Cars: Fun or value? These offer both

March 4, 2005

Resale value is important, but so is enjoying the drive, says this physician and automotive journalist. These cars offer the best of both worlds.

Reference books like the Kelley Blue Book may help car enthusiasts discover which vehicles are the best investments (See "Which cars hold their value?" June 18, 2004, available at http://www.memag.com/memag/article/articleDetail.jsp?id=108953). but nothing beats personal experience for finding which cars are the most fun to drive.

Fun doesn't necessarily mean excitement. The solid security delivered by marques like Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo can create a ride that prevents the excitement of, say, mechanical meltdown at the worst possible moment. For some, knowing a car is well-made-like a Maytag on wheels, with safety and dependability built in-means freedom to enjoy the fun of driving.

That's one reason why Honda Odyssey LX, the van/minivan category leader (it holds 59 percent of its market value after three years), is fun. It's dependable, powerful, performance-oriented, and easy to drive. I took the Odyssey out on the streets around Palmdale, CA, as part of our annual Motor Press Guild Track Day event at Willow Springs racetrack. It was easy to see why the third generation of this van ended Chrysler's dominance in the minivan field. It has a lot of room, big comfortable seats, the third row facing forward with a deep well behind for luggage, frisky acceleration, firm yet comfortable suspension, responsive steering, and great brakes. And if that doesn't make for family fun, what does?

The WRX STi's suspension is so good that the tires don't squeal much on corners, so you don't realize how fast you're going until you look at the tach and your heart stops. The gear box on the model tested seemed a little rough by the time I got to it, probably from being driven by journalists whose skills are more writing than driving. Motor Press Guild members were free to take any of the year-2005 cars delivered by 34 manufacturers-about 150 cars-for two laps around the track, but the line for the Subaru got longer as the day wore on. Drivers staggered out with comments like, "Wow!" "Whoopee!" and "It's hot!" This car, with its power and excellent handling, is today's fun car, just as yesterday's were the Camaro and the Mustang.

Close behind, of course, is the MINI Cooper S. I drove the convertible version. It was especially fun to make the MINI keep its distance as it tried to pass the Subaru Impreza on one of the straights at the track. (MPG rules don't permit passing on corners.) The MINI has a gorgeous racing-car-like interior and its handling is a delight. The suspension may be harsh for everyday use, but what a car for any doctor who has to make quick time on country lanes. ("You see, officer, I'm on my way to the hospital to handle an emergency . . .")

The other fun champion was the appropriately named Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR. Sold overseas since 1991, it's now in its eighth generation. Mitsubishi used rally motor sports for years to test the engineering it has now brought to this car. "This is not a replacement car," says Janis Little, a Mitsubishi spokesperson, blocking a Car and Driver writer who's trying to slide in front of this aging Californian physician who's in line for the next ride, "but a refinement based on our company's experience in racing. And we've shaken the industry by squeezing 276 horsepower out of a 4-cylinder 2 liter engine!"