Bahn Burners on a Budget

Have you ever wished you could buy that high-performance German sports car of your dreams for pennies on the dollar? Ever thought that the same $20,000 that will buy you a new Kia would also get you a real European performance car? This isn’t some Internet scam or late-night infomercial; GRM will show you how it’s done.

The truth is that the used-car market is flush with bargains that offer good performance for the dollar, even if the cars themselves weren’t solid investments for their original owners.

Let’s face it, not many cars are good investments. They’re subject to wear, environmental damage and accidents. Except in rare instances, a car will never make its original owner any money. If you’re like us, you’re loathe to waste money on anything, our beloved cars included.

Buying a new BMW, Porsche or Audi is a significant financial commitment these days; you can easily sink upward of 50 large on that Teutonic sportster. What happens as soon as you drive the car off the lot? It depreciates just like day-old bread. Simply put, people pay a lot of money for that new car smell.

Looking down the road, that new car can see everything from ham-fisted drivers to snow and salted roads. While some cars are babied from birth, many are “rode hard and put away wet.” The trick is to find a car that has been treated with respect.

We like the high-revving offerings from the Far East, and we have been known to enjoy a dose of good ol’ American tire-smoking torque, but for day-in day-out performance, it’s hard to argue against the appeal of a modern German car.

But which one offers the best bang for the devalued buck? In the last 10 years, there have been three German sports cars that have really tickled our fancy: the über-stylish Audi TT, the always-cool BMW M3 and the Porsche-on-a-budget Boxster.

The Audi TT is an ironic mixture of cutting-edge industrial design and retro-influenced styling. While its chassis has the pedestrian origins of a VW Golf, the tuning and attention to detail have created a car that is more than the sum of its parts.

The BMW M3, based upon the E36-chassis 3 Series, is one of the ultimate tuner cars. BMW’s M group has taken a well-designed sports sedan and tweaked just about every system and part imaginable to create a supercar for day-to-day living. It does zero to 60 in less than six seconds, while having room for a baby seat and a week’s worth of groceries.

Since its introduction, the Porsche Boxster has consistently outsold its more expensive brother, the 911, thanks in no small part to its very concept: a budget Porsche, one for the rest of us. While Boxsters weren’t exactly cheap when new, they did offer the cachet and that oh-so-beautiful flat-six snarl that is the essence of Porsche, all while being no slouch in the performance department.

We brought an example of each of these cars together for a comparison test here in Central Florida. We found a 2000 Audi TT, a 1996 BMW M3 and a 1998 Porsche Boxster, all of them completely stock, or nearly so. While some of them were cleaner than others, they each represent what you can find on the used-car market. These cars are a spectacular value for the dollar, now that they’ve been depreciating for a few years.

Which one earned a place in our own garage? Read on and find out.

Audi TT

The Audi TT concept was first shown at the 1995 Frankfurt Auto Show. The retro concept car made a huge impression on the public. Its Freeman Thomas design evoked images of prewar Auto Union racers, while its TT nameplate gave a nod to the Tourist Trophy race on the Isle of Man.

Assembled in Hungary, the TT employs a combination of parts-bin engineering, a corporate 1.8T engine and Audi A3/Volkswagen A4 platform, and inspired design elements and high-quality materials to create a world-class automobile that is more than “just a VW.”

The TT was first offered for sale in the United States in May 1999, as a part of the 2000 model year. Priced at just over $30,000, it was available initially in only a 180-horsepower front-wheel-drive form. The 20-valve, 1.8-liter turbocharged engine was blessed with a flat torque curve, peaking at 173 lb.-ft. at a mere 1950 rpm. Maximum horsepower was achieved at 5500 rpm. These numbers yielded a respectable zero-to-60 figure hovering near 7.2 seconds in contemporary road tests.

Suspension revisions abounded. From the ultrastiff unibody to revised spring, shock and anti-roll bar rates, the TT was unique. It featured revised front steering knuckles and hubs, and these yielded more caster for improved handling.

Later in 2000, Audi offered the all-wheel-drive quattro option. Unlike the Audi A4, the TT chassis has an East-West engine layout, rather than an Audi-like North-South configuration. The quattro system for the TT uses parts from the European 4Motion Volkswagen Golfs and Jettas.

For 2001, a 225 horsepower version with a larger turbocharger, two intercoolers and a host of other changes was also made available. A convertible version was released as well, offering one thing that the coupe lacked, headroom.

BMW M3

The E36-chassis M3 was announced in 1992 at the Paris Auto Show as a replacement for the aging E30 M3. The new M3 was more closely based on its pedestrian starting point than the preceding homologation-special model. Unfortunately, the U.S. market would have to wait nearly three years before the E36 M3 became available stateside. When it finally arrived in the spring of 1995, both the motoring press and enthusiasts hailed the new M3.

The body was largely unchanged from the garden-variety 3 Series, with bumpers and side skirts being the only noticeable revisions. The engine and suspension, however, were heavily tweaked to provide supercar performance.

The engine was based on the same inline-six block and head as the 2.5-liter 325i. Increasing the bore by 10.8mm and the stroke by 2mm gave the new M3 three liters of displacement. Horsepower was a substantial 240 at 6000 rpm, with a torque rating of 225 lb.-ft. at 4250 rpm. The new engine provided seamless torque and a responsive power band, without suffering from any of the peakiness that plagued the four-cylinder E30 M3. In addition, the new engine delivered 28 mpg on the highway.

To handle the newfound power, the suspension received lower and stiffer springs, larger anti-roll bars and revalved shocks. The front caster was also increased to provide better high-speed handling. Out back, a limited-slip differential helped the power reach its tarmac target.

In 1996, the engine-management system was changed from OBD-I to OBD-II to meet federal regulations. To offset this more restrictive engine-management approach, the displacement was increased to 3.2 liters. The net result was the same 240 horsepower, with a slight increase in torque to 236 lb.-ft. at a lower 3900 rpm. The 1996 M3 also received a lower final drive of 3.23:1 (instead of the earlier 3.15:1), making acceleration a little snappier. In 1997, a four-door sedan was offered, while the next year a convertible M3 joined the lineup.

The E36 chassis was discontinued after 1999, and it wasn’t until 2001 that the U.S. got its version of the E46-chassis M3, which was both heavier and more powerful than its predecessor.

Porsche Boxster

The concept of the Porsche 986 Boxster was first released at the 1993 Detroit Auto Show as a budget-minded, mid-engined Porsche. Unlike the much-maligned 914 of the early ’70s, the Boxster was deemed a true Porsche at an affordable price by both the press and enthusiasts. To say it met with popular response is an understatement. Customers immediately started putting down deposits at their Porsche dealers to acquire the car. They had to wait awhile, as it wasn’t until late 1996 that the Boxster was finally released to the European audience. North America didn’t see the “entry level” Porsche until early 1997 at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

“Entry level” is a relative term. With a base price of just under $40,000, the Boxster isn’t cheap, but it was very successful for the German automaker. Porsche soon realized that it needed to produce more Boxsters than it could handle at its main Zuffenhausen plant. In 1998, Valmet Automobile in Uusikaupunki, Finland, was contracted to supplement Germany’s production capacity. The Finnish-built Boxsters are virtually indistinguishable from their Germanic brothers.

The original Boxster featured a 2.5-liter flat six mounted behind the seats in a mid-ship position. The engine churns out 201 horsepower at 6000 rpm, while torque peaks at 4500 rpm with 181 lb.-ft. This can spur the Boxster to 60 mph in the mid-six-second range, according to published test results.

The Boxster remained mostly unchanged for the first three years of production. In 2000, a higher performance S version was added, with a 3.2-liter engine and a standard six-speed transmission, while the base engine grew to 2.7 liters.

Our Test Subjects

To compare the three used cars, we established some basic criteria. First, they needed to be stock or nearly stock, since modified vehicles make for an unfair comparison test. Next, they needed to be in good running condition. Luckily, these cars are all pretty new, so that wasn’t much of a stretch.

The first contestant was the Audi TT. Our test car was a 2000 front-wheel-drive model that has been owned since new by Pete Schroeder of Naples, Fla. Pete’s TT has 34,000 miles on the clock, most of which have been around southwest Florida.

The one consistent problem that Pete has had with the car has been abnormal tire wear—in particular, cupping on the inside of the rear tires. Currently, the Audi rides on 245/45ZR17 Sumitomo HTR Z II tires. The stock size was 225/45R17, so the gearing and speedometer have been changed by a few percent. Pete likes the “meaty” look of the wider tires; they give the TT an even more muscular stance. The stock wheels are the optional 17x7-inch alloys.

The Audi exhibits some wear on the interior after 34,000 miles. The driver’s leather seat needs to be cleaned and redyed, and the cargo area has some scrapes and knocks from hauling what little can be stashed in the smallish space.

The Audi has been autocrossed once, where it yielded some competitive G Stock times at a regional event, despite its street-oriented tires. So far, Pete has resisted the urge to put an aftermarket computer chip in the car (which can yield some impressive performance figures for little money).

We would consider the Audi a better-than-average used car, probably worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $18,000, some $13,000 less than the original purchase price.

Contestant number two was a late 1995 BMW M3 that we found while researching this article. We liked the idea of the budget Bahn Burner so much that we wound up buying this car as a basis for a project car. (See sidebar for more details.)

This M3 was found locally at a Mercedes and BMW repair shop. The owner wasn’t looking to turn a serious profit on the car, and we purchased it for $500 over what he had in it: just $9500.

The M3 has what BMW calls its Luxury Package, which includes leather seats, woodgrain dash, trip computer, different alloy wheels and a slightly different front fascia.

With more than 104,000 miles on the odometer, this M3 is no babe in the woods. It’s been in a light shunt that damaged the nose slightly (there’s evidence of some paint work, but the frame and unibody are straight), and there’s a dent in the rear filler panel as well. The car also came equipped with some extremely bald rear tires and well-toasted brakes. This is exactly what you can expect from eight years and nearly $30,000 of depreciation.

For this test, we installed new brake rotors, brake pads and a set of Yokohama AVS ES100 tires, sized 235/40ZR17. The rest of the car received detailing and fluid changes to bring the maintenance up to date.

Contestant number three, a 1998 Porsche Boxster was the best-kept of the three, having been pampered since new by its owner, Maury Hamill of Ocala, Fla. Maury has accumulated just 18,000 miles on his Boxster since he bought it new in 1998.

Maury uses his Porsche mostly on the weekends, attending Porsche Club of America events and autocrosses in the Tampa, Fla., area. Normally, the car has Kumho R-compound tires mounted up for autocross and light street duty. For this test, we asked Maury to put his street tires back on, as the other two cars didn’t have super-sticky rubber. His street tires were the original equipment for the car and were stacked in his garage on the stock wheels.

Therein lies the one problem we encountered with this pristine sportster: The Continental ContiSportContact tires were well past their prime, and this caused quite a few handling ills that could only be attributed to the aged tires. Boxsters use staggered tire sizing, with 205/50ZR17s on the front and a fat 255/40ZR17 size for the rear.

The rest of the car was impeccable, so much so that we felt guilty that we got the floor mats dirty. Maury’s Boxster, as a result, is worth more than the typical used-car-lot special. Concours-level Boxsters are worth $25-30K, not the basement pricing we see on AutoTrader.com.

Driving Impressions

We’ll throw out an easy one to the readers: These cars are different. One is a small, front-wheel-drive sports coupe, the other is a rear-wheel-drive sports sedan, while the third is a mid-engine convertible. So, we’ve got an apples-to-oranges-to-bananas comparison here.

Driving the Audi is a unique experience that takes some time to get used to. Imagine flying a plane really low. That’s about how the cabin makes us feel, with its stubby windshield and aviation-inspired cockpit detailing. The feeling is somewhat claustrophobic, as the top portion of your vision is obscured by the low roofline.

This is painfully apparent when you try to crane your neck forward and upward to see traffic lights. You quickly get in the habit of stopping five yards before an intersection so you can still see overhead lights. Our editors also hit their heads on the A-pillars at least once per session in the car. The low roofline and high sills made for some banged-up foreheads.

The TT features the highest quality materials of the three. Accents include plastics that feel like “space metal from the future” and aluminum that feels like, well, aluminum. Coupled with neat details such as the slick rubber gearshift boot and just plain cool HVAC vents, the impression you get is that Audi cared about how the car looked, felt and even smelled.

In comparison to other TTs, this example felt a little sluggish on the taller-than-stock tires, which no doubt hurt the zero-to-60 times. Despite the gearing change, the engine was quite torquey and strong as long as you kept the revs above 1700 or so rpm. There is a steep drop-off in power below this point.

On the chassis end of things, the brakes felt strong and secure on the stock pads and rotors. The handling, at least on the street, was sure-footed, with no evidence of the severe trailing throttle oversteer that caused Audi to stiffen the front suspension and install rear wings under a recall. (Pete’s car, by the way, has not had this voluntary recall performed, as he likes the way the car rotates.)

On track, the TT’s tendency to rotate is a little more pronounced, as cold rear tires and quickly warming front tires led to our only spin of the day. Once the rear tires are warmed up, the TT can still be made to oversteer through excessive trail braking. As a result, the TT was the easiest of the three to drive quickly. Once its quirks are known, you can use them to place the car anywhere on track and in any attitude with ease. This helped the TT garner the second-fastest time on track, despite its sluggish zero-to-60 time of 7.9 seconds.

With the M3, you get the impression that BMW decided to make a Mustang. It’s a true German pony car, complete with healthy doses of torque and power-induced slides. This is in addition to the awesome handling, brakes and steering. On second thought, the M3 is nothing like a Mustang.

The three-liter M3 requires some revving and rowing of the gearbox to go fast on track, with the only caveat that you need to be careful of the rear if you get on the throttle too soon after the apex of a turn.

This was partially due to our subject’s worn suspension. Our shocks were pretty well shot, and this allowed weight to transfer from each corner of the car relatively unchecked. Once the rear end breaks loose, the weight transfers off the outside rear tire and onto the inside front. The result is a sway back to the inside of the turn—then back to the outside of the turn. If you’re not careful, this can lead to a “tank slapping” spin.

Whatever its faults, the heady amounts of torque, strong grip and good brakes allowed the M3 to circle our test track the fastest, brake the shortest and sprint to 60 in just 5.9 seconds.

From the inside, the M3 feels much like any other E36 3 Series. It’s easy to get into, easy to drive, has great outward vision and no real bad habits. If you wanted to slurp a Big Gulp in traffic or take someone on a date, there’s nothing to worry about; it just quietly does its thing. As long as you can keep your foot out of the gas pedal, that is.

About the only bad thing we noticed was that in comparison to the other cars, the M3’s interior is starting to look dated. Its design is over a decade old, and it’s beginning to show its wrinkles. The fit and finish are a little behind the times, but the materials have worn well. Like many older BMWs, there are a plethora of little clips and fasteners that break with little provocation.

Maury’s Boxster was a lot of fun to drive on the street, but for our objective measures, it was a victim of its tires. We couldn’t launch it at high enough rpm to yield a good zero-to-60 time without wheelspin, and the greasy tires made for some less-than-spectacular lap times.

This Boxster’s handling was a mixed bag of understeer and oversteer depending on which end we were asking to do something. The car essentially handled like a dog on roller skates; it just didn’t work. We’ve driven other Boxsters and have enjoyed their neutral handling and impressive composure over a variety of surfaces. This Boxster had neutral handling; its limits were just artificially low. Decent street tires or Maury’s normal R-compound rolling stock would have transformed this car.

So what about the rest of the car? Very nice sounds from the engine compartment, a top that goes down and well-placed gauges are the high points. There weren’t many low points. Some of the materials in the interior of the Boxster do feel a little chintzy compared to the rest of the car. The vents, for example, look more Plastic with a capital “P” than Porsche. That’s about it for the nitpicking of the Boxster’s interior. Boxster interiors were improved in 2000.

Since the TT went for a retro theme, the Boxster feels the most modern of the bunch, with a swoopy dashboard and more advanced comfort and convenience features than the other cars. The cockpit is quiet, and just the zoomy sounds of the 2.5-liter flat six behind your head are noticeable over most roads.

One thing we noticed about the Boxster was that it’s not going to be an easy car for enthusiasts to work on in their garage. This became apparent when we tried to photograph the engine. It’s simply not accessible from the top; most of the engine servicing happens from below. Since most car guys don’t own a lift, this won’t make shade-tree mechanics very happy.

Our Choice?

Even though the Porsche Boxster got less than a fair shake in this test, it’s still an awesome car. The fact an early one can now be purchased for less than the cost of a new Miata makes the Boxster one of today’s better deals. It’s a real Porsche for a reasonable price. On the other hand, a new Miata—or a used Boxster—is still a $25,000 car, and better values among fun convertibles do exist.

The Audi TT is a mixed bag. It feels like an expensive car, and its design elements are simply world class. We just wish that we could see out of it a little better and didn’t have to perform contortions in order to get into it. It simply doesn’t fit our fireplug physiques. We’d like to try a quattro version when they depreciate a little more; we’ll just wear protective headgear.

Since its introduction, we have called the E36-chassis BMW M3 the trump card in the automotive world. Whether the venue is road racing, track events, autocross or just commuting to work, the M3 works wonderfully. It can even haul around a family of four, something our other two contenders can’t do. Prices have reached the bottom of their depreciation curve, and now is the time to buy one—so we did.

Whichever car you choose, if played well, the depreciation game can win you an awesome car for less than a new econobox. And about that new car smell? Well, well-aged German leather seats have an appeal all their own.

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Comments

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Amazin
Amazin None
4/11/09 7:28 p.m.

As the owner of the above Boxster then and now thought I should confirm that it really was the tires as Per said in the article. On Yok Neova's this car won the S03 class ( showroom stock '97 to '04 986 Boxsters) on the Lowe's MS infield course at the 2008 PCA Parade autocross by a good margin. I am thinking of selling it. Let me know if interested.

Amazin

Sparetire
Sparetire New Reader
4/27/10 4:38 p.m.

If the stock tire was a 225/45/17, and the newbies are 245/45/17, why the need to change the speedo? The diamters are identical, which is great because it retains a lot of the OEM geometry and avoids hassles.

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