Practicality has been at odds with fun since the dawn of humanity. We'd all drive hypercars if we could, but the kids have soccer practice after school, so a Porsche 918 Spyder isn't going to cut it. Coupes are sleek and look great but present an extra hassle with small children; definitely not something they need help with. These days, manufacturers offer their models as sedans or coupes, not both, eliminating some fun options from both categories. Sleek looks and practicality split down the middle, never to be shared by one model. That is unless it's one of the models below, as a few manufacturers still offer you a choice of how many doors you can have.
The GTI is indeed a jack of all trades. Available in both three-door and five-door hatchback variations starting with the MK1 in 1983, the original hot hatch has always been a sporty car for the people. Almost all of the models produced in this millennium come equipped with a turbocharged 2.0L Inline-4 cylinder engine mated to a six-speed manual or a six-speed DSG Transmission. They're comfortable and practical hatchbacks that are just as at home on curvy back roads as they are in heavy traffic. VW's excellent safety standards are also a plus for those looking out for more than themselves. The MK7 GTI is the current model being produced by VW, although the MK8 GTI has just been shown to the public. The two-door GTI will end with the MK7, so grab one now before they're gone from the dealerships.
The most significant difference between the two and four-door models is the doors. Two doors mean two window assemblies, locks, and door latch components. Doubling that for the four-door adds about 100 pounds in weight. That and looks, which are entirely subjective, are the only negatives against the four-door. On the positive side, it's easier to get in and out of the car in tight parking spaces with smaller doors and a greater number of them. Passengers won't have to fold and slide the front seats forward just to get in and out. Practicality is important, so knowing the situations you'll encounter will help you make that all-important decision.
VW updated the MK7 in 2018, giving it a digital dash, larger infotainment screen, LED lights, and a seven-speed DSG. The DSG fitted to the early MK7 uses six speeds. Besides that, though, all MK7s share the same EA888 engine, brakes, and suspension. There isn't a difference in price between the two and four-door hatch. Used four-door MK7s are widely available, while the two-door will be slightly more challenging to find. Expect to pay between $18,000 and $25,000 depending on year and mileage.
The original sports sedan doesn't discriminate against families. Every iteration of the 3-series can be had from mild to wild, whether you need two doors or four. Initially, the two and four-door models shared a chassis code, like the E46, E36, or E30. Then BMW decided to differentiate between them, giving them different chassis codes; the 2007-2013 sedans are the E90 while the coupes are the E92. Finally, BMW split the coupe and sedan 3-series range into the 3-series and 4-series ranges with the F30-generation that followed the E90. Previous generations of 3-series were offered in coupe, sedan, and wagon variants, all with manual transmissions, automatics, or even a dual-clutch. The lower end of the range presents a comfortable daily driver with sporty characteristics to keep you entertained. The M3 tops the other end with a stiffer ride, precise handling, big brakes, and an even bigger engine. Whatever you need, there's something for you.
If you're building a racecar, you might want to look at the sedan over the coupe. Although coupes are often the go-to, BMW's torsional rigidity tests show that the sedan, in the case of the BMW E36, is superior by a substantial margin. The weight of the extra doors shouldn't matter in that context either, as they'll be stripped anyway. Both models use identical suspension components, so you don't have to specify which chassis you have when ordering parts.
Finding a 3-series within a specific budget should be reasonably straightforward. The latest G20 3-series starts at just over $40,000. The E90 chassis offered from 2007-2013 hovers between $10,000 and $20,000 for a non-M and around $35,000 for the M3. Prior generations are selling for well under $15,000; it all depends on what you want. The sedans typically are a little cheaper than the coupes by a few thousand dollars, but prices are very mileage and option-dependent.
Nothing says quiet comfort quite like a Mercedes-Benz. Although they have plenty of racing pedigree, their models typically represent what a relaxed daily driver should represent; leather everywhere, excellent fit and finish, a composed ride, and understated elegance. It's hard to miss out on that, even with Mercedes' former entry-level sedan. The C-class and the E and S classes are currently available and were previously sold as both a coupe and a sedan, in standard Mercedes trim and as AMG models.
The C-class was and is incredibly popular. Older generations like the W203 and W204 are squarely in first-car territory while the new ones assuredly aren't. Under the hood, you'll likely find one of Mercedes' V6s displacing between 3.0 and 3.5 liters, backed up by an automatic transmission. Manual C-classes are out there but in small numbers. All of the AMG variants came equipped with a V8 and an automatic transmission. The most recent generation to end production, the W205, used three different engines depending on the model.
Because they've been around so long and are readily available, the prices per generation vary wildly. If you want to go older, the W203s from 2001-2007 are well under the $10,000 mark. Moving up a generation, the coupe or sedan W204 from 2008-2014 sits between $13,000 and $19,000 on average. They offer great value for money and are easy to repair. The W205 is still relatively new, only having finished production in the last two years, so their prices are hovering around the $35,000 mark. This generation, too, although significantly more technologically advanced than their predecessors, is still very DIY friendly.
Land Rover Defender
The Land Rover Defender as we know it started production in 1983 as a continuation of what is essentially the British Jeep. Offered as a two-door (90) or four-door (110), it remained a rugged off-roader best suited to farm and military work. As it evolved to fit its more urban clientele, it grew softer for street use and received plenty of technology. But all good things must come to an end. Production ended in 2016 as Land Rover prepared to create an all-new Defender for the modern age.
The new model uses an aluminum monocoque chassis instead of the body-on-frame of every Defender before it. The old leaf-spring suspension has been ditched for air suspension, although coil-springs are an option. Both the two-door 90 models and four-door 110 models use a ZF 8-speed automatic transmission fitted with a two-speed transfer case with locking differentials. Sure, this new model is more for highway driving than the previous Defender, but its mechanical specs show it's still capable off the beaten path. Put up against a Porsche Macan or Mercedes-Benz GLC, and the Defender presents an exciting option poised to upset the mid-size SUV landscape.
The new 90 starts at around $46,000, while the new 110 begins at about $50,000. The most significant difference between the two, other than the extended chassis to accommodate the extra doors, is the standard suspension. Coil springs underpin the two-door, but the four-door receives the air suspension. Old Defenders are for sale all over the internet, though many are right-hand drive. There weren't many NAS models, short for North American Specification, imported to the US, and those who own them keep them or are asking exorbitant prices. It isn't uncommon to see an excellent Defender 110 listed for near $100,000. However, driver quality examples run between $35,000 and $50,000.
MINI Cooper Hardtop
The iconic hatchback was a two-door model until the third generation of BMW's production in 2015. The Cooper had grown in size to the point where they could add an extra pair of doors without enlarging the car, so they did. It may not be as mini as it used to be, but the Cooper referred to as the Hardtop, still offers a lot of fun for the money. MINI designates the four-door hatch as the F55 while the two-door goes by F56. Both models can be optioned with a six-speed manual transmission or a seven-speed DCT. If you're picking up a used one, the DCT became an option in 2018, so previous years will have a six-speed automatic instead.
The base Cooper Hardtop comes equipped with a 1.5L three-cylinder turbo. The Cooper S and JCW use a turbocharged 2.0L four-cylinder. With their respective outputs, both engines help the MINI achieve a fun, spunky driving experience almost guaranteed to make you smile. The MINI is still mini in size, too, as it's the smallest car on this list, coming in sixteen inches shorter than the MK7 GTI. The differences between the two and four-door lie in the price and the weight. Adding the extra doors tacks another 150lbs to the little hatch and another $1000 to the base price. The weight and money might be worth it in the city, as the extra doors and their smaller size will make it easier in tight spaces.
You can get the four-door in two flavors, the Cooper and Cooper S. The S, with its extra cylinder and displacement, makes 192 horsepower, 56 more than the base Cooper. The range-topping John Cooper Works, or JCW, is available only as a two-door and is the fastest and sportiest model in the range with 231 horsepower and a sub-6 second 0-60 time. The two-door Cooper starts at $22,900 and the Cooper S at $26,900. If you want all-out performance, the JCW will set you back $32,900, minimum. Buying used will save you some money, however. Both the two and four-door are similarly priced, with base and S models averaging between $19,000 and $24,000 with little miles on them.
No matter how many doors you choose, your ride can and should be an extension of you, whether that's fast and sporty or relaxed and comfortable. We chose the models above because they're options we're familiar with, enjoy using every day, and know work in various situations. Whichever you choose, we'll have the parts and the knowledge to support you wherever your ownership takes you. If you think we missed a better choice, let us know in the comments below!
Owner of a flat-six swapped 1998 Impreza 2.5RS and a 1973 Porsche 914. Horizontally opposed views, only.