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The MOST Fun Cars Under $20,000

2010 chevrolet c6 corvette
Hagerty

For $20,000, you could get a Kia Soul, which I guess is a great car in its own right, but it’s soulless. So, what can you get for $20,000 that’ll keep you grinning from ear to ear? 

I got you covered. From the American tuner heroes all the way to a fire-breathing German V8. This list is jam-packed with Ideal cars. So, let’s dive right in. Let’s go!

2016 – 2020 Mazda Miata

2016 mazda mx5 miata
Car and Driver

Do you know what “MIATA” stands for? Miata Is Always The Answer. Not only is it the best-selling sports car ever, the 4th generation, the ND hit the roads in 2016, and let’s just say, Mazda returned to its roots that made it a legend.

Just look at this thing! It looks like a supermodel! They put the ND on a diet, which helps make it handle like it’s on rails. And, straight up, they were able to turn the fun factor up to 11! Since it’s been around for a few years, for 2019 they did a mid-cycle refresh. Yeah, the engine got 26 more horsepower, and the it now redlines at 7,500 RPM instead of 6,800. 

But, it’s only a slightly better car! So, the MX-5, built from 2016 to 2018, has become an incredible value! It’s kind of like a Swiss army knife, it does everything well! It’s a comfortable daily commuter, can handle canyon carving on the weekends, and will harass cars twice the price at the track. No wonder there’s the saying, “Miata is always the answer!” And if you like that saying, go check out one of our limited edition Ideal tees!

The magic of the Miata is the fact that it’s a featherweight. It only weighs 2,300 pounds! And that’s a good thing because it only has 155 horsepower, good enough for a 0 to 60 time of about 5.8 seconds. The sport trim level is known as the base Miata, and is a great car, but not the best value once you see what you get in higher trims. Then there’s the club trim, which includes Bilstein shocks, upgraded springs and the all-important limited-slip differential! The top of the trim hierarchy, we have the grand touring. This is the big daddy with the leather interior for the most comfortable ride.

All three trims can come in either a six-speed automatic or a six-speed manual. The ideal combination is a Miata club with a six-speed manual. And guess what? For under $20,000, you can snag a 2016 club with only 14,000 miles on it! It makes sense why the Miata is the best-selling sports car of all time!

Now, if you want a lot more horsepower, and you want a badass V8, then your ticket is the E92 M3.

2007 – 2013 BMW M3 – Praised By Many, Loved By All!

orange bmw e92 m3
Carscoops

In fact, the BMW M3 has one of the greatest naturally-aspirated engines ever made! Let me explain, 21 years before the E92, the original E30 M3 had a high strung, 2.3-liter race-derived engine. And since then, BMW has continued to deliver only the best in high performance engines.

The S65 motor found in the E92 M3 draws on BMW’s experience in F1. It had individual throttle bodies, double-VANOS valve timing, not one, but two oil pumps, and very low rotating mass, allowing it to rev to an astronomical 8,400 RPM! Just listen to it hit the high note! We might never see an engine like it again.

And if you want to learn how I got an incredible deal on my E90 M, or how you can get an ideal deal on one of these cars on this list, check out the Ideal Car Strategies

Now, when the Bavarian sports car was first introduced, BMW purists were hesitant to accept the new engine layout, since this was the first V8 BMW put in an M3. But, when they began to witness what the small, high-revving, hair-raising V8 could do, they became believers! However, the E92 needs to have a good enough chassis to exploit that power, and boy, did BMW deliver!

It came standard with a carbon fiber roof, electronic damper control, M-tuned differential, and driver-programmable modes for throttle response, stability control, steering weight, and suspension stiffness! That’s exactly what made me fall in love with the M3, an advanced chassis with a legendary V8 makes for a very enticing recipe!

The M3 was actually offered in three body styles. The E90 is the sedan version, the E92 is the coupe that we’ve been talking about, and the E93 is the convertible. All models were available with a six-speed manual or a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic.

However, the ideal combination is an E92 M3 with the 7-speed DCT. The reason for that combination is that for a car with such searing performance, you want to have precise control of the car at higher speeds, and the DCT delivers perfectly. And this is coming from a guy that had an E90 M3 with a manual. The DCT just fits the engine characteristics so much better! And for under $20,000, you can pick up a clean white E92 M3!

Now, if you’re looking for an American alternative to the M3, look no further than the C6!

2005 – 2013 Chevrolet Corvette – America’s Iconic Hell-Raising Sports Car

2005 chevrolet c6 corvette
Motor Authority

There’s a certain saying that sounds like it was tailor-made for the sixth generation Corvette, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” You see, the fifth generation Corvette was lightyears ahead of its predecessor. It came with a brand new chassis with not a single part carried over.

The new legendary LS engine made its debut, and the first transaxle transmission found in a Corvette! It turned the Corvette from a respected sports car into a supercar slayer! So, when GM had to make the C6 Corvette, they decided to stick with the successful formula and improve upon the C5 Corvette.

Gone was the rounded-edge styling of the C5 Corvette. Instead, a more lean and muscled look was favored with sharper outlines! It also came with a few more luxuries, namely, push-button start, navigation, and a higher quality interior!

But wait, what about performance? Surely it’s a step up? That’s exactly right! The C6 stuck with the same formula in the power department, but the length of the car was extended for more high speed stability! On top of that, the biggest improvements came in the suspension department. Three suspensions were available: the standard for comfort, the magnetic selective ride control, and the Z51 performance package.

While the Z51 package brings the Corvette closer to the level of the extreme Z06, the magnetically-adjustable suspension allowed the Corvette to be comfortable both on the road and at the track! Now, C6 Corvettes came with either a six-speed auto or a six-speed manual, and came in three trim levels: 1LT, 2LT and 3LT.

1LT is the base with the expected luxuries such as dual-zone climate control. The 2LT came with a few more interior luxuries such as power seats and XM radio. And the 3LT big daddy came with even more, such as heated seats and auto-dimming mirrors!

However, the ideal combination is any trim with a 6-speed manual! That’s because you’re driving arguably one of the most iconic American cars of all time, why not have it in the most American fashion possible by rowing your own gears? For under $20,000, you can pick up a clean C6!

There is another offering on the table in case the bowtie brand isn’t your cup of tea.

2015 – 2020 Ford Mustang EcoBoost – Old Dog Learned A New Trick!

2015 ford mustang ecoboost
Car and Driver

Now, the Ford Mustang is arguably one of the most recognizable cars of all time. This is no surprise, given the fact that over 10 million Mustangs have been sold so far! The Mustang has always been offered with an iconic V8 under the hood, so while the thought of a four-cylinder Ford Mustang sounds like blasphemy, the current Ecoboost Mustang is a legitimately enjoyable offer that should seriously be considered, not just for the engine!

To understand why, let’s start from the beginning. The S550 generation Mustang was introduced in 2015, and boy, was it a step into the modern world! Gone was the solid rear axle that has adorned nearly every Mustang for the past 50 years. In its place sits an independent rear suspension setup, one that offers superior handling and ride quality! Welcome to the modern world Ford, good to have you on board!

But Ford didn’t just stop there. For the first time in over two decades, Ford is offering the Mustang with a four-cylinder! That’s right, they understood that the way forward is downsizing and turbocharging their engines. And due to increasing emission laws, this was an inevitability!

However, this isn’t something to be sad over. Oh no, this is great news! The Ecoboost Mustang is actually faster than the V6! And since it’s turbo’d from the factory, a lot can be done to increase power without spending much money! For example, a simple intake, exhaust and tune can net up to 100 horsepower over stock!

EcoBoost Mustangs were available with a 6-speed manual or a 10-speed automatic. Plus, there are three trim levels for the Ecoboost Mustang: the base model Mustang, which is a great value for the money, the premium model, which has additional luxuries such as heated and cooled seats, and finally, the convertible model, which includes all the luxuries from the premium!

Now, the ideal combination is any trim with a 6-speed manual! Similar to the Corvette, you’re in possibly one of the greatest sports cars in history, why not feel some of that as you row your own gears while stomping your right foot? For under $18,000, you can pick up a gorgeous EcoBoost Mustang!

Early in the 2010’s, rumors of a new lightweight, rear-wheel drive car from Toyota were spreading like wildfire. This had us, the enthusiasts, going wild since it had the key elements of a perfect car. It was rear-wheel drive, it was lightweight, and it was manual! These are the three essential ingredients that have graced the world’s greatest driver’s cars: the BMW E36, the Miata, the S2000. They all follow the same simple formula, and are placed on the highest of pedestals! Anyways, when the FRS was first released in 2013, it was described as a “scalpel”.

2012 – 2020 Scion FR-S – Punches Way Above Its Weight Class!

2015 scion fr-s
The Car Connection

Incredibly precise and so easy to drive that just about anyone could have a ton of fun! The Scion FR-S came from the well-developed 2.0-liter flat-four putting out around 200 horsepower. And while many people claim that that simply isn’t enough power, I’d argue that is exactly why the FR-S was so successful.

It’s easy to drive it to its limits, and relatively forgiving once you cross it! Now, we can’t talk about the FR-S without mentioning its twin, the Subaru BRZ! Subaru and Scion actually co-developed the car, so it makes sense they both have similar offerings! Both the FR-S and BRZ were offered in a six-speed manual and a six-speed auto.

In terms of trim levels, there were only two for the FR-S: the base model and the Release series, offered for 2013 only and came with a special yellow color and a few other goodies. Either way, you can’t go wrong!

So, this means that the ideal combination is any trim level paired with the manual. After all, the manual is the exact reason why the FR-S immediately became a sports car star. It was a modern rebirth of the simple formula. For under $20,000, you can pick up a sweet FR-S!

Now, suppose we turned the world upside-down and let F1 engineers build a sports car. Well, they did! And it’s called the Honda S2000!

1999 – 2009 Honda S2000 – Homage To Pure Adrenaline-Fueled Performance!

2009 honda s2000 cr
Motor1.com

When Honda needed engineers to make the S2000 concept a reality, they quite literally grabbed a bunch of engineers from their racing department! And boy, did they create likely one of the greatest sports cars of all time! Much like the E92 M3, the secret sauce lies in the engine. Under the hood lies a 2.2-liter four-cylinder pushing out 240 ponies at around 8,000 RPM!

The high strung engine delivers power in a very linear fashion, allowing the driver to carefully place the car exactly where they need to! There’s something special about delivering a ton of power from a small engine. In fact, the S2000 held the world record for the most power-per-liter from a non-turbo engine until the Ferrari 458 came along 10 years later and stole the title! No wonder that it, like the M3 engine, was showered with praise and awards!

The rest of the car isn’t bad either. Like I mentioned earlier, the S2000 follows the perfect car formula: light, rear-wheel drive, and manual. The S2000 was available with only one transmission: a six-speed manual! This was a thoroughbred driver’s car, developed to stir the emotions of performance nuts. So, an automatic would be the opposite of what this car represents!

While all S2000’s are convertibles, there are two trim levels to choose from: the base and the Club Racer trim. The base model is everything needed for fun and nothing much else, but the Club Racer was an even more hardcore version, with less weight and performance upgrades.

Unfortunately, with S2000’s quickly becoming cult classics, you will not find a Club Racer for under $20,000. So, the ideal combination for an S2000 is simply any S2000 you can get your hands on! They’re all perfect representations of what Honda’s race engineers imagined! For under $19,000, you can pick up a mint S2000!

What if you’re interested in more practical options? Maybe you want to haul groceries and lumber from Home Depot while also having a hoot on the back roads? Fear not, the Ford Fiesta ST is the trusty steed you need to check out!

2013 – 2019 Ford Fiesta ST – Most Chuckable Car Of Modern Times!

2019 ford fiesta st
YouTube

You see, Ford absolutely nailed the key points behind the ST. It needed to be a sporty upgrade to the ordinary compact Fiesta, and it was exactly that! The modern 1.6-liter turbo engine certainly delivers a good amount at 180 horsepower, and the interior space is astronomical compared to other performance-oriented cars.

But wait, how do those two things make it one of the most fun cars under $20,000? The magic lies in the handling. Often described as one of the best handling hot hatches, the ST is very well set up for back roads. That’s because it’s got Ford’s Torque Vectoring Control system. This applies the brakes a bit more to the inside front wheel of the ST during a turn, meaning it forces the car to rotate harder than nearly any other car on the market! No wonder these cars are the kings of autocross and mountain passes, they can handle nearly any turn thrown at them!

If you’re thinking of picking one up, the ST is available with only a six-speed manual, and was only available in one trim level: the ST! This means that the ideal combination is every Fiesta ST! You could have your own ST for under $18,000!

Now that we’ve gone over many good options for sports cars under $20,000, I want to personally recommend the one car I would go with, and that would be the FRS! In my personal opinion, it’s perfect for a daily driven sports car. That’s because it follows the magic formula of being light, rear-wheel drive, and manual. And the FRS has a great amount of trunk space compared to other cars of similar size and weight! Most importantly, it won’t break the bank! This is a car developed by a company famed for its reliable cars, so you can be sure you aren’t going to spend any extra money fixing problems.

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