Editor’s Note: We love scouring the internet for reasons to spend money we don’t have on cars we daydream about owning, and these are our picks this week. All prices listed are bid amounts at the time of publishing.
It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of buying a boring econobox — or worse, not owning a car at all, just because you live in or around a city. While it can be tough to own a car in a metropolis (depending on the city), the right car can make mid-week runabouts incredibly easy, not to mention transform weekend escapes into driving nirvana. The trick is to find a small car that’s easy to park, is energetic yet confident in traffic and has the legs to entertain on the open road. Small sports cars tick all those boxes and then some. Here are five great performance cars to help you battle through life in the concrete jungle.
1986 Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16
Location: West Palm Beach, Florida
What we like: The Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16, unfortunately, lived most of its life in the shadow of the BMW E30 M3. That doesn’t mean it was an awful car by comparison — quite the opposite. The 190E 2.3-16 was a formidable rival for the M3. At today’s market value though, the compact “Baby Benz” is considerably more affordable than the Bimmer; plus, it has two more doors and, on real-world driving roads, is no less fun.
From the seller: “Very strong engine and transmission. This Mercedes 190E 2.3-16 Cosworth is a great drive and fun car to have. Very nice paint overall and all the service and tune-ups are done. The front interior leather seats should be redone due to age and [that the] stitching [is coming] undone.”
What to look out for: From what is known about the 190E family, problems pop up with the water and fuel pump systems and faults with the A/C can be common as well. Luckily, the parts to fix these flaws aren’t necessarily expensive. But unless you wrench the car your self, service fees can easily climb.
Expert opinion: “Over the course of some thirty-eight hundred miles and timed events at nine different racetracks, the 190E was mechanically flawless. The W201 “baby Benz” was derided upon introduction for being simply too small and too cheap inside (the people who complained about the 190’s interior couldn’t see the future). Measured against a Nineties luxury car from any manufacturer, the Benz is rock-solid, impeccably styled, built from indestructotinium.” — Jack Baruth, The Truth About Cars
2011 BMW 1M
Location: Salt Lake City, Utah
What we like: When the 1M made its debut, BMW finally returned to the small and nimble sports car culture. Purists will complain that the 1M featured only marginal performance gains over the M135i, but had a significant jump in price. (Of course, purists will always complain.) The 1M’s agile nature and quick-turning short wheelbase chassis make it perfect for tight city living and a dream on tight, twisty roads.
From the seller: “Finished in Alpine white over a black leather interior with contrasting orange stitching, this example is one of 983 cars produced for the North American market. The twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six sends power to the rear wheels through a six-speed manual gearbox and a limited-slip differential. An August 2017 service including replacing the serpentine belt and…modifications include a pair of matte black kidney grilles and powder-coated factory wheels. This 1M is now being offered with records from new, the factory front grilles and a clean Utah title in the seller’s name.”
What to look out for: There are a surprising amount of issues with the 1M — most of them can be fixed at the dealer, occur early in the car’s life and can be fixed under warranty.
Expert opinion: “Not surprisingly…the inherent goodness of the package shines once you get the car on a decent road. The 1M’s super-quick steering (2.2 turns lock-to-lock), combined with a short wheelbase, makes it feel like a go-kart despite its upright, relatively tall seating position. Its grip is stunning. It borrows the Michelin PS2s from the M3 Competition package and the body appears to be shrink-wrapped around these monster meats, which are barely contained by the absurd and kind of awesome fender flares. They help the 1M return an impressive 0.97 g on the skidpad compared with the 0.91 g achieved by the standard 135i we tested in 2009 (on Bridgestones). The brakes, too, are stellar. Everything about them feels right, and they haul the car to a stop from 70 mph in just 159 feet.” — Daniel Pund, Car and Driver
2004 Honda S2000
Location: Mableton, Georgia
What we like: The S2000 can be seen as Honda’s answer to the Mazda Miata, but the little Honda didn’t look nearly as friendly — and screamed all the way to 8,000rpm while making almost 100 horsepower more. At real-world speeds around town, the S2000 is relatively docile. It’s not until you reach 6,000rpm and Honda’s V-TEC engine tech kicks in. But when that happens, you’re more likely to be on a canyon road rather than a grocery run. Luckily, the S2000 shines in both environments.
From the seller: “Paired with a six-speed manual gearbox, power is provided by a 2.2-liter VTEC inline-four engine that was good for nearly 237 naturally aspirated horsepower at 7,800rpm when new, resulting in mid-five-second 0-60 times in contemporary road tests. This example has been modified by the seller with an Ingalls engine torque damper and K&N FIPK intake system for a bit more power. The car has reportedly been serviced exclusively at Honda centers since new, with the most recent servicing occurred at 36K miles for an oil change and basic maintenance.”
What to look out for: Common problems in the S2000 seem to stem from the transmission, and given that it’s a high-strung piece of machinery that revs to 8,000rpm, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Most of the issues — vibrations, popping out of gear — aren’t terminal, but left unchecked, they could become a lot more serious.
Expert opinion: “First, the car. As we reported in November 2003, the updated S2000 has acquired a higher level of refinement and comfort without losing a step in the process. Honda softened the rear suspension slightly, a response to the S2000 owners who found themselves running out of talent and oversteering themselves into ditches. ” — Tony Swan, Car and Driver
1995 BMW 318ti
Location: Erie, Colorado
What we like: Despite the 318ts’s polarizing style when it launched, it was a valiant attempt by BMW to engage a younger crowd with a performance hatchback. Though the 318ti was meant to be performance oriented, its economical and compact nature is what modern city cars strive for today. The agile BMW coupe lurking underneath is just a plus.
From the seller: “This 1995 BMW 318ti Club Sport shows 131k miles and is one of just 94 cars imported in Hellrot [red paint]. Power is supplied by an M42 four-cylinder paired with a five-speed manual transmission, and the Club Sport model features M Sport appearance elements and suspension tuning, as well as two-tone sports seats. Originally sold at Gebhart BMW in Boulder, this example has resided Colorado since new and was acquired by the selling dealer in September of last year. It was reportedly garaged and maintained regularly under prior owners, and major service was conducted in September 2017. Work included a flush and replacement of all engine and driveline fluids, as well as a new water pump, thermostat, rear brakes, spark plugs, and drive belts.”
What to look out for: Although this particular 318ti had a major service just last year, with an older BMW the smartest move is to take it to a certified tech and have it checked because common flaws in certain Bimmers can pop up at different intervals. For the 318ti, after 100,000 miles, the water pump, radiator, all the filters and head gaskets should get a closer look.
Expert opinion: “We did, however, manage enough short bursts of high-intensity hauling to confirm its genuinely sporting character. Excellent power steering, a near-ideal 51/49-percent weight distribution, and a taut yet supple suspension make the 318ti a delightful traveling companion, regardless of trim level. Top speed is electronically limited to 116 mph, and even at triple-digit velocities, the car felt reassuringly stable. We preferred the extra support of the upline seats in the Sports model, but the standard buckets also deserve high marks for comfort.” — Bob Nagy, Motortrend
1980 Ford Escort RS2000
Location: Roma, Italy
What we like: This RS2000 is a bit of stretch seeing as how it’s currently in Italy, but if a car can survive the mean streets of Rome, that should be enough proof it can handle city life.
From the seller: “A refurbishment was completed over five years ago and included a bare-metal repaint in the original Terracotta Red. Factory options include a 3.54 final drive ratio, RS exhaust manifolds and the RS-1 Tarmac suspension package. The 2.0-liter SOHC inline-four sends power to the rear wheels through a four-speed manual gearbox and a service two months ago included an oil/filter change, new brakes and new tires all around.”
What to look out for: Since this Escort is nearing 40 years old, common sense would dictate a thorough check, top to bottom, inside and out. at the least you may find rust; it’s quite possible there will be plenty of well-loved but well-worn components.
Expert opinion: “By far the most attractive aspects of these Escorts are steering response and outstanding chassis balance. The rack-and-pinion steering is rated at 3.5 turns lock-to-lock but feels way faster and most bends can be taken without shifting your hands.” — Cliff Chambers, Trade Unique Cars