Seeking fun commuter car under $25K


Ok, Klipnik, a friend just asked me for help. She drives a manual 2013 BMW 535i M package with a few performance mods. She is starting a job next week with a lot of boring freeway miles to drive in SoCal. She is willing to budget up to $25K for a new or CPO fun commuter car so she need not thrash the BMW. An automatic is preferred but not required. Fire away!


Good one! Before I dive in, I’ve got a couple of clarifying questions for you. Is the main idea to make those freeway commutes as easy and pain-free as possible (i.e. optimize for comfort)? Or is she looking for something that will do a ton of miles with the least investment of fuel, maintenance, etc. (i.e. optimize for running cost)? Or perhaps a balance of those two?


Great question…I don’t think she even knows that yet. I don’t think mpg is a huge concern here. This is more about driving something that will not cost a ton, and she will not hate, while not piling up miles on the BMW. Comfortable is crucial but fun would be a nice bonus.


Got it – thank you! There are quite a few options within that price range. Let me do some thinking, and I’ll come back with a few initial ideas…


Okay, my initial thoughts are: 1) a luxury car will provide the most comfortable long-haul driving experience (best seats, sound insulation, stereo, etc.), 2) a diesel engine is the best for highway mileage, and 3) adaptive cruise would be very nice to have on SoCal’s crowded freeways.

If you do a Venn diagram of those three things, the one car in the middle is a W212 generation E-Class diesel. They started bringing the E250 CDI – which gets an amazing 42 MPG highway! – to the US starting with the 2014 model year, so there are quite a few coming off lease now, and nice ones can be had pretty easily for around $25,000 and maybe a little less. If adaptive cruise is desirable, make sure to get one with the Driver Assistance package.

Here’s one that looks pretty promising:


Sounds like you have a pretty cool friend if she drives a unicorn manual 535i :+1:

I would recommend a car that has the following characteristics:

  • A compact/smaller car since it sounds like she’ll be commuting alone.
  • No need for a huge gas guzzler like a Suburban for only one. Plus a smaller car will be way easier to zip in and out of traffic and easier to find parking. Judging by her current ride, she probably enjoys that. However, it still needs to be safe in case aforementioned Suburban driver isn’t paying attention and bumps her.
  • Has decent fuel economy. Even if money is not a factor, having to gas up every few days is a burden worth avoiding.

With that said, my recommendations are:

  1. BMW 2 Series: Stick with something she’s already familiar with and no unpleasant surprises. RWD platform is entertaining. Several engine choices (turbo 4cyl or turbo 6cyl) and both provide more than enough power for this compact car. Good MPG with the 4cyl. Available in manual and automatic. At or below her $25k budget. Solid and safe yet still fun.

  2. MINI Cooper 2dr Hatchback Lots of fun to drive. Hatchback practicality. It’s small (for America) but still gets a 4 star NHTSA overall safety rating (2016 model year). Good fuel economy. Depreciation hits hard on MINIs meaning she can buy a CPO/used one for well below her budget. Very customizable from the factory so she can find some unique colors and features. Get the hotter S version and they’re plenty quick. Even base ones aren’t terribly slow. Get a JCW if she wants the spicy version. Each is fun to drive with loads of character.


Here are some examples, just a few of many cars available:

CPO 2016 BMW 228i with the rare M Sport package with only 21k miles for $25K
CPO 228i M Sport

CPO 2015 MINI Cooper S, 28K miles, $15,881
CPO 2015 MINI Cooper S, 28k miles, $15,881

CPO 2015 MINI Cooper S, 32k miles, $16,881
CPO 2015 MINI Cooper S, 32k miles, $16,881


Good question, @memiller74, and good suggestions here already. I especially like the 2 Series idea. Suppose she wants to fly under the radar, though, with a set-it-and-forget-it kind of commuter car that’s still unusually solid and refined. I’m thinking of the 2018 Volkswagen Golf. I say 2018 in particular because a better infotainment system debuted for that model year, but 2019 saw the demise of the excellent 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder in favor of the weaker 1.4T. So 2018 gets you the best infotainment and also the best engine. In more best news, it’s probably a great time to grab one, as the 2019s are now out in force.

Here’s a brand-new 2018 Golf SE (the one with the sunroof and alloy wheels) for $25k in San Diego. I bet there’s some wiggle room in that price.

Too boring? Here’s a listing I’ve come across before; maybe it’s still available. 2013 GTI 2dr manual with 625 – six hundred and twenty five – miles for $22k. One of the most forgiving manuals ever, and I still think the Mk6 GTI is a better car than the Mk7. Price seems too high, but what if she could get it for like $19k? No sunroof is the only problem I see.

Finally, here’s the clutch-less value play: a one-owner 2012 GTI 4dr automatic with 43k miles for $15,900. It looks like the Autobahn trim, which means special wheels, sunroof, leather sport seats and an upgraded audio system. Those seats are super-comfortable, and the car is simply good at everything. A delightful proposition at that price.

Keep us posted on your friend’s shopping process, sounds like it’s gonna be a fun one.


This is some great stuff here klippers! I think the 2-series might be leading the pack for her right now. Obviously she is partial to BMW. Did I mention she also has a 2006 manual 5 series?

What do we think of the Audi A3 or whatever the right sporty version of the C-class is at the moment?

Any Japanese sleepers to think about? I’m not close with most of those manufacturers but it feels as though ever since the IS-F went out of production all the Japanese companies have been trying their best to bore us to tears. Am I wrong?


Thank you guys for the help! I’m the one with the unicorn. :joy: or maybe I should say the 2 unicorns.
To Matt’s point, I would love to know what you think of or why the Audi a3 didn’t come up. I’m digging that one and it’s a little cheaper than the others from what I’ve seen online. To Matt’s point about the Japanese brands, I’d be curious about Lexus.


I think the A3 is a solid choice. It’s basically a fancier version of the Golf / GTI suggestions offered by @misterklip.

On the Japan front, I’d recommend taking a look at the Lexus IS, which offers a nice combination of comfort, size, and quality – not to mention famed Toyota levels of reliability and durability.

On a general note, since you’re buying this car for a specific purpose, I would encourage you to optimize for the things you’ll really enjoy while commuting in it. Let’s face it: SoCal commutes aren’t really great opportunities for having fun. They’re more about minimizing the pain. And since you already have a cool fun car in your 535i, maybe this one should be more about maximizing comfort and economy over the long haul.

The best SoCal commuter car I ever had was a W140 generation S-Class coupe. It had plenty of power and was insanely quiet and smooth. I could drive it for hours without ever getting tired, and in it the stresses of traffic and rude drivers and broken pavement just melted away. It wasn’t a particularly “cool” car, but it turned SoCal highway driving into a pleasant experience. I think that you’d want to find the sort of car that does the same thing for you.


@Dvsf22 Welcome to Klipnik! Echoing what @mark said, the A3 sedan shares its platform with the current Golf/GTI, so the same comments generally apply. If you don’t mind losing the hatchback functionality, it’s a great car. Check this one out. It’s a one-owner certified pre-owned 2016 A3 with the stronger 2.0T engine, which you’ll definitely want (the base 1.8T is fine for a Golf, but not for an Audi). At $23,491, this strikes me as a very compelling proposition.

As far as Lexus goes, the IS is a nice car, but if you’re used to 535i levels of fun, you’ll want the IS 350, which has a powerful V6 and will run you closer to $30k for a comparably new and low-mileage specimen. I’d say check out that A3 and let us know what you think. The certified pre-owned angle is the clincher for me – that’ll give you a nice warranty to cover any unexpected repairs for a while.


You know, I think Mark is spot on with that last thought. You already have a fun car (or 2) and this is for a specific purpose. I would not want to spend a lot of time in a small car on the freeways of SoCal. I would want something big, smooth, comfortable, and perhaps even high to see over traffic.

Echoing the W140 comment, I’ve now driven 2 E-class MB’s and 3 S-class MB’s on SoCal roads, plus several smaller, short wheelbase cars. The S-classes were not just the best, but even far and away exceeded the E-classes for gobbling up miles on the 405 in unmatched comfort. If this were me, I’d sacrifice a few years and the CPO and get a 2010ish S550 sedan or coupe with low miles, or I’d try out maybe an ML or X5 or Q5/Q7. They don’t have the long wheelbase that makes the S class such a dream, but you sit high, which is nice in a traffic jam.

Some samples:


Yes, I think a longer wheelbase is the key component here. Many of the SoCal freeways have uneven expansion joints which can cause shorter-wheelbase cars to pitch unpleasantly, while something like an S-Class cruises along unperturbed.

If you can find one, the S350 turbodiesel (available for 2012 and 2013 only) would be a great option because it returns over 30 MPG on the highway. Most examples will have higher miles because people buy these things to drive and drive and drive, but I wouldn’t shy away from a higher-mile car (up to around 100k) as long as it’s been maintained.

Here are a couple of possibilities to consider:


Here’s another thought: if the S-Class appeals, perhaps pick up this near-perfect W220 generation example for sale in your area and pocket the extra $14,000 for gas and repairs:


Ok, you guys have out done yourselves! #overwhelmed! I love the A3 and the one you sent, @misterklip. That Mercedes is wayyy too big for me. My 535 is almost too big (as much as I love it)/I wouldn’t want anything bigger. So I think I need to narrow down to: a3, q5, x5. Secretly I’d love a suv as a second car. I should test those. OR, I drive the 2006 530 manual into the ground. It’s already a sunk cost/No upfront cost.


This X5 6-speed manual could be a fun choice for you…