For many years, my go-to toy for speedy thrills was a motorcycle. But after marriage and one-too-many close calls, I decided to give up street bikes. That didn’t calm my desire for a fun vehicle, though, which lead me to the Mustang vs Miata debate.
So when my Toyota Corolla turned 20 and started to require more maintenance than I felt like giving it, it was time for a new daily driver.
My journey into finding a good, affordable, fun car took me through dozens of test drives, lots of internet research, and hours of phone calls. So I figured it would be useful for other people going through their own car-buying endeavor to read about the twists and turns of finding a fun ride.
First, a little bit about myself and my requirements. I have an F150 for road trips, hunting with the dog, mountain biking, camping, and house projects. I live in Colorado, so snow, off-road capability, and gear-hauling are really important. But with the truck covering those bases, and with no kids in the family, I was free to look at the entire gamut of sporty cars. There was one major caveat though – my budget was about $10,000, maybe $15,000 for the perfect vehicle, but that would be a heck of a stretch.
And so the search began.
What Makes A Car Fun?
If you’re reading this, you might be mulling over a car purchase. And if so, maybe you’re thinking you want a car that’s fun to drive. But when you think about “fun,” what does that really mean?
For me, there are a few factors that can plaster a smile on my face when behind the wheel.
First, it pretty much had to have a manual transmission. Even in my old trusty 2001 Corolla, I enjoyed rowing through the five-speed manual with my foot firmly on the floor, even as it sluggishly crawled to 60 in, what, 15 seconds? The manual made it kind of fun. But God that car was slow.
This brings me to my second criterion — speed. A fun car had to have reasonably fast acceleration. No, it didn’t need to get to 60 in 3 seconds. But it needs to be quick-ish, as in, 0-60 in under probably 6 seconds, faster if possible.
Next, the car should have personality in its handling. I’m not saying it had to be nimble, or even necessarily great in corners or windy roads, but it needed to be…interesting.
Let me illustrate. I used to live on a Caribbean island, where I owned, in succession, two Suzuki Samurais and a Geo Tracker. None of these vehicles was what I’d call sporty. But all three were, on slow, winding, mountainous island roads, really fun to drive. My favorite had such bad steering that you had to move the wheel from side to side to keep it going straight. It was something of a handful to drive, but it was honestly pretty darned fun. My taste, and budget, have since evolved, but I wanted a car you have to pay attention to, not a sleeper.
Finally, I really wanted a convertible roof. As a previous motorcyclist, I craved the open-air feeling. There’s more than just wind in open-air driving. There are the scents, the sounds, and feelings of sun or cold or rain. Being in the elements just makes driving so much more alive for me. It wasn’t the ultimate deal-breaker, but if possible, a convertible was on the agenda.
So it was time to start scouring the internet. And after a pretty short time, I got down to a shortlist — Ford Mustang or Mazda MX-5 Miata.
Ford Mustang vs Mazda Miata: Apples To Oranges
Now, most people put the Ford Mustang and Mazda Miata in very different categories, and for good reason.
The Miata is a very small 2-seat roadster renowned for wonderful handling at budget pricing. The saying “Miata is always the answer” is so common it has become trite. But it’s also true for a good number of driving enthusiasts who just want a fun car on a limited budget. The Miata scratches the itch with enough oomph (in my price range of used models around 10-years-old) to push it to 60 mph in a bit over 6 seconds.
In the other corner sits the U.S. Heavyweight Champion, the Ford Mustang. The Mustang is by far the most popular muscle car in the world, with more than 10-million produced since Ford introduced it at the World’s Fair on April 17, 1964.
The versions I liked (and could afford) were the S197 model, produced from 2005-2014. There was a major change to the S197 in 2011, with a new, more efficient powerplant in both V6 and V8 versions. But with that year came a big bump in price, so it would eventually have a big effect on my hunt.
It was time to scour the internet some more and get on some test drives.
Test Driving Sporty Cars: A Lot Of Fun With No Pressure
If you’ve never had the chance to test out cars without really needing to buy one in a hurry, it’s something to look forward to. This was the first time in my life I bought a car without needing one, and it was refreshingly low-stress.
My first test drives started back in 2019. I found a couple of cheaper 2005-2009-era Mustang GTs that seemed promising and checked them out, taking a couple for a spin. But each of them came up short in some way or another — color, interior problems, or engine trouble. So I shelved the idea for a while at the end of 2019, and my Corolla kept on plugging along.
Then came COVID, and the pent-up energy of quarantine. I spent an unhealthy amount of time pouring over Craigslist and Facebook marketplace, waiting for that perfect vehicle to arise.
Then, one day in June 2020, it did.
Mustang vs Miata: The One That Got Away
It was July of 2020 I think, and one day on Craigslist, up popped a 2012 Mustang GT convertible, listed at $13,000, with less than 100,000 miles. My eyes popped open and I sent a message.
With a Coyote 5.0 engine and improved handling over older models, this was an amazing car that really fit my desires. I was stoked. There was already someone scheduled to look at it, but they canceled and left the door open for me. I zipped over to look at it, making one silly mistake — I brought along my dog.
It was a hot day, and I quickly checked out the Mustang. It seemed pretty perfect and was in good condition. But I obviously wasn’t going to bring my dog in someone else’s car. And as the sun baked down, I realized there was no way I could test drive it and leave her alone in my hot truck. I waffled a little. The car was at the absolute end of my price range. I really couldn’t afford it. It was too pretty to park in my not-so-great neighborhood. I made up plenty of excuses, then passed on it.
I got home, thought it over more, and regretted it immediately. Obviously, the car sold that day. Lesson learned.
COVID Test Drives
Fast forward a few months to the heart of winter, the end of January and early February 2021. My old Corolla was still kicking, but getting oh-so-tired. And I realized, spring was not all that far away. It was time to act.
I only sort of considered Miatas early in my search but had never driven one. It was a beautiful winter day in Denver, the kind when the sun pops out and heats things up and it feels like spring. And I spotted a good deal on a 2008 Miata with about 75,000 miles for sale near my house. Time for a test drive.
Hopping in the car I was immediately smitten. It fired up and sounded pretty good for a little vehicle. I’m a smaller guy, around 5’8″, so the smallish car wasn’t a problem. It drove around Denver for an hour or so, zipping up highways and around neighborhoods. I took the top down and some dude randomly waved at me on the street. Huh, this was a lot more than I expected!
I sat down with the dealer and told him I’d talk it over with my wife. I also secretly wanted to make a comparison to my first interest, the Mustang. So off to the Ford dealer I went.
Mustang vs Miata: A Tale of Two Toys
At the Ford dealer, the car I had intended to try — a 2014 V6 — had already sold. But they did have a gorgeous 2014 GT sitting on the lot. Yes, it was well out of my price range. But what the heck, it was worth a spin.
In a matter of seconds, the roaring 5.0 liter V8 had blown the Miata clear out of my mind. The torque! The acceleration! The sheer grin on my face every time I touched the gas! Oh, and back seats where I could put my dog or a friend and a bigger trunk. Yes, I was a Mustang man. That much was clear. But I couldn’t afford $20,000, so I’d have to settle, a little.
I scoured the internet for a Mustang with a 5.0 Coyote in my price range. I found several in the US for under $15,000, but not much. Finally, one surfaced in Texas that seemed about right. I got on the phone and started talking with the owner.
Pre-Purchase Inspections & Buying A Car From Another State
Buying a car from far away is a bit exhausting, but an interesting exercise in communication skills. I’ll keep it short here, and then outline this in full in another article soon.
Long story short, I contacted the owner and talked through the history of the car. It had been in his family for about 5-years, and he wanted to sell it to get money to work on another classic car. This all sounded legit, and he said the car was in great shape.
I set up a PPI (pre-purchase inspection) at the local Ford dealership and started making plans to fly to Texas from Denver to pick it up and drive home. The inspection cost about $100.
Sadly, it revealed a bunch of significant problems, like a leaking radiator, bad brakes, and even a leaking air conditioner coil. The dealer said it all added up to probably $5,000 in work.
Bummed, I canceled the purchase but was thankful to have not gotten in over my head.
Buying A Mustang GT
Finally, it showed up close to home. Browsing Facebook Marketplace for the 1,000th time, I spotted a 2006 Mustang GT with about 80,000 miles and a soft top. It looked pretty shiny, and the seller had just dropped the price to $7,500. No, it wasn’t a 5.0 Coyote, but the older 4.6L is no slouch, and given my criteria for a fun car, this could fit the bill.
A little more investigation and I felt this car was right. After a week of avoiding snowstorms and begging for rides, I finally linked up with the car and owner. It was love at first sight.
What I found was a car that wasn’t perfect. It had a few small dings. The interior was good but slightly worn. The top was effective and leak-free but showed some age. The engine was strong, and when I took off from the first stoplight, I inadvertently spun the heck out of the rear wheels. YEEEEHAAAW!
And I was off on the test drive. Power, check! Tight, quick-handling, check! And with the push of a button, open-air driving, check!
A half-hour later I handed over cash and filled out some paperwork and the car was mine. On the drive home, I grinned as I learned the nuances of the car on a twisty side-road.
A month later, I’ve gotten to know this Mustang and have been gradually cleaning, updating fluids, and maintaining it. No, it’s not perfect, and it for sure needs a new stereo as the old Shaker doesn’t have Bluetooth. But other than that, I’m loving driving it every day and it came in well under my budget.
I’ll be writing about this Mustang GT as I add new parts, update tires and brakes, and maybe even add a roll cage for the track in the future. So really, this is just the beginning. But in my battle of Miata vs Mustang, for me, Mustang won.
Now, onto the fun part, driving!