1994 Toyota 4Runner
I'm already starting out with a technicality here. You see, my mom's 1994 Toyota 4Runner wasn't the first car that I owned, but it was the car that I learned to drive in. With my mother in the passenger seat, her hand hovering nervously over the emergency brake, I learned the rules of the road. But it wasn't until I'd appeased my father that I was tossed the keys to a car of my own.
1990 Toyota Camry DX
A shade-tree mechanic himself, my father wanted me to know how to take a car apart and put it back together before he'd set me loose in one. This was the car I learned on: a hand-me-down 1990 Toyota Camry DX, bought new by my parents years earlier and bequeathed to me in 1997. This was also the car that spawned my love affair with car tech. By the time I drove it to my first day of college in 1999, there was a first-generation Sony Xplod CD receiver in the dash, six Pioneer two-way speakers with coaxial tweeters, and two 12-inch Pioneer subwoofers driven by 500-watts of amplification. It was easily the loudest thing on campus, where I was often referred to as "that guy in the little white car."
Years later, just after crossing the 250,000-mile mark and surviving dozens of fender benders, the Camry finally gave up the ghost; as victim of a busted transmission that may or may not have been caused by my bad habit of showing off by doing neutral-drop burnouts. As the saying goes, "This is why you can't have nice things."
1996 Mitsubishi Mirage Coupe LS
Shortly after the demise of the Camry, I picked up a 1996 Mitsubishi Mirage LS coupe. The LS was equipped with the more powerful of the Mirage's two engine options: a 113-horsepower (heh) 1.8-liter four-cylinder. This was my first sporty car and the car that spurned my love for performance modification.
Oh, I had aspirations of importing the 172-horsepower Japanese-spec 1.6 liter engine or swapping in the turbocharged, all-wheel-drive drivetrain and wild bodywork of the Lancer Evolution IV to create a Frankenstein Evo-coupe. However, on my 19-year-old college student budget, the furthest I got was adding front and rear strut tower bars, a rear lower tie bar, and an aftermarket intake (also LED washer nozzles and tire valve stem caps, but we don't talk about that anymore).
The Mirage didn't suffer any of the abuse that the Camry had to deal with and enjoyed a rather pampered existence. Unfortunately, the coupe ultimately met its demise on one of my legendary late-night road trips from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia. She will be missed.
2000 Ford Escort ZX2 coupe
My next car was a lightly used Ford Escort ZX2. Yes, a Ford Escort, but before you laugh, know that this is one of my all-time-favorite cars. The missing link between the Ford Escort and the Ford Focus, the ZX2 handled like a dream, got good power from its 128-horsepower 2.0-liter engine, and was remarkably easy to modify. As I understand, the ZX2 was designed by Ford's SVT division then toned down, so there were all sorts of tuner car leftovers under the hood.
For example, there was no need to buy an aftermarket intake. One simply needed to hacksaw the restricter off of the stock airbox and--boom--free power. One of the best ways to boost handling was to swap the rear antisway bar with the thicker unit from a previous generation Escort LX to dramatically reduce understeer. It just so happened that my brother owned a previous generation Escort LX, so I made the swap. Nice, right?
Wrong. Months later, while parking-lot hooning with my buddies, the Escort snap oversteered and wrapped itself around a tree. It just goes to show you that the best upgrade you can make to your car is the driver.
1994 Ford Escort LX
With the ZX2 out of commission, my brother graciously loaned me his 1994 Ford Escort LX hatchback for a few months. Yes, the very same 1994 LX that I'd swapped antisway bars with months prior. With the lighter ZX2's thinner antisway bar in place, the LX's handling went from just "meh" to downright horrible, which was highlighted by the fact that I kept trying to drive the LX like the ZX2.
My time in this car was, thankfully, quite brief.
2000 Mitsubishi Galant ES
After years behind the wheel of sporty coupes, I got a great deal on a 2000 Mitsubishi Galant ES. In hindsight, about half of my hometown must have gotten the same great deal because suddenly Augusta, Georgia was flooded with eighth-generation Mitsubishi Galants.
I'm not sure what it was about this particular vintage of Galant, but I've never in my life seen one with all four hubcaps in place. So after losing and replacing a few, I elected to just roll with the naked steelies for a stealth look (at least, that's what I told myself while I saved up for a new set of wheels.)
Like the Mirage that I owned years prior, my aspirations were lofty and included an engine and drivetrain swap with the mighty Galant VR-4. In reality, performance mods included an AEM cold air intake that converted to a short ram during the rainy season, a front strut tower bar, and performance brake pads. Mods of questionable value included repainting all of the cabin's faux-wood trim in a deep metallic red to match the body and DIY blacked-out Japanese domestic market-style headlamps with clear turn signals.
2004 Acura RSX Type-S
After years of attempting to convert econoboxes into sports cars, I was finally able to buy a sports car of my own when I picked up a lightly used Acura RSX Type-S in January 2007. Interestingly, the RSX was the first vehicle I owned that was equipped with a manual transmission. I learned to row my own gears on the dealer's lot in this very car shortly after signing on the dotted line.
The first month of my time with this car was spent stalling and grinding gears, but before long I was shifting smoothly. Even after years of driving sports coupes as a Car Tech editor, the Type-S still remains one of my favorite cars of all time. Perhaps that was because I grew a good deal as a driver while behind its wheel, but mostly it's because the RSX is a truly good car.
The sole engine mod made was an intake mod that mostly just enhanced the sound, but with 200-horsepower from its i-VTEC 2.0-liter engine, I was pretty happy with the power to begin with. I chose to spend most of my time tweaking the handling. Mods included performance springs that lowered the ride height by about an inch, upgraded suspension bushings, and stickier tires. In the cabin, I added a short throw shifter.