There I was. I had just turned thirty, purchased a house and I was looking for
a replacement car. And this time my search was constrained
by practical requirements. Replacing my previous criterion of maximum performance per dollar were: the ability to tow, cart people and cargo in comfort; have reasonable safety; and be plain enough to park without concerns of theft. With a budget
of less than AUD$10,000, the challenge was on to find a car that does all this
and delivers reasonable performance – and I reckon there are plenty of
other people in the same boat!
So let’s check out what’s on the market.
The Commodore is the average Australian punter’s first choice when it comes
to meeting practical requirements while delivering performance potential. The
big Holden offers ample front and rear occupant space, a gigantic boot, folding
rear seats and many are equipped with a pretty beefy tow-bar package. The
practical abilities of the Commodore are unarguable – but what about
Truth be told, the standard Commodore 3.8-litre V6 offers plenty of punch for
normal day-to-day driving. But for anyone into high-performance, the optional V8
and supercharged V6 are the models of interests. Unfortunately, bent-eight
muscle was out of the question for me – the LS1 models are too expensive and the
‘Aussie’ 5-litre V8 VT Commodore doesn’t do a lot for me. A case of all bark and
So that leaves the supercharged V6. Given my background in turbocharged
vehicles, this force-fed beast has some attraction – the Eaton
positive displacement blower helps the 3.8-litre V6 put out a useable 171kW and
375Nm. Tuning potential? Well, there are a number of ways to tackle the GM-Delco
management system and a custom water injection system should allow a pulley
upgrade to deliver more boost pressure. This in addition to exhaust and
pre-supercharger intake mods should give plenty of reliable grunt. Of course,
it’ll always be a noisy, harsh engine but – hey – you can’t buy the world for
under 10 grand...
Scouring the second-hand car market, it became clear that a supercharged VT
Commodore would be pushing the budget. I did manage to track down a supercharged
VT Commodore S for AUD$9200, but with very high kilometres, there might’ve been a
giant repair bill not far down the track.
With some more cash, yep, I reckon a supercharged VT would be an attractive
package. But it’s not quite the right car if your maximum expenditure is
Having previously owned a locally-delivered Subaru Liberty RS turbo I was
quite keen on a later-model Japanese-spec Legacy twin-turbo wagon. Good looks,
wagon practicality, capable handling, decent engine flexibility and a healthy 206kW
top-end make it a very strong package. But again it soon became obvious the TT
Legacies are just outside the price range. Hmmm, but what about the ‘big block’
2.5-litre naturally aspirated Subies?
Well, with a modest 115kW/221Nm, the MY97 2.5-litre Liberty RX, Heritage and
Outback wagon aren’t exactly speed machines – especially the early versions
which are auto-only. Manual versions appeared during ’98 and, largely due to
their later build date, they’re considerably dearer and outside of our range.
Interestingly, the contemporary magazine performance times of 2.5-litre
Liberties are all over the place – everywhere from mid 8s to the low
It’s clear that some basic breathing mods would lift output to around 130kW
but, still, the tweaked 2.5 will be a long way behind the twin-turbo Legacy. The
only way to get the 2.5 hauling is to add forced induction. Which begs the
question - why bother when you can buy the twin-turbo Legacy?
So the Subaru is a no-go for under 10g.
Ford Fairmont Ghia
It’s no secret that many people despise the styling of the AU-series Ford
and, since its late ‘90s launch, resale values have plummeted. And that means
The AU offers the same level of practicality as the Holden Commodore and you
can end up with quite a sweet ride if you choose wisely. Steer away from base
Falcons and the entry-level Fairmont and head in the direction of AU Fairmont
Ghia. The Ghia boasts a sophisticated IRS (while the rest of the range uses a
live axle) and a much prettier, better equipped interior. You get a premium
sound system, trip computer, splashes of woodgrain and, in some versions,
leather trim. The styling of the Fairmont Ghia body is also much less offensive
than the base Falcon.
The Fairmont Ghia comes powered by the same 4-litre in-line six found in
the go-fast AU XR6 VCT. This SOHC engine runs a 9.6:1 compression ratio,
variable inlet manifold and VCT (variable cam timing). A whisper-quiet exhaust
system keeps the Fairmont Ghia from producing the same power as the XR6 – 168kW
versus 172kW – but its appreciably gruntier than the base 4-litre Falcon.
Driving through a four-speed auto trans and a relatively short ratio LSD, the AU
Fairmont Ghia is an effortless performer than can crack 100 km/h in under 9
seconds. Standard traction control also helps keep the grunty 4-litre pointing
the right way at all times.
If you drive a hard bargain, you can purchase an AU Fairmont Ghia for under
AUD$10,000 depending on kilometres. And note that, while scouring the
classifieds, I stumbled across a rare AU Fairmont Ghia equipped with Tickford
suspension and 17 inch wheels – essentially a luxury-spec XR6!
We’ve trumpeted the abilities of the 3.5-litre Mitsubishi Magna/Verada in
many articles but, when it came time for me to buy, I found some extra info
that’ll be valuable for people in a similar situation.
I was hoping to buy a 3.5-litre Magna TH Sports - preferably with a manual
gearbox – but, at the time, there were none available at the right price. Damn.
I wasn’t going to step back to the smaller 3-litre V6, so that left the
luxury-spec Verada (which comes standard with the big cube V6) or a low grade TH
Magna optioned with the same engine. So which to chose?
Well, if I wanted performance above all else it would be the 3.5-litre base
Magna with a manual ‘box. But there are a lot of trade-offs. Most base Magnas
have wind-up windows, a vomit-inducing interior trim (see photo), a terrible
radio-cassette head unit, steel wheels, non colour-coded exterior trim and some
don’t even have ABS. Don’t bother asking about airbags... I reckon any initial
saving in the base Magna 3.5 would be quickly erased by the time the car is
brought up to an acceptable spec.
And so we arrive at the Verada. It’s the heaviest, they come with a standard
auto and the oversize ‘export spec’ bumper bars are an obvious afterthought.
But, yes, they all have the grunty 3.5-litre donk, a decent equipment level,
ABS, one or two airbags, alloy wheels and a CD head unit. Not a bad option if
you can overlook the performance lost through the auto-only trans and heftier
And, at the right price (AUD$7700), it was a package too good for this buyer
to ignore! See 800km to Buy a Car
Other Cars to Consider...
In addition to the cars mentioned, there were a few other machines that are
worthy of consideration if you’re juggling a list of criteria. These are...
1997 Toyota Camry 3-litre V6 five-speed manual (sweet engine, totally stealth
but limited potential)
1990 Toyota Celsior 4-litre V8 four-speed automatic (194kW, rear-wheel-drive
and luxurious but quite old)
1992 Alfa Romeo 164Q 3-litre V6 five-speed manual (good performance and
plenty of character but rare and potentially expensive to maintain)
1993 Saab 9000 Turbo CS/CSE/Aero 2.3-litre turbo manual or auto (quick,
solidly built but old fashioned styling and terrible retained