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Open Diff: What’s your automotive line in the sand?

Published in blog.hemmings.com

GM 200-4R four-speed automatic transmission. Photo by Terry McGean.

I’ll admit it: When it comes to weekend cars, I’m stuck in my ways. I prefer small to large, rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive over front-wheel drive, handling over sheer horsepower, and a decent five- or six-speed gearbox over an automatic transmission. In fact, while not being a deal-killer for a daily driver, an automatic transmission is a line in the sand for me when it comes to weekend cars.

I’ve gone to great lengths defending modern performance automatics in cars like the Dodge Hellcat and the Nissan GT-R, but neither of those options are remotely in my budget for a weekend car and occasional track toy. For cars that I can (or might be able to) afford, the first thing I’ll look for is three pedals and a stick shift; if they’re absent, the search continues.

In a daily driver, a continuously variable transmission (CVT) is another deal-killer, which all but eliminates a fair number of manufacturers these days. Subaru, for example, offers manual transmissions in lower-spec models, but most of its high-option cars are equipped with CVTs. Honda and Nissan use CVTs throughout their product range, with only a few models getting automatics (and fewer still, manuals). I know that CVTs have gotten better since the days of the Ford Freestyle, but I still haven’t found one that feels “natural” to me.

When shopping the used market, I tend to avoid cars that have been more than lightly modified by previous owners. Stiffer anti-roll bars are one thing, but when you start changing spring rates, dampers, suspension bushings, and tire widths, it’s very easy to make things worse instead of improving handling. I’m fine with an aftermarket exhaust, but post-factory forced induction (or an aggressive tune on a production turbocharged car) generally leaves me looking for another car. There’s no such thing as free horsepower, and the trade-off is generally decreased engine life.

I’m less forgiving of cut-up interiors these days, too. The previous owner may have installed that aftermarket car alarm with the best of intentions, but I’ve seen too many fail as they get older. Cutting the door to install bigger speakers may have seemed like a good idea in the 1980s, but sooner or later that’s going to end with a nerve-fraying rattle (or worse, the dreaded intermittent short). Ditto for third-party gauges mounted in non-factory locations; are you sure you didn’t nick or crimp another wire when you spliced that in? Few jobs are less pleasant than diagnosing electrical maladies, especially those that require under-dash yoga.

So, what’s your line in the sand for a weekend driver? Is it the same for a daily driver, or are you more flexible here? When shopping for a car like this, what are your own red flags?