Cheap Thrills: 10 Bargain Driver’s Cars

Your buddy’s Rosso Corsa Red Ferrari makes your blood boil with envy. Unfortunately, your better half won’t let you mortgage the house so you can buy one yourself.

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There it is: the Rosso Corsa Red of your affluent fund manager buddy’s new Ferrari, illuminated by the piercing light of your envy (and the sun). He’s got a big bank account but doesn’t possess a nano-sliver of skill on how to properly wring out his car on the road. Plus, he can’t possibly appreciate the car’s capabilities beyond its penchant for getting him first dibs for the valet service at his favorite Michelin Star restaurant. If you ever get a chance to drive it, you’ll release the spirit of Fangio and show your buddy the automotive ropes. But in the meantime, you’ll have to find other, more constructive ways to get your automotive mojo going, like purchasing a reasonably priced car that delivers driving thrills in spite of the low number at the bottom of its Monroney sticker. Yes, carmakers build them for guys like us, and though they may not have the prancing horse on the grille or elicit gazes from the bold and the beautiful, they still delight with great driving dynamics and the kind of motoring spirit that makes you feel like a kid again. These ten are our favorites.

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Scion FR-S

Best Datsun 240Z Throwback: So what if the low-rent interior involves a diminutive infotainment screen and a few dozen square feet of black mouse fur fabric? You’ll be too busy throwing this rear-wheel-drive wonder around to care. But who’s gonna respect the paltry 200 horses coming from the FR-S’s flat four cylinder engine? You are, that’s who. The car is absolutely brilliant to drive and, at the same time, seems to make no sense for bean counters due to its purist leanings. Grab that fantastically precise manual shifter and slickly downshift to your heart’s delight. You can easily drive this car at 9/10ths without worrying about trashing it or losing control — it’s just that tractable. Oh, and the long hood and fastback are evocative of a Japanese icon. Not too shabby for well under $30k, eh?

Buy Now: $25,455

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Mazda MX-5 Miata

Best Bargain Icon Roadster: The venerable Miata has been around since 1989 for a reason. Its low center of gravity, perfect 50/50 weight ratio and a more than capable 167-hp 2.0L 4-cylinder engine complement its light 2,500 pound weight; its manual tranny’s shifter is a thing of beauty, sliding through gears like butter. And, lest we forget, it’s a droptop, which makes it the complete bargain package at under $25,000.

Buy Now: $23,720

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2015 Ford Mustang Fastback

Best Reimagined Pony Car: It’s the dawning of a new Mustang: this one’s available to the world and has finally ditched its drag-race solid rear axle. Sure, it’s a little heavier (100 pounds or so), but every iteration — from the 3.7-liter V6 to the fuel-sipping EcoBoost all the way up to the potent 5.0-liter V8 — is meant to thrill. You’ll see power bumps and a slicker performing ‘Stang that fans all over the world have been waiting for.

Buy Now: $24,425

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2015 Subaru WRX

Best Civilian Rally Car: We weep over the loss of the thick and satisfying hatchback, but rejoice in a new and improved rally-minded four door. Though it surely won’t win any beauty contests, its squared-off chunkiness still looks about right for a car that was never meant to do more than whip around the road with its new 6-speed manual, grippy all-wheel-drive system and the whooshing 268 hp turbo 4-banger boxer engine. 0-60 comes in 5.4 seconds, and you can pretty much forget bringing along the hot coffee: the tossable nature of the WRX will have your trousers soiled in a different way.

Buy Now: $26,295

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Volkswagen Golf GTI

Best Hot Hatch in History: It’s the Kaiser of hot hatches and has been for six generations. This seventh one could very well be the best, both inside and out. Drivers will find the base engine’s 210 hp 2.0-liter direct inject turbo four positively intoxicating, but your motoring self will surely want the optional Performance Package, which nets you ten more ponies, bigger brakes and a limited slip differential. Awesome plaid seats? Standard.

Buy Now: $24,995

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Mini Coupe

Best Underrated Driver’s Car: So it hasn’t caught on, largely because it looks like it’s wearing an oversized German WWII soldier’s helmet, but don’t ignore this non-JCW version. The 1.6L 4-cylinder turbo engine is only good for 121 horsepower, but it’s nimble and quick shifting with a satisfying 6-speed. Plus, it’s only got room for you and one smiling passenger — a sure sign that it has driving in mind.

Buy Now: $22,000

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Fiat 500 Abarth

Best Small Spicy Italian: Don’t ever call this angry little Italian cute. The Abarth treatment nets 160 hp and 170 lb-ft from its turbo 1.4-liter 4-cylinder, which pops and growls like a pissed-off Tasmanian devil. Now, to find that mess of traffic so you can “thread the needle” in this righteous toy.

Buy Now: $22,195

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Hyundai Genesis Coupe 2.0T

Best Asian Pony Car: Thankfully, the weird Tiburon is gone, replaced by the great rear-wheel-drive Hyundai Genesis that yanks 274 hp out of its turbo four cylinder. The 2.0T delivers 0-60 in under six seconds, and you can even impress your three friends since there’s room for two in the back of this Korean fastback. It’s also got the rakish good looks to back up that performance.

Buy Now: $29,900

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2015 Honda Fit

Best Urban Driver’s Car: When Honda created the Fit three generations ago, pretty much nobody had any idea that it would be both practical and fun to throw around. Sure, it’s gotten slightly heavier over the years, but its no less entertaining to take from point A to point B. The 130 hp and 114 lb-ft won’t set the automotive world on fire, no matter how intense your driving focus, but its lack of body roll and crisp turn-in means you’ll never be bored. And finally, it looks meatier in the design department and less like a candidate for Best Buy’s GeekSquad.

Buy Now: $15,525

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Chevrolet Camaro Coupe

Best Camaro Ever: Undoing some of the damage from the big-hair-band ’80s version and the painfully pointy ’90s era, the new Camaro is built both to thrill and please the eye. It hasn’t lost any of its American muscle attraction and finally has the handling chops to match. Even the base 3.6-liter V6 emits a beefy 323 hop and 278 lb-ft of torque. The proper rear wheel drive set-up means you can hooligan all day, while the car’s composed nature also translates to comfortable commutes. Just stay away from the 505-hp Z28, which is $75k.

Buy Now: $23,555

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