For those who covet coupes, style and performance take priority over rear-passenger room, ease of entry/exit for said passengers and maximum cargo capacity. Sexier lines, a more intimate cabin and a more responsive driving experience easily trump those admittedly practical, but rather unexciting concerns. And for those drawn by such charms, there are plenty of choices out there ranging from affordable but still entertaining, to extravagant yet still enticing. Recommended models include traditional coupes as well as two-door hatchbacks.
Most shoppers in this segment are typically looking for high style, low fuel consumption and a fun-loving personality. The Mini Cooper shines in those regards with its iconic looks and zippy, go-kart-like handling. The turbocharged Cooper S adds even more grins. As far as fuel economy, the standard Cooper with a six-speed manual earns an impressive 32 mpg in the EPA's combined rating.
Another hatchback that has earned kudos is the Volkswagen Golf, which manages to be practical without being boring. With its classy European styling and refined cabin, the Golf looks and feels a cut or two above its rivals. The Golf's chassis continues this theme with composed road manners and a choice of two engines: a spirited five-cylinder gasoline engine or fuel-sipping four-cylinder turbodiesel.
For those who don't care for hatchbacks and prefer the more formal style of a coupe, there is the Kia Forte Koup. The Koup's crisp looks aren't the only thing this Kia has going for it. If you opt for the sporting SX trim level, there's respectable performance and handling to be had. Sealing the deal are solid build quality, a generous standard-features list and Kia's extraordinarily long warranty.
It's hard to go wrong when considering two-doors in this price range, which includes sensible front drivers, hot hatches, sports cars, a luxury coupe and muscle cars. The Ford Mustang was a unanimous choice amongst our editors with the introduction of new engines for 2011. Its V6 engine produces 305 horsepower and yet returns 23 mpg combined, while its optional V8 has been bumped up to 5.0 liters and 412 hp. Add to that last year's many widespread improvements and this pony car is easy to recommend.
The Dodge Challenger is another muscle-car favorite, though admittedly, the V6-powered model is not nearly as appealing as the V8-powered trims above it. Yet, not only does the Challenger possess an iconic retro charm, it's also a surprisingly comfortable and spacious coupe that stands out on long-distance road trips. It's an American classic and they just don't make 'em like this anymore. For a more modern take on the rear-drive sport coupe, the Hyundai Genesis Coupe is also worth a look.
Our final choice goes to the BMW 1 Series, a tiny sport coupe with big engines that rewards its drivers with sharp handling and a forgiving nature. It may not be the prettiest thing on the road, but the fun you can have in its driver seat rivals that of many sports cars.
BMW's 3 Series remains our perennial favorite in this category. With a seemingly unequaled combination of luxury, athleticism and refinement, it's easy to see why. The entry-level 328i is peppy enough for most drivers, while the twin-turbocharged 335i will bring a smile to even the most jaded of driving enthusiasts. Add to that an all-wheel-drive option and the ability to comfortably seat four adults, and we think the BMW 3 Series will retain its top-dog status for quite some time.
The Audi A5 trails closely, with an attractive exterior and businesslike interior. Like the BMW, the A5 inspires confidence in the curves, but it comes up a little short when regarding steering feel and acceleration. In lieu of engine power, the Audi does score points with its above-average fuel economy.
The Infiniti G37 is in many ways the opposite of the Audi, trading some luxury and refinement for all-out performance and value. This engaging sport coupe is a favorite among driving enthusiasts looking to spend less money than they would on one of the Germans.
Just about any coupe in this category is going to be something that most people dream about, but two cars definitely stand out from the rest. The first is the 2011 Mercedes-Benz E-Class. This remarkably solid and luxurious coupe hits on all fronts, delivering real performance in a spacious and practical two-door that exudes quality and longevity. Though not a sports car in the pure sense, the E-Class coupe's tight chassis, supple suspension and pillarless cabin design create an airy perch from which you can enjoy most any road.
Should you actually want a pure sports car, few at any price point can deliver the unadulterated back-road performance of the Porsche Cayman, the company's least-expensive coupe. This midengine two-seater provides nearly unparalleled feedback and a chassis so balanced it can make anyone feel like a talented pilot. The Cayman coupe's horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine (in either base or Cayman S trim) provides a stunning soundtrack along with surprising fuel economy, and the hatch design and second trunk up front create a reasonably practical performance machine.
If you still want more performance than what the E-Class provides but need a coupe with a backseat, there are a few other popular choices as well. The BMW M3 is hard to overlook as it continues to be an exceptionally well-rounded car that can nearly equal the performance of even some exotic sports cars while remaining supremely docile for daily use. Another worthwhile choice here would be the Ford Shelby GT500, which has received some very useful upgrades over the past two years to make it a very impressive Mustang.
While there's little more than prestige at stake in this category when it comes to sales, carmakers offer their most inventive products here, representing powerful statements about the automobile and the nature of driving.
Maybe it's no surprise then that the Porsche 911 is our favorite, as its unique rear-engine configuration and powerful engine set it apart from its rivals. Outstanding performance and innovations like Porsche's PDK automated manual transmission earn our respect. The list of options is so long that the car can be transformed into anything from a track racer to a luxurious GT. And while it's thrilling to drive a car with nearly 400 hp, it can be equally rewarding to get more than 20 mpg in real-world driving.
The Audi R8 delivers the midengine package and extravagant style that you expect from an exotic sports car, yet this car also lives up to real-world standards of practicality with a refined ride and deliciously comfortable cabin (although the trunk is virtually nonexistent). It doesn't have the edge of the Porsche, but then again, that's a good thing as far as some people are concerned.