Fun behind the wheel of a car shouldn’t be reserved for those with large bank accounts. Fortunately, the pleasure of driving isn’t tied to power figures, or carbon fiber, or advanced suspension systems. Simple, lightweight cars with peppy engines and good platforms can be just as fun as elite supercars.
In fact, the argument can be made that less potent vehicles can be more fun to drive because their limits are more achievable and lower speeds mean lower risks from driver error. Finding an affordable, fun car may sound like a challenge, but in fact, there are many new vehicles on the market that retail for $25K or less and exhibit all the characteristics of a thrilling driver’s car.
Ford Fiesta ST
The new kid on the hot hatch block is Ford’s Fiesta ST. A toned down version of the Focus ST, the Fiesta find its way on our list of 5 cheap, fun cars thanks to its punchy 1.6-liter turbocharged engine that makes 197 hp and 202 lb-ft of torque. Ford has masterfully controlled torque-steer from the Fiesta ST’s front-wheel drive powertrain so you have nothing to fear when wringing the subcompact hotrod’s neck.
Complementing the Fiesta ST’s excellent powertrain is a crisp 6-speed manual transmission, form-fitting Recaro sport seats, and a nimble suspension setup. Rivaling sport models costing quite a bit more than the ST’s $21,460 price tag and have a tough time keeping up on a twisty road.
The Honda Civic’s enthusiast car foe is none other than the Mazda3, and for good reason. While the Civic outsells the Mazda3 every year, buyers of the latter car often fall in love due to its excellent handling and smooth powertrain. A lightweight frame, handsome bodywork, and an engaging transmission give the Mazda3 an edge with shoppers look for a break from the norm.
Related: The 10 Best Sedans Money Can Buy
The Mazda3’s driving dynamics can be attributed to Mazda’s SkyActiv design philosophy, which does away with unnecessary weight in the name of performance. The standard 2.0-liter 4-cylinder produces 155 hp, but a 2.5-liter unit with an improved 184hp is also available for an extra sum. Mazda’s best 4-door compact yet starts at $17,845.
VW Golf GTI
While we’d love to recommend the monstrously fast Volkswagen Golf R as one of these 5 affordable, fun cars, its $35,650 price tag eliminates the “cheap” aspect. Fortunately, the slightly less potent Golf GTI is just as fun to drive, and costs a much more reasonable $24,995. Better still, the VW Golf GTI has a rich heritage as one of the first-ever hot hatchbacks.
The seventh generation Golf GTI on sale today uses a 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder to deliver 210 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. You can pay a bit extra for 10 more hp and a limited slip differential, but even the standard GTI is plenty fun. Paired with either a 6-speed manual or 6-speed DCT (dual-clutch transmission), the GTI is exciting for drivers young and old.
Subaru BRZ/Toyota 86
When assembling a list of budget-oriented fun cars, it’s best to start with rear-wheel drive platforms. The Subaru BRZ/Toyota 86 inherits the Japanese sports car spirit, but distills the power to just 205 hp and 156 lb-ft of torque. A perfect introduction for budding car enthusiasts, the co-developed model prioritizes driver engagement and precision.
Superb balance, sharp steering, and a low center of gravity characterize the BRZ/86. Some may consider its 200hp engine underpowered, but accessible performance is not to be undervalued. Analog drivers will prefer the 6-speed manual transmission, but the BRZ/86 also is available with a 6-speed dual-clutch gearbox. Prices for the 2017 Subaru BRZ start at $25,495 and are $95 cheaper for the 86.
Mazda MX-5 Miata
Perhaps the Subaru BRZ/Toyota 86’s main rival, Mazda’s MX-5 Miata has basically owned the roadster category for the last 26 years. Down 50 horses to the BRZ, the Miata excels as performance vehicle thanks to its scant 2,300-lb curb weight. With its latest redesign, the MX-5 Miata is also a handsome shape at any price point, so buyers will be pleased to learn prices start at just $25,000.
The 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata Sport uses a SKYACTIV-G 2.0L inline-4 engine making 155 hp. The sole powertrain is linked to a sweet-shifting 6-speed manual or optional 6-speed automatic. The Miata offers accessible thrills to satisfy the masses, and best of all: its top stows in less than 3 seconds!