Ten grand will get you a new car. You know, something like a Nissan Versa 1.6 Base or Hyundai Accent GS three-door base — solid, basic transportation with all the charm of Tupperware. Or, that same $10,000 will buy you a used ride any car enthusiast would be proud to call his own.
Our recent feature, "The 10 Best Used Cars for Less Than $4,999" started us down this road of cheap car fun. This time, we've doubled the maximum price point, but as before, we've done most of our shopping on Auto Trader with a few side trips to Craigslist and some confirmation of prices using the tracking on eBay Motors.
Compared with our $5,000 picks, the $10,000 cars started life as more expensive and/or exclusive vehicles. You know, top-of-the-line machinery or low-production models. But as before, we're talking about used cars here: vehicles with odometers often verging on — or well past — the six-digit mark. If you're lucky enough to stumble across one that's keenly priced and well kept, don't hesitate to buy.
1990-'96 Nissan 300ZX
Fully two decades after it was introduced, Nissan's "Z32" 300ZX remains a fine and futuristic-looking car. Look at those glass-enclosed headlamps and the graceful body sweep from its pointed prow to its elevated rear deck.
When new, every model of the Z32 was rightly praised for its outstanding handling, but this heavy, densely packed car can also seem sluggish in non-turbocharged form. When equipped with twin turbos however, it's astonishingly quick, if technically even more complex. An automatic was available, but the five-speed manual is the one to have.
Finding a decent, naturally aspirated 300ZX for less than $10,000 is a lot easier than finding a twin-turbo model at that price. But even low-mileage (less than 50,000 miles on the clock) early 300ZXs are available for less than $9 grand if you look hard enough. There doesn't seem to be a premium or discount for the longer-wheelbase, four-seat 2+2 model or the rarer convertible. And when the occasional twin turbo shows up for under $10K, it's almost too good for anyone to pass up, even with higher mileage.
If it were our money: The 300ZX is a great driver no matter what the model. But we'd skip over the awkward-looking 2+2 and the T-top and convertible models. Our cash would be spent on the best two-seat hardtop we could find. A turbo, with any luck.
1985-'91 Porsche 944 Turbo
To many purists' eyes, Porsche's flirtation with front-engine cars during the '70s and '80s was misguided and unfortunate. But that's only because they've never driven a 944 Turbo. It's one of the best-handling, sweetest-driving cars Porsche has ever built with the engine in front, middle or back.
A derivative of the underwhelming 924, the 944 was a significantly better vehicle when it was introduced in 1982. However, Porsche's big 2.5-liter four (essentially half a 928 5.0-liter V8) was only rated at 150 horsepower. But then Porsche added a turbocharger and intercooler to the equation and output jumped to 217 hp, improving acceleration dramatically. Magazine tests at the time had it ripping from zero to 60 in 5.5 seconds. Beyond that, Porsche also threw in chassis refinements that turned the 944 Turbo into a car often praised as the best handling in the world.
Forget low-mileage examples or the rare 944 Turbo S for your $10,000. The 944 Turbos at just into five figures all have odometers reading well past 100,000 miles. But the 944 Turbo is a stout machine, and pushing them past 200,000 miles isn't unknown. Just don't expect Porsche mechanics to work cheap.
If it were our money:
We'd simply opt for the best possible example within our meager budget. Just remember, fixing Porsches is never cheap, so paying a little more up front will usually get you ahead in the end.
1999-2000 Honda Civic Si
The major challenge when it comes to buying a 1999 or 2000 Honda Civic Si is finding one that hasn't been made worse by lunk-headed modifications. But there are clean, unmolested, sweet-driving Civic Si coupes out there for under $10,000.
While other Civics of this vintage have dropped well below $5,000 in value, the Si Coupe has kept its value up because it's fundamentally a different beast. The big change being, of course, the presence of Honda's famed "B16" 1.6-liter DOHC VTEC four under the hood.
Rated at 160 hp, the B16 doesn't make a lot of torque, but it will rev right up to its 8,000-rpm redline with an astounding eagerness. But beyond the engine swap, the Si also got stiffer springs and shocks, a neatly detailed interior with vastly better seats, and a set of neat 15-inch alloy wheels.
One reason this generation of Civic Si is so cherished is because it was the last generation of Civic to use a double-wishbone front suspension. That suspension design was once one of Honda's signature engineering elements, and many claim none of the Civics equipped with MacPherson struts built since can match the old ones for handling.
If it were our money: We'd hold out for a low-mileage, well-maintained, well-documented, never wrecked, never modified, near pristine Civic Si. Then we'd upgrade the wheels and tires and maybe — maybe — go for freer-flowing intake and exhaust systems.
1995-2001 BMW 740i and 740iL
The variety of used BMWs available for around $10K is staggering — ranging from sweet-looking but ancient 2002s to classic 635i coupes, to not-that-old 5 Series sedans. But the one that stands out at this price is the 1995-2001 "E38" 7 Series sedan. You know, the one before Bangle got a hold of it. The one James Bond drove in Tomorrow Never Dies.
BMW built the big E38 to be an everyday car for the world's elite, and that's how they've been used. There are E38 740iL sedans that have racked up huge mileage numbers. Surprisingly, though, even 740iLs with barely over 70,000 miles on their odometers are available for less than $10K — though at that price we'd perform every sort of inspection including an MRI before turning over cash for the car. After all, buying a problem BMW is bound to mean big expenses down the line.
Both V8- (740i and 740iL) and V12-powered (750iL) E38s are available at our price point. But the V12 is a more complex, thirstier and temperamental machine than its more common V8 counterparts. And when a 750iL is busted, it often takes bigger bucks to un-bust it.
If it were our money: We crave a 2001 silver 740iL with the Sport package. Deep-dish wheels. Classic lines. And high miles wouldn't scare us as long as there's a service history that indicates the car has been well maintained.
2002-'06 Acura RSX
The RSX succeeded the Integra back in 2002 when Acura decided to get out of the real name business. But outside North America this car was sold as the Honda Integra, and that's exactly what it is.
Built only as a three-door hatchback coupe, the front-drive RSX was offered in two trim levels: base and Type-S. Both featured Honda's then-new K-Series 2.0-liter four, with the base car's engine making 160 hp, while the Type-S engine was more highly tuned to produce 200 hp (bumped to 210 hp in 2005).
The base RSX could be had with either five-speed manual or automatic transaxles, while the Type-S came solely with a six-speed manual gearbox. Compared to previous Integras, the RSX had a more relaxed, easygoing personality that can be traced to the greater torque production and quieter operation of the new engine and a more isolated ride.
The old Integras were street fighters: eager, roaring beasts with an appetite for competition. That just isn't in the RSX's more robust, low-key personality. And many Integra loyalists will never believe an RSX can handle because it runs MacPherson struts up front instead of the beloved double-wishbones. But the RSX is a well-built, exceptionally solid, small coupe that has always been fun to drive.
If it were our money: The Type-S is the one to go for here; the extra power and 8,000-rpm redline of the VTEC-equipped engine make it vastly more entertaining than the base car. But that would restrict us, almost solely, to 2002 models with higher mileage. Adding a free-flowing exhaust would add some rip-snort to the RSX's personality and, if we could afford it, we'd upgrade to a limited-slip differential to improve cornering.
2002-'03 Subaru Impreza WRX
An advanced all-wheel-drive system, turbocharged and intercooled engine and a winning race record...all wrapped in one of the most innocuous four-door sedan bodies imaginable. What isn't there to love about the Subaru Impreza WRX? And now prices on early, higher-mileage U.S. models have fallen to under $10K.
There never would have been a WRX if Subaru hadn't decided to go rally racing in the early '90s, and at its heart every WRX is a racecar. This is a focused all-wheel-drive performance machine with a 2.0-liter turbo flat-4 and a robust five-speed manual transmission. The WRX may look dumpy, but every one of the 2002 model's 227 horses is there to gallop.
That racing DNA, however, also means a lot of WRXs have been, well, raced. Or at least driven hard. Often. And sometimes on unpaved roads. So beware of any WRX that shows signs of abuse. And don't be surprised if you wind up looking at many WRXs that have been creatively and tragically modified.
And no, there aren't any WRX STi models out there near $10 grand.
If it were our money: An unmodified wagon-bodied example with the five-speed manual is our pick. There was a four-speed auto available. Avoid it like Kenny G.
2001-'05 Volkswagen GTI
Almost 35 years ago, VW fortified its new small, front-drive three-door Golf with a more powerful engine, stiffened suspension and the letters G, T and I. The result simply revolutionized what the world expected from performance-oriented small cars, and the original hot hatch has been getting better ever since.
For $9,999 you'll be shopping GTIs based on the "Mark IV" Golf platform and featuring either the throaty narrow-angle 2.8-liter VR6 or the flexible 1.8-liter turbocharged-4. It's a pick-'em between the two engines: The VR6 is torque-rich and rated at 174 hp, while the 150-hp 1.8T (180 hp starting with 2002 models) is easier on gas and can be tweaked for far greater output. If you like thrilling exhaust notes, go for the VR6. If the sound of turbo whine and blow-off valves excites you, the turbo awaits.
VW's quality control has often been uneven, and buying a well-maintained GTI is critical. Fortunately, at this price point it should be possible to snag a 2002 or '03 model with modest mileage and a service record.
If it were our money: The turbocharged GTIs are strong runners, but it's the VR6s that have the engaging, seamless personality. So we'd buy a VR6, add a free-flowing exhaust, drop the windows and go looking for tunnels.
1998-2002 Chevy Camaro Z28
If you're after sheer speed, it's pretty much impossible to beat the LS1-powered Camaro Z28. Displacing 5.7 liters, the all-aluminum LS1 was rated at 305 hp in the regular Z28 and a stout 320 hp in the much rarer Z28 SS. Given enough room (and a powertrain control module free of a speed limiter), a regular Z28 is a true 160-mph car. And it will hustle there with the sort of explosive acceleration that only comes from a large-displacement V8.
The Z28 was offered as a convertible or coupe, with many coupe buyers opting for removable T-tops. While the convertible has its charms, it still carries a price premium in the used market and isn't as structurally rigid as the coupe. Chevy also let you choose between a four-speed automatic transmission or a six-speed manual.
Questionable modifications and abuse are common in the Camaro world, but these cars are so numerous, there's no reason to purchase a car that gives you the willies. Just walk around the corner and there will be another one.
In fact, there are a surprising number of 1998-2001 models with less than 100,000 miles on their clocks that can be had for under $9,999. There are even some low-mileage 2002 Z28s out there at under $10K.
Of course all of the above also applies to Pontiac's Firebird Trans Am.
If it were our money: The Z28 to have is a solid-roof example that came with the standard six-speed transmission and Z-rated tires. Simply buy the best example you can.
2001-'05 Audi A4
Audi's A4 was a hit from the moment it appeared in 1995, and it only got better when the second generation was introduced for the 2001 model year. Now many of those second-generation A4s are right in our target price range.
For 2001, North American market A4s were offered with either a 170-hp, 20-valve, 1.8-liter turbocharged-4 or a 190-hp 2.8-liter V6. The 1.8T carried over into 2002, but there was a new 3.0-liter V6 producing a full 220 hp. The fours may be easier on fuel, but the 3.0-liter V6 is the best driver and the most straightforward to maintain. Audi offered either a five-speed automatic or a six-speed manual transmission.
Combine the A4's optional Quattro all-wheel-drive system with the A4's sophisticated all-independent suspension and easygoing engines and it's just about the best daily driver available at this price. Since Audi buyers are usually responsible adults, there's little reason to settle for a car without a comprehensive service history.
If it were our money: We'd hold out for a later Quattro model powered by the 3.0-liter V6. Then we'd drive it. And drive it. And drive it.
2000-'02 Audi S4
As sweet-natured as the Audi A4 has always been, its more powerful brother the S4 has always been more exciting. And now all those thrills are available for less than $9,999! It's like finding out ice cream has no calories.
The S4 under discussion here is the one with a 2.7-liter DOHC five-valve, variable timed, twin-turbocharged V6 under its first-generation A4 hood. It was only rated at 250 hp here in North America, but backed by either a six-speed manual transmission or five-speed automatic, it could zoom to 60 in under 6 seconds and almost effortlessly bounce against its 155-mph electronic speed limiter. And with a few tweaks from tuners like ABT or Torque Factory, the V6 is easily capable of more than 400 hp.
As with any high-performance car, many S4s have hard, hard driven lives. So finding one that's been well-maintained is critical. No, there aren't a lot of S4s out there, but don't hesitate to walk away from one that's obviously been abused. Be patient, and a better car will surface.
If it were our money: Our ideal S4 would be mechanically sound even if it's a bit challenged cosmetically. Making the car look good is, after all, easy. But trying to fix a rare turbo engine on a budget is almost impossible.