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Multi-Purpose Performers

Got up to AUD$10,000 to spend on a relatively late-model multi-purpose car but don't want something boring? You're not alone!

By Michael Knowling

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At a glance...

  • Late-model, multi-purpose cars with performance
  • All for under $10,000!
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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.

Holden Commodore

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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 performance?

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 no bite.

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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.

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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 AUD$10,000.

Subaru Liberty/Legacy

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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 10s...

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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 bargain time!

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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.

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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.

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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!

Mitsubishi Magna/Verada

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?

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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.

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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 weight.

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 value)

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