These out-of-production vintage models were flops upon release but have aged into great, affordable used cars
CASEY WILLIAMS | Auto Reviewer
Not all of the hotties you covet today were hotties in high school. Time and distance can turn funky birds into rare partners up for some serious fun.
I’m not talking about the geek that turned into a stallion between graduation and career but, rather, a host of cars that have become cooler since they passed on. Best of all, they’re now all incredibly affordable.
Subaru Baja (2003-2006). More of a “Halfback” than an Outback, the Baja was a weirdo among weirdos. Basically a second-generation Outback with a pickup rump, the four-door Baja recalled Subaru’s cool Brat from 20 years earlier. Standard all-wheel-drive amplified its soft-road utility. With rear seats folded, a small door in the back of the bed allowed long items to load through. Under the hood was a choice of 173 horsepower “Boxer” engine or a 230 horsepower turbocharged version. Billed as the “World’s First Multiple Choice Vehicle” the Baja was a car-to-truck trans before trannies were fierce.
Today’s price: $8k–$11k.
Pontiac Aztek (2001-2005). This peculiarity was the ass of jokes from day one, but as a friend said, “It’s great from the inside.” It was, too, with a roomy interior that fit five and all their gear. Heated leather seats, head-up display and Monsoon audio system added luxury, as did an available tent for the rear that allowed two people to “live” inside. A 3.4-liter V6, AWD and available independent rear suspension gave credible performance. It was especially fetching in Rally trim with copper paint. A cult classic, looking better as the years roll on.
Today’s price: $3k–$5k.
Honda Element SC (2007-2010). Originally conceived as a funky crossover for Gen-Xers, it found greater favor with their parents as “Honda’s Hummer.” Element reveled in its simple, unpainted gray bumpers and fenders, but the SC version looked much better with body color panels, 18-in. wheels and lowered stance. Rear seats flipped down for a bed or up against the sidewalls to enhance space. In essence, the Element SC was a big Civic wagon stoked with a 166 horsepower 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine. All that means it looks unique and will likely run forever.
Today’s price: $6k–$13k.
Acura ZDX (2010-2013). The California-designed ZDX “SUV coupe” had styling only a stylish geek could love. Its silver beak was followed by bulging fenders over 19-in. alloys and racy rear roofline. Front occupants enjoyed 10-speaker audio, panoramic glass roof and adaptive cruise. Engineers went all out on a 300 horsepower V6, torque-shifting all-wheel drive and Integrated Dynamics System that switched steering and suspension from comfort to sport. They even tuned it on Germany’s famed Nurburgring. Sales never rewarded Acura for the ZDX’s fashion forward style.
Today’s price: $17–$22k.
Ford T-Bird (2002-2005), top. Coming in the era of the retrofied VW Beetle and Chrysler PT Cruiser, a T-Bird seemed logical. It echoed the original with its mesh grille, round headlamps, yacht-like reverse wedge body, Thunderbird fender script and round taillamps. Aficionados opted for the removable hardtop with porthole windows. Sharing architecture with the Jaguar S-Type, it drove like the crisp little Jaguar roadster it mostly was. Only one engine, a 280 horsepower V8, sounded like it hailed from Britain. Too bad sales never got off the ground.
Today’s price: $13k–$18k.
Chrysler Crossfire (2004-2008). Chrysler built a better Mercedes-Benz. Developed when the American and German automakers were married, the Crossfire is essentially a Mercedes SLK coupe with an art deco fastback body. Gloriously, the interior is old-school Mercedes with large analog gauges, and it feels like a dump truck couldn’t move it off-course. I once hit my highest speed ever on a public road with the Crossfire SRT6, carried by a 354 horsepower AMG-built supercharged V6. I still dream of that drive!
Today’s price: $7k–$13k.
Lexus HS250h (2010-2014). It was one posh hybrid with soft leather seats, 330-watt Mark Levinson audio system and head-up display plus a full suite of safety tech like lane keep assist and radar adaptive cruise control. The powertrain was comprised of a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine and batteries for 187 horsepower, 0-60 mph in 8.4 seconds, and frugal 35/34-MPG city/hwy. It wasn’t the prettiest hybrid, but it drove like a sport sedan and spoiled like an exclusive luxury car — a compelling combination.
Today’s price: $12k–$15k.