Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Your dream car need not be new

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During a recent mountain bike ride, I took a break at Whistler Air's seaplane base and soon found myself revisiting past experiences.

The base is located at the south end of Green Lake, which is cold, glacier-fed and spectacular. A Harbour Air Otter was preparing for takeoff, so I ate a sandwich and waited. The roar of the Otter's engine and the spray off the floats reminded me of so many great adventures that started with loading gear into a bush plane.

The single-engine Otter was manufactured from 1952 to 1965, so the youngest the plane I'd watched could have been was 49 years old. As with Whistler Air's fleet, the planes have been updated and are kept in exceptional condition.

I get to drive and test lots of new cars, and really there isn't a bad one in the bunch. However, many new cars edge towards the bland.

When a major advertising feature is the stereo or the electronic display, be assured you're buying something that will be reliable and pleasant but not that special. For the right person, there are excellent buys to be had in the used-car market. Not recent models either. The gems are to be found among vehicles more than 10 years old.

It depends how far back you are willing to go. I found a 1986 BMW 325 selling for $1,500. The owner, a mechanic, had done all the expensive stuff, such as timing belt, brakes and tie rod ends.

Moving a bit upmarket, $3,000 could buy you a 1995 BMW 328i with a rebuilt engine. I've seen this car and it looks good.

Fancy a Porsche? A 944 can be had, in good nick, from around $4,000. What caught my eye was a 1999 Boxter with low mileage and full service records, for $9,000.

The Boxter is more of a true Porsche than the 911. Go look at Ferdinand Porsche's original design, before finances forced him to build a car using VW Beetle parts. Those sketches look remarkably like the Boxter, which is one of the nicest cars on the road in terms of handling.

Perhaps you are looking for something more family-oriented. For $3,500 you can pick up a 1998 E Class. It will still drive and feel like a newer Mercedes.

Need a classy SUV? How about a Volvo XC 90 for $8,000?

The beauty of all of these vehicles is there are plenty of aftermarket parts available. With a little effort, you can tune the suspension, improve the brakes, really set up the car to your liking. I've covered European vehicles here but there are some excellent choices among American and Japanese models as well.

In Europe and North America, I've generally driven older used cars. During my early racing years, that was a financially-induced necessity. These days my daily driver is a 1997 Volvo 850 AWD with manual gearbox, one of only 214 imported to North America. I've tweaked the suspension and brakes, but left the engine and exterior alone. It is a wonderful disguise, and very nice to drive. It has 200,000 or so kilometres on it now and is likely to go another 100,000 without major repair.

Once you've decided to buy a certain model, do a search for common problems and fixes. Find a local garage that specializes in that brand. Dealer service prices and your pocketbook probably won't be a happy match.

Look for service records. It may cost extra, but knowing the vehicle's maintenance history will at least prepare you for big-dollar things such as timing-belt replacement.

Avoid the drool factor, which could lead you to buy the first car you look at. Don't buy anything at night, or in the rain. Trust me on both of those; I bought a Renault 16 in England on a rainy night from a fellow who claimed he was headed to Australia to become a preacher. The car's frame turned out to be too rusty to pass inspection. Fortunately, I could borrow my racing team's welding gear, but it took a lot of work to make the thing roadworthy.

For most people, new or a few years used is the way to go. If you are not in that category, crank up the computer and have a look. Your dream car could be waiting.

Alan Sidorov is an experienced automobile racer, product tester and freelance writer. You can reach him at

www.spdt.ca.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 21, 2014 E7

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