Master your mechanics using a Japanese car, then get the GT3

By: Baraza JM

Hello Baraza,

I really enjoy your articles; keep up the good work! I have always been fascinated by cars and engines. Be it watching rallies, touring car championships, F1 you name it, I love it (except NASCAR, what is wrong with Americans?). Speed, power, performance, car tuning and driving skills have always intrigued me and I hope to be a racing driver in my next life.

Now, this passion has created an interest in me to better understand cars and their general workings. I’m looking to purchase a vehicle but there is a twist: I want to do all the general service and repairs that I can myself. “How?” you ask. Internet forums, YouTube and online manuals. Only when I royally mess up will I tuck my tail between my legs, call a breakdown service and tow my car to a garage and endure the smug “I told you so!” grin on my mechanic’s face.

My maximum budget is Sh800,000 and I would like your opinion on what vehicle to get considering several factors:

Simplicity: As you know, when you pop the hoods of some cars, things look so complicated you don’t even know what is what.

Engines: I want one made between 1998 and 2008. I think they are modern enough and most of their problems are easily solved.

Usage: This will also be my daily runner, so good fuel economy will be a bonus.

My preferences are a Honda, Mazda or Subaru (should I mess with boxer engines?). I have access to a garage so tools and diagnostic tools are not an issue. I think my experience with this car will make me understand cars better as I save up for my GT3 (I want to do things to that car) and in a few years time be tearing down in it and showing a few guys dust at one of your gymkhanas.

Your brutal honesty will be appreciated.


Greetings Felix,

It sure warms my heart to see the passion you have. The three vehicle makes you choose are ideal for the budding grease monkey in that they are Japanese and thus pretty easy and straightforward to work on.

The rule of thumb here is to try and avoid anything with more than four cylinders. You could stretch to six cylinders at a pinch, but these engines get more complex the higher the number of cylinders.

Complexity aside, there is also the tendency to cramp and crowd the engine bay, making simple tasks a knuckle-skinning affair, or necessitating unnecessary extra steps such as removing other parts.

Cars from the 1990s were the best, in my opinion. There was that perfect balance between simplicity and technological advancement. They weighed less and felt more involving to drive. Their designs were purposeful and their interiors, while not exactly pretty, reminded you that you were in fact inside a car.

Nowadays with telematics, GPS, Bluetooth, and a myriad buttons replacing all sorts of controls, cars are becoming more evocative of creations from The Jetsons.

So while 1998 might be seen as one of the best years as far as Japanese motoring went — all these cars were on sale at the time: the Subaru Impreza GC8/GF8, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VI, Mazda RX7 FD, Mk. IV Toyota Supra and Honda NSX, among others. Thus my personal tastes would drive me backwards in time rather than forward. I’d say the decade spanning 1991 to 2001 would rank as the ultimate as far as no-frills drivers’ (and enthusiasts’) cars go.

They weren’t too complex to understand, and they weren’t as crude as a Trabant from the 1960s. More importantly, they are epic to drive.

Back to the real world of garden-variety Hondas, Mazdas and Subarus: good fuel economy is not a fantasy, it can be had. For best results, stick to the hatchbacks and/or small saloons: Civic for the Honda, or an Accord 1.8, but you need a light foot for this; 323 for the Mazda; and Impreza for the Subaru.

Pre-1998 cars might or might not have carburettors (except for the Subarus, which all have EFI), so find one with fuel injection. Any of these cars will give you the introductory lesson to spannering that you might apply to your GT3 later on when you become master of your craft.

Get that GT3. I will be waiting.


I love the work you do. Your articles are not only informative but very funny as well.

First, I would like to know how you gathered such extensive know-how on all things car related.

Second, as a new driver who has just finished driving school, how can I perfect my driving skills and remain confident and competent on the road. I find it somewhat scary but exciting. However, I can’t go above 60km/hr though am aspiring to be a future petrolhead.

Ms Mwaura.

Hi Ms Mwaura,

The know-how was acquired over years and years of ingesting automotive publications and bingeing on videos, manuals, magazines, books and the Internet.

Being the son of a man who was his own mechanic also helped a lot, as did exposure to an inordinately large number of vehicles up to, and including but not limited to, saloons, sports cars, agricultural equipment and motorbikes.

It is a never-ending process: every day I learn something new; I experience something noteworthy which will be filed away for strategic deployment should the appropriate query ever hit my inbox.

There is only one way to improve on your driving skills and boost your confidence: practice. Just drive and keep driving as long as you can and as far as you can through as many situations as you can.

It is always scary in the early days, but you will find yourself driving faster and better the more adapted you become to the exercise.

It just takes time. The excitement rarely dies, and even if you get used to the speed and the temptation to provoke the NTSA is there, there are other ways to keep things interesting.

Don’t do this at this stage, but little petrolhead experiments go a long way in livening up a drive. Go on an economy run. See how far you can drive without braking (and without being a hazard to other people or to yourself: if you have to brake then do so). Try and perfect the heel-and-toe method of changing gear with a manual car.

Perform calculations using the rev counter, e.g what is the gearing in top? In first? Through the intermediates?

Being a petrolhead is not about pushing the needle to the rightmost corner of the speedometer. That is just a stressful, dangerous and wasteful effort.

The world of the car anorak centres on the love of all things automotive: be it outward appearance, technical aspects, fingertip knowledge, driving if you like anything to do with cars then you are a petrolhead.

You don’t need to be a Transporter-grade professional getaway driver or a world-class, race-worthy mechanic to qualify, though more-than-average skills/knowledge in these two fields will optimise your rank in places where it doesn’t really matter.

Long story short: you are not a future petrolhead. You are a current petrolhead. Peace!