If you're like a lot of us, your dream cars always seem to cost more than you want to plunk down - but guess what?
There is no need to settle for boring sheet metal. Pulling from both my own experience as well as friends who share my love of fast curves and slow speed cameras, here are some musts to consider:
1. Toyota MR2 Spyder 2000 - 2005. Used price range $ 9,000 - 18,000.
My favorite car, the one I should have kept and the one you should probably buy. Why? Let's start with bullet proof reliability, 30 mpg on regular gas, convertible fun in the sun, and we haven't even mentioned the best part. Like the phenomenal handling, deriving from its mid-rear engine placement. Nothing is as much fun to toss around a corner, or zoom down a twisty road. The light weight (2195 pounds) is moved quickly by the variable valve timing four cylinder. No turbo or supercharging means no expensive repairs. And the disc brakes are insanely good (don't ask me how I know) and last forever. Tires? Oh yeah, you will buy a few. But it is so worth it. Storage? Yeah - you, one passenger and enough for a weekend if you travel light and use the passenger footwell to augment the storage bin behind the seats. Looks? I always got compliments and inquiries, even if a few blind journalists dissed it for not looking exactly like everything else going down the road. And that is the point, because along with all its other goodness, you get to drive something more exclusive than the Boxster sitting next to you. About 5,000 examples a year made it here from Japan. And now you can have a 'poor man's Lotus' for Kia money. One word of advice - get the manual, not the semi-manual, which is slower.
2. Datsun 280ZX 1982, 1983 Used price range $2,300 - $ 15,000
As you can tell, they range from iffy examples under $ 3K to frame-off restorations in the mid-teens. About $ 5 to 6K will get you a nice one, and they are nice. I enjoyed the rear wheel drive balance of this car immensely. It does not beat you to death if used as a daily driver, yet there is enough spark to have fun with the willing six cylinder, especially if you pick up one of the turbo models. While not as collectable as the 240,260 or 280 Z's, the secret is out - so prices are inching up and supply is down. An Autotrader search turned up just 27 for sale nationwide. A solid car with personality, from the low driving position that screams sports car, to the long hood which manages not to screw up your sight lines. There is some storage beneath the hatchback rear, and the louvres still look cool. Do watch for deferred maintenance, and do get one with a manual shift.
3. Honda S2000 2000 - 2005 Used price range $12,000 - $18,000
A legend which set a record for the most hp (240) out of a 2-liter, naturally aspirated four cylinder engine. This is one reliable, solid convertible, and while the entry cost is higher than some, you will not go too far wrong with this rear-engine tour-de-force. A real trunk, futuristic interior, and a 9000 RPM redline spell fun. My only pet peave is you have to rev the hell out of it as there is little torque down low. Compare this to the MR2, which has a very flat curve, and you may be unimpressed.
But once you get those revs up, the magic happens. I had one up to 90 and it felt like 40 it was so smooth. The CR version is even better, if not as practical, with a detachable hard top only. Handling is what you would expect with a front engine rear wheel drive design, but requires attention. Not for the faint of heart. A purpose built car in a world of compromises.
4. Porsche 944, 944S, 944 Turbo 1983 -1989 Used price range $3,400 - $41,000
What! How can the price range be so broad? Well, your base model 944 or 944 S is a real deal, with good examples either side of $5K or $6K. The upper end are often one-owner low-mile specials, or as in the case of one $ 34K beauty, actual race prepared cars.
Have I owned one? No. Driven one? Yes! And I will never forget it. The steering is so responsive and immediate, it embarrases cars half its size. The engine, even in the base models is a joy.
This car proves that numbers are what you read, but power/weight ratios are what you feel. And don't let the name Porsche scare you - these are generally some of the most trouble-free and better engineered cars to ever come out of Stuttgart. Storage? Yes. 25 mpg? Yes. A design that will always look good? Check. Plenty of examples out there to choose from? Sure. Brakes that set a standard? That too. So what are you waiting for?
5. Mazda RX-8 2004 -2005 Used price range $8,500 - $15,000
It is not the unique 232 HP rotary engine, which I love to hear rev to 9000 RPM as if it were merely warming up. It is not the funky exterior design which you either love or hate. It is not the suicide doors, or the cool red and black two-tone leather in the 04 Grand Touring model. Nope.
It's the handling of this rear wheel drive slalom king which warms my heart. Some cars do great things, but it feels as if you were just watching from the sidelines. WIth the RX-8, you can tell exactly what the tires are doing on a hard corner, and you can use a controlled slide to put a smile on your face as your passengers freak out. They need not - the RX-8 is one well balanced predictable sports car. Mileage could be better, and it loves oil, but other than that and a small back seat - as if you care - it is almost faultless and has that 'it' factor which earns a spot on this list.
Some favorites that missed the list and why:
1997-1999 BMW M3's - Power and pinache but not light enough on their feet for this group.
2004 - 2006 EVO's / WRX Sti's - Fast and furious, but too hard to find good ones below $20K
1997 - 2000 Boxsters - underpowered without the S version, and too many electrical issues.
Ferraris? Not with less than $30 to $35K in your pocket.
Lotus Esprit? 18K and up - and notorious maintenance.
Lotus Elise? Great idea, reliable and the handling champ - but even used still in the 30's.
Corvettes? A brilliant design - now - early ones not quite so drivable. newer ones too pricey.
Mustangs? Classic looks, most years anyway, and affordable. But a live rear axle, understeer, and weak brakes early on don't cut it.
So, if you don't see something here to excite you, check your pulse. Or better yet, drive one of these and then make up your mind. You might be surprised at how much fun you can have.
This list really should be called Five for Driving. Enjoy and happy hunting.