I am planning for May of 2022.

Bradley will get his permit then, when he turns 15. I have been plotting what kind of road trip we might take to celebrate this occasion. And what we might drive.

Fortunately for his and my sanity, I have long-ago abandoned the notion that we would drive across the country in an MGA, retracing the route I took when I was 16.

Of the four stepsons I have raised, three totaled the first cars I got them. The Fiat 124 was hit by a drunk driver who ran a light. The VW Beetle “just rolled over onto its roof” when a dog ran across the road in front of the car. The Porsche Boxster S left the highway at a high rate of speed and sheared off a telephone poll before coming to rest as a crumpled heap of metal.

In all three cases, the drivers and passengers in the cars were miraculously unhurt.

I replaced both the Fiat and the VW with W123 Mercedes, looking for safety in size.

But that was 30 years ago and the world has changed.

I have set a theoretical budget of $10,000. I don’t mind a car with high miles so long as it has been properly looked after.

I’d like to have something sporty and perhaps a convertible. I’m not even so picky about the transmission. I figure that Bradley will have plenty of chances to drive my manual shift cars. The most important thing is that he have properly curated seat time, and taught the habits that go with responsible driving.

Convertibles within my budget are the Alfa S4 Spider, BMW Z3, Porsche Boxster and Mazda Miata.

All have airbags (the Alfa only on the driver’s side), side-impact beams and crumple zones. They have braking and handling that my vintage Alfas could only dream about.

What would your choice be? Or given the behemoth pickup trucks and distracted drivers that rule our roads, should I just give up on a sports car altogether and find a BMW 3-series or Mercedes C-Class to fill the bill?

Two-seat sports car or four-door sedan? There’s obviosuly no hurry, but your responses help me shape my thoughts and my search.

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  1. We’re currently having fun with this with my 16-year-old son. Picking one out is probably more fun than actually having one. He’s brought me ads for an older Mercedes S63 AMG and a ’75 BMW CSi something or other. But he really wants a BMW E46, preferably with the ZHP package. That’s what we’ll most likely end up getting, although yesterday he asked what the Porsche Cayman’s fatal flaw was… What does Bradley want?

  2. Why not the Z4? Also within budget, many low mileage examples exist, much improved driving experience over the Z3, and not exotic so not a maintenance budget breaker.

  3. The Mazda would be closest to a nineties version of your old MGA. Plus it’s probably the more sensible option. A red one should keep the mastodont truck drivers at distance. Never let those keep you from enjoying a tiny sports car.

  4. Go with the Porsche Boxster. These cars are very safe, reliable, inexpensive to maintain and repair. Lastly, Bradley will be high on the cool meter with his friends thanks to his super cool Dad. Good luck with this tough decision.

  5. I paid $10,000 for my 2001 Mercedes SLK320 with 87,000 miles. Yes, I had to fix the common oil leaks, ball joints and a few other minor things but it costs very little to run, has a hard top folding roof and the 3.2 6 cylinder engine is a delight. Mine has the 5 speed auto which always seems to be in the right gear. This purchase was in 2016 and was an excellent decision.

  6. Given that this won’t be his only/forever car I suggest something practical with a bit of metal around it. While he’s finding out where the corners are on his ride a sedan would allow him to run family errands, pick people up at airports and just be part of the family team. A 3 series BMW (M or not) would give him a reliable ride and wouldn’t put a dent in the family budget if he stuffed it ( see family history above) Remind him that it’s a “starter car” so he can show how responsible he can be 👍
    Tom Tate -Boston

  7. Keith, I would go for a BMW 3 series coupe with standard transmission. Plenty fast and looks great, along with being more useful.

  8. Keith, you make this too easy. You already know the answer, and you’ve probably picked out the car. But for fun, here goes.
    Boxster. No soul. Can’t even hear the engine.
    Z3. Ugly
    CL 500. As exciting as a Buick
    Miata. Too Pixar.
    BMW. Closer, but too preppy.
    Winner! The Alfa. Italian, Pininfarina, beautiful, quirky, convertible, underpowered so he can’t get in too much trouble. He’ll have to floor it to get on the freeway which will be awesome. If it rains the top will leak, which is cool in an annoying way. There’s a good chance it will break down which will make the trip memorable. And finally, his dad is the ultimate Alfaisti. Your son is so blessed to have you as his father. Have a great trip!

  9. Keith,

    You have made great choices, all are fabulous cars. In my small collection of cars I own a Miata NA, a huge delight to drive, a Big Bang for the dollar and costs very little to maintain. As a daily driver you would need to be extremely vigilant and it is a little slow, not sure I would do this.
    The Boxster and the Z3 are both safer cars, are fast and both have a tremendous build quality. I have had plenty of seat time in both of these cars, either would be my choice.
    The little Alfa is a nice car, a little quirky, let’s say a lot of personality. I am not sure how reliable this car would be as a primary car. I hope to own one of these one day.
    The 318i would be a fun car, maybe more practical than a roadster. This also has a great built quality and a great following.
    The CL 500 is nice, safe and practical car though very pedestrian.
    Any young man would be lucky to have any of these as his first car. At the end of the day, what car would Bradley like?

  10. Best is a Boxster and then a Z3 or early Z4
    Boxster is the most fun the Z3 is a train is stick on the road for everything

  11. An e46 BMW 325. Fun to drive, without greatly exceeding reasonable around town speeds. Nice sounds from the straight-six engine. Safety of the sedan body. But most importantly, the cars are relatively easy to work on, so he can learn to wrench on the car, and there is a community of young enthusiasts who post lots of information on the Internet and YouTube.

  12. At his age my father shared a Ford wagon, Cougar with a 428 4 speed, Sprite, MGB. Mini, Lotus Europa, and a Land Rover with me. Clearly I was spoiled. For my daughter and son I chose a GMC Yukon for practicality and a Miata to expose my kids to fun driving at your son’s age. My kids enjoyed both but their hands down preference was the Miata….. Safe, reliable, cute and not too fast.

  13. I would go with the Miata as a new drive, he will be pushing the limits while learning.. The Miata is a “disposable” toy with pretty good bones but if he wrecks it, no harm done. Let him log a few newcomer mistakes and then let him have a Alfa!

  14. Definitely a top-down roadster. You’re only 16 once. My parents gave me a MGB roadster in 1964 when I turned 16 and it whetted my appetite for British cars to this day. I still have the ’64 MGB but have added a ’62 E-Type roadster and a recent purchase of 2021 Jaguar F-Type R coupe. Your son can always get a four-door “daddy car” when married with children. cheers

  15. I would vote for a Miata. With a roll bar. These are among the best driving cars, period. And the epitome of the adage about”driving a slow car fast”.

  16. Keith,
    having sold you the FIAT Across America FIAT 2300, I think that i have idea of what NOT to drive across America. At that time you were looking for a “story” to tell – ie: reliability was BORING ! My
    FIAT 2100 was the perfect “story” car.
    An appropriate car for a 15 year old must be reliable – and not too small, for safety reasons. Being an
    “Alfa guy”, the Alfa Romeo spider would be my emotional first choice. I don’t know much about the BMW Z3, so no comment. The Mercedes Benz CL 500, while probably the safest, is an “old man’s car” – appropriate for myself, or you, but not your 15 year old son. The MIATA is probably the most reliable of the bunch, but small and boring. That leaves the Boxster, and the BMW 318i. The Boxster is probably the most fun, if under powered. The 318i is similarly under powered, but looks great and has the benefit of space (seats ?) behind the driver and a big enough trunk to hold appropriate luggage for 2 to drive across the USA. Being a convertible is a huge bonus. A stick shift manual transmission would absolutely cement the deal !
    Thus my recommendation is the BMW 318i.
    Have fun, wish I could join you ( in my Giulia Spider Abnormale )

  17. Seriously, do you want your son to grow up working on cars or enjoying them? The best ever starter sports car [perhaps the best-ever, period?] is the Miata. All the others tend to be expensive to fix, and they will need fixing. The moderns may require sophisticated [$$$] equipment, the older ones aren’t nearly as safe… and he will be learning. The MIata is a tad lacking in power but makes up for it in nearly every other way. Go Miata! Let him fall in love with the driving experience.

  18. My advice is to prioritize safety for a new driver without sticking him with a blob. What about a 1/2 ton, short bed pick-up. New, not used so it has all the latest safety gear. When he is more experienced, he can get a toy car that will see less use.

  19. Having owned variations of all four sports cars under consideration I would recommend the Porsche Boxster. It should be relatively easy to find an example with the IMS rectified or, at that price point and a good service history, worth hedging the bet with an example that has not.

    Joe Sweeney
    West Linn, OR

  20. Let him decide. How would you like someone else deciding your ride? Also, make him pay for it. At least a down payment and loan from the Bank of Keith. You can hang on to the payments and surprise him with a pile of cash for the next car.

    If you insist on deciding his ride go in reverse order of your history. Get a Camry/Accord/Buick sedan until he totals it or gets through the first year. Then go for the Miata.

    I wish you much joy in watching him make the decision. Maybe he will ask/take your advise.

    At 16 my father sold me his ’68 Saab 96 2 stroke (fast wearing clutch) so he could step up to the ’72 V4.

  21. I just went thru the same analysis. I drive a Miata and My wife drives a Karmann Ghia( for fun). I would recommend that you find a “good” small sized pick up truck. Easy and cheap to maintain. Functional A 5-6 year old Subaru gives you the safety etc you are looking for too. Best Wishes

  22. Definitely the Miata. All the joys of a quick ride to learn good driving skills but, still safe, economical and mildly practical without being frumpy.

  23. Miata. I am 68 years old and have a 2016 Touring model. I have owned Porsche 911 and Boxter, Jaguar roadster, Mini convertible. The Miata has been the most fun and the manual practically shifts itself!

  24. I think Volvo 240 series make good 1st cars for 16 year old first driver cars.

    Safe, solid, hard to “drag strip” with. One of my teenage boys got one. The other a SAAB 900 hatchback. Both worked out well.

  25. How funny. My LAST son just turned 17 and always wanted a manual shift car. I have a Porsche soul deep inside so I bought a one owner 1999 boxster with the hardtop. oMG it was sooo fun teaching him to drive in a empty bass pro parking lot on Sundays. Then our first road trip was from Natchez ms to Tupelo MS up the famed Natchez trace parkway. 50 mph and no trucks or cross traffic. We will treasure that adventure for ever. Y’all have fun. I say get the boxter. We also had the fun of doing a complete service, brakes and new tires too. Any time spent doing thing with your kids is truly what it’s all about.

  26. Keith:
    Odds should be in your favor for a successful 4th attempt. Although I, too, love Alfas (my son’s first car at age 1 was a 1990 Quadrifoglio spider) – I believe your best choice would be the Mazda MX-5 (first gen NA or a 2004 NB.) The Miata is still a reasonable bargain to buy (best sports car “bang for the buck”,) great for modifications at any level at minimal expense, easy to work on, and has the best likelihood to recoup your cost at re-sale. Oh, and do your son a favor and avoid the “helicopter dad”/sports car king role and once you’ve enlisted him in the initial purchase – turn him loose! My fondest memory was my first true car (TR-3A) – my Dad got his kicks from our first venture with a ’57 Chevy with an replacement (read “souped up”) engine and a Hurst transmission. He left me to my own learning curve and only helped when asked.
    Just sayin”…
    Regards,
    Mike – your ND connection

  27. You’re not going to like what I have to say I’ve been in the same situation as you I bought my one son over six cars then decided he needed to pay for his own car my other son he has to buy his own car he still has that car and he takes care of it same with my daughter. I guess what I’m trying to tell you is that they need to be responsible for their own car and take care of it because they put energy time and money into the car a sedan is best that’s my take

  28. I would rule out the Alfa without the airbag on the passenger side. My friend’s brother was in an accident on a trip with his friends in high school and one of his friends died. It really screwed him up.

    If you’re trying to save money with something older, remember that the hospital bill from a bad accident can easily make up the difference between the cost of a less safe car and a more safe car several times over.

    Sounds like he’s getting a car as soon as he can. That means he’s likely to be the only one of his friends with a car for a while. So I would rule out two seaters since he wouldn’t be able to carry but one friend at a time.

  29. You cannot go wrong with a Miata but I would go with and NB as they have a little more power and can be had with a 6 speed manual for less than 10G’s. They also look better than the NA’s and the best thing is they are fun!! Please make him buy his first car as he will be most likely to take care of it if he has to make payments on it and it teaches responsibility and budgeting skills. I gave my kid a car and he sold it and bought a Volkswagen which turned out to be a P.O.S.

  30. One of my favorite demos while working at Ron Tonkin was a dark grey Alfa Romeo Spyder.
    Barry Tonkin had taken it as a demo with 900 miles on it when his Maserati Bi-Turbo demo showed up. He asked if I would take over his Alfa Demo so he could take the Maserati. I really enjoyed that car all summer. But realistically probably a Mazda Miata for cheap dependability or Porsche Boxster.

  31. About a month ago, a friend was driving one of my cars and had an accident. His 17 year old daughter was in the passenger seat. The friend is 50 years old and has not had an accident at least going back 30 years. He is known safe driver with over a million miles of driving experience under his belt. As the friend’s mother in law said, he is the safest person I know, he wears a helmet to use the bathroom. His daughter spent five days in the ICU and may lose a kidney.

    Don’t push your luck from your step kids. Go to the NTSB web page and find the car with the highest safety ratings. (Year to year the same car may change in it’s crash protection.) I would not consider a car without side air bags. Then make a deal with your precious son, if you don’t have any accidents in the first X amount of time driving, we can then justify getting you a car that has a lower safety rating and a higher fun rating.

    Why would you put the driver with the least amount of experience in a car with older safety protection? Modern small cars are safer than a 1974 Lincoln with tons of steel. Life is too precious.

    Above is more or less what we did with our kids. All of them had minor accidents during the first year of driving. All of them were in their slowish and safe first cars. They learned as their parents learned.
    BTW, two of the three drive Volvos as adults and the third one a Miata and a Raptor. Maybe it worked?

    1. Maybe not yet a classic (yet), but have you seen the prices of used Fiat 500 Abarths? Super fun, feels like an early GTI in size, best exhaust note of anything under $50k, and a practical hatchback. You might even be able to find the ragtop version for under your budget if you look hard.

  32. My parents felt the right time for my first car was when I turned 18 and graduated from high school. With help from my grandparents, parents and some busboy money I had saved up, we had a budget for a NEW car, my parents directed: a Ford van, VW bug, or (perceived garbage) Detroit iron sedan of any flavor.

    I wanted a four-year-used 1967 Jaguar Series 1 E-Type Roadster.

    Mom and Dad were, like, no, no, no, no, no, no, no and finally, “Okay, kid, dammit. But you’ll be sorry.” I tantalized my dad by telling him he could drive it to work on the weekdays, and I’d toy with it come Friday night.

    We found the car within our budget from a private party. It actually got me three years into college before I couldn’t ignore the deferred maintenance any longer, and Dad agreed we could put it on blocks in the garage and maybe restore it some day. When I had a job. And money.

    I still have the car, and she’s been in concours condition since 1988. She has been more faithful to me than most of the women I’ve known, and she will someday be happy to take up residence in my son’s garage as his mistress. It won’t be his first car (he’s on his second), but it will hopefully be his last concubine.

    What’s the point of this, you ask?

    It’s up to what Bradley wants. He’ll never want to say, many years hence, “I didn’t really want THAT car. It’s the one my Dad said I had to have.” No, Bradley should choose.

  33. First car for a teen?

    Parents choice;
    1) any family members old 4 door sedan.
    2) 140 /240 series Volvo (see #1)
    3) 1992-1998 Jeep Cherokee

    Teen’s choice;
    1) Ford GT Mustang
    2) Mazda Miata
    3) mid 90’s Corvette
    4) Hopefully Dad’s or Mom’s classic sitting in the garage….