Going to Cal Poly enabled me to live at home for the first two years, then I rented an apartment in Pasadena with a few other CS students for the last two. In between, I took a 6-month internship at Be, Inc., which was a wonderful experience in many ways: living on my own for the first time, living in Silicon Valley, getting paid to work on a real commercial product, and meeting other engineers. Best of all, through a chain of events, my Be experience eventually led to my current job at Google.
Because I lived off-campus, I spent many hours driving around the parking lots looking for an empty space before class. Because of this, I became a bit of a connoisseur of the many varieties of Honda Civic and similar small cars that other students had customized to various degrees. I was especially amused by the mods people often did to make their car look more powerful than it actually was, such as ridiculous-looking aftermarket spoilers and my personal favorite, massive diameter exhaust tips welded onto the factory muffler. If you're not familiar with this phenomenon, here's a forum post with a description and some photos of a few of the more egregious examples.
At the time I was driving a Saturn, so it's not like I had anything to brag about myself, but one thing I quickly realized was that if you want a high performance car and you're on a limited budget, it's probably worth saving your money to buy the "performance" model of whatever car you're interested in, rather than getting the cheap version and then spending even more money trying to soup it up to some approximation of the good version.
After I graduated and started making enough money to buy a nice car, I bought a used 1998 BMW 328i which was a great car, and my first with a manual transmission. I had to sell it later, but after I got some more money, I bought a 1999 BMW 328is, which was essentially the coupe version of the same car (the 328is was the last model to transition to the E46 platform, so both of mine were E36).
In 2005, I got hired as a software engineer at a small company called Danger, Inc., which designed the hardware and software for the hiptop smartphone (aka the T-Mobile Sidekick). I found out about Danger from my former manager at Be, whom I contacted in 2005 to ask about interesting jobs in Silicon Valley. He told me about Danger, which sounded really cool, and armed with some previous work experience writing apps for Symbian Series 60, I sailed through the interview and got the job.
By late 2006, I had saved up some money so I decided to trade in the BMW for a more economical car. I was living in San Francisco at the time, and a stick shift isn't the most convenient for things like parallel parking on a steep hill. The bigger problem was that the BMW had enough miles on it that maintenance was becoming very expensive, and of course the mileage wasn't great. So I traded it in for a new 2007 Toyota Prius.
The Prius is a great car, and I still have it, but it's not particularly exciting to drive. In a few ways I did find it to be an improvement over the BMW. The biggest difference is that BMW, Porsche, and other sports car companies like to make a big deal out of their cars having rear-wheel drive, because it supposedly offers better handling due to a more balanced weight ratio between the front and rear wheels. In practice, I find front-wheel drive to be slightly easier and more intuitive for both regular and emergency maneuvering, and it also saves weight and cost, with the potential for better fuel economy.
Some other things I like about the Prius are motor-driven power steering, which provides just the right amount of steering assistance for the current speed, and two features that are required for Toyota's hybrid system but are becoming more popular on regular gas engine cars as well: electronic throttle control (the gas pedal is "fly-by-wire" and the ECU controls the real throttle) and push-button start.
So I decided I wanted to buy a second car that would be more fun to drive and would offer the benefits of the Prius along with the performance that I had to give up when I traded in the BMW. I also wanted to get another manual transmission, because I find it really fun to drive, and it also forces me to pay full attention to my driving. I also wanted something that would get reasonable gas mileage and preferably would take regular unleaded rather than premium gasoline.
A few months ago, on a trip to LA, the new Hyundai Veloster caught my eye. It has a style that I found to be quite attractive. I read a bunch of reviews and it became clear that if I was going to get one, it would have to be the Turbo version, because the regular version is not very exciting, performance-wise (it uses the same 1.6L 4-cylinder engine as the Hyundai Accent subcompact). The turbocharged version offers 201 HP (150 kW) and similarly impressive torque.
In addition to my time at Cal Poly, I learned most of what I know about tuner cars from the many hours I spent playing Need For Speed: Underground on my laptop. The one thing you can do in that game, or in any other racing game with tuning options (like Gran Turismo 5) to provide the biggest performance boost to any car is to add a turbocharger (or replace it with a bigger one).
American car buyers are slowly waking up to this fact, because until recently, most of the high-end automakers only sold big-displacement 6- and 8-cylinder engines for their sports cars, not 4-cylinder turbos. This is changing, though, and even BMW has just announced they will be bringing a 4-cylinder turbo to the U.S. as the 320i. The news articles are emphasizing the lower price compared to the 328i, but unfortunately the mileage is not going to be better than the 328i, so the lower price is apparently the only selling point for the smaller engine.
What about hybrids? It turns out there is one type of hybrid engine that is compatible with a manual transmission, which is the type that Honda pioneered with the Insight. The closest model they have to what I was looking for is the CR-Z, which would be nice if it had more power, but unfortunately the electric motor component is so wimpy (14 HP / 10 kW) that the combined gas + electric power is about the same as the regular Hyundai Veloster, which is no match for the Veloster Turbo. Perhaps a future CR-Z will offer something competitive with the turbo hatchbacks.
One thing I did before buying my car was to race it for many hours in Forza Motorsport 4, which I bought for my Xbox 360 specifically because Hyundai released a free downloadable Veloster Turbo add-on for it. Fortunately I also discovered that Forza 4 is a far more enjoyable game overall than Gran Turismo 5. If you're interested in a particular car that's available in Forza, I highly recommend racing it in the game to see if you like the engine performance, gear ratios, and basic handling.
In fact, there are a lot of great cars on the market with very similar features to the one I bought, from a variety of automakers. Just keep in mind my earlier observation about buying the "good" model to begin with instead of getting the cheap model and trying to tune it up.
The other thing I learned from playing many hours of Forza 4 and other games is that almost all the racing modifications you can make to a particular car are going to cost you something in return: noise, ride comfort, ground clearance, mileage, ability to pass California's notoriously stringent emissions checks, etc.
Therefore, your best bet is to find the style of "tuner car" that you like and then keep it stock, because it has already been pre-tuned by the manufacturer to balance all of these conflicting goals to give you good performance along with a quiet, smooth, fuel-efficient ride. I love racing my upgraded Veloster Turbo in Forza 4 but I'm also quite happy that the stock turbocharger doesn't make noises like a tea kettle or like the air brakes on a bus when I change gears. It also has enough ground clearance and a stiff enough suspension that I have not bottomed out once on a speed bump or driveway ramp, something I could not say about the BMW or even the Prius!
I got a little carried away writing the intro, so I'm writing part 2 to cover my thoughts on the car itself and some of the features that I liked. Stay tuned...