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Second-hand: Our $12,000-tops budget 

More and more, consumers are embracing status automobiles as their galvanized-steel calling cards, eschewing designer clothes, jewelry and most other trappings of wealth.

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

Flight 631 to the colonial resort city of Cumana on Venezuela’s Caribbean coast is ferrying at least one multi-millionaire and, in what seems increasingly commonplace, he’s one of the worstdressed people on the plane.

Despite the fact he owns a 25-storey apartment tower in Hamilton, “Mike,” as I’ll call him, travels on charter airlines, wears tar-stained Adidas and is partial to the T-shirts his contractors give him as freebies.

Mike has no interest in looking like a million — unless he’s in his car. Then it matters. That’s why he drives a honkin’ big diesel Mercedes-Benz. It suits him.

More and more, consumers are embracing status automobiles as their galvanized-steel calling cards, eschewing designer clothes, jewelry and most other trappings of wealth.

A good motorcar announces your arrival and broadcasts your taste better than any gold watch.

The appeal is universal: a 6-year-old will not recognize the Rolex on your wrist and festoon it with fingerprints and drool the way he will over your Porsche. Everybody wants to be seen in a fancy car.

So we’ve assembled a list of good used cars that will both transport you and transform you — without the need to assume a second mortgage.

The automobiles listed (there are no clumsy trucks here to spoil our garden party) represent good buys assuming decent condition for $12,000 or less, based on advertised prices in local publications and on dealer lots.

ALFA ROMEO

If you want to turn heads — no, snap them — then finding an Alfa Romeo 164 is a worthwhile hobby. Alfa exclusivity begets true prestige. The 164, a front-drive, four-door wedge of a

sedan, has been around for 10 years now and still looks Armani crisp.

Under the raked hood lies a potent V6 engine that, depending on the year and model, spins out anywhere from 183 to 230 hp. Incredibly, these athletic cars trade for chump change: we found a 1991 for $5,400. It may have something to do with their chronic electrical problems.

So, while you’re out shopping, pick up a pair — and keep one on the front lawn as a parts donor.

AUDI

Thanks to the A4, A6 and TT Coupe, Audis are hot right now, and all cars wearing the interlocking rings bask in the halo. Of course, our budget excludes any of the recent models, but there

are lots of compact 80/90 series and larger 100/200 series cars around.

Many of them are quattro models, meaning that all four wheels are driven. Finding a manual-transmission model is hard; discovering a five-speed Avant (wagon) is insanely difficult. We

found a rare 1990 pearl-white V8 quattro for $9,500. Nobody does pearl white like Audi.

BMW

The quintessential yuppie car, the 3 Series, enjoys such a pop following that even early examples of the previous generation (the E36, for you propeller heads) command almost $20,000.

That’s nuts. Skip the 3 and move up to a 5 Series and save about $5,000. Plus you get an incredibly smooth inline six-cylinder as standard equipment — no fourbangers lurking in the 5 Series. We found a mint 1991 535i five-speed for $13,900; a ’92 for $800 more.

But keep some of your savings in reserve. The old 5 Series is notorious for its service bugaboos. Not for the faint of heart.

CADILLAC

Here’s an enduring symbol of wealth, if for no other reason than you must be rich to keep this beast’s fuel tank from going dry. Fortunately, the purchase price is so low that you’ll have

lots of money left for gas.

The DeVille is the front-wheel drive version; the Fleetwood is the Caprice-based rear-drive bank vault. These two can be found for less than 10 pinkies (what counterfeiters call $1,000 bank

notes — so I’m told).

The sleek Seville STS is considerably more expensive and worth every dollar. This touring sedan debuted in 1992; we found one for $12,499.

DODGE STEALTH

Our representative Chrysler is neither a Chrysler product nor a luxury barge. Designed and built in Japan by Mitsubishi, this sport coupe was sold by Dodge dealers from 1991 to 1996. It

offered four distinct performance levels: mild (front-wheel drive V6) to wild (all-wheel drive 300 hp twin-turbo).

If the latter sounds like wretched excess, bear in mind any Stealth will give you reliable service and great presence on the road. Sometimes, prestige comes from driving something potent

or potentlooking.

INFINITI

You can find the poorselling flagship of Nissan’s luxury line trading for less than most of its smaller cars.

The Q45 really is the company’s Q-ship: big, heavy and powerful, this reardrive sedan could embarrass most of its luxury competition by laying down two black rubber claw marks at

any green light.

Reminiscent of a Ford Crown Victoria, early models are instantly recognizable by their funky beltbuckle grille. This car is not to be overlooked. We found a 1991 example for $11,900.

JAGUAR

Thanks to the extensive equity Jaguar has cultivated in the shape of its XJ-series sedans, everyone pines for its slinky, unmistakable lines.

Fortunately for us, an old Jaguar still looks somewhat contemporary. The 4.0 L inline six-cylinder engine in the XJ6 is smooth and powerful, and handling is crisp. We found a few early

1990 examples selling for around $12,000.

But look for evidence of meticulous maintenance; these cars are infamous for their expensive repairs. Quality improved markedly since Ford took over the English assembly plant in

1988. The 12-cylinder? Forget it.

LINCOLN

Nobody has done a survey that we know of, but it’s probably safe to say that Lincoln is the official car of wise guys (you know — goodfellas) everywhere. What’s not to love: hectares of

room inside, lots of trunk space for shovels and a tomb-like quiet that’s perfect for “conductin’ bidness.”

The Town Car did not become the standard-bearer of the airline limousine community on its good looks alone. It’s based on the sturdy rear-drive Ford Crown Victoria. The Lincoln Continental

has been related to the front-drive Taurus since 1988.

Lincolns command respect, if youse are gettin’ our meanin’.

MAZDA

Unlike rivals Honda, Nissan and Toyota, Mazda never launched its up-scale Amati division in North America due to financial misgivings. Still, it did not preclude the automaker from

selling a couple of prestigious offerings through its existing stores.

The 929 Serenia, reintroduced in 1992, was a successful renovation of its big reardrive sedan. Sculpted not unlike a lowslung Jaguar, the 929 was powered by a 24valve V6 that provided plenty of go and was reliable as the Salvation Army.

The car was discontinued in 1995, so examples are rare but not dear (found: a ’93 for $11,500).

Mazda’s other elite model, the Millenia, is very cool, but because it debuted in 1995, this sporty sedan is still too expensive for our budget. Ditto the outrageous final generation of the RX7.

MERCEDES-BENZ

The great thing about Mercedes — and some other celebrated makes — is that the styling changes very little over the years. The designers establish a look, then seemingly go on sabbatical.

The 190 series is a case in point: a 1993 model is barely distinguishable from the premier 1984 model. Available with a variety of powerplants (four and sixcylinder gas and diesel engines), the 190 E has worked as a taxi cab, police car and small luxury cruiser around the world.

Although snug inside, the baby Merc gives up nothing in terms of amenities, assembly quality and crashworthiness. We found a nice ’89 sixcylinder for $8,200.

Not big enough? You can probably find an S-Class for about the same price. Mind you, it’ll be almost 20 years old, but then that’s considered just broken in.

NISSAN

Look, if the Dodge Stealth got on our list, it only makes sense that Nissan’s incredible 300ZX should also be here. Voted one of Car and Driver magazine’s 10-best cars every year that

the last generation (1990 and up) was in production, it is Japan’s Corvette — and then some.

You will still not find the 300 hp twin-turbo model for anything near $12,000, but you may be able to afford a normally aspirated 3.0 L V6 model (222 hp) that exudes 98 per cent of the

turbo car’s sexy presence.

Heck, forget about driving it; just polish it and stick it in your living room.

PORSCHE

The 944/968 Turbo is the best track car Porsche has ever built. This according to local racer Ludwig Heimrath, who knows a thing or two about driving very, very fast.

This front-engine, rear-drive hatchback is not entirely conventional: the transmission resides at the rear axle, endowing the 944 (and newer 968) with ideal weight distribution.

Buyers can choose from a relatively anemic 143 hp eight-valve engine, 16-valve S versions and hot Turbo models — all with four cylinders.

Displacements grew from an initial 2.5 L in 1983 to a monster 3.0 L four-banger putting out 236 horses in the final years.

We’ve seen a 944 sell for as little as $5,000, but the more coveted 944S model goes for about $9,000 to 12,000.

Air-cooled Porsche owners will look down on you, but everyone else will wish they were you.

SAAB

Perhaps because they’re descendants of aircraft, Saabs are cool — and were long before Jerry Seinfeld choose to feature them in his sitcom.

The 900S is the company’s entrylevel car; earlier models had four-cylinder engines exclusively.

Reflecting the influence of parent company General Motors, which now owns all of Saab, the redesigned 1994 model offered a British-made V6 (the car shares the Opel Vectra platform). We

found a ’94 900S V6 for $10,900.

If you have a hankering for something larger, the 9000 is similarly priced despite the extra 0 in its name. Cavernous inside, this sedan and hatchback are powered by smooth 16-valve

or turbo-charged four-cylinder engines. Perfect for hauling your Ikea purchases home quickly.

There are other fetching makes and models out there, but they’re either still priced too high on the used market or they didn’t register on our Prestige-O-Meter.

If you found our $12,000-tops budget still too rich for a conveyance that will continue its depreciation slide and probably burn prodigious amounts of gasoline, consider buying a leather fob and a blank key at your local Jag or Benz dealer.

They’ll look good lying on the bar next to your pint of microbrew and best of all you’ll still have money left for a Metropass.

Mark Toljagic is a freelance Toronto writer. Email: toljagic@idirect.com

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