11 min read
24 Nov

Yep, you can definitely find fantastic fun to drive cars for cheap, even if your budget is under $10,000 to $15,000. The used car market flows with a wide selection of affordable and fun models, perfect for gearheads who'd rather someone else absorb the depreciation on a new sports car

While many driving enthusiasts are naturally drawn to powerful V8 engines and forced induction, this list focuses on affordable cars with excellent handling capabilities. The Mazda Miata, mentioned below, perfectly embodies the intersection of low-budget and high-performance pleasure. 

For most people, owning a second or third vehicle exclusively for weekend adventures isn't the most practical New Year resolution. But when the price limit is under $15,000, the conversation is worth having, and so is the potential for modifications and upgrades in the future even more compelling. Here, we present a compilation of some of the best-handling cars you can find for $15,000 or less. 

See also: How Fleet Dumping Could Crash The Price Of Used EVs, According To Industry Experts 

1. Mazda Miata Mk3 – The Mark of Affordability and Performance

  • Production Years: 2005–2015
  • Used Price: $12,995–$22,500 (2015 models)
2015 Mazda Miata MX-5.

Photo credit: Jacob Frey 4A via Wikimedia

The Mazda MX-5 Miata has always held a special place in the hearts of car enthusiasts, and the Mk3 generation is no exception. Launched in 2005, it’s not for nothing that the 3rd-gen Miata is often praised as one of the best-handling affordable cars in the market. 

The Mk3 embodies Mazda's reputation for prioritizing responsive performance and driver engagement. The car's lightweight, perfectly balanced 50/50 weight distribution plus rear-wheel drive configuration is a proven recipe for exceptional handling. 

Typical of the MX-5, the Mk3 Miata is nimble and agile, easily tackling tight corners while providing a level of control that makes driving a lot more fun. Its propulsion power comes from a lively, free-revving 2.0-liter engine that produces around 170 horsepower, which sounds uninspiring but is more than enough for the lightweight roadster. 

Granted, the 3rd-gen Miata won't win any drag races, but you can get a Mustang if you’re motivated by straight-line speed. Miata is about the joy of driving - the connection between the driver, car, and road.

In terms of affordability, the Mk3 Miata is hard to beat. It offers an unbeatable combination of performance, reliability, and low running costs. Furthermore, the Miata's popularity means there's a thriving used market and plenty of aftermarket support, making it an even more attractive proposition for budget-conscious car enthusiasts. 

2. Audi TT Mk1 – Distinctive Design Meets Dynamic Performance

  • Production Years: 1998–2006
  • Used Price: $8,990–$14,688 (2006 model)
Audi TT MK1.

Photo credit: OSX via Wikimedia

The 1998-2006 Audi TT offers a compelling blend of style, performance, and affordability. This German sports car, with its popular and iconic design, has become a cult classic among car enthusiasts and holds its own as one of the best-handling budget-friendly cars on the market. 

The first thing about the TT Mk1 is the exterior design, marked by a rounded, almost bubble-like shape and bold wheel arches. The interior follows suit with a minimalist yet futuristic design and a driver-focused cockpit, high-quality materials, and excellent build quality that's stood the test of time. 

For propulsion power, the TT Mk1 relies on a choice between a 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and a 3.2-liter V6, both of which make more than adequate power for spirited driving. The 1.8-liter engine is particularly noteworthy for its potent combination of power and fuel efficiency. 

You might want to seek out the 6-speed manual transmission available in some models for an enhanced “Jinba Ittai” driving experience. The real joy of the TT Mk1, however, lies in its handling. The car's short wheelbase, combined with Audi's Quattro all-wheel-drive system in the higher-spec TT models, ensures excellent grip and quick response in various driving conditions. 

It's nimble and agile through tight bends, and the steering provides good feedback, making the TT Mk1 a joy to drive on twisty roads. A suspension system well-tuned to offer a balance between comfort and sporty handling makes the TT Mk1 a competent performer on both city streets and back roads. Moreover, the TT Mk1 is a great value proposition. With a budget of $5,000, you can smile home with a classic 1998 Audi TT. 

3. Toyota MR2 Mk3 – A Pocket Rocket with Character

  • Production Years: 1999–2007
  • Used Price: $8,881–$24,990 (2007 model)
Toyota MR2 Mk3.

Photo credit: Rudolf Stricker via Wikimedia

The Toyota MR2 Mk3, also known as the MR2 Spyder, is a poster child of Toyota's ability to create affordable, fun-to-drive sports cars. Produced from 1999 to 2007, this mid-engined, rear-wheel-drive roadster, despite its compact size, delivers exciting performance and handling dynamics. 

Underneath the MR2 Mk3's aerodynamic and sporty exterior lies a lively 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers around 138 horsepower. While the car's power output might not seem impressive on paper, the lightweight chassis allows the MR2 to shine. The car's power-to-weight ratio makes it quick off the line and capable of holding its own on twisty roads. 

The MR’s real charm is its exceptional handling. Thanks to its mid-engine rear-wheel drive, the car delivers a balanced, nimble, and responsive driving experience. The famously sharp and precise steering contributes to the car’s stable and grippy handling in corners, a true driver's delight. 

Furthermore, the MR2 Mk3's cockpit-style interior feels made for the driver. The cabin might feel a bit snug for some, but that’s part and parcel of the car's compact, sporty character. You can quickly and easily lower the manual soft-top roof for open-air driving. 

Perhaps, the best part is that the MR2 Mk3 doesn't compromise on reliability despite its sporty nature. With its relatively low running cost, robust used car market, and bustling aftermarket support, the Toyota MR2 Mk1 is an attractive, affordable choice for driving enthusiasts. 

4. Porsche Boxster 986 – A Taste of Luxury on a Budget

  • Production Years: 1999–2007
  • Used Price: $13,888–$37,995
Porsche Boxster 986 S.

Introduced in the late 1990s and produced up until 2004, the Porsche Boxster 986 represents a low-hanging fruit in the garden of German luxury sports cars. Though a cheaper, entry-level Porsche, the 986’s exciting blend of performance and handling dynamism made it head and shoulders taller than other affordable sports cars. 

The Boxster 986 flaunts a quintessential Porsche design marked by a low-slung stance, sleek lines, and a mid-engine layout. It offers a convertible soft-top for those who enjoy an open-air driving experience. The build quality is as you'd expect from a Porsche, and its classic design has aged gracefully over the years. 

The Boxster 986 receives motivation from a flat-six engine, available in 2.5-liter, 2.7-liter, or 3.2-liter variants. It's not the fastest car in its class but the Boxster's performance is more than sufficient for spirited driving. The mid-engine layout and suspension make a fantastic combination of comfort and sportiness.

Porsche used only quality materials throughout the Boxster 986’s interior, including supportive seats to make long drives comfortable. The Boxster 986's reputation for reliability is decent for a German sports car. While maintenance costs may be higher than Japanese counterparts, the Boxster is certainly more affordable than others in Porsche’s lineup. 

5. Nissan 350Z – Power Meets Affordability

  • Production Years: 2002–2009
  • Used Price: $4,950–$42,900
Nissan 350Z.

Photo credit: Dinkun Chen via Wikimedia

Blending a strong performance, distinctive design, and remarkable handling makes the 2003–2009 Nissan 350Z a strong contender in the budget-friendly sports car market. 

The 350Z's bold, muscular design is instantly recognizable, with its long hood, short rear deck, and wide stance. It's a modern interpretation of classic sports car design and has aged well over the years. 

At the heart of the 350Z lies a 3.5-liter V6 engine that produces between 287 and 306 horsepower, depending on the model year. This powerplant offers robust performance with a strong pull throughout the rev range. The car feels quick accelerating from a standstill or overtaking on the highway. 

But the 350Z isn't just about straight-line speed. It also impresses with its handling. The car's rear-wheel drive layout and well-tuned suspension provide a balanced and engaging driving experience. The 350Z feels planted and stable in corners, while the sharp steering provides good feedback. 

Although some of the interior materials may not match the premium quality of some competitors, they've proven to be durable over the years. 

The car's reliability is generally good, and maintenance costs are reasonable for a sports car. They currently go for as low as $5,000 on TrueCar. Plus, the 350Z's popularity ensures a healthy used market and plenty of aftermarket support. 

See also: Here Are 10 Of The Fastest Sports Cars Under $10K 

6. BMW Z4 E85/E86 - The Ultimate Roadster

  • Production Years: 2002–2008
  • Used Price: $12,275–$37,000 (2008 model)
E85 BMW Z4.

Photo credit: Charles via Wikimedia

The 1st-gen BMW Z4 is undoubtedly one of the best-handling cheap cars you can find on the market. Released between 2002 and 2008, this roadster offers a thrilling driving experience that is hard to match within its price range. From a design standpoint, the Z4 boasts a distinctive sporty design. 

The long hood, short overhangs, and low-slung profile give it a classic roadster silhouette. The retractable soft top adds a touch of elegance and can be easily operated with the push of a button. 

Under the hood, the Z4 comes equipped with a range of engine options with different power outputs. The base models usually feature a 2.5-liter inline-six engine, while higher trims offer a more potent 3.0-liter inline-six. Like other roadsters on this list, the E85 Z4 shines with an RWD drivetrain featuring a well-tuned suspension system and communicative steering.

Inside the cabin, the Z4 offers a driver-focused environment with a well-designed and ergonomic layout although the car’s compact dimensions may feel a bit cramped for taller individuals, particularly in terms of headroom and legroom. 

Pricing for the 2003 Z4 models, for example, currently ranges from $4,290 to US$16,980 on TrueCar, with vehicle mileage ranging from 26,915 to 222,070. 

7. 2010 Ford Mustang – Retro American Muscle

  • Production Years: 5th Generation (2005–2014)
  • Used Price: $6,500–$44,998
2010 Ford Mustang.

Photo credit: Denmark via Wikimedia

Have a need for speed and engaging driving experience? You won't go wrong with the 2010 Mustang, not if you got your hands on the GT model. Shopping for a great-handling performance car on a budget? This Mustang's iconic design and robust performance call out to you with an affordable price tag. They currently go for as low as $7,000 in the used car market. 

As usual, Ford managed to strike a perfect balance between modern design elements and the classic Mustang heritage, so the first thing about the 2010 Mustang GT is its muscular and aggressive exterior styling. The bold front grille, sculpted body lines, and muscular proportions made a commanding presence on the road. 

The 2010 ‘Stang rocks a 4.6-liter V8 engine with approximately 315 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque, promising a smile-inducing acceleration and a thrilling exhaust note. More so, the 2010 Ford Mustang GT also introduced the option of an upgraded 5.0-liter V8 engine for gearheads itching to take things up a notch. 

As for the handling, the Mustang GT strikes a good balance between comfort and sportiness. That's because Ford tuned the suspension to provide a firm and controlled ride without sacrificing everyday drivability. The well-weighted steering contributes to a confident and engaging driving experience. 

Admittedly, the 5th generation Mustang's solid rear axle design may result in a slightly rougher ride over uneven surfaces compared to more modern independent suspension setups. At least, the 2010 Mustang GT makes up for this flaw with supportive seats in a driver-centric cabin designed with a mix of modern and retro styling cues. 

Also, the interior materials and overall cabin fit and finish may come off as less refined compared to higher-end sports cars, but at this 'Stang's used price point, we have zero to complain about on this front. With proper maintenance and care, this car promises longevity and a trouble-free ownership experience. 

8. 2014 Subaru BRZ – Precision Over Raw Power

  • Production Years: ZC6 (2012–2016)
  • Used Price: $11,995–$23,998
2014 Subaru BRZ.

Photo credit: Juanmontero.333 via Wikimedia

The primary essence of the BRZ is pure driving pleasure and precise handling, and the 2014 model has the DNA running in its veins. Co-developed with Toyota, the BRZ offers a captivating sports car experience, whether garbed as the Toyota 86, Scion FRS, or Subaru BRZ. 

Of course, the BRZ looks so good it could still win pageants today, but what enthusiasts cared about are the results of its aerodynamic profile. The low-slung stance and passive-aggressive front fascia merely reflect its purposeful performance. It's not here to win races; just wants you smiling through your trips. 

Even the cockpit is straightforward, while the low seating position improves the driver's support during spirited driving. Like the Mustang discussed earlier, the BRZ's interior materials and overall fit and finish might not match some of its higher-priced rivals. 

The BRZ sacrificed flamboyant styling on the altar of simplicity and clean lines, ultimately contributing to the car’s timeless appeal. Powering the BRZ is a 2.0-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine, also known as a "boxer" engine. With approximately 200 horsepower, the BRZ isn’t the most powerful sports car on the market

The car focuses on delivering an engaging driving experience rather than outright speed. The engine's low center of gravity contributes to the BRZ’s overall balance and handling prowess. The BRZ and Miata often share fans due to their exceptional handling capabilities. 

Both cars feature a rear-wheel drive with a lightweight construction and well-tuned suspension - the perfect recipe for joyful drives on twisty roads. The BRZ's beautifully balanced chassis is a catalyst for precise and predictable handling. 

9. 2014 Volkswagen GTI - German Engineering Meets Spirited Performance

  • Production Years: 6th Generation (2010–2014)
  • Used Price: $10,491–$17,998
2014 Volkswagen GTI.

The 2014 Volkswagen GTI is a highly respected hot hatch that successfully combines practicality, performance, and everyday usability. Known for its sporty nature and refined interior, the GTI offers a compelling package for those seeking a versatile, fun-to-drive compact car. 

Barring subtle distinguishing styling cues such as red accents, honeycomb grille, and aggressive front and rear bumpers, the 2014 GTI maintains an understated design mirroring the standard Golf models. 

For propulsion power, the 2014 GTI relies on a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine promising an impressive balance of power and efficiency. With approximately 200 horsepower, the GTI delivers spirited acceleration and ample torque for everyday driving. 

The turbocharged engine’s satisfying power surge, especially in the mid-range, is a joy in city traffic and winding roads. Unlike the BRZ, the GTI’s cabin showcases a high-quality interior with top-notch overall fit and finish. Plus, the GTI offers plenty of cargo space, thanks to its hatchback design. 

10. 2002 BMW M3 - A Marriage of Luxury and High Performance

  • Production Years: E46 Generation (2000–2006)
  • Used Price: $7,994–$44,999
2002 BMW M3.

Photo credit: Cars & Bids

The 2002 BMW M3 is a legendary performance car with a well-deserved reputation as a capable German machine. With its powerful engine, precise handling, and aggressive styling, the 2002 M3 is a standout choice for driving enthusiasts. 

From a design perspective, the 2002 M3 went for a muscular and athletic appearance. It features unique M-specific styling cues such as a more aggressive front bumper, flared fenders, and larger wheels, contributing to its sporty, purposeful look. The M3's design successfully combines elegance with a hint of aggressiveness. 

To substantiate the aggressive design, the 2002 M3 relied on a 3.2-liter inline-six engine producing around 333 horsepower. The engine is a high-revving mill, delivering linear power and a thrilling exhaust note. The M3 can accelerate from rest to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds. 

The car’s composed manners around corners are thanks to a well-tuned suspension system, precise steering, and balanced chassis. The interior design is clean and functional, although it may lack some modern amenities in newer vehicles. However, the focus of the M3 is on the driving experience, and it delivers on that aspect exceptionally well. 

11. 2015 Ford Fiesta ST - Dynamic Driving Pleasure

  • Production Years: WT 6th Generation (2014–2019)
  • Used Price: $9,980–$21,998
2015 Ford Fiesta ST.

Photo credit:  David Villarreal Fernández via Wikimedia

The 2015 Ford Fiesta ST is a compact hot hatch you can depend on for an exciting driving experience at an affordable price. With its sporty design, peppy engine, and nimble handling, the Fiesta ST has gained a reputation as a fun and engaging car that punches above its weight class. 

Visually, the ST stands out from the standard Fiesta with its aggressive and sporty styling cues. It features unique bodywork, including a revised front fascia, side skirts, and a rear spoiler, giving it a more dynamic and athletic appearance compared to the standard Fiesta models. 

The Fiesta ST's compact size and bold design make it a visually appealing choice for those seeking a sporty and youthful car. Under the hood, the Fiesta ST makes nice with a turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine producing approximately 197 horsepower. 

While the power output isn’t as inspiring as some of its competitors, the Fiesta ST compensates with an impressive power-to-weight ratio. The engine’s strong low-end torque makes for a quick acceleration and spirited performance. 

Plus, the satisfying growl emanating from the exhaust adds to the ST’s driving excitement. You can get the 2015 Fiesta for as low as $3,000 in the used car market, while pricing for the ST variant starts at just under $10,000 on TrueCar used car listings. 

Price Source: TrueCar

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