2024 Chevrolet Trax - $27,080

The Trax gives buyers every available option under $30,000. Want to play pretend off-roader with the Activ trim? Go nuts. Maybe the more urban RS? Sure. All Trax models feature a little 1.2-liter turbo-three sending 137 horsepower to the front wheels. Even loading on dealer-installed accessories barely pushes the Trax past $27,000 all-in, making this a wicked-smart deal.

2024 Buick Envista Sport Touring - $29,070

It appears Kyle and I had very similar thinking on our first vehicles. I’m just a bit older so naturally I went with a Buick. To keep it under the price maximum, I selected the Sport Touring, but was still able to add every possible option. Included on a well-optioned Evista for less than $30K are 19-inch wheels, all the active safety equipment, moonroof, power liftgate, power seat, heated seats, and an 11-inch infotainment screen.

2024 Volkswagen Jetta GLI 40th Anniversary Edition - $29,310

The Jetta GLI is the dark horse of the performance bargain set. For $29,310, you not only get 228 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, but a slick six-speed manual, two-zone climate control, heated front seats, blind spot monitoring with rear traffic alert, and wireless phone mirroring. This year’s entry model is the 40th Anniversary Edition too, so you’ve got future collector status. Impressive.

2024 Hyundai Santa Cruz SE AWD - $29,775

Hyundai’s compact pickup truck is still one of the wilder designs on the market. I choose it because it gives customers most of what a Tucson has to offer, just with an open bed. The only way to make the Santa Cruz qualify is to go with the entry level SE model. If the exterior paint isn’t upgraded, it’s possible to select all-wheel drive and still make the cut.
Included even on the SE are a self-leveling rear suspension, 18-inch alloys, LED lighting all around, lockable under-bed storage, multi-function tailgate, 8-inch infotainment touchscreen, as well as wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Although we can’t get the turbo engine at this price, the 2.5-liter naturally aspirated unit makes nearly 200 hp.

2024 Ford Maverick XL Hybrid - $27,740

Ford has significantly raised the price of the Maverick since it debuted it as the $20,000 (pre-destination) pickup. Making matters worse, the hybrid is now a $1,500 upcharge instead of the standard engine. Nonetheless, at this price limit, a hybrid Maverick XLT is still under budget, though it’s close enough that even adding lane-keep and blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert puts it over by $60. My pick? A hybrid XL with those both added on, and the necessary bed liner. Leftover money, plus steelies? Win freaking win.

2024 Toyota Prius LE - $29,505

The Toyota Prius is sweeping up all the awards and for good reason. With more power and better efficiency, it improves the car’s fundamentals. But the real news is the car’s exterior looks and improved driveability.
The entry level, front-wheel drive LE is the only trim to make it under $30,000, but on the plus side, it's the most fuel-efficient version. Although some creature comforts are missing at this price, there’s 194 net horsepower, LED lights, heated mirrors, 17-inch alloy wheels, a 7-inch driver’s display, a tonneau cover, 8-inch infotainment screen, as well as wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

2024 Corolla Cross Hybrid S - $29,570

Schlee picked the Prius, which is a great one: there’s a reason it’s won numerous awards already. But if you want that same powertrain in a crossover shape, with standard AWD, the Corolla Cross Hybrid S just slides into consideration at $29,570. Yes, you’ll have to make do without leather of any sort in the cabin, and say goodbye to niceties like heated seats, a wireless charger, or power tailgate. But the CCH still provides good power, up to 45 mpg, and a long list of standard safety assists. Not the sexiest option, but the most practical.

2023 Toyota GR86 - $29,495

If you want a proper sporty car for under $30,000, this is your only option. Thankfully, it’s an excellent one. Although this is the base model GR86, it still has most of the good performance bits. There’s a 2.4-liter, 228 hp, 184 lb-ft, engine paired to a 6-speed manual transmission. The rear wheels are fedd power through a standard Torsen LSD differential. Everything else mechanically on the base GR86 is the same as the higher trims, minus the smaller 17-inch wheels and tires.

2024 Honda Civic Sport Hatchback - $27,455

Since the Civic Si has now priced itself just ever so slightly out of contention, my pick for Honda’s excellent small car is the Hatchback, specifically the Sport trim. This keeps the 2.0-liter engine but also pairs it with the sweet-shifting six-speed manual, making this a low-key fun machine. And at $27,455, you’ve got wiggle room for accessories—or maybe a premium paint option, like the sweet Boost Blue. The Sport does miss out on heated front seats and blind spot monitoring; if you’d rather those than the 6MT, the CVT-equipped EX-L is the pick—and still within budget.

2024 Kia Forte GT Manual - $26,840

Kyle has been snatching up all the fun, well put together compact cars under $30,000. Well, except for one. The Kia Forte’s top trim is called the GT Manual which pairs a turbo engine with a six-speed manual transmission. Even with the fanciest available paint, this car is way below $30,000, yet has 201 hp and a six-speed manual transmission. Think of it as a more affordable Civic Si.
The Forte GT might not be the sportiest compact car, but it is one of the few still offering a manual transmission with a turbocharged engine. A lot of the mechanical bits are there as well, like the 18-inch alloy wheels wearing Michelin Pilot Sport 4 Summer Tires. Being a top trim, it comes stuffed full of options many cars on this list lack. There is no power seat though.

Honorable Mention: Mazda MX-5 Miata

Do you want the epitome of fun with the security of a new car warranty? The darling Miata is now the most affordable droptop on sale in the US and Canada, and it’s had a subtle facelift for ’24, with a big improvement to its infotainment to boot. It just clears our self-imposed cap with destination, but at $30,150 including destination, the Miata’s smile-per-mile rating is off the charts.