The fast life may not be for everyone, but the notion that it is only accessible to those with unlimited funds is a fallacy. One of the hallmarks of this lifestyle is fast and sexy cars, but did you know that you can get behind the wheel of some of the best sports cars for under $30,000? Of course, you could double down and pick up something more premium like a BMW M2, but even that’s still a fair deal less than the $100k plus you’d need for something like a Porsche Taycan Turbo or Audi R8.
American muscle cars are a great way to get into the world of motoring enthusiasts without breaking the bank, but they aren’t the only options. Mazda, Honda, and Nissan each have something to offer. Heck, even the big brands like BMW, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz offer great entry-level options at affordable prices. But, if you had to make a shortlist of affordable, fun-to-drive cars, it should include these five sports cars.
1. Mazda Miata MX-5
Even a list of the very best performance cars should probably include the Miata MX-5, despite its extremely low price tag. A masterpiece of engineering, the Mazda roadster has everything you need to experience a few driving thrills. The naturally aspirated four-pot engine is punchy without being excessive, but it’s the handling dynamics that make the MX-5 so much fun. It plays with corners, throwing itself into turns with gusto before rocketing out, and its low weight means that it remains agile.
You don’t get a lot of safety features, but the interior feels like you’re getting more than your money’s worth. This is probably because there are no rear seats at all, and the trunk is miniscule. All in all, the Miata doesn’t care about being practical; it’s all about fun. And in this regard, it’s hard to beat. The low price tag makes it eminently accessible, but what really draws people in is its sexy styling and renown as a sports car like no other. Rather than relying on ludicrous engine output figures, it focuses on what really matters.
Whether you’re cruising around town or decide to take it to the track, the MX-5 delivers a delightful driving experience. It’s not the fastest, but it has some of the best handling and a playful spirit that many more powerful sports cars lose in their mad scramble to be number one.
2. Chevrolet Camaro
If you do want a fun car that is also practical, then the Camaro is a strong contender. It falls more into the muscle car category, as with most US-made performance vehicles, but it can do more than go fast in a straight line. Those that appreciate the spirit of driving will stick with six-speed manual transmission, but an auto is available. The mid-tier turbo V6 engine with 335 horsepower and 284 lb-ft of torque is more than sufficient, but real speedfreaks won’t settle for less than the 455-hp V8.
As with most affordable cars from the USA, the interior is lackluster and there are plenty of cheap materials. But the fact that the back seat is usable and there is a pretty decent amount of cargo space in the trunk will endear the Camaro to those who like to balance work with play. However, the naturally aspirated engine is thirsty, returning subpar fuel economy figures, which may dissuade some buyers who want to see their investment stretch a little further.
3. BMW Z4 Roadster
Nothing says driving pleasure like a convertible, and the Z4 goes a step further by shouting it. As the most expensive option in this list, it naturally provides a more premium experience. It’s good looks are undeniable, and the cockpit is laden with top-grade materials. Naturally, it only seats two, as any good drop-top should, but the trunk is actually big enough for a weekend’s worth of luggage if you’re heading down the coast for a getaway.
But, what really sells the Z4 is the same thing as every other BMW. Unbridled driving pleasure. Handling is sharp and precise, easily making the best use of the 255 hp on tap from the turbo-four engine. However, if you want the soundtrack to go with experience, the inline-six is the way to go. But you won’t regret sticking to your budget, as even the base model has everything you need to really lose yourself on the road.
4. Honda Civic Si
Back in the day when hatchbacks were all the rage, the Honda Civic Type R was the one to beat. It embodied the ideals of a hot hatch. Sadly, the body went out of style when everyone decided practicality was king and traded up for an SUV or crossover. The Type R still exists, but you’re more likely to spot a Civic Si on the roads these days. Available as a sedan or coupe, it is actually more affordable than the five-door, while still delivering an engaging drive and a certain degree of practicality.
The manual transmission is one of the best on the market, allowing for easy heel-and-toe rev-matching and slick shifts between gears. Few rivals can keep up with the Si around the bends, despite the front-wheel-drive setup. The fact that the Honda doubles up as a great daily driver only helps to make it more attractive to young motorists who can’t afford a separate vehicle just for fun.
5. Mini John Cooper Works
Minis are designed to be fun and not much else. Technically, they are premium cars, manufactured under the watchful eye of BMW, but they can’t compete in terms of luxury. They look great, if their unique aesthetic appeals to you, and there is enough high-grade material around the cabin to make you feel superior to the average motorist. However, to get access to the best tech and creature comforts, you have to spend through the nose.
The John Cooper Works trims are slightly higher-tier than the standard Minis and also come with a stronger 228-hp power plant. This allows the British hot hatch to sprint to 60 mph in a brisk 5.9 seconds. But what makes the Mini so popular is that its small size allows it to utilize its power to deliver unbridled fun. Sharp, responsive steering and a stiff suspension means that it dispatches corners with aplomb.
While such a compact and sporty car may not have much to offer in terms of practicality, thanks to cramped rear seats and a tiny trunk, it is actually quite light on fuel, returning great mileage figures. This makes it appealing as a daily commuter, though you probably won’t be able to do much grocery shopping on your way back from work.
There are numerous other options than those mentioned above when it comes to getting into the world of high-speed and fun sports cars. If you can get your hands on a hot hatch, a style that may not be so popular in the US anymore, some great options include the Volkswagen Golf FTi and the Hyundai Veloster.
VW has always been a go-to name in this segment and the Golf has been refined over the years to be one of the best hatchbacks on the road. Powered by a spunky turbocharged four-cylinder, which is regulated by your choice of a manual or automatic transmission, it promises to deliver an enjoyable driving experience. To top it all off, hatchbacks are known for their surprising levels of practicality despite their diminutive size, and the Golf GTI is easy to live with as a daily driver.
If you aren’t so strapped for cash that only the most affordable cars are viable, you may want to consider an entry-level premium vehicle. The smallest Mercedes-AMG model is the CLA 45, asking for a little over $50k. However, it earns every penny with its magnificent turbo four-pot, all-wheel drivetrain, and refined handling.
It may not be as razorsharp as its BMW counterpart, but it makes up for this with a far more sumptuous cabin and a longer list of standard technology. If you’re spending this much for your sports car, chances are you can’t afford to have a separate everyday driver. Luckily, the CLA supplies usable rear seats and a reasonable trunk that can handle the grocery shopping.
Lastly, there are a few fun SUVs and crossovers out there if you really do need to be practical. As an all-electric car, the Tesla Model Y has a great deal of power on tap and can sprint to 60 mph in a quick 3.5 seconds in Performance guise. It’s not the most nimble vehicle, but it can give you some excitement between dropping the kids off at school and getting to work. The Ford Mustang Mach-E falls much into the same category. However, if you want good old-fashioned combustion power, your only real options are the Mercedes GLA or BMW X2, which both cost a bit more.