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Induce some second-hand envy

Used exotics make a rare statement

Published October 19, 2012

Blame it on our innate narcissism, hubris or perhaps personality disorder, but whatever the reason, some of us like the idea of driving an exotic automobile, if for no other reason that to induce envy in others.

Unfortunately, making friends and strangers green with jealousy usually takes a lot of green. Exotics are rare precisely because they come with heart-stopped sticker prices.

But what if you could buy an exotic — and let’s use the dictionary definition, meaning “strikingly unusual” — for the same price as a run-of-the-mill hatchback?

In fact, you can find some pretty rare and interesting conversation starters in the used-car market. If you’re into making statements on the road that don’t involve rude hand gestures, we’ve got your ride.

2003-06 Subaru Baja

The Subaru Baja (pronounced ba-ha) is an odd mashup of an all-wheel-drive, four-door compact utility with a pickup’s tiny open bed in the back, accommodating anything too wet and disgusting to bring inside. It started life as an Outback wagon and got a roof-o-dectomy to leave the metre-long cargo hold exposed to the elements.

The cargo area could be extended into the cosy cabin by flipping down the rear seats and the small pass-through hatch. Unlike the Chevy Avalanche’s removable rear glass, the Baja’s remains fixed. The practicality of the pass-through is limited to skis and a few 2x4s, but regardless, owners have use of an all-weather bed that’s perfect for carting around compost, cottage trash and anything else considered too gross to lug inside a plush SUV.

From the back seat forward, the Baja is essentially an Outback, featuring the same 165 hp, 2.5 L flat-four engine mated to either a manual or automatic transmission, as well as Subaru’s symmetrical all-wheel-drive system standard. Reliability is very good, owners say, although failed head gaskets and piston slap are not unheard of. A 210-hp turbocharged four joined the lineup for 2004, but Canadian sales remained comatose.

2002-04 Honda Civic Hatchback

After Honda snuffed the popular Civic hatchback in 2000, the hue and cry from long-time fans compelled the automaker to look for a replacement, even though there was no template for a hatchback in the 2001 redesign. Honda found one in Swindon, England, where its U.K. plant was stamping out thousands of new-generation hatchbacks for the European market.

The Civic SiR Hatchback didn’t arrive as an entry-level vehicle, though (not with a price tag of $25,500 new). It was a premium model outfitted much like its sister act, the Acura RSX. The interior was swanky with aluminum accents, the shift level jutted out of the dashboard rally-car style, and the Recaro-type seats hugged the driver and front passenger like long-lost relatives after a lottery win.

The SiR Hatchback used the same 160 hp 2.0 L four that powered the RSX and came tied to a close-ratio five-speed manual transmission exclusively. The SiR also sported more aggressive suspension tuning than its Civic mates, as well as electric steering — an unusual feature at the time. Despite hailing from England, where auto assembly is not one of the islanders’ fortes, the SiR Hatchback has been every bit as durable as any Canadian or Japanese Civic.

2001-03 Toyota Prius

There’s a wedge-shaped Toyota Prius humming around every neighbourhood these days. But few people have laid eyes on the 2001 original, a car so achingly dull and unobtrusive, especially when it slunk around town with its silent electric motor, that nobody would give it a second glance. And that’s a shame, because the gasoline-electric hybrid Prius represented nothing less than a wholesale revolution in personal transportation.

Yes, the Honda Insight hybrid beat the Prius to North America, but the Prius was already selling in Japan for a few years before it crossed the ocean. Powered by a 70 hp, DOHC 1.5-litre four-cylinder gasoline engine coupled to a 44 hp electric motor, the two powerplants worked in tandem or separately, depending on the acceleration needs of the driver. Its city mileage was always better than its highway range and it never needed to be plugged in.

Despite the NASA-grade technology under the skin, the first-generation Prius was as visually exciting as an econobox Echo, which is what it resembled. But thanks to its tall greenhouse and upright seating, it could accommodate five chummy adults in a nicely finished cabin. The six-inch display panel showed what the innovative drivetrain was doing in real time using graphics so vivid it could have made a good Pixar movie.

2005-06 Saab 9-2X

While conceived on opposite sides of the globe, Saab and Subaru seemed to have been grown in the same petri dish: both automakers began as aircraft manufacturers, they embraced unconventional engineering and design, and they each ended up briefly under General Motors’ corporate wing. Concocting a badge-engineered “Saabaru” turned out to be as natural as white pumpkins.

Available only as a hatchback, the Impreza-based Saab 9-2X came in two flavours: the 2.5 Linear had Subie’s naturally aspirated 2.5 L flat-four engine making 165 hp, while the Aero featured a turbocharged and intercooled 227-hp 2.0 L from the caffeinated WRX. Both models got Subaru’s standard symmetrical all-wheel drive, with the more powerful Aero receiving a viscous limited-slip differential.

Saab affixed its own front and rear fascias to the car and cleaned up the interior, adding its own chairs with active head restraints. The 2006 model year brought more power: the 2.5i was rated at 173 hp and the turbo version of the 2.5 L made 230 hp and a welcome 235 lb.-ft. of torque. Owners praised the 9-2X for its versatility, restrained styling, all-weather invincibility and high fun-to-drive quotient. Drivers disliked Subie’s frameless windows, though.

1996-98 Suzuki X-90

Here’s a cautionary tale about concept cars and how the public crowds around them, taking copious photographs and signing petitions to see the car put in production — then promptly laughs it off. That’s essentially what happened to Suzuki when it displayed its oddball two-seater sport utility it called the X-90. The idea garnered a lot of praise, but when it showed up in showrooms, all you heard were crickets chirping.

Fortunately, the X-90 was built on the Suzuki Sidekick’s body-on-frame truck chassis (yup, a real truck) so the tooling was borrowed and, hence, economical. But consumers couldn’t make heads or tails of the targa-topped mini SUV with its car-like trunk that was compromised by a full-size spare tire. If it was supposed to convey the best of a SUV and a sports car, it fell far short of the mark.

The minuscule 1.6 L SOHC four-banger made just 95 horsepower, which rendered the X-90 a slowpoke. The part-time 44 system was reasonably agile, however, and could pull the teeny truck out of the muck with aplomb. It just never looked good doing it. Desperate to goose sales, Suzuki created the Philippe Cousteau special edition in 1997, named after the oceanographer and son of Jacques. Incredibly, somebody actually thought that could have worked.

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