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.
Dodge Challenger SXT
Horsepower: 303 hp
Torque: 268 lb-ft
Weight: 3,858 lb
The Reasoning: The Challenger is the undisputed cruiser of this group. This big boy is a whole lot of car for the money, with a curb weight not far off 4,000 lb and over 300 ponies to play with. Dodge only offers the V6 with a slushbox, but we’re okay with that. None of the other cars on this list, not even the Mustang, have this level of cool.
SEE ALSO: 2019 Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack Widebody Review
The Challenger slips under the limit bone-stock, with enough leftover cash to add the cold-weather package if you’re further north. Unfortunately, the cooler visual packs, which can add stripes and larger tires, take it over the self-imposed $30,000 mark. So to do the tech packs, including the valuable Driver Convenience Group, which adds park assist, blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert. The Challenger is a big car, and you’ll want the extra sets of digital eyes.
Ford Mustang EcoBoost Coupe
Horsepower: 310 hp
Torque: 350 lb-ft
Weight: 4,089–4,155 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, while also packing an extra 200 lb between its ample wheelbase. Despite that, it’s more sporting than its cross-town rival, even in comparable base trims.
SEE ALSO: 2020 Ford Mustang EcoBoost High-Performance Package Review
The initial $27,865 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. Stick with the stick however, and you could go for the value-oriented 101A option package, which drops in SYNC 3, a nine-speaker stereo, dual-zone climate control, six-way power seat, selectable driver modes, and 18-inch rims. If that’s not your cup of tea, you could pick two of the three following: the Safe and Smart Package ($1,000, Pre-Collision Assist with Automatic Emergency Braking, Auto High Beam headlamps, Lane-Keeping Alert, Adaptive Cruise Control and rain sensing wipers); Wheel & Stripe Package ($895, stripes and 19-inch wheels); or active valve performance exhaust ($895). Like we said, plenty of choices.
Honda Civic Si
Horsepower: 205 hp
Torque: 192 lb-ft
Weight: 2,889–2,906 lb
The Reasoning: Did you know the Civic Si coupe is now in a class by itself? It’s true: the only other quick, smallish front-drive rides are all hatchbacks now, not coupes. We love the practicality of a hatch, but it’s a shame, really.
For the $26,155 Honda asks for a Civic Si, you can get either a coupe or sedan. With a weight difference best measured in tiny dog, there’s no performance penalty when opting for the second set of doors. Both Si models get the same torquey, turbocharged 1.5-liter engine, with the only transmission choice Honda’s slick-shifting six-speed manual.
SEE ALSO: 2020 Honda Civic Si Gets New Looks, Technology
There aren’t a lot of options to drive the price up more here. You could opt for the Honda Factory Performance (HFP) pack, but its $4k price tag puts the Civic over the limit, and it’s pricy for what it offers. Add the wireless mobile charger or engine block heater if you’re so inclined and pocket the change, comfortable in the knowledge you have one of the best front-drive all-rounders out there.
Hyundai Veloster N
Horsepower: 250 hp
Torque: 260 lb-ft
Weight: 3,036–3,106 lb
The Reasoning: Want a more overtly sporty front-driver than the Civic? The only option at this price is the loveable Hyundai Veloster N. This funky little four-door—yes, the hatchback keeps the second door on the passenger side only—sits closer in spirit to the pricier Type R than the mid-range Si. A turbocharged 2.0-liter engine produces a healthy 250 hp in base trim, with a stout 260 lb-ft of torque backing it up. The only transmission option is a six-speed manual, which is a joy to row through.
The Veloster’s impressive dynamics are thanks to a team led by Albert Biermann, the former head of BMW’s M division. The steering is direct and engaging, the handling balance is lively, and best of all, the N manages to feel special at legal speeds.
SEE ALSO: 2019 Hyundai Veloster N Review
There’s just one small catch. At $28,555 including destination, there isn’t enough wiggle room to add the $2,100 Performance Package. Not only does that bump horsepower to 275, it adds an electronic LSD, 19-inch wheels with 235/35 Pirelli P Zero tires, an active exhaust valve and bigger brakes. We consider it pretty much essential, but, well, we set the price limit. No exceptions!
Kia Soul GT-Line Turbo
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 $28,610 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 (including the Veloster). 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.
SEE ALSO: 2020 Kia Soul Review
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.
Mazda MX-5 Miata Sport
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.
SEE ALSO: 2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata Review
Mazda increased the engine’s pony count last year, 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.
MINI Cooper S
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 $28,250 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.
SEE ALSO: 2019 MINI Cooper S Convertible Review
Standard kit includes faux-leather seating (though a real-leather steering wheel), selectable driver modes and a six-speed automatic transmission. Yes, we were surprised at the lack of row-your-own option too. Heated front seats are 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.
SEE ALSO: 2019 Subaru WRX Raiu Review
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.
Toyota 86 (or Subaru BRZ)
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.
SEE ALSO: 2017 Toyota 86 Road Trip Review
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.
Volkswagen Golf GTI
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.
SEE ALSO: 2019 Volkswagen GTI Review
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.