Sports cars are barely a thing in the modern vehicle marketplace. We’re lucky to have them at all, in a sea of sameness. New sports cars (and, for that matter, muscle cars) are dwindling in number, but there are strong contenders still.
The good news is that pricing has remained relatively flat, as the average person in America seems only interested in SUVs, crossovers and pickups. Even better news is that there are some entries that have improved over the last year or so. Don’t look for price cuts necessarily, but you’ll see a lot fewer big increases than you do in the full-size pickup market.
$30k probably sounds like a lot of coin, but it’s below the average price for a new car today—by as much as $17k, depending on who you ask. Unless you’re interested in a pure exotic, less than thirty grand will buy you a number of affordable sports cars, even some with well under 100,000 miles. It’s a great way to get a high-performance vehicle that isn’t going to be in the shop every third week.
2022 Mazda MX-5 Miata
Best for: Pure sports car enthusiasts
Priced from: $27,300
Still the reigning champion of two-seat sports cars, the Mazda Miata sells at a rate of 10,000 a year like clockwork. It’s an improved car over the third-generation “NC” body style( although those are starting to be more appreciated on the used market for what they were, too…).
The naturally aspirated four-cylinder Skyactiv-G engine delivers 181 horsepower, and because it still turns in excellent fuel economy at 35 mpg, you can convince yourself that while this is a sports car, it’s still somewhat economical. Even in its most base form, you get active safety features like lane-departure warning and Smart City Brake Support and the identical performance you’d get out of the fancier Grand Touring Trim.
The one to look for is the Club trim—which you now have to build to order—that includes nice-to-have features like a nine-speaker Bose audio system with AudioPilot, driver and passenger headrest speakers, and a subwoofer. More importantly, on the manual transmission (why would you be looking at anything else?), the Club trim features a standard Torsen limited-slip differential. The only issue is that it’s $800 over our $30,000 price cap
2022 Subaru BRZ/Toyota GR 86
Best for: People with luggage
Priced from: $27,995 (Subaru BRZ)/$27,700 (Toyota GR 86)
You get two for one here. The Subaru BRZ and the Toyota GR86 (which has now been renamed three times and changed brands twice since it started life as the Scion FR-S) are virtually identical cars, sharing the same chassis, 228-232-hp Subaru “boxer” engine, six-speed manual transmission, and everything else. Both cars offer a “back seat” that’s great for either luggage or for people you hate.
The power boost is fantastic. The one knock against the first-generation car was a lack of power. Bringing a 10 percent increase to the party is all it takes to make the engine feel perfectly suited to the chassis. And that chassis is improved, with better handling, turn-in, and braking performance, too.
Prices for these two two-doors have now essentially reached parity. You spend another $300 for the Subaru, but you spend another $125 for Toyota’s destination charge. Pick the one with the dealership that’s most convenient.
Both cars have Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Bluetooth connectivity as standard equipment, and now pushbutton start and dual zone climate control are standard on all trims, so there’s no real advantage to one over the other there.
Whatever you do, buy yourself a set of steel wheels and winter tires if you live where it snows. These cars are a hoot in bad weather.
2020 Fiat 124 Spider
Best for: Style icons
Priced from: $25,390
Fiat is essentially done in the United States again, so if you’re on the lookout for a 124 Spider, it’s going to have to be on the used market. It’s a shame, because in a lot of ways, the Fiat 124 Spider was a better car than the Miata.
Start with the styling. The Fiat 124 Spider is, in our opinion, a much better-looking car than the MX-5 Miata. Yes, styling is subjective, but you’d have a lot of convincing ahead of you to prove the claim that the Miata looks better. The Fiat 124 Spider really looks the part of a classic late 1960s/early 1970s Italian roadster, whereas the Miata simply doesn’t.
Early in the 124 Spider’s run, it had the advantage thanks to the TurboAir turbocharged four-cylinder engine in the Abarth model, but since then, the Miata has closed the gap and surpassed the former’s performance levels. Considering the two models share so much in terms of mechanicals and components, it’s amazing how different these cars feel. If it’s a track day you’re after, you could do a lot worse than the MX-5 Miata. If it’s simply enjoying twisty roads in one of the most pleasant sports cars on the market, choose the Fiat 124 Spider in Abarth trim. The better news now that they’re out of production is that you can buy one fully loaded and still stay under our price cap.
2020 Hyundai Veloster N
Best for: Iconoclasts
Priced from: $24,450
You can’t buy a NEW Veloster N for under $30,000, and you can no longer buy a Veloster in any other trim. They’ve discontinued the cheaper cars. But trust us: This is one of the best used sports cars you can get. The 275-hp Veloster N hatchback is the absolute best hot-hatch-style vehicle in this segment, by a country mile.
The specs are incontrovertible: 275 horsepower. Six-speed manual with rev-matching. The rortiest exhaust in any production vehicle this side of Porsche. 0-60 in 4.3 seconds. The Veloster N from the current model year includes all of the content that used to be in the Performance Package as standard equipment, but if you’re looking on the used market, you’ll want to find one with that package in place. It includes the electronic limited slip differential that’s incredibly effective in putting power to the pavement as you dig out of corners.
2022 Subaru WRX
Best for: All-weather drivers
Priced from: $29,105
The 2022 WRX is all-new this year. We just got out of one a couple of weeks ago and it’s still hilarious fun to drive, but it’s also more grown-up than it used to be. It’s a more pleasant vehicle to drive when you’re not wringing the daylights out of it.
The early internet feedback on the new design had plenty of haters, and we’ll admit to not liking it in the photos, either. In person, though, it’s a great looking sports sedan, and you can choose colors that either accentuate or minimize the effect of the black cladding.
Power is only up a tick to 271 horsepower from the turbocharged boxer four-cylinder, and you do need to keep the revs up to get the most out of it. Standard Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive (AWD) is a key point, especially if you’re only going to buy ONE sports car and you have to live in the parts of the country where it snows half the winter.
The only issue here is that when you factor in the destination charge, you’re right at our $30k cap. If you want the $70 cargo net, you’re out of luck.
2022 MINI Cooper S
Best for: Chaps
Priced from: $23,400
The MINI Cooper is still one of the more entertaining sporty vehicles available to American car shoppers, and you can almost convince people that it’s useful. You can get some stuff in the cargo area if you fold the seats, and the rear seats are actually usable for adult-sized humans if you don’t spend too long back there.
The driving experience is terrific. The MINI Cooper isn’t the best at anything. It’s not the quickest. It’s not the fastest through the autocross course. But you can entertain yourself all day long and still enjoy a car that’s pleasant in city traffic, and a snap to parallel park.
The John Cooper Works is going to be over our price cap, but the Cooper is $26,900 and offers a 55-horsepower advantage while only dropping 1 mile per gallon from the entry-level car. 60 comes in 6.4 seconds, which is nowhere near the Veloster N’s stats, but still a lot of fun to play with. And with $3,000 worth of room before our price cap, you can opt for the Touchscreen Navigation Plus option that delivers Apple CarPlay.
2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI
Best for: Hot hatch throwbacks
Priced from: $29,545
The Volkswagen GTI is a bit of a stretch as a “sports car.” It’s not a coupe or a roadster, and with 245-horsepower and over 3,100 pounds, it’s not exactly a performance car. But it’s the car that invented an entire segment, and it’s outlived the very nameplate it was based on. VW doesn’t sell a standard Golf anymore. To get one, you need to buy either a GTI or a Golf R.
It’s also suuuuuuuper expensive compared to most other cars on this list. In all honesty, you’re going to be over $30k by the time you pay VW’s $995 destination charge. But it’s still one of a handful of cars offered with a six-speed manual transmission, and it still includes the best seats in any compact sporty car, upholstered in plaid that’s a nod to the seats in the original GTI that arrived in 1976.
Beyond that, it’s a useful automobile, with a hatch that’s big enough to fit a small bureau, and four doors that can almost convince you that for practicality purposes, this is a “family car.”
2005–2012 Porsche Cayman S
Best for: Porsche 911 fans with less to spend
Priced from: $22,000
The Porsche Cayman and Boxster are basically the same car, but the Cayman has a fixed hardtop roof to the Boxster’s open-top roadster configuration. Porsche 911 people are going to look down their noses at you, but don’t hang around with them. Either the Cayman or the Boxster in S trim is probably the best car most of us are ever going to drive.
The 987 Cayman S was equipped with a 3.4-liter flat-six boxer engine with a bristling 295 hp, mated to either a six-speed manual gearbox or the Tiptronic automatic transmission. After 2008, the Tiptronic gave way to the seven-speed Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe (PDK) dual-clutch automatic. Do not make the mistake of dismissing the PDK. If going fast is your only mission, you’re not good enough to go through the gears as perfectly as the PDK can. Its acceleration in Launch mode is life-changing.
There’s a debate to be had about whether to purchase the coupe or the roadster body style. If you’re an open-air person, the Boxster is going to do it for you, but the Cayman is the more dramatically awesome of these two luxury sports cars.
2005–2013 Chevrolet Corvette
Best for: American sports car fanatics
Priced from: $18,000
Oh, boy, the C6. No other sports car telegraphs more about its owner. Drive this car and your friends are immediately going to assume that you’ve given up Japanese selvedge jeans and Red Wing boots for jorts and spiffy leather New Balance sneakers with white socks.
But make no mistake: there’s no other sports car on the planet that offers as much performance potential as the rear-wheel-drive C6 Corvette. These were world-beating cars offered at a third of the price of the cars that they regularly embarrassed at the Nürburgring. In a test back in June 2012, a Corvette Z06 on street tires posted a 20,832-meter Nordschleife lap time of 7:22:68. That was good enough to beat contemporary times from a Porsche 911 Carrera GTS, a Nissan GT-R, a Maserati MC-12, a Pagani Zonda F Clubsport, a Ferrari Enzo, and a Lamborghini Anventador LP700-4. That speaks for itself.
You’ll never have Top Gear fans singing your praises if you drive a Corvette, but you’ll be secure in the knowledge that you can beat the pants off of any of them at will… in a Chevy.
2017 Honda Civic Type R
Best for: Extroverts
Priced from: $29,000
Finding a current-generation Civic Type R under $30,000 is going to take some time, but it’s doable. Our nationwide CarGurus search turned up one with 30,000 miles in Bloomington, Illinois. Most are in the $32,000 to $35,000 range, but keep your eyes peeled and one will come up.
This is the car that left the automotive world with its mouth hanging open on April 3, 2017, when it recorded a 7:43:80 lap time at the Nürburgring Nordschleife, a time that was seven full seconds faster than its predecessor could manage, and that set an all-new record for a front-wheel-drive production car. It went on to shatter front-drive records at tracks all over the world.
These cars are outrageously powerful for what they are, hammering the front wheels with 306 hp out of an engine no larger than that seen in a lot of common motorcycles. With a top speed of 169 miles per hour, it’s also the flat-out fastest Civic Type R ever produced. On top of that, it’s significantly more comfortable than the car it replaced, with a much more modern interior.
2012–2013 Ford Mustang Boss 302
Best for: V8 enthusiasts
Priced from: $24,000
We’ll start by telling you that you can buy a Ford Mustang GT a lot easier and for a lot less money than you can buy a Boss 302. But we’re writing a story about the best sports cars under $30K, and the Boss 302 is the closest pony car to a true sports car that Ford ever turned out.
The Boss 302 is almost a skunkworks car from Ford. It got a 5.0-liter Coyote V8 with CNC-ported heads, a forged crank, revised cams, and a unique air intake straight from the 302R. The result was 444 hp, with a just a few lb-ft less torque than the standard GT, meaning that this was a car for speed, not for ripping donuts in the parking lot.
Handling got a major boost over the GT, too, with higher-rate coil springs, stiffer bushings, a larger-diameter rear stabilizer bar, and a body squashed 11mm lower on the front springs. There’s a Laguna Seca upgrade with even more aggressive suspension tuning, Recaro bucket seats up front, and the rear seat tossed in the dumpster, but you’ll never find one in this price range. Satisfy yourself with the entry-level Boss 302. It’s a whole different animal than the conventional Ford Mustang GT.