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In January of this year, 2011, I bought a 2001 5dr 1.6 SR with a 5sp manual. I've loved this car since I bought it. I come from learning to drive in a 1992 Ford Fairmont, so this was definitely a refreshing change. The one I bought came very well equipped for a 10 year old, $7,400 car. It has the all black interior with A/C, CD Player, nice speakers (upgrading the stock head unit to an aftermarket one makes a world of difference, the stock speakers are surprisingly capable), plenty of space and the previous owner fitted roof racks and the alloy wheels from a GTI, so it's one heck of a looker; sporty, classy, but not showy.
The drive, I find is just right. I like a good, solid car that gives ample feedback and road information, in which respect, this car delivers very well. One must bear in mind though, that the 1.6 model is no sports car and as such, the ride is appropriately comfortable. Overall, nice around town, but is still a joy to take down a twisty country road.
The engine is also a very satisfying choice. I know what big engines are like, having learned to drive in the 4.0l Fairmont and having regularly driven my brother's torquey 2.8 VR6 Bora. I was also tempted by the idea of going for a MK3 VR6, but decided I'd be better off with the newer, more reliable version. Having driven and experienced more powerful cars, I am also very aware of the cost of feeding such engines. As a graduating high school student and soon to be uni student, I can understand the value of an efficient engine, which is why I'm happy to have gotten an engine that regularly averages between 30 - 40 mpg, or, roughly two weeks for $40, assuming a normal schedule. Performance wise, the engine is a good compromise. It's not a sporty engine, by any means, but past about 2,500 - 3,000 rpm, all the way up to nearly 7,000 rpm, it's got plenty of poke and is a joy to drive. It's also got a nice, throaty sound to it as well. Gearing, I find is quite well placed, as going 110km/h on the highway, the engine is right in the middle of it's torque band for relatively easy overtaking without having to change down.
One big aspect for me in a car like this, is the exceptional interior quality. The car is overall a job to be in and a joy to use. All of the components have a feel of quality and comfort. Nothing is a stretch to reach, or a hassle to operate. I love some of the little touches you notice here and there as well. For instance the fold out handles on the roof near the doors seem to have some sort of rubber part inside them so they fold back slowly and quietly, or the way the interior lights fade on or off and the beautiful, softish material the dash is made from.
Now, for reliability. This car started off on a bit of a bad foot, but to be fair, it wasn't really a reliability problem. Not long after I bought it, the gear changes became almost unbearably difficult. After much fiddling and searching, it became apparent the previous driver had worn the clutch down past the plate and there were little metal rivets that were never supposed to be exposed, catching and jamming things up. More a driving style fault than a car fault I'd say. Other than that, there were a few little maintenance things to be dealt with: gearbox oil, engine oil, coolant temp sensor, low battery and I think that's it. It's been doing great now and hasn't presented any more serious problems.
I hope to have a long and happy relationship with this car and highly recommend it!