Top used fun-to-drive picks
In an effort to bring road-going joy to the masses, we've assembled a list of five easy-to-live-with used sporty cars that deliver a lot of driving entertainment for around $10,000.
As a commodity, fun is getting expensive.
Sure, you can still find a cheap yuk â€“ such as sucking the helium out of a balloon or super-gluing your cubemateâ€™s briefcase to the floor â€“ but thrills like these generally donâ€™t impress dates much.
When it comes to automotive fun, you gotta pay if you wanna play. Instruments of amusement usually come with big price tags: a base-model Porsche Boxster is $60,650; a C5 Corvette starts at $69,940.
In an effort to bring road-going joy to the masses, weâ€™ve assembled a list of five easy-to-live-with used sporty cars that deliver a lot of driving entertainment for around $10,000.
The emphasis here is not on brutish horsepower, but on balance and refinement, two qualities a lot of automobile aficionados â€“ people who actually own driving gloves â€“ relish.
It doesnâ€™t hurt that these cars are reliable, durable and donâ€™t draw an oil tankerâ€™s worth of fuel.
If you find pleasure in crisp turn-in, a sweet power-to-weight ratio and a Crisco-oily gearbox that goes snick-snick, then you may want to get to know this sporting gang of five.
1992-1996 Honda Prelude
A front-drive sporty car? Heresy!
At least, that was the prevailing sentiment when Honda unveiled its Prelude 25 years ago. Its notchback styling and diminutive size hardly turned heads, yet it was infused with the soul of a sports car â€“ despite spinning its front wheels.
The slope-nosed 1983 model won over a legion of believers, but they quickly disbanded when the oddly styled 1992 Prelude arrived. No matter, the car still had its talents.
Powered by the Accordâ€™s 135-hp 2.2 litre engine, the fourth-generation Prelude inherited the sedanâ€™s balance shafts, making for an exceptionally smooth powerplant. The Si model got a twin-cam version of the same engine, making 160 welcome horsepower.
For 1993, Honda upped the ante by bringing the Acura NSX supercarâ€™s VTEC system â€“ variable valve timing-and-lift mechanism â€“ to the Prelude party. Thus equipped, it produced 190 naturally aspired horses at a lofty 6800 rpm.
Acceleration numbers were in the sub-seven seconds range for the VTEC; about 7.5 seconds for the 160-hp version (0-96 km/h). But the Prelude was never intended to be a full-bore speed wagon.
With its control-arm front suspension and multilink rear underpinnings, the car exhibited athletic coordination worthy of an Olympic gymnast. It did everything well and, mercifully, made the driver feel more skilled behind the wheel.
The Prelude is extraordinarily reliable. But keep in mind the four-wheel disc brakes need considerable attention. Look for worn CV joints and boots â€“ and watch for rust. They say it never sleeps.
1992-95 BMW 325i
Despite being the quintessential car for status-seeking yups and dinks, the 3 Series BMW is a thoroughbred driving machine from Bavaria no less. The E36 generation, launched in 1992, collected Car and Driverâ€™s 10 Best award every year it was in production.
The 3, of course, powered its rear wheels the way the Almighty had intended. Despite the rear differential, it was anointed with a multilink suspension so that the rear wheels were sprung independently.
The silky smooth in-line six-cylinder engine was mounted behind the front-wheel centre line to yield optimal 50/50 weight distribution between the two axles. Unfortunately, the engine intruded into the cabin, making for snug quarters, especially in back.
But what an engine. The 2.5-litre DOHC six borrowed from the 5 Series produced 189 eager horses (highway velocity came up in 7 seconds flat). Add to this a wonderfully balanced chassis, strong four-wheel disc brakes and a heavenly gearbox, and youâ€™ve found automotive nirvana.
We strongly recommend springing for the six cylinder 325i. There are lots of near-identical 318i four cylinders around at appealing prices, but to be brutally honest, the Japanese make a better four banger (the 318i is known for its gasket failures).
While no BMW is cheap to keep, especially as it gets older, the 325i is better than most. German parts are always dear, but the 3 needs less attention, having earned a nod even from prudent Consumer Reports as a good used buy.
Check for expired air conditioners, alternators, water pumps, lower ball joints and front brake rotors.
1992-1997 Subaru SVX
Long thought to be reverse engineering its cars from flying saucers (remember the XT?) Subaru built one more intergalactic vehicle before it went mainstream.
Subaruâ€™s take on a sporty car was not to build a low-mass road carver, but to use the all-wheel-drive SVX as a showcase for every piece of technology it could transfer.
The aluminum DOHC 3.3-litre flat six cylinder directed its 230 horses through an electronic four-speed automatic transmission which also controlled a clutchpack that regulated power between the front and rear axles. The normal front/rear split was 60/40, but the computer could alter it radically under acceleration, braking or cornering.
Thereâ€™s no manual transmission, unfortunately, but Subaru was being visionary: think of it as a clutchless sports car without the paddles. Itâ€™s so smart it can momentarily shut down a bank of three cylinders during upshifts to ensure smoothness. Try doing that with your clutch foot.
To be truthful, the SVX is too lardy to be a Sunday-morning gymkhana competitor, but it is an unusually refined, fine handling, high-speed grand tourer that appeals to people who would rather let silicon chips do the work.
Like other Subarus, the SVX is almost bulletproof â€“ although the transmission has been known to overheat and fail. Look for an auxiliary transmission cooler having been fitted, or put one in yourself.
1990-1996 Nissan 300ZX
Hereâ€™s a bona fide sports car from a company that had known greatness but somehow lost its way during the wretched excesses of the 1980s. When the new 300ZX arrived in mid-1989, all was forgiven.
The thoroughly reworked 3.0-litre V6 employed twin camshafts and a variable intake-valve-timing system that energized this Japanese bullet with 222 naturally aspired horses and 198 lb-ft of torque â€“ good enough for 0 to 96 km/h in 6.7 seconds.
The sweet-shifting transmission sent the power to the rear wheels, where the multilink suspension kept the tires planted. The powertrain and driver-oriented cabin came wrapped in one of the most arresting sculptures to adorn an automobile outside of Italy.
As awesome as it was, Nissan strived to make the Zed practical. A 2+2 coupe was introduced with a small back seat. All non-convertible models came with a large rear hatch. In a pinch, the car could deliver sticks of lumber from Home Depot.
For those too impatient to wait 6.7 seconds to merge with highway traffic, Nissan unleashed a twin-turbo version that made 300 hp, trimming acceleration time to an even 5.0 seconds. Like the naturally aspirated models, the 300ZX Turbo was extremely balanced and easy to drive quickly.
Lovingly crafted by robots, the Zed was as durable as any other Nissan, although its sporting demeanor often took its toll on components. Inspect for crunchy transmissions, failed air conditioners, and worn driveshaft and suspension bits. And because everything is shoehorned into that skin-tight body, expect higher than normal labour charges.
1990-1995 Mazda Miata
Who knew that when Mazda unveiled its Lotus Elan knockoff in late 1989 it would become the worldâ€™s most popular sports car (definition: â€œa two-seater, usually open, which in a pinch can be racedâ€).
Built around the dimensions of two average-sized adults, the 1990 Miata weighed exactly one metric tonne â€“ light enough to be propelled by the 116-hp twin-cam 1.6-litre four cylinder with some authority.
Mazda subjected its little car to a program of continuous improvements. For 1994, its structure was fortified, air bags became available and a larger 128-hp 1.8-litre motor supplanted the older mill to compensate for the added weight.
The Miata was never an â€˜bahn burner: the original model reached 96 km/h from a standstill in about 9 seconds; the 1994 car shaved about a half second off that time.
The car loved to hug the road, generating 0.90 g of lateral acceleration, or more, when equipped with plus-1-sized aftermarket wheels and tires.
Buy a Miata and you have inadvertently joined one of the most fervent cults/sects/religions ever organized. Other owners will nod to you, offer advice and maintenance tips, and invite you to parts swaps. A cornucopia of aftermarket catalogues will choke your mailbox. Your life will have meaning.
As if it isnâ€™t enough to have a talented sports car, convertible top and all, the Miata also doubles as a faithful commuter vehicle. You may have to change the gel-type battery, the spark-plug wires and the timing belt, but twist the key and it is otherwise guaranteed to make you smile no matter how bad your day at work.
Which brings us to the point of this list: if you have to burn gasoline, why not do it in a vehicle that makes the journey considerably more enjoyable than the destination will likely ever be?