Everyone deserves a little fun, right? We got to thinking about all of the low-cost, high-fun rides out there, and we decided to compile a little list of the best ones to have a good time in. They’re not all lithe sportscars – some are more boulevard cruisers – but they all have the potential to bring out the inner hoon on the cheap. Plus, they’re on this list because they represent some of the best bang for the buck in their respective niches. So read on!
1. Acura Integra (DA9 and DC2)
The Integra is still coveted by the aftermarket, despite having been out of production since 2001 (if you don’t count the RSX, which you really shouldn’t). Why does this gussied-up Honda get so much street cred? Well, with enough tuner parts to cover the surface of the moon 3′ deep having been produced for the various Integra models, the sheer customizability of the thing gets it points. It can also be a sweet, balanced driver, combining a family of high-revving fours with trademark Honda reliability. And they’re cheap. Good luck finding a pristine one though – but hey, it’s just for fun, so who cares about the illegal JDM engine swap or the rickety fiberglass bumpers?
2. Alfa Romeo Spyder
Unlike the Integra above, the Alfa can’t claim “reliability” as one of its assets. However, it more than makes up for that in character. From iffy electricals to the goofy semi-horizontal gearshifter, it certainly won’t bore you. And despite being slow in absolute terms, the sweet-sounding twin-cam singing in its Italian tenor pairs nicely with a twisty road. Just get home before dark. Reliability concerns aside, there were a huge number of these built so they’re cheap, parts are available, and there are scores of specialists who can help you keep them on the road. No unobtainable trim pieces or anything, just some cheap thrills in a nice Italian suit.
3. BMW 2002
One of the most pure driver’s sedans (using sedan here in that it’s not a fastback or a hatchback coupe) in the world, the 2002 took up the mantle from hundreds of high-strung British and Italian sedans and translated it into a crisp, confident Teutonic driving tool. With its love-it-or-hate-it huge greenhouse and fussy details, its not for everyone, but the great-grandaddy of the 3-series was one of the first BMWs to be an all-around driver. Great handling, a wonderful motor, and (maybe most importantly for this list) produced in huge numbers, making them cheap and easy to find, just like the Alfa above. Plus, those Germans and their engineering … these panzerwagens last for a good long time before they go kaput. Get one with a nice California patina and cram a turbocharged motor in it, and give any M3 you can find a run for its money.
4. BMW 318ti
Continuing with a theme, this is another love-or-hate car. The “ti” got no love back in the day, when people usually ignored it or wondered what happened to the rest of the car. The strange notchback styling worked in Europe but was lost on BMW buyers used to either high-lux or high-sport offerings (a problem with the way BMW had positioned themselves in the cocaine-fueled ’80s?). Those who could get over themselves and into a “ti” found something akin to the BMW 2002 of old – light, tossable, and sporty in a retro way. Plus it carried over the famed semi-trailing rear suspension from the previous generation E30 3-Series, which made it either dangerously prone to oversteer or delightfully tail-happy, depending on your Ralph Nader quotient. Plenty of folks have shoehorned fire-breathing tuned sixes from M3s into them, and we highly suggest you do the same.
5. BMW Z3 Coupe
We can hear you muttering, “Wait, don’t you mean M Coupe?” Nope. And here’s why – the M Coupe is a great car, but it is for another list without “budget” or “cheap” in the title. While the normal Z3 Coupe is rare and relatively expensive when compared to a Z3 convertible, they’re still somewhere on the order of $10k less than your average M Coupe. Plus, you get the benefit of that super-rigid chassis – 2.7 times as stiff – plus the same trailing arm suspension that makes the 318ti such a hoot. They all come with 2.8 or 3.0L sixes, so no puny four-banger here. Basically, ditch the M badge and save up for a supercharger, and you’ll be happier in the end.
6. Cadillac Eldorado (Northstar)
We’re not arguing that the Eldorado is a sportscar at all. So stop thinking that. Save the hate mail for a different car on this list. The Caddy makes the cut because of its engine, mostly. While it’s wrong-wheel drive, the big Northstar V8 is a wonderful engine, and it is more than enough to get the Eldo up to a comfortable cruising speed. If you need to cover long highway distances in between stints as a warlord-grade hoon, with a couple of friends who have expensive liquid or powder habits, and you might stop in Vegas or Atlantic City on the way, we can think of few cheaper or more comfortable ways to do so. Plus, who says that a front-wheel burnout can’t be just as fun as a rear-wheel one?
7. Chevrolet Camaro
Yeah, pretty much take any generation of this all-‘Merican tire melter and you’ll have a package that rates pretty high on the engine/price index. But what about those asthmatic mid-’80s slugs? Well, they’re really cheap, so your fun to price ratio is maintained. Sure there are stereotypes associated with the Camaro – we say you should embrace them! Get a muscle shirt, crank up the Def Leppard, and rock the $#@% out. You’re virtually guaranteed to get a hydrocarbon-induced high from the poorly tuned small-block, and the seats might induce scoliosis, but hey, you’re just trying to ROCK, so you can deal. With crappy enough tires, even the lowly Iron Duke equipped models could probably smoke the inside tire coming out of a fast corner. If that ain’t fun, we don’t know what is.
8. Datsun 280ZX
Pick up any 280ZX you want – we bet the nicest one you can find shouldn’t top $4000. Grow a big, nasty ‘stache just like this dude and make sure you have some serious chest hair for a big “ZX” medallion to rest in. If you have a white-guy afro, so much the better. The ZX wasn’t quite as lithe as the Z it replaced, but there’s still enough juice there to have a good time. Just stay at least 300′ away from elementary schools and you should be just fine.
We rest our case.
9. Dodge Omni GLH
We don’t even know where to begin with this one. You get extra hipster points just for reading through this section of the article, but imagine how ironic it would be if you actually bought and fixed up your own Omni? Here’s your opportunity to live out your ’80s John Hughes (RIP) movie fantasies … the girl next door will definitely dig it if you’re rocking a hot yet practical hatch. Everyone loves a Corey Feldman-style pseudo-rebel, so go for it! And when the overstressed little motor blows up, or the Omni falls apart around itself amid a comical cloud of dust, I’m sure you’ll find a way to make it into a comedic situation that lets you redeem yourself, just like in the movies! You should even get some cred from the Mopar guys … er, at least the Mopar guys who think the Shelby Rampage was a great truck. Hey, at least they’re cheap, right?
10. Ford Mustang (Fox-platform)
Even more than the Camaro, the Fox-body Mustang might represent the cheapest and easiest route to smoky getaways. Grab an LX 5.0 and you’ll have a freakin’ cornucopia of bolt-ons, dirt cheap, that will add gobs of power. Hot cams, forced induction, side-exit exhaust … the sky is the limit, man. Plus, they are aging well in the style department, at least from the outside. Now, if you get an SVO, extra triple bonus points. They also share most of their running gear with a whole host of other Fords from the Turbo Era – T-birds, the Merkur XR4Ti, etc. You really can’t go wrong here, as the most pristine Fox Mustang on the planet probably could be had for a modest fistful of Benjamins. Possibly the best fun-to-money ratio on the list, to be honest with you (and this is from an individual who doesn’t even particularly like Mustangs!).
11. Ford Focus SVT
While we mostly think of the Focus as the long-in-the-tooth runner up to the current awesome Euro Focus, back in the day it was a credible contender and a valiant effort on the part of Ford to finally build a successful “world car.” The SVT was the hottest of the bunch, utilizing some nifty head-porting and unique internals (all with help from Cosworth) to jump 40 HP over the stock version to make a total of 170. Not half bad for a little naturally-aspirated hatch. They also snagged a Getrag 6-speed manual pulled from the Mini Cooper S, and some suspension goodies to round out the package. While no one will claim it was the fastest or best handling hatch on the market, it was solidly above average. Cursed with the same incredible depreciation as most other late model domestics, SVT Focii are relatively cheap and offer a lot for the money.
12. Honda Civic “EC” 3-door
There are lots of Civics that deserve a place here. You may disagree with me that I chose the EC hatch as the one to go on the list, but I just like ‘em. The CRX gets a nod as a close contender, as do the EG and EK hatches that followed. But enough about them – why the EC? First of all, properly set up, it is hard to beat their low, squat stance. Something about the chunky rectangular back, with all its horizontal-ness … it seems to me at least that the car is aging well. Combined with a small but eager four-banger, and fully independent suspension (including that hallowed coilover multi-link rear), these things can really handle. Think of it as a Mini (but not a Cooper), except without the oil spots on the driveway. And considering the Honda aftermarket scene, you can do just about anything you want to them. Be a little different from the rest of the Civic crowd and consider an EC.
13. Infiniti M45 (1st Generation)
We’re not going to try and gloss over the ugly truth here: the 1st gen M45 was ugly as sin. It was also only offered with an automatic. Why is it on the list, then? Take a peek under the hood, and you’ll notice a VK45DE 4.5 liter V8 sourced from the much larger Q45, making 340 horsepower and 333 ft-lbs of torque. Because of the horsepower insanity of the last few years, 340 HP isn’t likely to make that many folks’ jaws drop. I mean, you can get a WRX STi up to 340 with a few mods. But we are willing to argue that this highly sophisticated DOHC, variable-valve timing-equipped motor is something special, and getting it in a smaller package than the big Q is worth something. It knocked out the 0-60 mph run in 5.8 in a contemporary Motor Trend test. That’s nothing to shake a stick at, and in addition to the performance, they’re also comfortable and relatively luxurious. Long road trips with a side of smoky, smoky burnouts? Yes please.
14. Isuzu Impulse
Suspension by Lotus. Designed by Giugiaro. Proper rear-wheel drive and an available 180 HP turbocharged 2 liter. That sure sounds good on paper. It would be easy to laugh if we pulled off the sheet on this hypothetical car and you were presented with an Isuzu badge … but hold on a sec. We’re not suggesting the Impulse was the best car out there, but in isolation its features are impressive. While just old enough now to be on the verge of being collectible, or at least valuable, they’re still cheaper than 3rd hand Escorts. As the market for old J-tin continues to pick up momentum, we think even the Impulse will eventually be swept up … it might not be the next Corolla TE21, but we don’t think it’ll be too long until nice, clean Impulses draw approving nods at old car shows. But this isn’t Mad Money, and we’re not going to recommend to you that the Impulse will appreciate in the future. We’re just saying it combines a decent drivetrain with cool 80s Giugiaro styling for the price of a clapped-out Chevy S10. What’s not to love?
Hold on, this isn’t even really a car … it’s a concept drawn out of the book called “Build Your Own Sportscar for £250″ by Ron Champion. Mr. Champion realized that while original Lotus 7s were terribly expensive, you could scour a junkyard and piece together all the components you needed to build a similar car for not a lot of money. While it was hard to actually build a Locost for the claimed £250 even back in the day, there’s a huge number of partial kits, plans, supplies, and advice out there if you want to make one on your own. Some of the best known kits are essentially cut-down Mazda Miatas, while others use high-strung motorcycle engines (notoriously, there is an LS7-powered Locost-style car running around). Because you’re doing most of the building and assembly, it’s ultimately up to you what you slot into the engine bay. Turbocharged 13B? Why not? Just don’t get your heart set on a Napier Deltic – we doubt anyone could make that setup work.
16. Mazda Miata
What can we say about the Miata that hasn’t been said before? You’ve heard journalists say hundreds of times that it is the “Lotus Elan reincarnated,” and the problem is that it’s completely true. It is a modern interpretation of the classic British sportscar, and it’s as reliable and fun as it’s billed. Plus, Mazda was cranking them out as fast as they could for most of the production run, so there are 400,000 1st and 2nd generation cars out there – the highest production convertible ever made. Parts are dirt cheap and plentiful, so no need to hoard trim pieces or obsessively comb flea markets. And you can do almost anything you want to the engine – turbos, superchargers, and swaps (especially the Ford 5.0L “Monster” conversion) are relatively simple. Plus they’re no slouches on the track – check out the Spec Miata series for some real driving excitement.
17. Mazda RX-7
Unlike the Miata above, the RX-7 doesn’t have a reputation for reliability or longevity. What it does have is a simply addictive motor. Drive one and you’ll find yourself stabbing the throttle ALL the time, just to hear that smooth burbling sound as the engine spools up. Driving an RX-7 for me for the first time was a revelation – after a life of cheap Japanese inline-fours, I finally understood what smooth meant. Plus, the 13B is one of the most versatile engines in existence, being relatively reliable in unstressed naturally aspirated applications, but capable of ingesting huge amounts of boost if you’re not so concerned about the future. Every generation, even the FC, looks pretty good when done properly (see above). First generation cars are still not collectible, so if you can get yourself comfortable with refurbishing rotary engines, you can pick up one for pennies on the dollar.
18. Mitsubishi Eclipse
Co-developed with Chrysler, the Eclipse (especially the AWD GSX models) was really the father of all modern high performance small cars from Japan. The Evo, WRX, and even the Mazdaspeed 3 and 6 owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Diamond Star coupe for getting the US buying public used to the notion of boosted four-bangers coupled to AWD systems. Unfortunately, the Eclipse suffers from the malady common to most high-performance used cars: prior owners beating the absolute snot out of them, and discarding them when they either hit something, got their license revoked, or the damn thing went up in flames. If you can find one that hasn’t been reconstructed with Superglue by a Ukrainian chop shop, then you’re in for a highly tunable and very quick ride considering the ridiculously low prices these things trade for.
19. Nissan 240SX
Ah, the drifting legend powered by a truck engine. From the bizarrely spartan interior to the slinky shape, the 240SX is sort of an all-business proposition. It wasn’t really designed for quick runs to the grocery – that is, unless your grocery was at the end of a serpentine mountain pass in Japan, swapping paint with a AE86 with wheels so offset they make low-riding mini-trucks look tame. Finding an unmolested one is getting hard, but if you only want to drift, you shouldn’t hack up a pristine one anyhow. Find a salvage titled one, import a SR20DET from Japan, and start kissing the rails.
20. Nissan Sentra SE-R (B13)
Just like the Hondas on this list, it’s wrong-wheel drive. It’s also packaged in some of the most mind-numbingly boring sheet metal the world has ever known – it makes the Yaris look like some sort of Pininfarina concept car. BUT, the Sentra SE-R had one trick up its sleeve, and that was an excellent 140 HP inline four, the SR20DE. This motor produced great power for a car of the Sentra’s diminutive stature, and it was also quite torquey, with 132 ft-lbs of twist at the driver’s disposal. Full independent suspension (none of this twist-beam nonsense) and a limited-slip differential ensured that this was actually a decent performer. It could pound out a 0-60 time in the mid 7 second range, which ain’t half bad considering the dearth of affordable power and performance at the time. It’s hard to describe the charm – if a car like this would can create a cult following despite looking less exciting than a bottle of Advil, then it must be pretty special.
21. Porsche 944
As much as we like the ‘70s charm of the 924 that preceded it, the 944 was really a big upgrade over the old tractor-engined car. Its huge 3.0L, 208 HP four-cylinder (debuting on the late S2 version of the car) goes down in history as one of the largest inline fours ever produced. And it didn’t shake like an unbalanced washing machine during an earthquake either – twin counter-rotating balance shafts smoothed out the ride (thanks to prior development by Mitsubishi, or all things). Plus it was torquey as hell, and it was draped in what we honestly consider to be some of the sexiest coupe bodywork every to be slathered onto a chassis. Despite looking VERY Italian, it was actually designed by Porsche as an update of their similarly in-house-designed 924. In any event, they’re all galvanized to resist tinworm, and there are still a ton of them out there, mostly languishing in a non-running state as the owner couldn’t afford the notoriously expensive timing belt job (about $2000 at a shop every 30,000 miles – and don’t forget, it’s an interference engine!). If you can do it yourself or have a Porsche mechanic that owes you a mob favor, you’ll have a sweet handling and sexy coupe for a lot less than any other car that looks this good.
22. Subaru Impreza 2.5RS
Ah, again, we’re avoiding the obvious WRX choice here. WRXs are still relatively desirable and therefore expensive, but the 2.5RS dropped off the face of the earth as soon as the real turbocharged cars hit the market. Previously the highest-performing Impreza (especially in the lighter coupe bodyshell), if you can overlook the power deficit (165 HP in the RS versus 220 in the later WRX), you’ll find more of a purist’s car. Because the coupe bodystyle died when the next generation came out, this is sort of the first and last of a breed – the two-door Impreza. So there is some exclusivity (and weight savings) there. Additionally, the motor isn’t that bad, you have full-time AWD, and they looked pretty cool. But hold on a sec – we can see the gears turning in there, thinking about fitting an STi mill into that light coupe shell. For our sake at least, don’t cut up a 2.5RS to do it – pick up a regular 1.8 or 2.2L two-door and perform the WRX-ectomy on that car. Allow someone on a budget who wants something unique to enjoy and preserve the 2.5RS, which I have a feeling will be both valuable and collectible in the future.
24. Saab 900 Turbo
Let’s forget about all that “born from jets” nonsense and focus on the fact that at one point in the not-so-distant past, Saab was making quirky, unique, and fun cars. Starting with the awesomely schizophrenic 99 Turbo and it’s maniacal on-off turbo (wait for it …. wait for it …. SMACK hit a tree), the 900 Turbo was a more civilized performance machine. Rocking front-wheel drive, you might expect it to be a torque-steer monster if you weren’t familiar with Saab’s relatively unique longitudinal front-wheel-drive setup. With equal length half-shafts, the 900 didn’t torque steer, and the only drawback was extra weight in front of the drive axle. Anyhow, it was quick and handled pretty well, and didn’t do half bad in snowy climates. Plus you can rock the suede elbow patches like all the cool liberal arts professors who had them back in the day. They’re cheap, and relatively easy to fix should something go wrong, mostly because junkyards are full of them. Not a half-bad choice if you are leaning European.
25. Toyota MR2 Mk. I
Last but certainly not least is the first-generation MR2, lovingly known as the “cheese wedge” among my friends. Don’t let the extremely ‘80s styling (look at those seats!) fool you: this might as well have a Lotus badge on it, because it handles like a dream. In fact, the Lotus parallel is kind of interesting, seeing as how the mid-engined Elise of modern times has a mid-mounted, Corolla-derived Toyota four cylinder … just like the MR2! That being said, the original MR2 was a real sweetheart, powered by a lovely 4A-GE engine (or the 4A-GZE supercharged variant for more grunt). It was a bantamweight contender, extremely light and nimble, and with few bad habits. Like the Miata, lots were made, and a surprising number escaped being turned into teenage hackjobs, so some relatively original ones are still running around. Prices are just starting to creep up on these guys, so move quickly, because as the styling slowly moves from outdated to retro-cool, folks will start snapping them up.
Thanks for reading!