Sports cars: every motoring enthusiast wants one, but few can afford them. Right? Wrong. From both the new and used markets, the world’s automakers offer plenty of brilliant and financially accessible sports cars.
For this list, we decided to include only rear-wheel drive cars that were built within the last five years and that can be purchased for less than $30,000 from either a dealer or private party.
Here, in alphabetical order, are our choices:
1. BMW Z4: $15,000 (used) and up
The predecessor to the BMW Z4, the Z3, reignited the English-style roadster flame. While the Z3 was round-y and cute, the Z4 was sharper and more fearsome looking, as it brought the iconic BMW shark front end made famous by the original 6 Series to the forefront.
Although the Z4 was offered with several powertrain options since its 2002 debut, the one we recommend is the 3.0i with a classic BMW inline six-cylinder and a six-speed manual transmission.
The Z4 is sharp and quick and looks as good sitting still as it does ripping through a winding country road. When buying a used BMW, though, it’s essential to get it checked out before you buy. Just because it’s cheaper in the used market than it was at the dealer doesn’t mean it’ll be any less expensive to maintain. Take it to a reputable mechanic for a thorough inspection before handing over any cash.
2. Chevrolet Camaro SS: $25,000 (used) and up
With a V8 engine from Chevy and a body that looks like it was stolen from the imagination of a six-year-old, the Camaro has something for everyone. Our favorite of the new Camaro models is the SS. With a boisterous 426-horsepower V8 and an optional manual transmission, the SS offers that perfect balance between American showboating and hardcore performance. Find a used SS with Brembo brakes and the SS will stop as fast as it looks.
Our favorite part of the SS, after its grunt and its go, is the interior. It sensibly melds old with new school. You can tell Camaro designers spent a lot of time behind the wheel of the original Camaro for inspiration but didn’t simply copy and paste.
To us, the SS is a great sports car for someone more interested in looking fast than going fast. The SS simply doesn’t feel as fast as other cars on this list. That’s due in large part to its forgiving suspension and composed demeanor. Oh, and plan on buying lots of gas.
3. Ford Mustang GT: $20,000 (used) and up
The GT version we’re thinking of is the one with the “5.0” badge on the side in place of the standard GT. Why’s that? Because the Five-O is packing the new Coyote V8 under the hood that makes 405 horsepower and makes a noise to beat the band.
Sure, you can find perfectly good pre-2011 GTs for sale but we really think the GT was made virtually inexorable with the addition of the Coyote.
Intriguingly, the Mustang GT has historically been replaceable with the Camaro SS, as they were extremely comparable. Not so for this most recent generation. While the SS shines on the inside, the Mustang falls flat. So if a plush, good-looking interior is your cup of sports car tea, skip the ‘Stang. If you don’t care much about a grayed-out interior and simply want pure unadulterated pony car power, then the 5.0 GT is your bag.
4. Mazda MX-5: $5,000 (used) and up
The Mazda MX-5 is an oldie but a goodie and the first car on our list so far that you can get for under $30,000 straight from the showroom.
It might not have show-stopping looks or a soundtrack that will make you weak at the knees but it’s got a quick-folding soft-top and a perfectly composed chassis.
Starting just shy of $24,000 you get a 167-horsepower 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine, a five-speed manual transmission, and a soft top. If you can spend a bit more, though, you can get the six-speed manual with a retractable hardtop for just shy of $29,000.
Obviously, used MX-5s will save you some cash, which you can then use to amp up the car’s performance and suspension bits, should you choose.
We understand, however, if you want to wait on buying a used or brand-new MX-5 as the all-new 2015 model will be out in short order and share a chassis with the new Alfa Romeo Spider. To say the 2015 MX-5 will be out-and-out brilliant, we suspect, is an understatement.
5. Mazda RX-8: $6,000 (used) and up
Like it or not, the RX-8 is a deeply quirky car – for better and worse. It’s got a weird motor and a weird body, as it has four doors but looks like a coupe. It’s worth mentioning that the RX-8 is no longer made so you can only get it in the used market.
Under the hood, Mazda put a 1.3-liter Wankel rotary engine. It produces 232 horsepower and 159 pound-feet of torque. That will push the RX-8 to 60 mph from naught in 7.6 seconds.
Why did Mazda choose a Wankel rotary? It offers a fair amount of power from a small package. And a small size also helps with efficiency, right? Turns out, it doesn’t – at least not with the Wankel. The RX-8 was rated at 19mpg city/22 highway. Most owners, though, don’t hit that mark. Even worse, though, the Wankel burns quite nearly as much oil as it does gas so eco-friendly it is not.
Regardless of its weirdness, the RX-8 is a brilliant driving car. That is, if you can fit in the thing. Drivers taller than 6 foot 2 will find the RX-8 too small for long drives and ought steer clear. If you’re on the short side, there’s good news: the RX-8 hasn’t held its value virtually at all so you can snag one pretty cheap. Just make sure to keep a gasoline and oil fund handy.
6. Mercedes-Benz SLK: $15,000 (used) and up
Here’s another fun sports car for shorties: the SLK. Not surprisingly, SLK stands – in German – for Sportlich, Leicth, und Kurz (sporty, light and short). Unlike many car names, this one hits the nail on the head. Drivers bigger than a petite trophy wife will have plenty of trouble squeezing into the SLK.
Of all the variants of the SLK, the most common version you’ll find under $30,000 is the 230 Kompressor, which – depending on the year – made 193-197 horsepower from a supercharged inline four-cylinder gasoline engine. We’ll be frank: it’s not that quick. Keep the revs up in the corners, though, and you’ll have plenty of fun.
On the plus side, the SLK handles like the little wedge of German steel that it looks like. It’s pretty stiff for having a retractable roof and yet sublimely forgiving. You don’t need to be a top-notch driver to have fun in the SLK. Frankly, it actually helps if you aren’t.
7. Nissan 370Z: $20,000 (used) and up
The Nissan Z cars have had a long and storied history reaching as far back as the original Fairlady Z of 1969. Of all the different iterations over the years, the current one is perhaps the best: the 370Z. I know plenty of you will disagree with me there but from a refinement and packaging standpoint, it’s the best. I do recommend you skip the automatic, though. I mean, what’s the point of a sports sedan with a powerful V6 if you’re going to single foot around in it?
Arguably, at $33,120, the 370Z is too much money new from the factory. Pleasantly, however, you can get a great lightly-used 370Z for way under the original MSRP. Furthermore, the 370Z not only has a stellar reliability rating, it also has a large aftermarket tuning presence through not only Nissan’s NISMO but also elsewhere in the tunersphere. This means you can make your 370Z distinctive and since the 370Z has changed little in curb appeal since the previous 350Z model, tarting it up a bit is a great option.
8. Porsche Boxster: $15,000 (used) and up
Although the all-new Boxster starts around $50,000 you can get one less than a decade old for well under $30,000. Most Boxsters have been babied, too, so you don’t have to worry about it having been dulled by a 17-year-old.
If you can afford it, and also find one for sale, we recommend stepping up from the 2.5-liter up to the 3.2-liter flat-six. Not only is it faster by over a second 0-60, it also sounds a lot meaner doing it.
Aside from that, however, you really can’t go wrong with the Boxster. It isn’t the best car on this list but, just like the SLK, it will delight most any driver. Just don’t expect to look very cool in the car. Although it has sleek German lines and a soft-top, few people will as impressed with your Porsche as you are.
I’ll try to stop the commenters now. Yes, these are different cars – but barely. The Subaru has different suspension, slightly different exterior looks, different infotainment, and a bit heavier curb weight. Aside from that, though, they’re the same. I don’t care what you say.
And you know which one is best? The Scion. It’s cheaper, it feels a bit more nimble, and I like the interior better. That having been said, though; they’re both essentially the same so choose whichever makes you happiest.
Clocking in well below $30,000, each is a brilliant choice as a rear-drive sports coupe. Subaru designers cleverly left room for four wheels to fit in the trunk when the rear seat is folded, which makes it perfect for a track day. With the rear seats up, each car can theoretically seat four, or hold a fair amount of non-human stuff.
Either version will absolutely prove to be dollar-for-dollar the most fun car you’ve ever driven under $200,000.
If you feel like we missed something essential, tell us in the comments section.