In Part 1 of the $5K Euro Challenge, I listed out the criteria and short list of ‘my’ cars for the challenge.

After slimming down my list to 6 cars, it was time to get brutal and cut it to three. Not easy. Some are easy to cull than others. Due to my dislike of grey/silver cars, I simply removed all that were. Easy after all!

I then culled the Fiat Punto – just too boring looking.

The Fiesta also went; since my aim is to have something interesting, it just didn’t make the final three.

So that left my list at the desired three: The Alfa 147, Saab 9-3 and VW Beetle.

Luckily for me, all were in a single area and a sunny Saturday saw the perfect opportunity to go and drive each of them, in an effort to get down to at least two – if not an outright favourite.

Weirdly, while this was the order in my list, it was also the order in which I drove them.

 

Test 1: 2003 Alfa 147 2.0 litre Twin-Spark – $4995

An import from Japan, this is a car that caught my eye early on – it looks sensational with that red paint and factory alloys.

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Pros:

I thought that with 146K on the clock, this Alfa would be a bit loose in the suspension and/or steering (perhaps both). Or being a Euro car, the interior would be falling apart. How wrong I was! I was pleasantly surprised at just how tight the car was.

Going around a few sharp corners at a higher speed (still under the limit of course) saw little body roll. There was not a squeak to be heard, and another surprise was the engine; a real lack of any weird noises, and a willingness to rev without sounding like it was going to pass out. The gearbox was a little loose in the changes, but I don’t expect that’s due to wear and tear, it just felt normal for the car. Overall the 147 was a real pleasure to drive.

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That twin-spark 2-litre engine is great – real character under that bonnet.

The interior is almost bordering on excellent – remember this is a $4990 car! Very little wear, and with a good amount of unexpected goodies like front and rear fog lamps, air bags, ABS, adjustable headlamps, Blaupunkt stereo with Bose speakers and CD changer, steering wheel controls for the stereo (although these didn’t seem to work), and power windows.

The other good point about the 147 is its length – nice and short. Perfect for a learner driver (i.e. my daughter).

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Cons:

First impressions with the Alfa on seeing it? The paint. Someone (the dealer perhaps) has repainted the front guards, but not much else, so there is this massive change between brand new paint and somewhat faded 13 year-old paint. I’m not sure if this can be fixed with a good cut…possible maybe, but who knows. I am sure it could look better than it is. Of course, I wonder why they needed to repaint the guards…

The clutch was heavier than expected – not bad, but not as light as a nice manual Japanese car. Not ideal for a learner, but still not a deal breaker. I didn’t really notice how heavy the clutch was until I drove the Saab, and it also takes up relatively close to the floor. At least that means it’s not nearly worn out.

Being black inside is all very sporty, but it’s quite dark as well.

Other than that, there’s not much else wrong with the Alfa on a first look. The cam belt has been done but there are no receipts for this, so I have no idea of the variator and tensioners have been done, which are a common (and expensive) part to go on these models.

On driving the 147, I thought it was all over – there was no need to drive the others at all, was there?

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Test 2: 2001 Saab 9-3 2.0 litre $3995

But I had no option now – across the road at another dealer’s yard was the Saab, just waiting for me to drive it. With only 114K on the clock, this Saab should be in pretty good condition.

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Pros:

This 9-3 was sold brand-new in New Zealand and has had just one owner – it comes complete with the Continental Cars license plate frame. It even still has the original owner’s manual (which neither the Alfa or VW have) and is quite well loaded with extras, like heated front seats, electric aerial which actually works, cruise control, adjustable headlamps, and front and rear fog lights.

We took the Saab out – the clutch was much lighter than the Alfa. The performance wasn’t as sprightly (or as much fun) as the Alfa, and the handling was a lot more wallowy. Not bad, but not a patch on the 147 – not that that was a priority for travelling on the motorway every day. It was still a good performer, and the overall tightness of the body/suspension impressed me.

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Still it was certainly a nice drive, and I think on the motorway every day it would be a pleasure to travel in. The interior of the Saab is beige, but looks better than that sounds – nice a light inside, and quite well looked after.

The boot on the Saab is simply massive – huge. The thing is, for this car I want to buy, that doesn’t really matter. Nice to know though.

The price is a huge Pro, when I am talking about a $5K budget. At $3950, the Saab is well under my limit. If I wanted to, I could spend $1000 on tidying the paint up (maybe, I know paintwork can be pricey too). Hey at least it’s black, so surely that’s easier to fix?

On thinking about the price, which I thought was a bargain, I see Turners have a 2003 9-3 with 160k on the clock for the same price, with a much nicer looking body, and electric seats and other goodies. But it’s an auto, so it’s out. It does mean that perhaps ‘my’ Saab is a little overpriced?

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Cons:

Where the problem with the Alfa was the front of the car with the paint, for the Saab it was all over. This car is much more ‘honest’ than the Alfa, shall we say. Nothing has been touched up, including any paint chips. There is a smallish dent on the passenger-side guard and the driver’s side of the front bumper has more than a few chips on it – there is a party happening on the paint there.

The rear bumper has a slice cut on it, and the driver’s side rear guard has had a brush with something and has been flattened a little, with some surface rust.

It’s not a bad body, but you can see it’s original all over. This in itself has some appeal to me – at least you can see it hasn’t been doctored, perhaps like the Alfa has.

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Test 3: 2000 VW Beetle 2.0-litre $5000

Another New Zealand-new car, with 140k on the clock. At $5000 for this manual Beetle, it was well in the running. Mind you, this is really on the pick list for my daughter more than me – it’s her favourite car.

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Pros:

With nice bright metallic blue paint, the Beetle looks quite stunning. It drove well, and even though it was the oldest of the 3, it actually felt more modern to drive. Perhaps that’s because it’s based on the Golf platform. I got the feeling this Beetle could cruise the motorway all day long, effortlessly. The interior was nice and light, although that huge distance to the front windscreen made for a strange sensation when driving – I am sure I would get used to it though.

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Cons:

This Beetle has seen a hard life. Someone has hastily installed a temperature gauge and that has me worried that it has had overheating issues. It maybe that they didn’t trust having only a temperature light, but who knows.

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The large twin exhaust tips and racing rims have me wondering if it’s been a bit of a boy racer, and thrashed along. The interior of the Beetle is ok, but it also shows the most wear and tear of the three cars. This seemed more evident when driving it, as it can graunch into first gear at times, like the synchro may be on its way out. All I could feel was $$ when it graunched.

The boot spoiler on the VW also has all the clear coat peeling off – sure it can be redone, but that pushes my cost price up.

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The VW has an electric sunroof, but the blind is a bit sticky and needs some help.

Dare I say it? Driving the VW, I felt more than ever that it’s a ‘girl’s car’, which is fine with my daughter. But I’m not sure it’s the car for me.

Decision time

The one thing I take away from today was a reality check: a reminder that cars look much better in a photo than in real life, up close. So glad I don’t buy a car sight unseen, after seeing these three cars in the flesh.

As I mentioned, after driving the Alfa first I thought it was pointless driving the other two – I was sold. But then the Saab…it really impressed me, even though I only drove it for 15 minutes.

On the other hand, another reality check: parts availability. Now that Saabs are no longer made, this has to factor in. Alfa parts are readily available.

I don’t really want to leave the Saab behind, but I’m going to move forwards with the Alfa Romeo. It’s sporty, short, tidy (except for the paint) and well equipped. The miles on it aren’t horrendous, and it drives brilliantly.

Next time on the $5K Euro Challenge – Part 3

A pre-purchase inspection is the only way to go forward. Will the Alfa stand up to scrutiny? Join me as we find out, with a detailed check-over of the 147.

If it fails or sells to someone else first, I always have my fall-back car – the Saab!

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How on earth to start this? I've been car/bike/truck crazy since I was a teen. Like John, I had the obligatory Countach poster on the wall. I guess I'm more officially into classic and muscle cars than anything else - I currently have a '65 Sunbeam Tiger that left the factory the same day as I left the hospital as a newborn with my mother. How could I not buy that car? In 2016 my wife and I drove across the USA in a brand-new Dodge Challenger, and then shipped it home. You can read more on www.usa2nz.co.nz. We did this again in 2019 in a 1990 Chev Corvette - you can read about that trip on DriveLife. I'm also an Observer for the Institute of Advanced Motorists - trying to do my bit to make our roads safer.

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