi products had become too big, heavy, and expensive for proper winter thrashing duties. I found a lightly used, adult-owned WRX just before the snow arrived in late 2003: silver exterior, five-speed manual gearbox sans the tacky rear wing. A set of Dunlop SP Winter Sport M3 performance winter tires quickly took their place on the stock 16-inch wheels, and the slippery-road fun quickly began.
The gearbox was positive, the seats fit me perfectly, and the engine made great power — well, as long as you kept at least 3,000 rpm on the tachometer. I’d jump railroad tracks and anything else I could find, but I couldn’t seem to exhaust the extensive suspension travel. A trick modification to the ratcheting mechanism on the handbrake made low-speed turns and general hooliganism easy and the all-wheel-drive system with a limited-slip center and rear differential helped WRX be far less understeer prone than my previous Audi models. The WRX was also the last car I’ve owned that lacked stability control. I’m a huge fan of the brilliant safety feature, but there is something to be said about the top-spec car control that’s needed to drive a car lacking ESP quickly in the snow.
2008 BMW 328i
When I departed my full-time duties at Automobile magazine in 2009, I needed a car. Rotating through various BMW press cars enlightened me to their overall dynamic brilliance. Yes, the German company has lost the plot to a certain degree as of late, but the E90 3 Series was a fantastic car in sedan form.
I picked up a slightly used 2008 BMW 328i to serve as my new daily driver. Of course, it had a six-speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel drive, and the sport package. The combination of run-flat tires and stiff suspension wasn’t perfect for Michigan’s crumbling roads, but at least the 328i came with 17-inch wheels versus the larger and heavier 18-inch setup. BMW’s naturally aspirated inline-six made great power and was smooth, smooth, smooth. It was also frugal, returning more than 30 mpg on 80-mph highway runs. I loved the buttery, meaty steering and the overall chassis balance. The heated seats were quick to warm my bottom on a cold winter’s morning and a set of winter tires combined with nicely judged stability control made the 328i an excellent vehicle for the coldest season of the year.
I vividly remember driving along an empty stretch of arrow-straight highway in Northern Michigan one particularly gorgeous summer’s evening with my mother-in-law riding shotgun. Eager to get home to my wife — and away from my mother-in-law — I scooted the BMW sedan up to an indicated 150 mph. It was rock solid, and I recall my passenger only piping up to ask why the wind noise seemed to have grown louder during the high-speed dash. I spent extended time in a couple of facelifted E90s, but none had the pace or overall feel of the lightly optioned 328i. When the present F30 3 Series hit the market, I quickly secured some seat time. I was disappointed. Sure, it rode better, had more torque, and offered a nice bump in interior space, but something was lost. Let’s hope BMW remembers the E90 when the next 3 Series hits the market.
2013 Scion FR-S
I sold the Scion FR-S to get a new Ford Focus RS in the spring of 2016. Now I want the FR-S back. Yes, the 350 hp, all-wheel-drive hatchback affixed with Blue Oval badges is faster and more practical, but I miss the purity and simplicity of the rear-wheel drive Japanese coupe.
I don’t do a ton of road trips in my personal car. Those are usually left for my wife’s car or various press cars. My drive to the office is short and not super exciting. The FR-S made each and every journey a pleasure. It’s not a fast car, but the lack of outright pace allows you to more regularly wring-out the engine and drive the FR-S hard without attracting the attention of Johnny Law. The low-grip Michelin summer tires and approachable chassis dynamics add to the entertaining package. A set of 16-inch steel wheels and winter tires along with aftermarket seat heaters made the Scion an impressive companion in the snow — and huge fun.
I also loved the seats, something that can’t be said for the overly bolstered Recaro setup in the Focus RS. The FR-S was also frugal on fuel. Again, not the case with the Ford. Sure, the Japanese 2+2 coupe is loud on the highway and rather basic inside, but I can live with that considering all the positives that come along with the under-$30K package. Plus, it rides better than the ultra-stiff Focus RS.
I don’t think automotive enthusiasts fully realize just how diluted modern cars have become. As more buttons and switches for various drive modes are added, something is lost. Spending time in a car like the FR-S (called the Toyota 86 for 2017) or its twin, the Subaru BRZ, clearly reminds you of this fact. Porsche seems to understand this with cars like the Cayman GT4 and 911 R, but they are expensive. My hope is that more car companies get on board offering simplistic automobiles, preferably at a reasonable price. In the meantime, I’ve missed the FR-S so much that I recently placed an order for a 2017 Toyota 86. I can’t wait for its arrival, and I hope the subtle improvements translate to an even better car for my needs in the real world.