Top 12 Cheap Sports Cars that Won’t Break the Bank
We here at Sub5Zero love to write about the dream cars. Recent features have covered everything from updates to Aston Martins, to Hennessey’s next entry in the automotive arms race, to the irresponsibly powerful Charger SRT Hellcat. But while these cars promise astronomical performance, they have a price tag to match. Let’s face it: many of us who grew up with posters of Lamborghinis on our walls probably won’t end up dragging a Murcialago LP670 down the streets of Dubai, ala one Richard Hammond.
So what’s a guy to do when he wants some sporty fun on a shoestring budget? Simple: spend smarter. There are plenty of cars on the market that are as fun to drive as rides costing ten times as much. And for those of our readers who know their way around a wrench, most of these cars are fairly easy to transform into barnstorming show-stoppers. Many can also be nabbed for a much lower price, if you’re willing to pick up a salvage title or a project car. Click through fora listof the best cheap sports cars a regular Joe can actually afford.
1. The Scion FRS/Subaru BRZ
FRS MSRP: $25,455
BRZ MSRP: $25,595
Engine: 2.0L boxer 4, 200BHP, 151 LB.-FT. torque
Far and away the best budget sports cars currently on sale, the Toyobaru twins are quick, agile, gorgeous, and not afraid to get sideways in the corners. Everything about these cars screams fun. Toyota even mounts the FRS on skinny little Prius tires, leaving the rear wheel drive coupe with very little grip to speak of. This seems like an odd decision at first, until the driver finds themselves drifting around corners at manageable, road-legal speeds. The car is technologically solid as well. That Subaru managed to squeeze 100 horsepower out of each liter of the naturally aspirated boxer engine is quite a feat.
The main dividing factor between the BRZ and the FRS comes down to standard equipment: the Subaru comes with more of it, and boasts an optional leather package. The styling differs slightly as well, with the apertures in the front bumper opening wider and in a more rounded fashion on the Subie.
2. Honda S2000
Price range: $6,000-24,000 (depending on year and mileage)
Engine: AP1 – 2.0L inline 4, 237BHP, 153 LB.-FT. torque. AP2 – 2.2L inline 4, 237BHP, 160 LB.-FT. torque
The S2000 ticks all the sports car boxes, and then some: long hood, front engine, rear wheel drive, no backseats, and a drop top. This Honda is eminently moddable and yet a force to be reckoned with straight out of the gate. This car manages to make 37 more horsepower than the Toyobaru twins, sans-turbocharger and with the same 2.0L displacement. It was a crying shame when Honda ceased production in 2009. The S2000 is so popular, in fact, that unmodified models in good condition can command like-new prices.
With plenty of power and an insane upper rev limit of 9000RPM in the first gen AP1 model, this machine was purpose-built for driving like a maniac. Want to get the most out of it? Drive it like you’re trying to make the engine explode. All years of the S2000 are fantastic, so if you’re looking to save yourself a few dollars, seek out an earlier model with a longer history of hoonage. It’s a Honda, so you don’t really have to worry about it breaking on you.
3. Mazda MX-5 Miata
Price range used: $1,200 – 20,000
Engine (new): 2.0L inline 4, 167BHP, 140 LB.-FT. torque
This veteran weekend warrior has been continuously in production for 25 years. It’s light, mechanically simple, and in its current incarnation is the best-selling two-seater convertible sports car of all time. Which is good news for buyers, as the market is flush with used MX-5s in a variety of conditions to suit any budget.
The MX-5 is legendry for its impeccable handling. Like an overgrown go-kart, it is nimble to a fault and will happily tackle the windiest of roads. It’s not overly fast, but for outright driving pleasure it can’t be beat. This is the car that Toyota claimed was designed with the Japanese concept of “Jinba Ittai” in mind, essentially meaning “rider and horse as one body.” The MX-5 does not disappoint; hitting an apex in this vehicle is the closest a driver can come to perfect automotive harmony without spending about enough to buy a small house.
4. Acura RSX
Price Range: $3,000-14,000
Engine: 2.0L inline 4, 160 or 201BHP (for the Type-S), 140 LB.-FT. torque
If you’re looking for the veneer of luxury slathered atop your import tuner of choice while still saving a huge pile of money, look no further than the Acura RSX. One of the only front-wheel drive rides to make our list, the RSX is never the less a blast in the bends, with responsive steering and plenty of grip. Plus, it’s plenty quick in its Type-S trim – if a bit lacking in twist. With leather seats, plenty of space, and a high-revving four pot that makes up to 34 highway MPG, the RSX is a little bit of everything to everyone.
Despite squishing the logo to make it look more like an “A,” the manufacturers aren’t fooling anyone; the RSX is still a Honda. A Honda will always be at least two things: reliable, and moddable. The RSX was one of the darlings of the bolt-on custom scene in the early-mid 2000s, and can be built into a superstar if you know what you’re doing. This one’s a great choice for the tuner set, or for the truly economy-minded.
5. Mazda Rx8
Price range: $5,000-15,000
Engine: 1.3L Wankel rotary engine, 232BHP, 159 LB.-FT. torque
Oh Mazda, you magnificent, crazy bastards. The Wankel rotary engine is loud, inefficient, and has a name to make grown men giggle. But it does get a few things right; namely, power-to-weight ratio. This polarizing hybrid of a sedan and a sports coupe is light and handles like a Miata on steroids, thanks in no small part to pumping 232BHP out of a measly 1.3 liters. It does sacrifice some low-end acceleration, but let’s be honest. You don’t buy an Rx8 because it’s the best sports car on the market. You buy an Rx8 because it has suicide doors for the backseats, a face only a mother could love, and an insane redline of 9,000RPM. It is freaking bizarre, and somehow that makes it fantastic.
Now, some of you will find yourselves thinking “hmm, that Rx8 sure does sound intriguing… But it’s just not quite batshit bonkers enough for me.” Well not to worry. If you’ve got the cash for a more collectable model, go for the predecessor. The engineers of the Mazda Rx7 took the already nutty Wankel engine, and figured it would be prudent to add two sequential turbochargers on to it. Total horsepower was a shocking 255BHP out of the same 1.3 liters when the car went out of production in the US in 1995. You can expect a twin turbo Rx7 in good shape to run you 15-20 grand.
6. Nissan 350Z
Price range: $6,000 – 21,000
Engine: 3.5L V6, 287-306BHP, 268-274 LB.-FT. torque (depending on model year)
So that’s all well and good, but what if you want a little more grunt? Nissan has your back. They’ve been making excellent Z cars for years, and the last-gen 350Z is an enthusiast’s dream. Even the lowest spec model sends 287 rampaging horses to the rear wheels, more than enough to get more than a little sideways. The 350Z is muscle car meets Japanese tourer in the best of ways. The handling is sharp, the chassis balanced, the transmission smooth, and the power tire-shredding. The ride, however, is surprisingly mild mannered when you just want to putt about around town, making the 350Z an excellent daily driver. The interior can feel a little cheap, but you’ll forget about that just as soon as you find a nice, windy, empty stretch of road. And of course, it also comes as a convertible.
Nissan released the current iteration of the Z, the 370, in 2009. It’s got 30 more horses than the most powerful 350 and a distinctly edgier design – but will also take a larger bite out of your pocketbook. Expect to spend somewhere around 15k for a used model in decent nick, and MSRP starts around $30,000.
7. Hyundai Genesis Coupe
Price range used: $13,000-20,000
Engine: 3.8L V6, 348BHP, 295 LB.-FT. torque; or 2.0L turbo inline 4, 274BHP, 275 LB.-FT. torque
Okay, so the 350Z is pretty impressive. But not nearly as impressive as the rear-wheel drive rocket ship coming out of perhaps the last company you’d expect to make an excellent sports coupe: Hyundai. The Genesis coupe comes standard with a V6 producing a massive 348BHP. That’s more than a BMW 4 series, more than an Infinity Q60, and definitely more than any other comparably priced entry in its segment. If you go used, the now-defunct 2.0L turbo four is still a force to be reckoned with. Between the Genesis and the Veloster Turbo, Hyundai is definitely one to watch when it comes to cheap thrills. The Genesis coupe comes perilously close to being able to run with the big boy V8s out of Detroit, and for a car on this list that is nothing to sniff at.
8. Saturn Sky
Price range: $8,000-20,000
Engine: 2.4L inline 4, 177BHP, 166 LB.-FT. torque; or 2.0L turbo inline 4, 260BHP, 260 LB.-FT. torque
We wracked our brainstrying to think of cars coming out of the grand old US of A that would fit our list. The Mustang/Camaro/Challenger trifecta seemed ripe for inclusion, but they can get a bit pricey in their more impressive builds, and they’re pony cars anyway. That’s a whole ‘nother game. Then a little remembered gem came to mind.
Saturn may no longer exist, but their pretty little roadster sure does. The Sky is sharply angled, with race car looks to fit its drop top frame. This little sucker stands out, whether in an airport parking lot or in the company of supercar royalty. What’s more, Saturn knew that the 177BHP of the standard four-banger wasn’t going to cut it. They released a limited Red Line trim, with a big old turbo pumping performance up to much more respectable levels and firming up the suspension. If you’re in the market for a Sky and can find one at a reasonable price, the Red Line is the way to go. It won’t out-handle a Miata, but it’ll outrun it and it’ll look damn good doing it. Ah, the American way…
9. Porsche Boxter
Price range used: $5,000-35,000
Engine: 2.5-3.4L flat 6, 201-310BHP, 181-266LB.-FT. torque
Trying to find a smart buy in the sports car market doesn’t have to mean giving the Germans a brush off. The Porsche Boxter can be picked up cheap if you’re willing to go back a few years. Just know that you might be getting yourself into a world of hurt when it comes to maintenance. Germans don’t need to be fixed often, but when they do it’s pricey.
The Boxter is a perfect example of how to get a roadster right. Launched in 1997, the Boxter taught the world that yeah, maybe they could afford a Porsche. It quickly became one of the best-selling sports cars on the road thanks to beautiful balance, a brilliantly designed flat 6, plenty of luxury and convenience options, and plenty of car nuts who couldn’t quite afford a 911. This is good news for the discerning enthusiast on a budget: more supply means lower prices.
10. BMW Z3
Price range: $3,000-15,000
Engine (2002): 2.6L inline 6, 184BHP, 175 LB.-FT. torque; or 3.0L inline 6, 255BHP, 214 LB.-FT. torque
Much in the same vein as the Porsche, the BMW Z3 is a luxury roadster that can be picked up on the cheap if you know where to look. Originally released in 1996 with a measly little 1.9L inline 4 making 138BHP, the big brains at Bimmer upgraded the engine on a nearly yearly basis. What they came up with was the top spec 2002 model, making 255 horsepower. That’s a pretty sizeable leap.
The Z3 is not just a great, cheap sports car; it’s a great sports car, period. Animalistic in design, with shark gills and coiled haunches, the Z3 manages to be petit and menacing all at the same time. You can almost see the Germans painting shark teeth on the nose before bombing down the Nordschleife straight at the Nurburgring. The driving dynamics are superb, the engine sings, and in a somewhat questionable design choice (but brilliant from a practical standpoint), you can have it as a hatchback.
If you’re feeling flush, you can spring for the Z3’s successor, the Z4. It can be found used in the 10-35k range, which makes it just a little rich for our blood.
11. Cadillac XLR
Price range: $20,000-25,000
Engine: 4.6L V8, 320BHP, 310 LB.-FT. torque
The Cadillac XLR is a fascinating beast. Someone in Caddy’s higher ranks had the brilliant idea of taking a then-current Corvette drive train, pulling the body and suspension off of it, scrubbing off some horses, and then softening it up with a healthy helping of Cadillac luxury. But don’t let that fool you. This thing still goes. It was built with aluminum and composites, had magnetic drive control to firm up the suspension for hard cornering, and still boasted respectable power numbers… just not quite as respectable as any of its competitors. This is a good thing.
What that all means for you, is that you can get yourself an XLR for about 5-10 grand less than a Corvette from the same year. While it’s a little less powerful, and it’s looks may be a bit… interesting, it’s got a clever convertible hard top, eucalyptus wood accents, leather, and a much lower price tag than anything coming out of Germany with the same sort of features. This is one luxury sports car you might just barely be able to convince yourself is actually a clever buy.
12. Toyota Supra Mk. IV
Price range: $10,000-30,000 (varies wildly depending on mods, mileage, age, etc.)
Engine: 3.0L inline 6, 225BHP, 220 LB.-FT. torque; or with twin turbos, 320BHP, 315 LB.-FT. torque
You didn’t think we’d really make it through this countdown without mentioning the Supra, did you? While not quite “cheap,” you can still find a used supra for a relative bargain compared to just about anything else with an engine and rear wheel drive. A JDMer’s wet dream, the Toyota Supra is what happens when one of the most reliable, successful motor companies in the world has a bit too much of the sauce and decides to put out a street legal race car. This is the stuff fantasies are made of.
The only real trouble with picking one up used? Good luck finding an unmolested model. Whether you want a bone stock ride and intend to keep it that way, or just want to start your own build from square one, it is rather difficult to find a Supra that isn’t ‘roided out and kitted up.