There are a few specific criteria a car must meet in order to earn the approval of the car enthusiast community at large. Arguably the two most important things to the average enthusiast are an available manual transmission and rear- or all-wheel drive.
There’s a car that meets neither of those important criteria that deserves a second look from both enthusiast and casual drivers alike. I’m talking about the criminally underrated GM "W" platform — and specifically the second generation, which started in 1997. These were mid- to full-size cars which were all front-wheel-drive with automatic transmissions. Examples include the Buick Regal, Chevy Impala and Pontiac Grand Prix from the late 1990s through the mid-2000s.
My personal ownership experience with the W-body is with a 2001 Chevy Monte Carlo SS. Elephant in the room: This is the car to blame for Chevy’s phase of "SS-ing all the things" in the 2000s. We can argue about whether or not that front-wheel-drive V6 coupe was worthy of an SS badge, but either way, I loved that car. Up here in Wisconsin, we have limited options for enthusiast cars. I could’ve gotten a Camaro, but I was 19 and didn’t have the space or the money for a second car to drive in our horrible winters — and I didn’t want to mess around with winter tires. I needed a solid year-rounder that I could enjoy driving and maybe modify a little bit. All signs pointed to the Monte SS.
I put on a tasteful aftermarket cat-back exhaust, American Racing rims (don’t worry, they were only an inch bigger than stock) and a few other light modifications here and there. What I ended up with was a pseudo-muscle car that was low-cost, low-maintenance and stood out without being too in-your-face. It didn’t hurt that girls liked it, too.
It was powered by a naturally-aspirated 3.8-liter V6 called the 3800 Series II. This engine was shared with the V6 variants of the F-body Camaro and Firebird at the time, but turned sideways. It was spectacularly reliable, respectably efficient, and it had enough power to be fun to drive every day — but not so much that it was too easy to get in trouble. When I eventually sold my Monte Carlo, it had about 193,000 miles on the clock and it was still on the original 4-speed automatic transmission. It’s not uncommon for these cars to pass 200k with plenty of life left.
But there are lots of reliable, efficient cars out there that are more interesting — so what makes the W-body different? What’s really special about the W-body is that it was instrumental in kicking off the era of the reliable, everyday car that isn’t oppressively boring to drive. Now we have traditionally boring sedans that hustle to 60 mph in under 6 seconds and hot hatches that deliver more fun than you should be allowed to have for under $20k. It was a different story in the late 1990s.
Also, it’s a great car for someone who wants to get into cars. If you’ve always been interested in cars, but you’ve never owned a particularly interesting car, pick whichever W-body you like (make sure it has a 3800) and go nuts. They’re super-easy to wrench on, making them good for the aspiring mechanic. There’s a ton of online fan support (no, seriously, these cars have fanboys) and aftermarket parts out there — so you can modify the car as much or as little as you want to suit your tastes. I especially recommend it if you live in a snowy climate and you can only realistically own one car.
Go ahead and make fun of the W-body all you want. These lovable front-drivers will have the last laugh when the snow starts flying — and when you total up your repair bills. Find a Chevrolet Monte Carlo for sale