Car choice : Wow! Budget : Oh cock! The story of an optimistic petrolhead's hunt for the perfect first car under $5k. (Photography by yours truly.)

2y ago

Once upon a free period in a noisy classroom, a group of friends were huddled together, briskly chatting with their collars up and ties loose about the kind of life they hoped to have. The discussion slithered along topics like the first job, first home and eventually plopped on to ‘the first car’. Now that is a tricky puddle if your budget is tight, and even trickier if you are a petrolhead. Moreover, given that there are a thousand options and a million factors to consider, the one you pick says a lot about you and since it’s the first one in your life, it becomes a rather special part of it.

When the topic came up there was enthusiasm in the group. “Camaro” ”Porsche” “Audi”… boys named various cars and brands ranging from hot hatches to luxury exotics. Someone said they wanted a Pagani while another said they want to be chauffeured around in a Rolls Royce; it was a broad spectrum. Soon it was my turn and I wanted to utter something along the lines of " a Lamborghini ". However, after a quick reality check I realized I'd still be a student when that time comes and a cerebral decision was formed; I distinctly remember saying that I’d get a used muscle car from the 70’s over a used Camry any day. Heads nodded in approval as they heard the words of courage and wisdom . They applauded my guts to go for suave and risky instead of the mundane and safe. Soon the bell rang. The free period was over. The next teacher arrived shortly and told us to button up our collars and take out our textbooks. The friends all raised toast, and their ties, to the hopeful future and with that the balance of the classroom was restored.

That was then. Eight years later here I am, behind the wheel of … (drumroll) … the Honda Accord. The 2008 model. The 4 cylinder one, with the automatic transmission. Yep.

I smell disappointment in the tribe and I respect it because it is justified.

I smell disappointment in the tribe and I respect it because it is justified. The first part of my prediction was right; I'm a student at the moment. The second part of it turned out to be wrong; the Accord is as far away from being a muscle car as a pencil is from being an eraser. And, it is so synonymous to the car I specifically said I didn’t wanna get, that they could be best-friends or arch-rivals for life… which incidentally they are.

The moral of the story - everyone hopes to be Robert Frost, but in the end they take the safe path because reality reminds you why the road not taken is what it is. And on that terrible disappointment it is now time to end …

Nope... not entirely. Allow me to explain.

As soon as I got my driving license last year, I thundered down the used car market, finally with the permission to buy one; I think I am experienced in that area because I have been thundering down there for at least 6 years in a row now. Normally on a car-hunt, sane people weigh their options on a complex graph with all the scales of mileage, efficiency, practicality, comfort and last but not least, affordability tossed into it. Although these are terms I highly regard, my priorities were different from the beginning. To me it was all about the thrill of driving, the soundtrack of engine noise and a decent dose of feeling enigmatic during the action. This meant that a huge lump of trouble was imminent.

They make you feel like Nicolas Cage. but when you’re in college you generally can’t afford to be Nicolas Cage.

I looked up for some driver's cars that I would have liked to have, some of which my classmates already drove, but I realized they were very much out of my reach. My starter dream pack wasn’t going to cost any less than $20k but my wallet couldn’t afford any more than $5k. By this time I had become more of a driver's car bloke rather than a muscle car guy. I used to think they were cool as ice, however, most affordable used muscle cars that survive today are practically useless. Yes, they combust that gas into true rock n roll and make you feel like Nicolas Cage, but when you’re in college you generally can’t afford to be Nicolas Cage. And they break down so often that you could be broke sooner than you had imagined. Since my first car was going to be my only car, I needed it to be practical and since I didn't have much money, I needed it to be reliable.

From where I was standing, two roads that diverged into the woods - I could either get a low budget rock band member with an unpredictable mood, or be wise and ensure that I reach all my classes and exams and on time. I weighed my heart down with a stone, closed all the cool car tabs and without any enthusiasm opened the door to the Japanese territory for a cheap, reliable, mid-size sedan with AUX input and a sunroof. That's all I could hope for at this point.

I searched far and wide. My browsing tabs were now full of well-maintained Civics, Corollas, Camry’s and Accords from around 2003-2006 with sub 100k miles. In the end I was about to go for a 4 cylinder stick-shift 2006 Camry that was a couple hundred bucks over my budget and I was actually looking forward to test drive it, when a new result came up on Craigslist that day. It was a Gray 2008 Honda Accord. For almost a grand less than that Camry. Suddenly I was jumping with excitement.

It had a dashboard scratched by many dogs, and leather seats that looked like they had been torn for access to the hidden cocaine vault.

When the 2008 Honda Accord came out it was one of the best looking sedans in the market. It sort of resonated on the profile of the E60 M5, and the taillight proportions looked about 70% similar from the side. Every time I saw one on the road, I would admire it. These days they usually sell for about 8-10 grand and yet there was one here, somehow well within my reach.

I went to check it out that very day and I confess it was far from a ‘perfect’ find. The Camry that I was considering was better in every condition and looked brand spanking new. This though was a mess. It had a dashboard scratched by many dogs, and leather seats that looked like they had been torn for access to the hidden cocaine vault. And it had 174k miles on the odometer. On the upside, it was a decently specced Accord with large alloy rims, AUX input and sunroof.

it took me less than 10 minutes to be absolutely sure that this car was waiting there for me and I was waiting for it.

I got the key and took it for a test drive and well... it took me less than 10 minutes to be absolutely sure that this car was waiting there for me and I was waiting for it. Cheesy but true.

When I turned on the ignition, the car didn’t feel any more exciting than I expected it to. It felt creamy smooth, just as a Japanese family sedan should. At around 20 MPH on bumpy gravel back-alley it drove steadily, but it dropped hints of being an athlete. The suspension was soft enough to absorb bumps but stiff enough to let the driver know exactly where the wheels were going. I could feel the gravel and the ride was firm yet smooth at the same time. I have never had that kind of feedback from such a car before… either they wanna crack your hip-bones or they completely isolate the car from surface. The steering was delightful. It turned smoothly but had the kind of feedback that is mostly found in performance cars. Once we got on a smooth road it glided like butter on a frying pan. It was so refined that it was hard to believe that it was selling for under $ 5k. My mind was almost made up; there was just one more thing to check.

Above 4,000 RPM that beast gradually found it’s baritone bellow and roared and screamed all the way up to 7,000 RPM at which point I forgot that it is a sensible sedan.

We were going at 35 mph at about 2,000 RPM and it was fairly quiet and civilized. It sounded a bit like a CPU fan hushing air through the car and the car through the wind. Then I changed into an empty lane and pressed the accelerator down by 2 cm. The rev needle rose up to 2,100 RPM and a bass-heavy grunt surfaced as the engine came back to life. Suddenly the calmness vanished and instead a raging determination awakened in the car. As the revs crossed from 2,200 RPM to 4,000 RPM, the grunt intensified into the roar of a beast and I got the sense that the car knew my intentions, and it responded to it with bravado. I then floored the accelerator. The revs shot above 4,000 RPM and that beast gradually found it’s baritone bellow. It roared and screamed all the way up to 7,000 RPM at which point I forgot that it was a sensible sedan. Once the needle hit that mark, there was an Aventador-like but subtle jerk as the transmission aggressively changed up a gear. This car is solidly put together. I was smiling with teeth wide open the entire time. What a machine, what a car this was. I had no clue it could have such a side to it's character because it doesn't look crazy, and that just added to the charm.

I have driven and been driven around in more cars than I can list here and yet the features of this Accord felt distinctive in a way that it didn’t in most of the others. I liked it from the moment I approached it. I loved how it looks sporty, mean, and elegant all at the same time and you can’t help but notice how elongated it looks for a mid-size sedan. It's got decent muscles in the bodywork too. It’s not a huge car but it feels fairly large and luxurious. It’s the same with the interior as well. The dashboard is designed in such a way that it feels as vast as a living room. You could set up a TV. Or a coffee machine and even a cozy twin bed (which I actually did when I didn't have a home for a week). Everything about it has a bold approach. From the doors high-end heaviness, to the instrument cluster, to the seats, to the steering wheel. Every component of this car has a presence of its own that is hard to miss. It doesn’t feel like it was designed just to sell in huge numbers. It feels as though it was crafted with passion to make a statement in its own way.

There is a ‘driver’s car’ vibe to it.

The steering wheel is one of the best I have ever seen and held. I feel confident holding it. Then your eyes sweep over to the rev counter and speedometer, and what a piece of perfection it is! Two proper machined metal rings with the studded illuminated crystal markers, the white numbering and two red proper needles whose glow reflects on the metal rings! I love how three dimensional it is too. It’s almost as sculpted as Aston Martin's instrument clusters. Then there’s the fact that it redlines at 7,000 rpm. Most normal cars go up to 5-6.5k; even the Lamborghini Urus (don’t like the name) goes only up till 6,800. The engine in this car is phenomenal. It isn’t a quick car, but you can drive it fast if you really want to. It picks up speeds very slow up to 45 MPH but after that it’s a polished climb up to 110. It only begins to feel uneasy and uncomfortable at around 120 MPH. At that speed the vibrations come in and you realize it wasn’t really made for this but it’s determined to go as far as it’s driver can push it. And if you stay at it for a minute then you can reach 125 MPH which I believe is the top speed. For an I4 that’s quite an achievement.

There are some things wrong with this car. It's not RWD, doesn't have stick shift, the suspension sometimes feels as though it's made out of plastic more than metal, and speaking of plastic, the interior makes a lot of plasticky noises when the car is moving. The AC is slow to cool down or warm up and recently my trunk got jammed. And it has that tear in the leather. All that said, I'd still never regret going for this one.

There's elegance, refinement and determination here. It cruises majestically and stealthily, without throwing it's weight around but once you poke it or challenge it, all hell breaks loose and it turns into a ferocious creature and lunges forward like nothing can hold it back.

I absolutely love driving it. It has made all my commutes enjoyable and eventful. It boosts my energy when I’m happy, it lifts my mood when I’m down and it can fit all my mates and their backpacks. The best thing about it is the surprise of it's performance. You see it and it looks docile; you never expect it to have the terrific sound that it produces, specially considering it's a 4-cylinder engine. In many cases, it puts some of the better, more expensive cars to shame in terms of the sheer joy of driving it. It's been one year since ownership but even now, every time I get out of it I can't help but glance back at it, admiring the bodywork and taking pictures. In retrospect, I can't think of any car that I would rather have had as my first car.

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Comments (11)

  • What matters about your first car is if it fits what you need and YOU enjoy it and the freedom that comes with it.

      2 years ago
  • If I got a car under 5k it would be a 180SX S13 or S13 silvia. SR20 hype!

      2 years ago
    • But It would be even cooler if it was 13B swapped, but the whole darn engine must cost about twice that

        2 years ago
    • Those cars are cool I agree. But I wanted something practical and reliable and spacious and 4 door. The Accord ticked all the boxes, even has spirited engine.

        2 years ago
  • Can’t say that resonates with me at all. That might have killed my car guy enthusiasm early. Paid $4200 for this back in 2003. Left me stranded only once(bad distributor killed the electronic ignition) even with all my tinkering.

    My first car was my 71 cutlass, just drove it up to my new house. Owned this since I was 15 and have done all the work on it myself to bring it roughly to the position it’s in now (minus destroying the mint vinyl top, that was my brother and his basketball hoop....)

    I can appreciate the idea of a first car and finding joy in not such a great thing but I sure hope the next generation of kids get better things than a 4 door 4 banger auto accord.

      2 years ago
    • This cutglass cost you $4200? It looks good.

        2 years ago
    • Back in the day yes. It was stock then. It’s far from it now.

        2 years ago
  • This post resonates for me. I’m currently driving my first car, a 95 Volvo 850 turbo that my family gave to me when I finally got my license. There are up and down moments but i would be distraught if it ever broke down for good.

      2 years ago