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What kind of dream car can you get for $50,000?

What kind of dream car can you get for $50,000?


What about $100,000?

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This is The Harper Spin, a weekly column from seasoned auto critic Jason H. Harper. He’s raced at Le Mans, crushed a car in a 50-ton tank, and now, he’s bringing his unique style to The Verge.

For a long time, there’s been a bit of common wisdom among car folk: you could buy the BMW 3 Series of your dreams for $50,000. And the Porsche 911 of your dreams for $100,000.

Those days are gone.

As cars become more technologically advanced, they also become more expensive. This isn’t such a surprise, of course. The surprise is that in this new era, there’s a flipside: you can still get yourself a slew of extremely decent automobiles for less than $25,000, and a few bargains below $20,000. And those options are significantly better than their counterparts of yore.

But there’s been a winnowing of the in-betweeners. The luxury and sports cars of our semi-realistic fantasies are less accessible than ever before. And that puts a kink in the old-time game of, "What would you buy for $50,000? How about $100,000?"

As cars become more technologically advanced, they also become more expensive

Those two dollar figures are easy to understand. They are certainly high enough to be aspirational. Fifty thou, to my mind, should net you a nice sports coupe or a snazzy SUV / crossover, and $100,000 should be enough to go bang-out crazy. But I recently drove a midsize GMC pickup with a sticker of $44,000 and a ho-hum, four-banger Cadillac for $69,000. It makes one wonder, are the $50,000 and $100,000 aspirational figures defunct?

Let’s just agree that any car over, say, $30,000 falls into the "want" and not the "need" category. Despite the Takata airbag debacle and the mess of the recent Jeep gearshift recall, the overwhelming majority of new cars are safer and better-made than ever before.

If you are looking for basic here-to-there transport for yourself, Chevrolet’s 2016 Spark starts at $13,535 for a manual, and gets ten airbags and a backup camera. It is a world better than Chevy’s old eco-boxes. And if you need to get a family around, the Kia Sorento fits up to seven with a base of $26,700. The equipment in these cars would have rivaled the top-flight Mercedes-Benz of not that long ago.


But let’s transition to the "want" category. I recently did drive a $52,695 BMW of my dreams. But it was a M2 model, not a 3 Series. The M2 is the sportier version of the 2 Series, the smallest car that BMW offers in the US.

The M2 checks all of my own sports-car desires, but it wouldn’t pass the desirability test of, say, my wife, who would want more rear-seat space and less plastic on the interior. Nor would it please my six-foot-three dad, who would need more space all over. The regular 3 Series, which has grown in size and complexity over the years, would barely cut it.

The 3 starts at $33,150. But that is the 320i sedan with the smallest engine (a 2.0-liter turbo four cylinder), and you get two choices of standard colors: non-metallic jet black or alpine white. The metallic (read: prettier) colors all cost you an extra $550.

Let’s just say that the 320i is not the dream 3 Series. No, that’s probably the 340i with a 3.0-liter turbo six-cylinder, starting at $46,795, or the superhero M3. The M3, once a relative bargain, now starts at $63,500, without any extras added. So that ship sails way past the $50K mark.

So, let’s build us a 340i online, shall we?

In for a penny, in for a pound

Well, I want the very trick, $550 "Estoril" metallic blue, but that automatically triggers the addition of the $2,600 M Sport package. (Why? Well, Estoril is named after a race track in Portugal. Otherwise it’s… unclear. But, okay, sure.) Now let’s talk interior. My dream Bimmer gets leather, not some weird vinyl called "SensaTec." My desire is Coral Red Dakota — who comes up with these names? — with black stitching. That will be $1,450.

We are now at $51,395.

Next come the packages. Forget the cold weather package, I’ll simply turn on the regular heaters on frigid days and let my ass take care of itself. (Heated steering wheel and heated front and rear seats runs $800.)

Adaptive LED lights are a smart safety consideration, but cost an extra $800. I can’t help but tick the box for the $900, 19-inch light alloy wheels with better performance tires. (I would suggest squirreling away some money for the bent rims that will surely occur because of potholes, a common BMW affliction.) But the better tires also automatically dictate the addition of the "track package," an additional $1,700.

I’m sweating now.

To hell with the driver assistant package for $900 except that, look at the nerve on these folks, you need it for the rear-view camera — the same one that comes standard on the Chevy Spark. I really want BMW’s heads-up display and the nav system and so the technology package gets ticked too.

In for a penny, in for a pound. So after a few "performance options," my (mostly) dream 3 Series comes to a tidy $58,450.


But maybe my stock market has done really well this year. Or an uncle I never knew leaves me some cash. Perhaps I could stretch to the $100,000 mark. Which, in my analysis, means a Porsche.



In reality, looking over the Porsche pricing list for 2016 and 2017 model years, a quick scan proves one thing: I can’t afford one. I’d dearly like a 718 Cayman or a Boxster, but really I’d probably hold out for a 911. (The cheapest Porsche on the list is a base Macan crossover at $47,500. The 2017 911 Turbo S Cabriolet runs north of $200,000.)

Let’s go for the 911. The base model, including delivery, is $90,450. It gets 370 horsepower. Not bad! But for that low, low price, we are offered four standard exterior colors, 19-inch Carrera wheels, partial leather, a manual transmission, and very little in the way of extra conveniences.

Not bad, but not dreamlike.

What I really want is the 420-hp, rear-wheel-drive "S" model, which starts at $103,400, already blowing my ceiling. But a dream is a dream. Trying to remain relatively modest, I’ll choose the bright orange color I love, the dear but needed sport package ($6,290), and the cool LED lights and 20-inch sport wheels — but retaining the manual transmission at no cost! And so my (mostly) dream 911 comes to a neat $125,475.

Let’s play a whole new game. What car would you buy for $75,000? How about $125,000?

BMW M2: a perfect sports car for $52,000