Being DIY types with our hands tight on our wallets, we've always been enthusiastic cheap-car purveyors. And as a result, we've gotten far more fun than we paid for from inexpensive used cars. So we thought we'd pass along our favorite budget used cars. If you don't pay much for the car, you're less inclined to worry about it, and consequently, you'll have more fun. We picked $3000 because that is about the floor for a fun-to-drive car that will probably have high mileage but not be three feet from lunching the gearbox. As with any used-car purchase, do your due diligence.
The Miata is the gold-standard fun-to-drive car. For three grand, you're probably looking at a first-generation edition (1989–1994) with the 1.6-liter four-cylinder. Mazda built tens of thousands of them, and many folks who bought them barely drove them, so plenty of low-mileage examples exist. They're enormously fun, with a lithe feel, telepathic steering, raspy engine note and one of crispest gearboxes in the industry. They're tough, too, as evidenced by the number plying road courses every weekend—they're the most raced cars in the country via the Spec Miata class. Get one with a rust-free body, as the mechanical bits are easily sourced and reasonably priced. With only 120 hp, you won't win any drag races, but you'll never fail to enjoy time spent behind the wheel.
BMW E30 3 Series
Admittedly, finding a decent 1984–1991 3 Series for three grand might be tricky, but they're worth the search. We'd hold out for six-cylinder version, as the silky-smooth inline-six is a stand-out engine, especially among other cars from the Eighties. If you find one with "i" at the end of the badge, grab it. That denotes a more powerful version, with 168 horsepower. The chassis is the main draw, however, as these rear-drivers (yes, they made an AWD version, but good luck finding one for under five grand) had near perfect weight distribution and eager handling. Inside, the cabin is airy and surprisingly roomy considering the compact exterior dimensions. As with the Miata, there's a healthy enthusiast following for these cars, so aftermarket parts are plentiful.
Back in 1985, the then-new MR2 showed just what Toyota was capable of. This pocket-size mid-engine road burner offered a 112-hp DOHC engine, five-speed manual gearbox and near-perfect ergonomics for the then-reasonable sum of about $11,000. Plus, it was every bit as thrilling as the specs suggested. The engine revved to an unheard of 7500 rpm, turning every grocery run into the Grand Prix of Monaco. In 1988, Toyota slapped on a supercharger and netted 145 horsepower, a combination that shamed many higher-priced sports cars. For 1990, Toyota's pocket rocket morphed from an angular Asian to a svelte 5/8-scale Ferrari. But we prefer the character—and price—of the original.
Volkswagen Rabbit GTI
The 1983 Volkswagen GTI, sold as the Rabbit GTI until 1985, was a light and lithe two-door hatchback. With its 1.8-liter, inline four-cylinder fuel-injected engine, the GTI directed 90 horsepower to its front wheels through a five-speed manual transmission. A 16-valve version was optional, transforming the GTI into quite the performer, despite its basic styling. On the outside, GTIs were easily distinguishable from normal Rabbits, with their boxier front ends and snowflake-style alloy wheels, while the interiors offered sport seats covered with striped fabric. While economical, this hatchback was also practical for drivers who wanted a bit of zip and zest when they hit the gas. The GTI's preternatural handling and maneuverability made it one of the most fun to drive cars available at any price.
Jeep's Wrangler is basically the same as it ever was. Like the CJ that preceded it, the Wrangler is a go-anywhere, do-anything 4WD vehicle that's as comfortable crawling over rocks on the Rubicon Trail as it is chauffeuring the dogs back and forth to the beach. From 1987 to 1995, YJ became the Wrangler's official model designation. The YJ featured front and rear live axles and a larger windshield, and rectangular headlights replaced the classic round headlights. The YJ was initially available with either a 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder or 4.2-liter inline six-cylinder engine (a 4.0-liter came later). Prospective buyers should look closely for rust, as Wranglers—like many capable four-wheelers—are often ridden hard and put away wet. The tires and undercarriage also tend to suffer abuse off-road, so check low for signs of abuse.
The Pontiac Fiero was a two-passenger, rear-wheel-drive, mid-engine coupe GM built from 1984 to 1988—and the first mid-engine car produced by an American car manufacturer. Initially, the Fiero was powered by a 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine that achieved up to 40 mpg, which is comparable to some of the best modern drivetrains. In 1985, an optional 2.8-liter V6 debuted, and in 1986, that engine was paired to a five-speed Muncie Getrag transmission. But it wasn't until 1988 that the Fiero finally received a proper sports-car suspension and four-wheel vented disc brakes. Unfortunately, 1988 was also the last year GM built the little sports car, just as it perfected the recipe. On the bright side, frames of earlier model-year Fieros will accept the improved 1988 suspension, which is good news for driving enthusiasts on a budget.
The Volks-Porsche was propelled by a clanky air-cooled 1700-cc, 78-hp four-banger borrowed from the VW 411 sedan, but the front suspension and transmission were stolen directly from the 911. Later models got engines upgraded to 1800 cc and then 2 liters. Lightweight (under 2000 lbs), the 914 had handling and road-holding that is unparalleled for affordable cars. A well-set-up 914 is unbeatable in its autocrossing class, but still is plenty practical as a daily driver, with two huge trunks (the engine hides in the middle somewhere) and the largest sunroof in the industry. An increasingly rare variant is the 914-6, which sported a 2.0-liter carbureted six-cylinder 911 engine. You won't find any of them for $3000, though. Engine and brake upgrades are reasonable, but don't break the very expensive gearbox, which could cost more than the rest of the car to replace. The first modification after an exhaust system upgrade is generally to switch the fuel injection out for a pair of Weber or Solex downdraft carbs.
Mitsubishi Starion ESI
The Starion name is claimed by Mitsubishi to be a contraction of "Star of Orion," although an urban legend claims that it was intended to be "Stallion," as a result of a Japanese-to-English mistranslation. Regardless, the desirable version is the ESI, the widebodied car with the 2.6-liter throttle-body injected, turbocharged / intercooled SOHC eight-valve inline Four; 155 bhp; 225 lb-ft at 8 psi. The rear-drive chassis is capable of putting at least twice the horsepower down the ground. Turbocharger and intercooler upgrades make that fairly easy to achieve, although cooling system upgrades to match are necessary. Many parts should be interchangeable with the Chrysler/Dodge/Plymouth Conquest based on the same platform and drivetrain.
Ford Probe GT
Sharing a platform and a factory with the Mazda MX-6, the Probe was originally intended by Ford to carry the Mustang badge. Classic Mustang owners and fans were horrified to see the prancing pony badge on a Japanese-derived FWD car, so the RWD Mustang stayed in production, and the new joint-venture car (built in Flat Rock, Mich., only a stone's throw from Ford's headquarters in Dearborn) became the Probe. The car to search for is not the anemic four-speed four-banger, but the second-generation (1993–1997) Probe GT, which boasts a very lusty-sounding 2.5-liter 164-hp V6, and a five-speed manual tranny. Other upgrades for the GT included significantly stiffer suspension—on the downside, these cars rode on harsh side—and four-wheel disc brakes.