The threat of fully autonomous driving is, realistically, decades away. We want to celebrate the fun of driving while we still can, but we also want to do it on a budget.
Luckily, this list of cars accomplishes just that. We combed through every automaker’s lineup to find the vehicles with the highest smiles-per-mile ratio. Every one of the cars below are factory-fresh funmobiles with full warranties included, so you can rest easy for years to come. 30 grand is a considerable amount of scratch, but it’s less than the average new car price of 2019.
From hot hatches to muscle cars, roadsters to rally heroes, read on for our top 10 most fun-to-drive cars under $30,000, presented in alphabetical order and including destination charges. Most of these cars aren’t volume models either, which means bigger discounts could be had at your local dealer.
Horsepower: 275 hp (I4) / 335 hp (V6)
Torque: 295 lb-ft (I4) / 284 lb-ft (V6)
Weight: 3,351–3,374 lb
The Reasoning: The Camaro is a well-balanced, fun-to-drive pony car at a bargain-basement price. For as much as a compact sedan, you can get into six-speed manual coupe with more power than any Camaro dreamed of in the ’80s. Sure, it’s a four-cylinder turbo, but the budget also allows for the V6. Just not the convertible pictured above. Sorry.
With this much wiggle room, you can customize your Camaro with whichever paint color you want, or opt for the RS package ($1,950), which adds more appealing 20-inch wheels, a lip spoiler, and blacked-out badges. We’d plump for the $900 tech package too, for the larger touchscreen and Bose stereo.
Horsepower: 310 hp
Torque: 350 lb-ft
Weight: 3,492–3,512 lb
The Reasoning: The Ford Mustang is the default pony car choice for a reason. The Blue Oval offers myriad options to tailor the big coupe to your needs, from stripped-out four-cylinder coupes to loaded V8 convertibles.
The entry price here represents the six-speed manual EcoBoost coupe. It out-muscles the Challenger, especially in the torque department. It’s also more sporting than its cross-town rival, even in comparable base trims.
The initial $28,400 hit to the wallet gives you access to a few choice options while still sliding in under the the 30-large bar. Well, so long as you want the three-pedal setup: switching to Ford’s 10-speed automatic is a $1,595 premium. The Safe & Smart package ($725) is an affordable way to add cruise control and navigation. The popular 101A package adds a nine-speaker sound system, selectable drive modes, and SYNC 3, but its $2,200 sticker takes the ‘Stang slightly over our self-imposed limit.
Horsepower: 200 hp
Torque: 192 lb-ft
Weight: 2,889–2,906 lb (est)
The Reasoning: For the $28,315 Honda asks for a Civic Si, you get a sharp-looking four-door sedan with a powerful turbocharged engine. There are a few limitations for this latest Si, based on the 11th-generation Civic. There’s no coupe option anymore, but once again, the only transmission choice is a slick-shifting six-speed manual.
We haven’t driven the new Si yet, but we’re about to, so we’ll update this post with the necessary deets once we have.
Horsepower: 201 hp
Torque: 195 lb-ft
Weight: 2,954–3,020 lb
The Reasoning: We wanted to include the Veloster N on this list, but with the Performance Package now standard, it crashes through the $30k ceiling. No matter: the Elantra N Line is a more affordable, more spacious little runabout.
There’s just one small catch. This more practical package eschews the raucous 2.0-liter turbo-four of the red-blooded N models for a 1.6-liter. The N Line throws 201 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque at the front axle, either via a six-speed manual or a seven-speed dual-clutch (a $1,100 option). On the plus side, there are no options to drive the price up further.
Horsepower: 201 hp
Torque: 195 lb-ft
Weight: 3,036 lb
The Reasoning: The Kia Soul entered its third generation for the 2020 model year, keeping its iconic boxy shape while adding some extra attitude. Nowhere is that more on display than the top-shelf GT-Line Turbo model. Opting for this $28,965 model doesn’t leave much room in the way of options. Luckily, outside of some small dealer-installed ones, there really aren’t any to add.
A 1.6-liter turbo four-cylinder does duty here, familiar from many other Kias and Hyundais. A seven-speed dual-clutch auto sends the power to the front wheels. Performance can best be described as “warm”, not hot, but the Soul’s rectilinear silhouette means it offers comparative acres of storage in this company.
Standard kit is generous, with a large 10.25-inch touchscreen, Harman Kardon sound system, customizable interior lighting, smart cruise control, lane-keep assist, and more.
If it made the cut, we’d almost rather recommend the Soul EV, which recently won the 2020 World Urban Car of the Year award.
Horsepower: 181 hp
Torque: 151 lb-ft
Weight: 2,341–2,403 lb
The Reasoning: Mazda’s evergreen MX-5 is once again the cheapest way into a convertible in the US market. In its own way it’s a bit of a bargain: it may have less horsepower than anything else on this list, but it’s also lighter, and the only dedicated two-seat sports car.
Mazda increased the engine’s pony count in 2019, bringing the free-revving 2.0-liter’s total to 181. For less than $30,000 your only option is the entry-level Sport trim, in either six-speed manual or automatic form. You’ll find standard LED head and taillights, a six-speaker sound system and Mazda’s 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system. On the safety front, lane departure warning, rear cross-traffic alert, blind spot monitoring and emergency braking are all standard.
Horsepower: 189 hp
Torque: 207 lb-ft
Weight: 2,862 lb
Reasoning: MINI’s smallest model might not be so small anymore, but that shouldn’t count against it. It’s still our pick of the range, and in $27,750 Cooper S 2 Door form, is still a reasonably priced bit of fun.
One MINI tradition that persists is an expensive options list however. Even our listed entry price comes with an asterisk: you better like Moonwalk Grey, because it’s the only one of the four paint options that doesn’t come with a $500 charge. The others are red, white and black too: hardly adventurous.
Standard kit includes faux-leather seating (though a real-leather steering wheel), selectable driver modes and a six-speed manual transmission. A seven-speed dual-clutch is a $1,750 option. You can also add heated front seats for an extra $500.
Horsepower: 268 hp
Torque: 258 lb-ft
Weight: 3,294 lb
Reasoning: The WRX is unique amongst the whole lineup here as the only all-wheel drive entry. There are other AWD models out there for less than 30 large, but none come close to the fun Subaru’s rally hooligan provides.
Subaru’s boxer engine sits low under the WRX’s nose, with a turbo helping it produce a healthy 268 hp. Sorry, those who want their WRX to shift for itself: the CVT breaches the price limit. Not that we’d recommend it anyway, as it robs the boxer four of its sense of urgency. That power and the all-power traction makes the WRX one of the fastest straight-line options here, and it places second for power-to-weight ratio, just behind the Veloster.
The WRX’ interior is spartan and lacking in quality, but we imagine most buyers aren’t getting into it for a cushy ride. The lack of safety features, like Subaru’s well-received EyeSight suite, is a harder pill to swallow. Still, we’re happy that here in 2020 the WRX even exists at all.
Horsepower: 200–205 hp
Torque: 151–156 lb-ft
Weight: 2,776–2817 lb
Reasoning: The Toyobaru twins are some of the oldest models in this list, first debuting way back in 2012. Despite the age they still offer a unique experience, being relatively lightweight rear-drive sports coupes with naturally-aspirated engines.
A light facelift a few years ago unlocked an extra five ponies for manual-transmission cars, totalling 205. The six-speed auto stays at 200 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque, also down five from the row-your-own. The slushbox option is just $720 more on the Toyota 86; the BRZ requires $1,100, breaching the limit.
These aren’t straight-line warriors, instead putting an emphasis on a pure, rear-led handling experience. The 86/BRZ is a lesson in balance and perseverance, requiring high revs to extract performance. Both are nearly identical in terms of spec, with the biggest interior differentiator being heated front seats and mirrors, plus automatic climate control as standard in the Subaru. We’ll miss them when they’re gone: a recent leak suggests next year’s replacement will arrive with a new turbocharged heart.
Horsepower: 228 hp
Torque: 258 lb-ft
Weight: 3,124 lb
Reasoning: Often billed as the consummate all-rounder, Volkswagen’s GTI is the People’s Hot Hatch. It has a decent but not irresponsible amount of power, it has just enough visual upgrades to separate it from regular Golfs, and it trades zero practicality for either.
The baseline S trim just slides under the limit here at $29,515 including destination. That price gets you the classic GTI touches like the tartan seats and dimpled golf-ball shifter. Yes, like many models on this list, only the manual transmission, a six-speed item—is available under $30,000. The DSG auto, while a great example of the type, is too rich for our blood.
Other standard features include the VAQ electronic LSD, selectable drive modes, rain-sensing wipers, automatic headlights, and 18-inch wheels. It might miss out on niceties like a panoramic sunroof or the larger infotainment screen, but we’d argue simpler is better in the GTI’s case. The hard thing will be finding one: this is the Mk7.5’s last model year, with the newer, 242 hp Mk8 Golf GTI arriving in 2021.
November 11th, 2021 – Updated text to improve accuracy. Added new links.