Why I bought a NEW car
I am 53 years old. Never in my life have I allowed myself to buy a car I truly love…until now. This is the story of how I allowed myself to make a huge purchase just for the joy of it. And it wasn't even a purchase I'd intended to make. Let me explain.
During the peak of the pandemic (early July 2020), I paid $35,990 for a used 2019 Mini Countryman SE All4. The Countryman — which I call a “Maxi Cooper” — isn't a bad car, but I regretted buying it almost immediately. I'd intended to replace my 2004 Mini Cooper with a newer version of the same model, but allowed myself to be talked into a compact SUV.
For two years, I drove the Maxi Cooper and tolerated it. It wasn't a bad car by any means, but it was a bad car for me. I'm not an SUV guy. I'm a small-car guy.
Last month, I took the Maxi Cooper for an oil change. While I was waiting, the dealer offered to buy it back from me. I wasn't expecting that.
As you probably know, the used-car market in the U.S. has been crazy for a couple of years. According to the U.S. Federal Reserve, prices on used vehicles are up 55% since July 2020. Prices for new vehicles have also increased during that time, but by only 18%.
Because I write about money, I'm aware that used-car prices are high, but I hadn't considered that I might sell the car I purchased only two years ago. I'm the sort of person who buys a car and keeps it for a decade or more. But when the Mini dealer told me they'd pay $33,000 for a car I'd bought 26 months earlier, I was intrigued.
I contacted one of my buddies, a former car salesman. “What am I missing here, Jeremy?” I asked. “This seems like a pretty good deal.”
“It's not just a good deal,” Jeremy said. “It's a miracle. It's as if you leased that car for $115 per month. You should take the offer. Now. Before they change their mind.”
Before you read my story, you might want to read this similar story from Liz at Frugalwoods: Why we bought a NEW car. Here's a relevant excerpt:
“In normal economic times – or rather, in past economic times – used cars were remarkably cheaper than new cars, which made the depreciation on new cars astronomical. In other words, new cars would lose a tremendous amount of their value as soon as they were no longer new.
“Used cars, on the other hand, had a much more gradual depreciation curve, which meant you could buy a used car for a reasonable price and then, if needed, re-sell that used car at a reasonable loss. Currently, thanks to supply chain issues, a shortage of computer chips and inflation, used cars are no longer a deal.”
Unprepared to Purchase
After the Mini dealer offered to buy my vehicle, I immersed myself in car information. As I did, I made myself a promise: For the first (and perhaps only) time in my life, I was going to buy a model I wanted without making compromises.
You see, every car I've ever owned has involved some sort of sacrifice. When I was young, the chief compromise was cost. I couldn't afford more expensive vehicles, so my options were limited. In more recent years, I've compromised by buying used. Then by purchasing a compact SUV instead of a sports car. And so on.
This time, I didn't want to compromise. I wanted to buy exactly the car I wanted. But which car would that be?
Because I hadn't intended to get rid of my Maxi Cooper, I'd done zero thinking about what kind of car I might buy to replace it. Normally, people figure out what kind of car they want before selling their old one. I was doing things in reverse. I was applying my self-centered shopping strategy to buying a car!
For a time, I considered not replacing the car at all. I still own a 1993 Toyota pickup. It's ugly, but it works. Plus, Corvallis is a small city with excellent infrastructure for alternative transportation. I walk 20+ miles per week through town and would happily walk more. This summer, I've been biking for longer errands too. Going car-free was certainly an option I considered, as was buying another 2004 Mini Cooper. Ultimately, though, I decided to use this opportunity to upgrade to a some sort of new car.
Before we go any farther, it's important to note a few things about my relationship with automobiles.
- I'm not a car guy. I'm not a motorhead. I don't obsess over cars and I never have. I do like certain cars, but I'm not normally somebody who buys car magazines or watches car videos.
- I believe that used cars are almost always the smart financial choice.
- I'm in favor of electric cars but think the technology is young, so I'm reluctant to buy in wholly. That said, I made my car search electric-first.
- I like sports cars. I'm not a speed demon, and I don't need a car to have a high top speed. But I like the styling of sports cars, and I like that they're “zippy” — they have good acceleration and good handling.
- My #1 source for car info — by far — is Consumer Reports magazine.
- Most of all, I believe in small cars. I always have. I do not undertand the American obsession with large vehicles. It makes zero sense to me. When I rent cars in Europe, I'm always pleased with how many small cars are on the road. They're almost all small cars.
My ideal car remains a 2004 Mini Cooper — but with modern technology updates to bring it into the world of 2022. Unfortunately, that car doesn't exist. Modern Minis are larger than they were twenty years ago. Worse, their customer satisfaction scores have eroded. (I also like the Audi A1, but it's not available in the U.S.)
A Very Short Search
I spent an intense 24 hours researching my options. As I read about cars, I created a list of requirements for my next vehicle. I had a handful of criteria, most of which you can probably guess based on my comments above.
- First, the car had to be small. This limited me to compacts, subcompacts, and sports cars.
- Second, the car had to be fuel efficient. Electric would be nice, but it wasn't a requirement.
- Third, the car had to be fun. It didn't have to be fast, but it had to be zippy. It had to handle well.
- Fourth, Consumer Reports had to love it. The car had to get a high reliability rating from the organization, as well as a high road score and a high overall score.
- Fifth, it had to be a car that customers loved. I made the mistake once of purchasing a Ford Focus. Consumer Reports loved the Focus but owners hated it. So did I. It was the most un-fun car I've ever owned — like a storage container on wheels.
- Sixth, it had to have a manual transmission. I don't like driving automatics.
Early in my research, I discovered the Consumer Reports car finder tool. This three-question quiz (which is only available to subscribers) proved helpful.
According to this tool, the five cars best suited to my needs were the Kia Niro Electric, the Ford Mustang Mach-E, the Mazda Miata, the Tesla Model 3, and the Hyundai Ioniq 5.
Although I was tempted, I ruled out the Tesla because (a) it's too expensive and (b) it has mediocre reliability. I eliminated the Kia and Hyundai because they didn't earn top owner satisfaction marks. And the electric Mustang isn't actually a sedan; like my Maxi Cooper, it's an SUV. (I'm not sure why Consumer Reports recommended SUVs to me when I deliberately left them out of my search parameters.) That left one car: the Mazda Miata.
Here's the thing: I've always been drawn to Miatas. I like how they look. They're consistently highly-rated by both customers and professional reviewers alike. And they check all of the same boxes for me that the Mini Cooper does.
The Miata quickly soared to the top of my very short list. Also on that list were the Mini Cooper (which I still love despite its drawbacks) and the more-practical Subaru Outback (which is the unofficial state car of Oregon).
Here are comparison pages from Consumer Reports and Kelly Blue Book:
Looking at those stats, I think you can see why the Miata quickly became the only car I was seriously considering. The car's only major downside was a middling road score. Reading the Consumer Reports review, I recognized that the reasons for this low road score — road noise and lack of space — didn't bother me.
The MX-5's sparkling combination of nimble fun and thriftiness has made it a favorite at our test track — and the current model holds to the standard.
The Miata is a completely impractical car. It seats two (tightly), it will barely haul a load of groceries, and it's loud inside. Yet we're smitten with this plucky ragtop.
There isn't a better fun-per-dollar performance car on the market that delivers the Miata's magic. After a long winter's nap, the MX-5 will revive your senses the first spring day you drop the top and hit the curvy roads.
This Mazda is one of the last intimate driving experiences; you feel like part of the machine that's melding with the road. The Miata's steering gives immediate turn-in response, and the car remains playful and predictable even when pressing the limits of the tires.
I stopped looking at other models and began trying to find reasons not to buy a Miata. I couldn't find any.
The Miata reviews on YouTube all reinforced what the written articles had said. But it was this review from a car-care channel that made me decide at last that the Miata was the car I wanted: “It'll bring joy to your heart every time you drive it.”
Buying My Miata
Buying a car is a big decision, and I'm not accustomed to jumping into things like this. I take my time. I ruminate. I consider every angle. That's not what I did this time. On the last Thursday in August, I drove to Salem to visit the nearest Mazda dealer.
I'd called the salesman in advance, so he had a Miata ready to drive. Before we left the parking lot (after driving only fifty feet), I knew that I was going to buy a Miata — if I could get $33,000 for my Maxi Cooper. For the sake of show, I drove five miles around Salem streets while making pleasant conversation with the salesman. I explained that I hadn't intended to buy a new car, but that the Mini dealer had made me an offer I couldn't refuse. Would he be willing to match the offer? “Maybe,” he said.
When we returned to the dealership, I gave the salesman the file of paperwork for my Maxi Cooper — including the written offer the Mini dealer had made me the day before. He took the info to his boss. Ten minutes later, he came back with some good news. “We'll match their offer,” he said.
“Great,” I said. I pulled out another piece of paper, a printout from the dealership's website. “This is the car I want. It's a gray hardtop. But your website says the vehicle is in transit.”
This was the only time during the entire process that the salesman balked. “What can I do to send you home with a car today?” he said. He pulled out a piece of paper and started with the four-square.
“Well, I'm not going home with a car today,” I said. “You don't have a car that I want. This is the car I want,” I said as I pointed to my printout. The dealership had five Miatas on the lot, but none in the precise configuration I wanted. They were red or automatic transmission or soft-top — or all of the above. I wanted gray, manual transmission, and hard-top. (All Miatas are convertible.)
The salesman nodded. “No problem,” he said. We talked briefly about price but the dealership was unwilling to budge from the $39,245 listed on the website (including a mandatory $1995 markup due to the current car market). I was fine with that. We shook hands and reached a tentative agreement but signed no paperwork. He'd call me when my car came in.
As I drove home, I thought about the numbers. To an old guy like me, $40,000 seems like a lot to pay for a car. Even $20,000 seems like a lot to pay for a car. I asked myself if I might not be just as happy in, say, a Chevy Spark? But I knew that wouldn't be the case. As I said earlier, I've compromised on cars my entire life. This once, I wanted to indulge myself.
I realized that the fundamental question I needed to answer was this: Would I rather have (a) the 2019 Maxi Cooper and $7000 -or- (b) a brand-new 2022 Mazda Miata? Thinking about it from this perspective, the answer was easy. I'd choose the Miata every single time!
But maybe I was thinking crazy? Maybe I was being too emotional? (I'm under no delusion that this decision was logical. It was emotional. I'm okay with that. I just didn't want to make a decision that was so emotional that it crossed over to stupid.)
To double-check, I sought the counsel of two people I trust. First, I asked my buddy Jeff (The Happy Philosopher) what he thought. “Do it!” he said. Then I asked my girlfriend, Kim. I was worried that she'd object. She didn't object it. “You should absolutely do it,” she said. And so I did it. I bought the Miata.
The Mazda salesman called me on the last day of the August. “Your Miata arrived this morning,” he said. “If you'd like, we can do the deal today.” I stopped what I was doing, drove to Salem, and bought a new car.
My new Miata was so new that it had only five miles on the odometer. “I've been doing this for thirty years,” the finance guy told me as I was signing papers. “I think that's the lowest number I've ever seen on an odometer.”
I took the long way home, driving from Salem to Corvallis on winding riverside roads, then through rolling hills and farmland. The top was down. The sun warmed my skin as the wind blew through my hair. Taylor Swift crooned “Welcome to New York” on the stereo. I smiled, inside and out. The Miata indeed brought joy to my heart.
In June, I wrote that growing up poor messed with my mind, still makes me feel guilty for buying Nice Things. The Miata is unquestionably a Nice Thing. I don't feel guilty about buying the Miata.
When I think of the choice I made, I'm reminded of Ramit Sethi's admonition that money should be used to build a rich life. This car is a part of my rich life.
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What a wonderful write-up! My father-in-law has owned two Miatas and loved them. If our house had a garage, I’d be hard-pressed not to own one myself (and I’m 6’2″!). There’s an old saw that MIATA is unofficially a recursive backronym for “Miata Is Always The Answer”… and that certainly seems to be the case for you. Right ON.
I enjoyed your article and how you got to the decision to buy a Miata. I understand your struggle with always having to compromise on something with your cars and finally making a decision to get what you want. You’ll love your Miata. I have a 2015 Miata Club edition (previous generation to yours) and enjoy its sportiness, the convenience of the retractible hardtop, and that it gets great gas mileage even when driving it hard. You might check out some of the Miata clubs in your area (I found Mt. Hood Miata Club and Willamette Valley Miata Club) to enjoy trips and meeting people who also enjoy their Miatas. The forums at miata.net are also a great resource to learn anything about your car and meet others. Enjoy!
Miata people are real! Congrats on the new car. Like you, I’m not a car person, but when shopping for a minivan for my family (even before the used car market went nuts) I noticed that interest rates were higher on used minivans and the ones with lower mileage were not as discounted. So we ran the numbers and ended up buying new. It wasn’t cheaper, especially when factoring insurance and registration, but the amount was worth it for me. I still roll my eyes that my first (and probably only) new car is a total mom-van. But it’s great and works well for our family.
Volkswagen GTI is worth considering. High road test and owner satisfaction scores at Consumer Reports but not as reliable as Miata. More back seat and cargo room than the Miata.
We bought a VW Golf last year (with the same power as a 2001 GTI) and absolutely love it for those reasons and several of what J.D. prioritized. Five out of six on his list certainly isn’t bad — but the Miata straight-up nailed every one of his criteria. Honestly, if we had a Toyota pickup as our second we just might’ve snagged a Miata rather than our Golf.
This is awesome J.D.!
Buying and selling cars right now is nuts… but I totally agree on not compromising. In 2021, we bought our first new car in 15 years, one in very high demand (Toyota RAV4 PRIME, i.e. a plug-in hybrid). Managed to not pay any markup despite some dealers charging upwards of $15k above MSRP. I knew that I wanted the very top of the line model with all of the options, so we learned how to covertly stalk Toyota’s port information (i.e. what cars have departed Japan and are on their way to the US and what port / dealer they are going to). and found exactly the config / color / etc. we wanted.
Funny story, we ended up trading that car for the exact same config, but one model year newer earlier this year and made money on the deal (and another $7.5k tax credit, which was still possible at that point). Going to hold onto this car for a while, if the market is still crazy in 2023/24 though, we’ll probably sell it… TBD. It is a FUN SUV though (yes, there is such a thing… 0-60 in 5.5s, can’t beat that short of a pure electric).
Enjoy the Miata!
Congrats! I’m 50 and got a new CX5 in early 2020 and really love it. The pandemic then hit and we wondered if we’d made a stupid mistake; nope – it was a great deal and we still love it. Enjoy!
It is just beautiful, J.D. Congratulations!
Congrats on the new car!! I hope it brings you much enjoyment.
As I read your article, even before you mentioned the Miata, I thought you should check out Mazda, because you don’t want an automatic. Also, Mazda has a history of making fun to drive cars (Zoom zoom), going back at least to the RX-7.
It’s too late now for you, but had you posted before you bought, I’d have suggested you test drive other Mazdas as well. They also make practical cars, that are fun to drive. I’ve driven several the Mazda 2, 3, and 5, and they were all fun to drive, although I’ve never driven a Miata, and I imagine no other Mazda is that much fun to drive
JD! I’m so excited you got a Miata, and yours is BEAUTIFUL!
Here’s my story of buying my Miata– I flew from Portland to Texas to get it.
If I ever were to buy a new car, it would be a new MX-5 just like you. I doubt you will regret it, also it’s SO FUN to drive in Portland because of those windy roads (a little less fun for me to learn how to drive stick downtown though). I am SO HAPPY for you! Have you seen the other famous Miata video? (Skip to 4:00 for the most-quotable line I still use to this day: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kp1kuo6xkbE)
Copper red mica with peanut butter seats! That’s gorgeous. Even I would consider red if that were the option.
And here’s the quote that FM likes (and I do too): “Who can fault you for owning a Miata? Everyone is happy to see a Miata. I mean, look at it. It’s the best! It’s the best! It’s number one. It’s number one. It’s always number one. It’s the best! It’s the best sports car. It’s the gleaming gold standard against which all small sports cars must be measured.”
You didn’t pay $39,245, you paid $6245 for a new car. Pretty good deal, I say.
Sounds fantastic JD. I miss my VW GTI all the time and think I’ll be back in one someday. Small, quick cars are awesome. Fun to drive, and still pretty good on gas.
I think that living below one’s means or taking the cheaper/less fancy option while building toward financial freedom is the smartest choice during those important years…..but also comes with a nice bonus effect. When you’re older, you get to enjoy all of these “firsts” at a time when not only can you afford it, but what feels super extravagant and wasteful is really what MOST people buy in their 20’s without a thought. And once they are accustomed to that, anything less feels like a downgrade. Those same people are treating themselves (and probably financing) an 80K SUV in their 40’s-50’s because they’ve already “settled” for 40K new cars for the last 20 years.
My first new car was at age 37 and was that GTI for 27.5K. My first new-ish house and first time ever with central air was this year at age 42. I STILL have never bought the newest model phone….I always buy the 1-2 year old model because its half the price and virtually the same.
Delaying these “firsts” to decades later than most people just means you made lots of great financial decisions leading up till now. Congrats, you deserve it!
Kevin, very well said. There are some things I think that I will always be ok with last year’s model such as phones and most home electronics.
I bought my first brand new car when I got my first job out of college for $17k. It was a Honda Civic and the decision turned out to be a good one. I owned it for 17 years / 160k miles and only one thing broke – the starter. I was sad to sell it but I needed more space for family. Still got $2,000 for it in 2018. I replaced it with a used Nissan Rogue. The next round though, will be my dream car ?.
JD Congratulations ?
I was on the edge of my seat guessing which car you picked. Excellent choice!
I can soooooo relate to bringing joy into your life as you age, by letting go of some of that hard earned cash you’ve accumulated. My husband is 80 and I’m 73 and I just found a way to bring ourselves great joy. We no longer do world travel but we go to Hawaii once a year and now I insist we travel FIRST CLASS. We just started this and I will never give it up. My husband has mobility issues and I’m just done with starting and ending our trips with God-awful flights where we’re forced into unnatural positions for six hours.
We have been extremely careful with money our entire lives and when I announced to hubby I was only flying first class to anywhere, he continues to look at me “Who IS this woman?” I don’t care. We have yet to touch our retirement savings and are still saving money each month. This is the second best thing we have ever done for ourselves.
I have a few more years to unleash that in me? Good to know. This year we are driving to the East Coast from Idaho. After this we need to fly first class to Hawaii yearly! We are 72&65. Our “nest egg” is untouched as well.
Congrats, JD! A new Miata RF with a manual is my reasonable dream car as well. A kid and snow in the winter make it harder for me to justify though. I’ll settle for an older NA Miata with pop up headlights if the right one pops up, I think. A bit of a compromise, but not too bad.
Just want to share that in Indy we are seeing young guys buying the original Miata’s (NA’s) and as I call it tricking them out. It is amazing what they are doing with the cars.
Many are part of our Indy Miata Club and hanging out with a bunch of old guys who just wait to see the young guys at each event to see what they have been working on.
CONGRATULATIONS on breaking out of the “growing up poor” mindset and FINALLY not feeling guilty about “buying a nice thing” for yourself. I’m still working on that at 72 years old. I’m getting better and hope you’ done with it! I LOVE this site!
My husband bought a Miata, drove it 5,000 miles, and sold it for the same amount. Like his Harley five years ago, it was the time and space for it. Not being boxed in by his youth in poverty, he has learned that it is ok to buy the things that can access joy, to take care of them and then move forward.
Great decision and a very methodical process! Hats off to you. You took a great leap and will never regret it.
I couldn’t walk away from a ’20 Polymetal Gray, manual soft top in April ’20 at 0%. It too was my 1st Miata . BTW…I’m now 66 ?
With your criteria of a manual transmission, all the other choices on your list were a no go. You can’t buy a manual electric car (which is a big reason they hold no interest for me). You will love the Miata as much if not more than the 04 Mini and it will be much more reliable as well. I had a 2000 Miata and enjoyed it quite well.
So glad you got the new car! Enjoy in good health!
I thought “Miata” as soon as I started reading. That’s my dream car!
Congrats. Enjoy it! I’ll get it when we have a garage and don’t live in Portland. Every car on our street is dented and beaten up.
New car is awesome! Great rims! Wish you smooth roads!
I bought the car I wanted in 2002. I ordered it with the exact configuration I wanted and it was delivered one month later. I still own it and drive it every day and it continues to bring me happiness every time I get into it! I also paid it off in under three years, so that helped with the total cost.
New car smell is the best. I’m glad you’re enjoying your new car. The markets really are crazy right now.
I’m not a car person either and def. weigh decisions like you JD but i have to say i love the color!! It’s gorgeous. Enjoy
I just loved this story, and your previous post on self-centered shopping. It makes so much sense! I think I have done it for large purchases (like cars) but less so for less costly items. Then I get into a struggle with not being really happy with what I ended up buying – much as you describe!
The Miata sounds perfect for what you wanted!
I love smallish manual shift cars too, but not sports cars. My current car is a VW Golf 6 speed manual turbo diesel (2015). I could have replaced it during the whole ‘diesel-gate’ episode, but the engine felt so much better than the 5 speed unleaded version. It’s been repaired and yet still we get 50+MPG on the highway and it handles great. I hope to keep it a while since manual shift cars are becoming a rare sight in the US.