The Sub-$30,000 Dream Car: What Would You Buy?

The Sub-$30,000 Dream Car: What Would You Buy?
If you were given $30,000, what would you buy?

Get a group of guys together for long enough and eventually, the subject of cars will come up. There are many factors that influence what vehicles we long for. Maybe it was a favorite childhood toy; maybe a family road trip; maybe just a desire to have something that isn’t an utter piece of crap.

Picking a dream car when money is no object is easy. Bugatti Veyrons, Eagle Speedsters, and Maybachs would be jamming up the streets in no time.  Putting a realistic price cap on things makes the scenario much more interesting.  I got four of Primer’s contributors together to discuss this very thing.  We talked about our first cars and what we would do if we each had $30,000 to spend on a dream car.

The results may surprise you.

Kenneth Suna

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Kenneth grew up a Honda guy because, like most of us, he had hand-me-downs from his parents.  They aren’t flashy, but they are reliable. Despite this, Kenneth grew up a full on car guy.  His particular tastes lean towards older, classic designs with simple interiors.  Power everything? Don’t need it. Electronic ignition system with facial recognition? Nope. Kenneth wants it simple…crank windows simple.

He lives in Washington D.C. and doesn’t have a garage, so a fully restored and flashy classic is out of the question.  Instead of a Chevelle, Charger, or GTO, Kenneth has decided on a classic from his matchbox collection: a 1985 Ford Bronco in black with a beige interior.

Ken’s plan is to use the money to buy and then rebuild the Bronco to better than original condition. A new paint job, interior, and drivetrain will give Kenneth a bad ass Bronco that will be as reliable as any new car, while maintaining that certain air of coolness that only 80’s trucks can provide.

Gin A. Ando

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Gin is another guy that started out with a Honda. His first car was a Civic with a ton of miles and a hard life, but the will to just keep on going.

What would he buy with $30k? A hunter green 2006 Acura TL. Sedan. Tan leather interior.

I thought that was a really interesting choice, and Gin has a great story for why he would choose that particular car.

I don’t remember a lot about this car except my paternal uncle drove one in Japan (the equivalent in Japan, at least), and took us from the airport to the childhood home of my father. We passed through the entire city of Nagoya, lit up by neon signs on the buildings and my older brother and I were sitting in the backseat, trying to stay awake while my father and his older brother just talked in a quiet voice.

I’ll never forget that car, that night or that trip. I’ve wanted an Acura TL ever since.

Plus, that thing handles corners like an OG.

After picking up his memory mobile, Gin would spend the rest of his money on making every aspect of the car that much better. By adding sound deadening material such as Dynamat to improve the quietness even more, fixing any interior bits that may be worn, and adding some well thought out suspension modifications, who knows, in a few years, maybe Gin’s nephews will be dreaming of his Acura, and a new family tradition will be born.

Jack Busch

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Jack’s first car was a 1990-ish Hyundai Excel that he bought for $600. Just as you’d expect, it had a laundry list of issues ranging from wheel wobble, to electrical storms erupting under the hood, to a dimpled and rippled body thanks to an incident involving his high school soccer team throwing copious amounts of apples at it.

Jack doesn’t know anything about cars, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. What he does know is that he wants a vehicle that is not only comfortable and economical, but that also won’t compel people to throw fruit at it. Since he’s got thirty grand to play with, and he isn’t picky, we came up with the following solution.

Jack will spend about $20k of his money buying a Volkswagen Jetta TDI.  They come nicely equipped, look sharp, and the diesel engine will run on vegetable oil. The rest of his money will go towards a biodiesel conversion unit and an old junker truck to drive around and pick up the grease from his local Long John Silver’s.  Jack is a regular there and is sure they will gladly donate the used oil to help their favorite customer free up some more funds for hushpuppies.

Christopher Buecheler

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Chris’s first car was a 1985 Nissan Sentra 4-door, silver with grey interior. Considering it was only 8 years old when it was passed down from his father, it was till in pretty good shape. Flash forward 42,000 miles after Chris “drove it like a lunatic, treated it like hell, and smoked in it like a chimney”, and the poor Sentra finally died a week after it was passed on to his younger brother.  Chris says he has since quit all of those bad habits, but won’t say if his brother will let him borrow his car yet.

Chris has never owned a non-Japanese car and plans to stick with them when he goes shopping for his budget dream car.  He loves two door vehicles and, because he’s at a place in his life where he doesn’t need to tote around kids, he can easily live with one on a daily basis.  While he loves sports cars like the 350 and 370 Z’s, the Mazda Miata, Chris has decided to write his check out for a 2013 Altima Coupe with all the trimmings. In fact, he has been looking at this car so much, he was able quote us the paint color codes and MSRP from memory.

Adam Brewton

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My first vehicle was a 1987 Honda Elite 125cc scooter.  In Alabama you can drive a motorcycle at 14 years old, as long as the motor is 250cc or less. It was gold and had South Park stickers on the front fairing.  Pretty pimp right? In the 16 years between the scooter and my current Jeep, I’ve owned 31 vehicles. My driveway has held everything from American cars and trucks from the 60’s and 70’s, to lowriders, to tuners, even an MG Midget and a Triumph Spitfire.  I have no prejudice or preference except that the vehicle must have something to make it special.

I would use my $30,000 to increase my current fleet.  For road trips, a 1996 Buick Roadmaster wagon with a slightly modified engine, air suspension, and upgraded audio will do nicely. Just for the record, my family has been running cool wagons since long before Rutledge Wood and Top Gear US made them popular again. For weekends, I’d spend another five or six grand on a good running early 90’s Mazda Miata. They are just incredibly fun to drive.  They may not be drag racers, but for carving up a curvy country road or enjoying a sunny cruise down the beach, there are few vehicles better suited for the job. And the last $15K? Well, for that I would just scour the internet until I could get my hands on a good condition 1967 Impala sedan like the one Dean drives in Supernatural. Let’s be honest here, there aren’t many things cooler than a classic black Impala. My wife and I are planning on having a baby soon, and there’s no doubt I’ll be the coolest dad at day care!


I think what this experience teaches us most is that while we all come from different walks of life, and have different tastes in vehicles, we have many similarities as well.  Except for Chris, no one wants a brand new car.  What we do all want is something that is ours, special to us, and that gives us that warm fuzzy feeling each time we turn the key.

For Kenneth, knowing that at any time he could drive over the top of all that D.C. traffic in his Bronco is enough to keep him from getting the red mist on his commute home each day.  Gin gets to relive a small part of that memorable trip with his father, uncle, and brother, every time he makes a run to the Red Box. Jack not only gets to smell the delightful aroma of hushpuppies everywhere he goes, but he can go anywhere safe in the knowledge that no one will throw apples at his new ride. Chris can walk out to a parking lot full of Altimas and know that the one he’s getting into is special to him, built to his specifications, with everything he wants and nothing he doesn’t. As for me, even though I lose more driveway space, I gain three vehicles that are fun to drive and will do what I want them to do very well.

We’d love to hear what you would do with $30,000 to spend on any vehicle you want.  Comment below and tell us your plan.

Adam currently serves as the supervisor of Student Services for Columbia Southern University. His hobbies include adventure racing, anything involving the outdoors, and zombies. He spends his free time enjoying all of these things with his wife and two dogs.

  • Jaylen Fast

    When choosing a car I prefer something with a little character/quirkiness. I’ve always been fond of the mini cooper (call me what you want) both classic and new models. I would probably go for that with 30k. I also like old classic beetles (though not a wise buy). A nice new jeep wrangler would be pretty cool too…oh the possibilities.

    From the list I liked the Impala and Bronco.

    • Manglorj

      Love my Wrangler, it’s been my dream and when they finally put a slightly better and more fuel efficient engine in it, I snagged one up. It’s still a pig on gas, but slightly less so than models prior to 2012.

      • Adam Brewton

        Looks great! Love that color too.

      • Jaylen Fast

        Love it!

      • Kaelin Locker

        i have a TJ. i love mine too.. its rare you talk to a jeeper that doesn’t like it. maybe thats something for those considering the purchase to think about. oh and “jeep wave”!

    • Adam Brewton

      I’m with you Jaylen. And I won’t call you anything but awesome for liking the Mini’s. We looked at several when we were buying my wife’s latest vehicle. Not saying they’re female cars, but it was her turn to buy so that’s why it was for her. My personal favorite was the Clubman S with a stick shift. It was a good compromise of size and sport. I will say though, for their size and power, they are not the rockets I thought they would be.
      Still, they are a ton of fun. As for Jeeps, the one I have now will never leave my family.

    • The Downtown Dweller

      The new Mini Cooper Roadster is a PHENOMENAL car… convertible two seater version with a slightly more athletic feeling stance than the regular Cooper. Quite sexy looking too. Drove one a while back and LOVED it!

  • Ryan

    If I were given $30,000 to pick out my dream car, I wouldn’t even hesitate, I’d run out and buy the new 2014 Mercedes CLA in September when it comes out.
    Sexy lines, all the amenities of your typical Mercedes, and it starts at just under $30,000…Definitely my pick.

    • Adam Brewton

      Sexy indeed. Nice pick!

  • pappas

    certified preowned Audi A4

    • Adam Brewton

      Personally, I had a lot of trouble with my A4. Everything cost a lot to repair, even when i did it myself. That being said, when it was on, that was one of the best vehicles I have ever owned.

  • Eric Henao

    Your cost in fuel isn’t even part of the consideration? Except for the VW TDI, everything else is gonna set you back in the long run.

    • Adam Brewton

      True it isn’t factored in, but we aren’t talking about overall cost of ownership. Truth be told, the combined MPG of my fleet is better than my current Jeep and, since I wouldn’t be making payments, would actually free up more funds.

  • Ryan Giglio

    I have a 2012 Ford Focus and it’s an absolutely ridiculous value for the money. I don’t remember what the sticker price was (leasing for $220/mo) but the model loaded with everything I wanted (upgraded sound system, heated seats and mirrors, dual climate control) was the same price as the stripped down model of the other 2 cars I was looking at.

    • Adam Brewton

      Wow! That’s great. I’m curious what the other two were. I’ve liked the focus ever since it was redesigned to be more like the European model.

  • AJ

    Normally I really like articles from Primer. However, this fell flat. I would not expect something like this written for post-college guys.

    1. Why no discussion about maintenance costs?

    2. Why no mention of mileage? It’s the environmentally and financially responsible thing to discuss.

    3. What about safety features?

    4. Car number 1. Seriously? A heavy-duty car like that is not needed in suburbs or cities.

    • Andrew

      Hi AJ, sorry you didn’t like it. Those are all great things to take into consideration and we’ve talked about them in different posts. This one is just supposed to be a fun piece, about your “dream” car. These are cars we will probably never buy for lots of reasons, including the things you listed. That doesn’t mean we still don’t like them for one reason or another.

    • Adam Brewton

      AJ, you bring up some great points. I actually went back and forth with Andrew a couple of times on this to try and get it in an easy to read and enjoyable format that wasn’t 10,000 words long. Since the whole idea is really just running a scenario, let’s run your questions through.
      1) Maintenance costs: All of the cars are either newer vehicles from reliable manufacturers, or were “rebuilt” using the funds left over from the original purchase. Kenneth’s Bronco is older for sure, but parts for 80’s Ford trucks are a dime a dozen, and new technology has made those parts much more reliable.
      The only one that worries me is Jack’s TDI, and that’s just because I’ve had back luck with the VW/Audi family. However, VW is so confident of their TDI system, that they are one of the only manufacturers who will not void your warranty for running a vegetable oil/diesel mix.
      2) Mileage: The Bronco? Bad, no arguing that. Maybe Kenneth will just use it as a weekend vehicle. But, if he doesn’t drive much each day, he won’t spend much in fuel anyway. The Acura gets decent mileage; the Nissan even more so. The TDI gets stupid good mileage. As for my fleet? I put the overall group consumption at around 22-25MPG. Considering my Wrangler gets 15.5, I’m coming out ahead!
      3)Safety Features: All of them are as safe as the driver behind the wheel. Really though, The Impala is probably the least safe because it only has lap belts. On the flip side, it has 15 feet of steel between you and whatever you hit.
      4) Car 1: Since when have Americans ever “needed” an SUV, old or otherwise, in the city or suburbs? That hasn’t stopped every real housewife of wherever from driving a Yukon XL or Escalade. But what if Kenneth tows a boat on the weekends? Or pulls a utility trailer for his lawn business? The Bronco could easily do those things and still wouldn’t take up as much space in the parking lot as a Denali, Navigator, or Tahoe.
      Like Andrew says, this is just a fun piece that lets us see into the inner workings of our guy brains and lets our imagination play. If you’re looking for real consumer advice on the best cars for under $30 grand, and I don’t mean this in a smart-ass way what so ever, check out the Consumer Reports Auto Guide. I’ve used it for my past 2 new/nearly new vehicle purchases with great success.

  • Kenneth Suna

    Just a few weeks ago, my dream came true. I found a 1985 Ford Bronco with 34,000 original miles on it for sale in North Carolina. Jumped all over it. I actually lost a bidding war on eBay, but when the winning bidder arrived at the dealership and tried to haggle, they called me and the truck was mine. I hired a transporter (not Jason Statham) and it was delivered a few days later.

    • Kenneth Suna

      ah, just realized i can add a photo.

      • Adam Brewton

        Love it!

  • RML

    Slightly used Range Rover and BMW Z4 – get them both for under the $30k mark, alternatively blow the lot on an older Aston DB7.

    • Adam Brewton

      Go for the Aston! You see Z4s and Rovers all day.

  • Carl

    Scion IQ

    • Adam Brewton

      Those are great little cars, especially if you’re in a really metro area. Heck, with 30 grand, you could almost get 2!

  • Terrence Walker

    I would go with the 07-08 Acura TL Type S or 94-96 impala ss.

    • Adam Brewton

      Good eye Terrence! We looked at a TL Type-S and honestly, I was disappointed. It was well appointed, and quick, and handled well, but it just seemed a little..bleh. I was expecting a 4door Integra, or a BMW with some Asian flair, but didn’t get either. Even money, I’d take the Lexus IS250, or spend a little more and get the IS350. That car with a 3.5liter is deceptively fast and very well refined.
      The last of the big body Impalas is a great choice too! My dad has a 96 Roadmaster Estate Wagon Collectors Edition (essentially the 96ss in a wagon body) with almost 200k miles…it still runs like a scalded dog and floats like a cloud. I’ve also been 142MPH (according to the digital speedometer) in the 96 police model Caprice which is basically a stripped down Impala SS. I wasn’t driving that time 🙂 If big cruisers are what you’re into, you can’t go wrong here.

  • Andrew

    Guys…awesome or nerdy? ’81 DMC. My girlfriend says she won’t ride in it.

    • Adam Brewton

      Very awesome! When I was talking about this piece with my wife, that’s the first thing she picked. I am certain that if we ever struck it rich, one of those would be in our driveway.

  • Eugene Canal

    Man, my dream car is the car I own right now… 1997 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, the car I got in college and the only car I’ve ever owned. Every time I drive it to work, I look at that eye soar with pride. If anything, my dream is for my front manifold to stop leaking magically so I could drive it forever.

  • Travis Brown

    2005 Honda S2000 + 2005 Acura TL Type-S… Easy to find with decent miles for the budget.

    • Alex Brackman

      Love the S2000, sad when they discontinued that car. Still to this day I think they are one of the best looking (affordable) cars on the road.

  • Adi

    Scion FRS or the Subaru BRZ for me. Real driver’s car for under $30K.

    • Adam

      Just got the Subaru BRZ a couple weeks ago. Brilliant vehicle.

  • Jason Schwass

    Volkswagen GTI

  • David

    Fully-loaded 2013 Kia Optima EX. I have a 2011 LX right now and absolutely love it… I’m sure I’d love the leather seats and turbo even more though.

    • Alexander Hendrickson

      Just posted about my Optima SX and the review I posted on my blog up a little higher. Saw your reply here and gotta give you a thumbs up for that!

  • Savan

    I think most of you are missing the point. This is supposed to be fun, playing pretend. If you could buy your “DREAM” car, why would you buy old junk? Did your parents not teach you to dream big.
    I would look for a $30,000 Porsche 911.

    • Adam Brewton

      I found a 30k Acura NSX and a 30K Viper…we could race!

      • Nick P.

        there is a ’91 NSX around the corner from me at a used lot. Apparently it belongs to the owner. He has $25k marked on it and it has been there since November.

  • Ken Blaszak

    As a TL owner I was pleasantly surprised to see that as an entry in this article. I readily agree with Gin’s decision, but with one adjustment; get the type-s. It’s more powerful by almost 30 horses, has a backup camera, Brembo front brakes, firmer suspension, and several styling improvements. These include 10 spoke wheels, carbon fiber trim, and especially the quad exhaust. All these combine to make the most handsome sport sedan that I have come across.

    To top everything, a very limited number were made with a 6 speed manual making that option an extreme rarity on a car like this. It makes an already well-balanced, exciting car that much more fun and unique. I got mine that way and wouldn’t have it any other way.

    • Ken Blaszak

      Looking at the comments I see the type-s has been suggested a couple other times. Maybe nobody mentioned the manual version though. At 5500 RPM the engine just sings.

      • Adam Brewton

        That’s a great looking Acura Ken. I think if we could have found a manual, it may have swayed us more in favor of the TL rather than the Lexus IS. You’re right about that engine too. Honda has the art of musical high RPM sounds down to science.

  • Nick P

    I’d probably be pushing the budget a little bit, but currently I’d like a VW Jetta Sportwagon TDI SEL. I am a cyclist and race, and it would be nice to have a large car with amazing gas mileage and plenty of cargo space for all my stuff, including the bike if it is raining, plus, they are fun to drive (took one for a test spin a few months ago).

    • Alex Brackman

      Yep, this is the exact car I was thinking of!

  • suburban_war

    well since I already have had some MX-5s, might as well go for the ultimate production lightweight roadster, a Lotus Elise. A solid low-mileage used one can be had for well under 30k. Perfect occasional use fun car for a city-dweller.

    • Adam Brewton

      oooo nice! I had the privilege to sit in and ride in, but not drive, an Elise thanks to a fellow SCCA autocross racer. At 6’0, I felt just on the silly side of cool, but it would be worth it to have that little rocket.

  • The Downtown Dweller

    You were right, the results ARE surprising!

    Great article, however, I’m kinda surprised to not see any cars for the young professional on here. If we’re looking for something under $30k, I guess that implies that the reader is trying to be frugal with their money, yet still get a lot out of it. For me, when it came time to get a new car, I sought out the greatest feature list I could find.

    I recently bought a lightly-used 2012 Kia Optima SX, and apart from being a great sports sedan, the luxury appointments that the SX trim model included blew me away when I compared it to other similar models from Honda, Ford, Toyota, etc. With it being used, but only a year old, it ended up going from a car that stickered at $32k to one I bought for $23k.

    Wish I could’ve been a part of the review here! There are some great cars up there! If you’re interested in learning a bit more about the Optima as a potentially good under $30k dream car, check out the review I posted on my blog.

  • Erin Graves

    bought the Dodge Challenger SRT-8 392 new this year. I traded in an 06′
    Charger and man am I glad I did. Nothing says Muscle better than this
    car. It moves and has tons of options; it’s like a luxurious sports car.
    Considered the Camaro SS but this won easily.

  • Zac

    International Scout II converted to biodiesel

  • Chris Corso

    Toyota FJ40. Old School. Badass. Use it for a beach cruiser or an off-road vehicle. Classic look. I will def be picking up one in the future!

  • Ryan

    No motorcycle love? Primer, I’m disappointed….

  • Dpdk

    2002-2005 BMW 330i ZHP in dark blue with a tan interior, lowest KMs I can find.
    Rest of the cash? Replace the cooling system (it blows up) and worn suspension parts. Save the rest for repairs/preventative maintenance.

  • reginag

    Beautiful customs!

  • AlexRossbach

    I’d have to go with a 3rd generation BMW M3 coupe with a 6 speed stick. You can pick one up in good condition for around 23k, I’d use the rest on preventative maintenance.

  • cstanley92

    Boys, Ryan has the only good idea here. Although the CLA is a gorgeous looking car, it is a little small. If we are talking brand new, 100%. However, back in 2010, I bought 2007 E350 with 12k miles on it for $29,999. If you were to drive a brand new, I hate to say it, “cheap” Mercedes, then drive a mid level like the E-Class, you would never consider cheaping out again. I drove a 2013 C300 while my car was in the shop and I couldn’t wait to get back in the E. We are supposed to be talking about growing up not driving Jetta’s and GTI’s.

  • Chris Taylor

    I already own one of my dream vehicles, a 2005 Chevy Silverado Z71. Every man in my family has always driven a full size truck as their main transportation. If I was just given 30k for a vehicle, it would have to be a 70 or 71 Chevelle SS. It might handle like a train, especially with the 454 in it, but if you’re driving that, turning is overrated anyways.

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  • Mark Gerardy

    I am currently contemplating C3 Corvettes within the next five years. However as the former owner of an 1985 Ford Bronco from 1993-1996, if it makes you happy, then more power to you. Shortly after buying my ’85 Bronco in 1993 was the O.J. Simpson White Ford Bronco chase. Mine had 51,000 original miles and the 5.8 liter 351 Windsor engine with the Holley four-barrel carburetor and had plenty of power. That is where the love-affair ended…on the side of the road…in Colorado…in Kansas…multiple times: 5 alternators, 3 voltage regulators, main fuseable linkage, failed carburetor, u-joints (I can keep adding to the list). The truck finally died a painful death after a friend borrowed it, drove it too fast and ended up rolling the beast. Got about 12 mpg, downhill, with a tailwind on the best days. I do not miss this beast. I pity anyone who owns one, but respect you if it makes you happy. Some people like sadomasochism too – just not me. Somewhere likely in a Colorado junkyard sits my totalled Bronco, likely picked over for parts, rotting and rusted or having met its fate with the crusher.

  • Jeremy Graham

    I would (and quite possibly will) be all over this rebuilt 1972 Datsun 240z Coupe.

  • Kaelin Locker

    i would say a slightly beefed up and modernized jeep wagoneer. A really clean classic man ready vehicle thats family friendly too