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The fun factor


Since I’m driving a Volkswagen Beetle convertible this week, my thoughts inevitably turned to "fun cars." The Beetle is certainly vastly amusing: It’s funny just sitting in your driveway. It’s even more uproarious in convertible form, with its big bulbous top sitting proud of the back deck, just like in the Karmann version of the old Beetle ragtop.

It’s less amusing that there’s no storage space: Vacationers traveling four to the car will be hard pressed to take anything more than one soft bag. Even the door pockets are small, and the glove box is completely filled by the owner’s manual.

But fun cars don’t have to be practical. Nobody drives them everyday, and they’re often put away for the winter. Yesterday I was stuck in gridlocked traffic behind a Ferrari 328. I wonder what it was doing out on a workday? Fun cars (especially when they’re Ferraris) tend to have low mileage on them. After all, how much time do we actually have for fun?

In the 1950s, a prime "fun" car was a diminutive Fiat Jolly, complete with fringed carriage top. It was completely impractical except for beach duty in St. Tropez, but it did a good job of conveying the owner’s hedonistic lifestyle.

Writing in the MSN Auto section, Ann Job identifies her "fun" cars as non-exotic models under $115,000 and introduced in 2003. I have no problem with her choice of the 2003 Subaru Impreza WRX STi, a pint-sized road rocket, or even the decidedly ugly Honda Element, which can be washed out with a hose and is attracting Generation Y in droves. And who can argue with the ultra-cool 2004 Toyota Prius, a new version of the Japanese hybrid that is not only better-looking but also even more fuel efficient than the original?

But I contend that big and dumb aren’t fun. Nor are exotic and thirsty. One of Job’s choices is the Mercedes-Benz SL500, which gets a miserable (especially for a Benz) 15 mpg around town. I’m not looking forward to the 300 horsepower Titan truck from Nissan, either, as it represents a disturbing trend of heavyweight Japanese entries. A far worse choice is the Hummer H2. Maybe she missed it, but J.D. Power just gave the H2 the booby prize for lowest owner satisfaction. Buyers were dismayed by its poor fuel economy (I know, I know). Does that sound like fun to you?

My idea of fun cars are little roadsters like the British MGs and Triumphs of the 1960s. Sure, convertibles are impractical and a shrinking share of the market, but unbeatable on carefree summer days. The Honda S2000 and Mazda Miata would be a lot of fun to own, without breaking the bank. The BMW Z4 is gorgeous, if you’ve got $33,000 to spare. Moving up, there’s the $42,000 Porsche Boxster — definitely fun, that one. Who wouldn’t want a curvy Lexus SC 430? But $62,225? Ouch!

Ultimately, the fun meter is tripped by vehicles that you actually spend time enjoying. Ferraris are too exotic to really enjoy, and that’s why they get sold after years in a heated garage. My advice: Buy something a few years old, a bit beat up, that you can just use and not worry about. A Chrysler Sebring ragtop with 40k on the clock? A Toyota MR2 Spyder that depreciated on someone else? Sounds fun to me!

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