Recently we established that fun can be found for $4,999 or less. Then we proved that greatness can be yours for less than $9,999.
Well, now it's time to buy some awesome. And awesome is available for less than $20,000. Awesome as in cars that, just a few years ago, were considered some of the very finest performance machines in the world. Badass automobiles with legendary names like Boxster, Evo, M3, STI and Z06, for less than half the cost of a loaded Ford Taurus.
Because this price point is pretty lofty, we left out any vehicle more than a decade old or anything you're likely to have rented at an airport. So no 20-year-old 911s here and no surplus Mercury Sables rescued from the Hertz auction. This is undeniably a list of enthusiast cars, real performance machines, but it's also a list of rides that can be driven every day. Each and every one would make you an acceptable commuter.
All prices come straight from Edmunds.com and reflect True Market Value (TMV®) dealer retail valuations. Some cars are priced beyond our $19,999 point, but dealer retail values are usually on the high side of the range and cars can be found cheaper through private parties. Dealer retail may be $21,163 on a 2003 BMW M3, but there are M3s from that year available for under $20K.
Don't settle. Spend wisely.
2001-'03 BMW M3 Coupe
Way back in January 2008 Inside Line added a black 2002 M3 coupe to its long-term fleet. For 18 months we drove that thing hard, put it away wet, and dang near cried when it went away. We drive a lot of new cars around here, but none of them inspired the sort of collective affection we all felt for that bought-used E46.
As it turns out, the E46 M3 (the third generation of the M3 built between 2001 and 2006) is likely the last of the breed to be powered by a six-cylinder engine. And what a whomping good engine it is — 3.2 liters of inline glory producing a rollicking 333 horsepower and revving to a ripping 8,000 rpm. Back in 2001 when we first tested an E46 M3, the $52,700 car whipped to 60 mph in 5.0 seconds and cranked down the quarter-mile in 13.5 seconds at 105.2 mph. Nearly seven years later, our used 2002 M3 did the same tricks in 5.4 and 13.7 seconds at 103.3 mph. That's not a lot of performance deterioration considering the car was 6 years old and had 50,000 miles on its odometer at the time.
Plus it still handles, brakes and drives like an M3. And that's all good.
We paid $30,000 for our E46 M3, but now 18 months later that price has dropped to somewhere between $17,000 and $19,000. That's not an insignificant depreciation hit for a used car. But that's good news if you're in the market now. After all, it's virtually impossible that today's $19,000 M3 will drop to, like, $7,000 in the course of 18 months.
If it were our money: We'd skip any M3 equipped with the SMG sequential gearbox simply because it's not as much fun as one with a traditional six-speed manual. 2001 and 2002 M3s are now safely under $20K (even convertibles if they are your thing), with the occasional 2003 model dipping down there, too. Aftermarket wheels wouldn't bother us. But we'd skip cars that showed evidence of hard racing and a lack of maintenance.
2004-'05 Subaru Impreza WRX STi
When it comes to improbable legends, it's hard to think of a car as improbably legendary as the Impreza WRX STi. It's a four-door brick with wings, the turbocharged flat-4 engine makes funky sounds, Impreza isn't a real word and, for Pete's sake, it's a Subaru. But it's such a great car.
The STi was built to go racing, and from its narrow seats to the staggeringly effective adjustable all-wheel-drive system and steering that reacts as if it were goosed by a cattle prod, it's a pure performance machine. It just happens to seat five.
While there are all sorts of decorative variations between a regular WRX and an STi of the 2004-'05 vintage, the major difference between the two is that the STi uses a 2.5-liter engine instead of the WRX's 2.0-liter, and the manual transmission has six forward gears instead of just five. That means where the WRX has 227 hp aboard, the STi has a full-throated 300.
In direct comparison tests at the time, the WRX STi almost invariably came in a very close 2nd to its archrival, the Mitsubishi Evo. However, Subaru has a reputation for screwing its cars together better than Mitsubishi and that has paid off for STi owners in slightly better resale value. So expect to pay more for a used STi than an Evo.
If it were our money: Subarus are all rugged cars, but the STi is often stressed in ways an Outback would likely never be. Look for the rare car that hasn't been modified and hasn't been raced. But who would have bought an STi and not raced it?
2001-'03 Chevrolet Corvette Z06
Forget — for a moment at least — that today Chevrolet offers a supercharged Corvette with 638 hp aboard as standard. Back in 2001, when the C5-generation Z06 was introduced, 385 hp seemed absolutely towering. And to any reasonable historian of muscle machinery, 385 hp still is a hell of a lot of ponies.
The C5 Z06 was, legend has it, GM's way of using up the awkward two-door hardtop coupe body style it had developed for no apparent reason. Instead of just dumping those weird notchbacks on dealers, the Corvette engineers decided to use the stiff and relatively lightweight body to their advantage by stuffing it full of the best Corvette engine built up until that point — the 5.7-liter LS6 version of the LS1. Then they pushed that advantage with a few weight-saving tricks (a titanium exhaust system and lighter won't-run-flat tires), a six-speed manual transaxle with tightened ratios and a stiffer "FE4" active suspension system.
Yes, today's C6 Corvettes are faster still. But the C5 Z06 is still absolutely scalding. This is a car that will slam to 60 mph in just 4.5 seconds and crush through the quarter-mile in 12.8 seconds at 112.9 mph. Then the engineers decided to fortify the Z06 for 2002 by upping the LS6's output to 405 hp.
The C5 Z06 is the fastest car on this list. That it's dropped down to under $20K makes it an astonishing bargain.
If it were our money: Compared to the "regular" C5 Corvette, the Z06 was produced in tiny numbers — just over 28,000 between 2001 and 2004. And many Z06s were bought by older buyers who wanted the best, but actually didn't put many miles on them. And many have been pampered. So scour the obits and hit the estate sales!
2003-'04 Ford Mustang SVT Cobra
When Ford introduced the 2005 Mustang with its retro styling and new chassis, it seemed the whole world turned its back on the just-superseded Fox-body (SN-95) Mustang as some sort of primitive and unworthy hulk. But there's never been a more radical or interesting Mustang than the 2003 and '04 SVT Cobra. And in many ways, there's never been a better Mustang to drive.
Besides featuring a 390-hp supercharged version of Ford's DOHC, 32-valve, 4.6-liter Modular V8 and a six-speed manual transmission to support it, the 2003-'04 SVT Cobra is the only factory Mustang so far to come equipped with an independent rear suspension. The steering came in for some criticism at the time, but the suspension means this is still the easiest Mustang to ram through corners at speed. And yeah, it's quick, with zero to 60 taking 5.3 seconds and the quarter going by in 13.6 seconds at 108.2 mph.
Of course $19,999 is enough to snag a low-mileage 2005 or later Mustang GT. But you can also rent one of those at Hertz.
If it were our money: The SVT Cobra was available as both a coupe and convertible. But stick with the structurally stiffer coupe and don't be scared off by a dent or two if the rest of the car is sound. After all, Mustang sheet metal is cheap. We'd also invest in a smaller supercharger pulley, some lowering springs and larger wheels and sticky rubber.
2004-'06 Honda S2000
After a full decade in production, Honda is killing off the S2000 roadster following the 2009 model year. What a loss.
The S2000 has just about the stiffest and most stable chassis ever put under an open two-seater. And there's never been anything quite like its DOHC 16-valve, VTEC-equipped four-cylinder engine that makes 240 hp despite modest displacement and no forced induction.
While there are 2000-'03 S2000s out there for less money, the S2000 you want is a 2004 model or later. Thanks to a bump in displacement from 2.0 to 2.2 liters (which added some much-needed midrange torque), a few structural reinforcements and some careful suspension tweaks, the 2004 S2000 is a significantly easier car to live with than the earlier version.
Don't take that to mean a 2004 S2000 is an easy car to live with. This is the hardest-core machine on this list of hard-core machines. In fact, the S2000 has been called a four-wheeled superbike, which either means it's the car of your dreams or a high-revving, cramped and noisy nightmare. That's for you to decide.
If it were our money: Honda added an electronic throttle to the 2006 S2000 that is ever-so-slightly less responsive than the mechanical throttle in the 2004 and 2005 editions. So we'd go for the best 2004 or 2005 we could find. A hardtop would be a nice bonus.
2002-'03 Porsche Boxster S
With its flat-6 engine plopped just aft of the driver's butt, the midengine Boxster has consistently been the best-balanced car Porsche has built since it was introduced for 1997. And the best Boxster is the powerful Boxster S. Now it's possible to own one for stupid little money.
Compared to Porsche's hypercars like the 911 Turbo, the 2002 Boxster S's 250 hp from its 3.2-liter flat-6 seems modest. And the small bump up to 258 hp for 2003 is just a slight improvement.
But the Boxster is relatively light despite being a very stiff open car, and 250 horses is more than enough to keep the entertainment level percolating at full boil. Throw in what may be the best steering on Earth, outstanding brakes and a chassis better balanced than the scales of Justice, and the Boxster S is ludicrously fun to drive.
If it were our money: As good as the 2002 Boxster S is, the 2003 model includes those eight extra ponies and a real glass rear window that improves top-up visibility. Look for 18-inch wheels that indicate the presence of the Sport package. Unless you enjoy being mocked as a poseur, there's no reason to settle for the regular Boxster or any Boxster with a Tiptronic transmission.
Online sources: Porsche Club of America
2005-'06 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VIII and IX
Mitsubishi's Lancer Evolution models are alpha dogs of sport-compact insanity. And to many of those in the grips of that insanity, the Evo IX is still the best of the Evo bunch.
Stuffed into the cheeseball shell of the subcompact Lancer sedan, the Evolution's heart is a turbocharged version of Mitsubishi's legendarily stout "4G63" DOHC, 16-valve iron-block engine. Ludicrously underrated at just 276 hp, the 2005 Evo VIII's power plant feeds either five- or six-speed manual transaxles and pours that power through an effective full-time all-wheel-drive system. The suspension is rugged, the steering rabid and the brakes are good enough to stop congressional pork-barrel spending.
But the Evo got even better with the introduction of the Evolution IX model for 2006. A larger turbo and the addition of MIVEC variable valve timing upped output to 286 hp while increasing drivability, while some subtle tweaks made the boxy car look better (if no less boxy).
Mitsubishis have never held their value well in the used car market, and the Evo has taken more of a hit than its archrival the Subaru Impreza WRX STi. So much the better for anyone shopping for a new Evo.
If it were our money: If you can afford it, go for the Evo IX (but don't feel bad if you have to "settle" for an VIII). Find an unmolested MR model if you're looking for a daily driver. Go for the lightweight RS if you want to go racing.
2002-'03 Mercedes-Benz C32 AMG
Find the M3 too splashy and, well, adolescent? Then how about a Mercedes-Benz C32 AMG? Remember it? Yeah, it's the C-Class compact four-door with a belt-driven supercharger snugged between the cylinder banks of its 3.2-liter V6 to whomp out 349 hp and a honking 332 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm. It's true it was only offered with a five-speed automatic transmission, but it still rocked from zero to 60 in just 5.4 seconds while running in poor traction conditions.
Since the subsequent C-Class AMG products (the C55 and current C63) have used more glamorous V8 engines, the C32 has been overshadowed and sunk somewhat into obscurity. But it's still capable of running with an M3, still built like a Mercedes, and it gets decent mileage considering its performance. Plus M3s of this vintage weren't available as four-doors and when you have a family or friends, that's a real consideration.
The C32 was never a hard-edged boy racer, but it's hardly cold-blooded. And at under $19,999 it's a bargain.
If it were our money: Hold out for a C32 that's been treated like the Mercedes it is. Fortunately few teenagers bought C32s, so finding a well-tended one should be straightforward.
2005-'07 Nissan 350Z
What's not to like about the 350Z? It's a real sports car with only two seats. It's powered by a 287-hp 3.5-liter version of Nissan's lauded VQ-series V6. And it corners brilliantly. Sure, there's practically no luggage room and the ride can be harsh, but if you want a sports car you've already decided to compromise in those areas.
Introduced as a 2003 model, the 350Z line always included multiple models depending on how the car was going to be used. When launched that included an incredible five trim levels ranging from "Base" to a raceway-ready "Track." In 2004 a convertible was added to the mix. And in 2007 a Nismo model topped the range.
No matter what model, all 350Zs were built around Nissan's "FM" platform that placed the bulk of the drivetrain behind the front axle line. That results in a very balanced car that responds to driver inputs almost instantly.
If it were our money: While the 350Z was offered with a five-speed automatic, what you want is the six-speed manual. The big brakes, wheels and tires of the Track model are desirable, but we'd get the best Z we could find and add that stuff later if we needed it. We'd also avoid the convertible body style because we are male and the Nismo model because we are not sadomasochistic.
2003-'05 Infiniti G35 Coupe
Built on the same FM platform as the G35 sedan and Nissan 350Z, the Infiniti G35 coupe carries the agility and performance of those cars under an utterly gorgeous two-door coupe body. It's elegant and classy in a way neither the G35 sedan nor the 350Z ever could be.
The only engine offered in the G35 coupe was a 3.5-liter version of Nissan's VQ-series V6 rated between 280 and 298 horsepower. While a six-speed manual transmission was offered as standard equipment, most G35 coupes were delivered with the optional (and acceptable) five-speed automatic. With the automatic, expect a 0-60 time just over 6 seconds.
Though it lacks the 350Z's edge, the G35 coupe makes up for it with a well-controlled ride and some additional utility thanks to a usable trunk and small rear seats. And best of all, the current G37 coupe looks barely any different.
If it were our money: We'd look for a well-optioned car that has been well maintained. Then we'd find some JDM badges and have "SKYLINE" spelled out across the trunk.
Online sources: Nissan Infiniti Car Owners