What is the best recent sportscar between 20K and 30K?
April 19, 2006 11:13 AM   Subscribe

Best performance auto between $20K and $30K?

I'm going to be buying a car this summer and want to pull upon the substantial knowledge and experience of the askmefi crowd to make sure I get the best bang for the buck.

I'm looking in the 20K-30K range. Cheaper is fine, more expensive is not.

Here are the cars I'm considering:
Nissan 350Z
Mustang GT
Subaru WRX
Jetta GLI
Mercedes SLK convertible (used)
Mazda RX-8
Acura RSX type S

Which one would give me the best bang for the buck? I want fast, exceptional handling, and a high score on the Cool-o-meter would be a definate plus. I'll probably buy new, but am not adverse to used (or a great lease deal). If you have any recommendations on a make/model not listed above, by all means suggest away.

Bonus points for anyone who can recommend a good dealership in the south/southwest chicago suburbs for any of the above makes.
posted by 1024x768 to Travel & Transportation (64 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
By performance do you mean all-out fastest or best to drive? I read a fairly comprehensive article on the 350Z versus Mustang (not GT, I am unsure why they chose the regular model) last year and while the Mustang was definitely faster, they preferred the 350Z by a fair margin due to it "feeling like a sports car" because of the seats, interior, and handling as opposed to raw power. Some more criteria might be good.
posted by mikeh at 11:20 AM on April 19, 2006

One thing to consider is the cost of the car after the purchase. For instance the WRX requires at least 91 octane to run. That's $3.15 a galon right now. That said WRX is an awesome car to have. If you're OK with used, a recent WRX will run you in very low $20,000. The turbo boost kicking in will definitely put a smile on your face.

I'm not terribly informed about the other cars, but the SLK is a two seater, so you'll incur insuarance penalties (afaik). RX8 is a nifty little car, but the rotary engine is definitely uncommon and therefore probably a little more expensive to maintain.

I'd also consider Audio A4 (turboed) and Infinity G35. Perhaps an older BMW M3 or M5 as well.
posted by aeighty at 11:23 AM on April 19, 2006

I've got a WRX wagon. I'm very happy with it, but will make some observations:
1. It's dorky looking. I'm happy with that, but most of the cars on your list score higher on the coolometer.
2. It's fast, but you've really got to keep the revs up to get that speed. The engine does not like being lugged, and is a dog below 2000 rpm.
3. It's very practical--probably the most utilitarian car on the list. I've hauled a lot of stuff in mine, I've picked up a family of four with their luggage at the airport, etc.
4. Very solid. No squeaks. I've had no problems with my 2002 model except for a dead remote key fob.
5. AWD. Sure could come in handy in Chicago.

The WRX Sti is over your price range, but if one appeared used, I think that would be your fastest low-price option.

Other cars you might consider:
VW Golf R32 (only available used, I think)
Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution (arguably even dorkier than the WRX)
Honda S2000 (probably out of your price range unless used)
posted by adamrice at 11:29 AM on April 19, 2006

Best answer: This is all my personal opinion. I was looking at some of the same cars as you about 5 months ago.

The 350Z is fun to drive, but cheap interior. The Infiniti version (i.e. G35 coupe) is a step above but it has this weird 80's feel to the interior -- though the exterior is drop dead sexy in freshly-washed black.

The Mustang is a Ford, and I think it's overpriced except the GT500 edition which is actually a great bargain - but it's still an unreliable POS.

The Jetta is also terribly unreliable as all recent VWs are, and yet VW is starting to charge premium prices of late.

BMWs and to a lesser extent MB are some of the few cars I WOULDN'T prefer to buy used. German cars really, really show their age around 100k miles and they start to become very, very, very expensive.

The WRX is fast but it has this nerdy image I didn't want to be That Guy with, which sounds dumb but it's the truth. Hotheads and nerdy bang-for-buck engineers (like me) that are too passive to USE it tend to be the primary drivers.

The RX8 has terrible mpg and drinks oil like no other - to be expected with the rotary, though it's particularly bad with this iteration from what I hear. Fun to drive, but as a primary car it's a bit too much work for me.

The RSX-S was on my list, but it's still essentially a dressed-up last-generation Civic. That's not a deal-breakers except for the fact that I was SELLING a Civic. I'd rather a new-generation Civic Si to be honest.

I bought an Acura TL. Nerdy gadgets, tons of quiet juggernaut power, subtly refined enough to not look like a dweeb with too much money and a flashy car. The next guy we hired bought the same car down to the color combo and options (there's only one, navigation) after riding in mine. :)

Those are my opinions, and I don't really want to hear debates on how American cars are reliable now or that VW has cleaned up their act in the last year or two. I'm pretty safe in the generalizations I've made on the whole.
posted by kcm at 11:33 AM on April 19, 2006

Oh and when I did the math for octane requirements (a lot you will consider require 91+), if you're spending 30k on a car, you can afford .20*12 = 2.40 extra per fill up. Why not, if it means driving the car you want?
posted by kcm at 11:35 AM on April 19, 2006

I have a WRX. I can speak to many aspects of this car. Unfortunately, it is in the shop at the moment, and has been a while after I wrecked the hell out of it.

It is, by far, the most fun I have had in a car. I have driven it in the city, I have driven it on the highway. I have driven it literally from coast to coast, border to border. I would do it again. The car is a very nice balance of price and performance. It's hella zippy bone stock, and does what you want it to when you ask it to. The factory radio is the first thing that should go, however.

It is probably the safest and most sturdy car I have been in as well. I got in a nasty side impact collision where I got T-boned by a truck. I walked away with a few cuts from flying glass, but was more or less unharmed (you should have seen the truck that hit me). That being said, the car has been in the shop for four months partially due to difficulty in acquiring all of the necessary body parts to repair the vehicle (should be out tomorrow or Friday, however).

When I first got it in 2003, I got a lot of looks for it. You don't see many of them on the highway. When you do, the drivers wave, and you wave back. Corny, I know, but there seems to be some sort of unspoken brotherhood among WRX drivers.
posted by kuperman at 11:36 AM on April 19, 2006

The WRX STi is going to be the best bang for the buck in terms of speed. Very fast out of the box and easily modified to be even faster.

A lot of the cars you mentioned are great cars, I think it's going to come down to your personal preference though.
posted by knave at 11:38 AM on April 19, 2006

Honda S2k.

The RSX is great ( I had one for years, and it's a hoot to drive) but nothing beats the S2000 for sheer G-force inspired grins.

For a Honda Dealership, try Honda of Lisle in ... well, Lisle. It's owned by an old family friend.
posted by SpecialK at 11:40 AM on April 19, 2006

It's not the "STi" any more, by the way, it's officially the STI. And the reason the stock radio is crap is that it's not meant to be a luxury car -- although the dealer I talked to when the STIs were arriving ordered a radio for each one since he knew no one was serious enough to leave it with the standard radio-delete option.

That said, the Forester I took care of for 3 years was a great car, so I can recommend Subaru if you can deal with the +/- of the WRX.
posted by kcm at 11:41 AM on April 19, 2006

Response by poster: Mikeh - I'm more looking for fun to drive than pure speed (though I'd imagine any truely fun to drive car would have some hefty acceleration :)

aeighty + kcm - Octane level and fuel efficiency (as long as not absurdly low) are not a big issue for me, thanks for bringing it up, though.

RE: A lot of response about the WRX. I have heard only good things about this car, but am mildly concerned that it wouldn't be ideal for me. I am very inexperienced at driving stick and I worry the pitiful torque at low rpms would be dificult for me to deal with as I don't have the feel for keeping the engine in the sweet spot yet. Wouldn't be an issue forever, but could make for a few annoyed weeks/months. Plus it looks bug-ugly compared to, say, the 350Z (YMMV but that's my personal opinion.) But is blazing fast if driven well and certainly wins a lot of practicality points (true 4 passenger, AWD, very reliable compared to some on the list).

The WRX STi and the EVO are very compelling but outside my price range.

Similarly he Acura TL and Inifiniti G35 (as well as the M45) look like great choices but I despair of finding recent year models in my price range.

So far great responses ladies and gents, please keep it coming :)
posted by 1024x768 at 11:55 AM on April 19, 2006

The WRX Limited has an automatic option. The WRX STI has a Limited edition in 2007. It's still not "STi" in 2007. :)
posted by kcm at 12:01 PM on April 19, 2006

The 2006 WRX has a new engine which eliminates the lack of torque at the low RPMS.

Proud new 2006 WRX owner here. I didn't know how to drive stick when I bought it two months ago. (Whether I know now is somewhat up for debate ;)
posted by IvyMike at 12:01 PM on April 19, 2006

I don't have much to add on any of these cars, but for what it's worth, the new WRX uses a turbocharged 2.5L instead of the current 2.0L, which won't make much more power, but will do so over a broader rev range.

You might want to also consider the Mazdaspeed 6 (which might go slightly outside your price range with options) or the Mazdaspeed 3 (which should be available later this year). Both will seat 4 or 5, are quick, handle well, and are reasonably well-appointed.
posted by uncleozzy at 12:05 PM on April 19, 2006

Generally higher octane requirements are for high compression engines that are designed to develop much more horsepower without a significant loss of efficiency. With lower octane gas in the same engine albeit designed for low octange fuel, you'd have to use more fuel.
posted by kcm at 12:07 PM on April 19, 2006

"I want fast, exceptional handling, and a high score on the Cool-o-meter would be a definate plus"

For the Fast, the 350z barely knocks out the RX -8 o nthe straight away but on the cures the RX 8 Blows past, its handling is superb and ras compared to several porshe models when IWas doing my research.

YES it ges bad gas milage, about 18-22 mixed driving, but eh thats the price you pay for something that blows everything in its price range away.

The cool factor for it is WAY up there and the oil consumption is really not that bad, its made to burn a little, keep a qt in your trunk (or under the hood, there is a cool little spot that fits a quart bottle perfectly) and top her off ever 2-4 fill ups (REALLY not a big deal, plus you look cool as hell under the hood of such a fine automobile at the gas station :)

I have an 04 with 13k miles and its awesone - the ride is comfortable for a daily commute car and the back seats and suicide doors are AWESOME when you have more the 1 other passanger, and the back, really is not to bad, i'm 6'2 and I could sit back their with relative comfort.

to me, bye far its the coolest best handling option out there ...

good luck!
posted by crewshell at 12:16 PM on April 19, 2006

My idea of "performance" is something that handles ridiculously well -- as opposed to something that would be found at a drag strip.

So, in that respect, I'd recommend these three:
Pontiac Solstice
Saturn Sky
Mazda MX-5 Miata

All of which are in the $20-25k budget. No, these aren't the most practical vehicles, but they're definitely "cool" and any one of them is probably the most fun you can buy with $25k.

The Honda S2000 would be great, too, but pushes the $30k limit if you're buying new.
posted by bhayes82 at 12:16 PM on April 19, 2006

Best answer: Wow, I've actually owned and or/driven almost every car on this list. I currently own a 2006 Mustang GT.

Mustang GT
pros: fast, very nice interior (in a Ford!), quiet and comfortable on the highway, to the point where I feel like I could drive it to China. That fabulous V8 sound. I had a chance to drive it in a Chicago snowstorm, and it was rock solid; the traction control is great. Despite not owning an American car in 10 years, this car may totally change my perspective. No idea of long-term reliability, but it generally seems very well put-together.
cons: mpg (although I get 25mpg on the highway if I keep it @70mph), lack of available sunroof, almost too easy to drive

Also.. the GT is really not a sportscar. It's fast, but technically it's very much a GT car in the traditional sense. Fast, smooth, comfortable, handles well, but not a point/shoot type of car. It definitely does not feel *alive* like the WRX/S2K did to me.

Subaru WRX
pros: comfy interior, easy seating for 4/5 people, great cargo space with the wagon, deceptively fast, fantastic 4 season capability.. the car is truly unstoppable.
cons: tends to burn lots of premium gas if you drive it hard. I had a very early production one and it chewed up many expensive internal parts. Seems like that's been handled in the later years.

Honda S2000 (though it isn't on your list):
pros: it's a 4-wheel motorcycle. That's the best way to describe it. There is absolutely nothing like it, except maybe the new Lotus Elise. Honda reliability.
cons: it is NOT a road-trip car. Noisy/revvy/bouncy on the highway. Engine is spinning at around 5000rpm at 75mph.

2007 Civic Si
My brother just bought one last week. Though I only briefly drove it, it is a very very nice little car. And with NAVi, it's only like $22,000. The car is 98% identical to the Integra Type R in specs. I think it was designed to be the successor to that car.

Other notes:

Stay far far away from VWs. Even if they have gotten better in quality, their dealership service departments are almost universally A+ fucksticks. Unpleasant on so many levels.
posted by ninjew at 12:18 PM on April 19, 2006

Response by poster: kcm - I'd prefer manual on a car with a turboed-engine. I've heard this particular engine described as "On/Off" depending on the rev range. I'd prefer to be the one controlling the acceleration 'switch'.

STi = typo. Sorry.
posted by 1024x768 at 12:20 PM on April 19, 2006

I'm also another happy WRX wagon owner. 2002 with 80K miles with no problems. If you do look at used STIs, I'd be a bit careful. A lot of those cars show up on track days and get driven really hard. Pay particular attention to the clutch and the linkage.
My friend has an Acura RSX type S, an he loves it. They aren't quite as torque-y as the WRX (it's not slow by any means) but I'd sat it corners better and has a much nicer interior and exterior. Might not be a great snow car, though.

As a rule i would buy either of the above cars from anyone under 25, even if it looks really nice.
posted by doctor_negative at 12:23 PM on April 19, 2006

Response by poster: Wow lot of support for the Honda S2000. I'll have to add that to my list of cars to test drive...
posted by 1024x768 at 12:29 PM on April 19, 2006


As a rule i would NOT buy either of the above cars USED from anyone under 25,
posted by doctor_negative at 12:29 PM on April 19, 2006

As a side note, what do people think of the Audi TT? I'm considering a used one soon (convertible) and I think the advice given here so far is incredible.
posted by bbrown at 12:33 PM on April 19, 2006

Best answer: I'm going to be buying a car this summer and want to pull upon the substantial knowledge and experience of the askmefi crowd to make sure I get the best bang for the buck.

May I respectfully suggest that you instead call upon the substantial knowledge and experience of Car and Driver Magazine? I'm in my mid-30s now, and while my personal beliefs don't always align with the editorials, their car advice has never steered me wrong (unlike, say, Motor Trend, who picked the Renault Alliance as "Car Of The Year"...gadzooks!)
posted by davejay at 12:42 PM on April 19, 2006

I went through this same decision a few years back, and ended up with a used BMW 323 coupe. The combination of power, handling, comfort and ergonomics have spoiled me completely!

These days, you can pick up a 330i easily in your price range, which is a spectacular engine in one of the great chassis of all time.
posted by milinar at 12:46 PM on April 19, 2006

Best answer: Now that I've said that, here's my advice:

Nissan 350Z -- if I were you, I'd stay away from Nissans -- too many reliability issues post-2000. I say this as an ex-owner of several.

Mustang GT -- heavy, plodding, fun with an automatic but tedious with a stick...and WTF good is an automatic-transmissioned sports car?

Subaru WRX -- fast, fun, and econo-car cheap in every way. If you buy it new, it'll probably outlast your willingness to continue driving it -- if you buy it used, you'll be sorry.

Jetta GLI -- more money and less speed/handling than most of its' competitors, but you can't beat that german "feel"...or the legion of electrical problems they have. I'd buy it on a lease, provided it's up before the warranty ends.

Mercedes SLK convertible (used) -- not a sports car, just a cruiser.

Mazda RX-8 -- easy to find used, because they're not quite as fast as the competition, but they handle amazingly well. Strange interior, though; drive one for a while to see if you get used to it or hate it.

Acura RSX type S -- great all-around sports car, provided you enjoy redlining it, since you have to be above 5,000 rpm for the power to come on. The rest of the time, it's like a civic. Great handling, though, right up there with the RX-8 (or at least as much as a front-driver can be)
posted by davejay at 12:47 PM on April 19, 2006

Oh, and for what it's worth, I passed on an Acura RSX type S in favor of a Nissan SE-R Spec-V a few years ago, to same money and insurance premiums, which are high for Hondas due to excessive theft. It was a mistake, as the reliability -sucked-.
posted by davejay at 12:49 PM on April 19, 2006

So, in that respect, I'd recommend these three:
Pontiac Solstice
Saturn Sky
Mazda MX-5 Miata

If I were you, of these three, I'd go Miata: #1, there's not a price premium on them right now, #2, the top mechanism is much better, and #3, the miata has a track record of reliability that the hurried-to-production solstice/sky twins don't (and likely won't) have.
posted by davejay at 12:51 PM on April 19, 2006

I drive an '01 Miata and love it. It's not a speed-demon but the handling is better than my step-mothers 5-series BMW. For more speed there's always the turbocharged Mazdaspeed ('04) Miata.

If you don't mind a little bit of reliability issues, the older Japanese supercars like the Supra and gen III RX-7 are an option. My gen II turbocharged RX-7 'vert was the most amazing experience I've ever had behind a wheel. Twelve pounds of boost in fourth gear.... *droools*

The car I'd most recommend though is the new GTO. I fell in love with it at the Rolex 24 after watching it stay in the race for the entire stint... which is something Ferrari, Mazda [RX-8], and Nissan [350Z] couldn't claim. Placing well meant you could run your car for 24 hours at around 150mph all while running it through hairpin turns. All three RX-8's died within 12 hours, the 350Z didn't make it past a few hours.

It's styling is impeccable if you find one without the silly hood-scoops. At 400 lbs/ft of tourque and 400 hp, it's a monster. It has a .107 horsepower to weight ratio, which is a bit higher than the .846 of the light-weight S2000

Churning all this out is a Corvette LS1 engine with a 6-speed tranny.

MSRP at $33k w/o rebates or special offers, Need I say more?
posted by trinarian at 12:53 PM on April 19, 2006

Response by poster: Davejay - Great advice. So great I already took it :) I've read through a great deal of car and driver's online and print material and found it a great resource. In fact, the initial list I presented in my question was largely the result of research done via car and driver (supplemented by other sources). Car and Driver can give a lot of generic car enthusiast advice, but on askmefi I can get specific car enthusiast advice :)

bbrown - For what it's worth, I've heard that the TT is pretty spiffy lookswise but only middling in performance. I personally like it but am not impressed by the performance numbers I've heard, especially for the relatively high price.

Plus it looks like Yul Brynner's head :-D
posted by 1024x768 at 12:54 PM on April 19, 2006

No one's yet mentioned the new VW GTI. Looks to be a sweet ride and is on my short list...
posted by exogenous at 12:55 PM on April 19, 2006

I'm shocked at all the people calling the WRX dorky.

Maybe my opinion is different because I'm a WRC fan, and most of the WRX drivers I know beat the living shit out of 'em.

But come on... how can you hate on this?
Image Hosted by ImageShack.us
posted by I Love Tacos at 12:55 PM on April 19, 2006

Oh, and the mustang is an incredibly tweakable car, but it's pretty much a piece of shit, from the factory.
posted by I Love Tacos at 12:57 PM on April 19, 2006

Something to note about the S2000's if you fall in love with one after driving it (which you will if its a nice day):

I bought mine certified used. These cars, for most people, tend to be 2nd cars, so generally you find them in good shape with low miles. I think the best years for the S2000 were 2002/2003. They gained a glass rear window, but also still had the 2.0L motor. Honda decided to soften the car up for 2004, and the motor gained displacement to 2.2L (to give it a little more torque), and softened the suspension settings. The thing is, you still have to rev it out, so having the higher redline in the 2.0 helps, and if you're looking for a 'soft' car, this isn't it anyways.
posted by ninjew at 1:00 PM on April 19, 2006

Response by poster: davejay - You suggest I drive a RX-8 for a while to see if I like it. By a while do you mean a 30 minute test drive or a few days? I'd love to have access to one for a few days (anyone of the cars mentioned in this thread, really) for test driving, but am perplexed as to how that would be possible. I don't know anyone with one of these cars, and car rental places never have nice cars to rent. It's always econo-crap boxes and plodding underpowered sedans.
posted by 1024x768 at 1:03 PM on April 19, 2006

1024x768: so long as you've got good credit and look like a serious buyer and the car isn't in very strong demand (like the RX-8), they should let you take the car for a few days.

The RX-8 is a beautiful car and the rotary is art... it's a gentleman's sports car. It just doesn't compete power-wise with some other options at the same price-level. It really depends on what you're going for, though. Higher-end Mazda's have a certain grace that almost no other car manufacturer comes close to.
posted by trinarian at 1:13 PM on April 19, 2006

My brother is a mechanic that has worked for the Audi/Porsche, VW, Subaru and now Mercedes departments of a dealership and he recommends Subarus and the WRX without reservation. He said the only repeat problem that the WRXs had was people shearing off 2nd gear from doing too many burnouts. On the whole, really reliable and a lot of fun.
posted by electroboy at 1:14 PM on April 19, 2006

Tacos: If you want to drift, a Subaru is about the last car you want. Notice how much mud it's taking to break traction on all 4 wheels.

(and you like the massive hoodscoop and spoiler? doesn't make you think a 16 y/o trust-fund kid is inside?)
posted by trinarian at 1:16 PM on April 19, 2006

Not on your list - and maybe it's too dorky for you - but the MINI Cooper S handles like a freaking go-kart. Straight line speed isn't as good as some of the other cars on your list - but our Cooper S with a few mods (cold air intake, suspension adjustments and an upgraded super charger pulley) was loads more fun than our current car which is a 2006 WRX wagon. It ate twisty bits of road for lunch. The WRX is quick but it doesn't come close to the handling and the pure joy of driving our MINI had. A Cooper S especially one with the Cooper Works kit fitted - is worth a test drive.
posted by Wolfie at 1:24 PM on April 19, 2006

If you're interested in Subarus, please go see the folks at Lynwood Subaru. Though I did not buy from them, they were unbelievably great with servicing my WRX. They're a small store, but the people are really nice. As I mentioned, my car had some kinda major issues, but their competency in dealing with them turned what could have been a nasty experience in owning a car into a pleasant one.
posted by ninjew at 1:29 PM on April 19, 2006

I second Wolfie's recommendation of the MINI Cooper S. I have the '04 with the Cooper Works kit, and it is insanely fun to drive. It handles phenomenally and since it's so light, the additional ~40hp that the Works kit adds really makes a difference.
posted by bedhead at 1:46 PM on April 19, 2006

Not on the list, but if you're considering a Jetta think about an Audi. I have an 05 Audi A4 2.0T and it is a blast to drive. It loves corners. The turbo is good fun. And it can get decent gas mileage [driving across flatlands at 75mph I was getting 36MPG thanks to the 6th gear]. You'll pay just over $30K but and everything is paid for for the first 3 years. This is my second A4.

The TT is a blast to drive as well, but isn't practicle for me as my only car. And I have a feeling I would have killed myself driving it given my lead foot in that little thing.
posted by birdherder at 1:56 PM on April 19, 2006

you like the massive hoodscoop and spoiler? doesn't make you think a 16 y/o trust-fund kid is inside?

Giant hood scoops and wings are fine, so long as you actually race the thing. If it's a tarmac-only commuter, you get it without the enormous fucking wing, relocate the intercooler and put on a scoop-free hood.

The thing is, looking at his list, I see:
Nissan 350Z - pro: affordable, con: can't double as a practical car, a bit boring to drive, IMO.

Mustang GT - pro: fast, easily upgraded. con: handling bites it. It's basically a straight line machine unless you do way too much work.

Subaru WRX - pro: really fun, handles fantastic, can take a fair bit of punishment, somewhat practical. con: I don't really see one.

Jetta GLI - pro: practical, easy to drive. con: doesn't feel fast, isn't really fun.

Mercedes SLK convertible (used) - I've never driven an SLK, but I do have a Mercedes. The maintainance costs (for mine, at least) are high. I've never been a fan of the low-end Mercedes though.

Mazda RX-8 - I like this car in theory, but in practice it doesn't pan out.

Acura RSX type S - I don't have any objective commentary in either direciton.

and others...

Honda S2000 - I wouldn't want one as my only car.

Mazda Miata - They're supposed to be fun, but they're like little homosexual go-carts. I know that's not kosher to say, but they are.

Mini Cooper - I'd love to get one to race in a cooper spec series, but as a daily driver, it's so.... cute? I don't mean that as a good thing.

Pontiac Anything - It's a pontiac.
posted by I Love Tacos at 2:02 PM on April 19, 2006

I wonder if a used S4 or RS4 is in your price range...
posted by I Love Tacos at 2:02 PM on April 19, 2006

Response by poster: Audi's don't appeal to me that much, I've heard they need a lot of money for upkeep (a con that is shared with the VWs, to be fair), which I'm really not keen on. I'm already dropping what for me a good chunk of change, I don't want routine expensive repairs on top of it.

Plus there lower end options seem like someone took a perfectly fine VW and threw on a bunch of options I don't need and upped the price $5,000-$10,000. I'd have to go back to an '02 to afford an S4, for example.

I'm also not into modding much, so it looks like the Mustang maybe out (it may be straight pavement from here to the horizon where I am in the midwest but I do like to have the ability to turn, should such a thing be necessary :-) )
posted by 1024x768 at 2:28 PM on April 19, 2006

ILT, I seriously have to contest your claim that the handling on the Mustang sucks. I've spent some quality time on a race track in the WRX as well as the S2000, 2 cars considered to be excellent in the handling dept, and I'm not at all disappointed in the GT. Yes, it's heavy and not lightning quick to react, but I would put it on par with the last 330i coupe I drove. Although it is an ancient technology, the solid rear axle does do a lot to keep body roll in check, and the weight distribution of 57/43 bests the WRX's 60/40.

If you're basing that on previous Mustangs, or even the V6 version of the new one, then yes, I can see what you mean. The previous versions were genuinely horrifying. The new one is exponentially better.
posted by ninjew at 2:33 PM on April 19, 2006

I've only been a passenger, but a friend of mine bought a Scion tC with a supercharger and absolutely loves it. It's certainly in your price range. And, from the times I've been in it, I can say it's got quite a kick. He's doing autocross racing in it, and he's even convinced two other friends to get tCs. So maybe it's something you might want to consider.
posted by ecrivain at 2:42 PM on April 19, 2006

Subaru WRX Sti. I recently bought a new one for 30 grand. Extremely fast and amazing AWD handling. 0-60 in under 4.8 seconds stock, maybe faster if you learn how to launch it. It will also outrun any of the other cars in your list in the 1/4 mile. Exiting a corner with AWD lets you stomp on the gas without worrying as much about loosing traction.

If you eventually want more power, simply upgrading the exhaust and getting the computer tuned will put you well over 300 hp/tq at the wheels.

Drawbacks: The spoiler on the trunk is large. Insurance is expensive. I have a great record, and my premium more than doubled when compared with a Jetta TDI. Road noise from the low-profile tires. Comes with performance summer tires. Absolutely do not drive them in snow.
posted by jsonic at 2:45 PM on April 19, 2006

Whatever car you get, if you want it to be fun and fast you should figure out how to drive manual and get it in manual. It is WAY more fun to drive. Automatic is good for driving while you talk on your phone and eat your 7-layer burrito.
posted by aubilenon at 2:53 PM on April 19, 2006

Audi S4 owner here. Mine is a 2000 - the B5 series. It's a fantastic car, but it's a GT, not a sports car in the "light and flickable" sense. I've driven my S4 back to back with an '01 WRX, and found the Rex felt too tinny and, as noted, anemic under 3K rpm. OTOH, at $3.25/Gal, I am already getting tired of feeding my Audi premium gas for 20 mpg combined.

Other suggestions:

There's nothing like a mid-engine car for handling: A used Boxter S, or an '04 Toyota MR2 Spyder. If you are in a non-smog state, you can put a hotter head on the MR-2.

The new Miata (er, MX-5) looks like good stuff.

Ford Focus SVT - Cosworth, baby! Revvy, serious getrag tranny, and fast. A friend w/ an SVT runs laps with the P-cars & E46 M3s. A serious sleeper - if you don't mind the front wheel drive.

If you care about handling, cross the truckstang off your list. blech.

But if you want a *real* sports car? Buy the nicest E30 M3 you can find. Yeah, it'll be 15 years old. It will require mechanical attention. It will be beaten off the line by V6 Camrys. All that matters not a whit. Driving the E30 M3 is like dancing with Fred Astaire. You will have plenty of opportunities to dream about it from behind the wheel of your Corolla while you are stuck in commute traffic. Plus, an E30 M3 will depreciate a tiny fraction of what anything else on your list will. Like the 911, a decent M3 will not drop below $15K, no matter how old.

Along similar lines but newer: The BMW M Coupe.
posted by Triode at 3:08 PM on April 19, 2006

I owned a late-90s 540i which handled like a cow and I drove it into a tree almost immediately upon buying it, so I don't recommend that.

I test drove the M coupe around the same time period and it was kinda crappy for a BMW (e.g., no keyless entry).

My last car was a 350Z which was very nice except for a lot of rattling and many warranty maintenance issues (it was a 2003 model, the first year available, so to be expected). I was once badly beaten by a WRX on cornering, and the few times I raced other cars I usually came out ahead, so I'd at least check out the WRX.
posted by jewzilla at 3:36 PM on April 19, 2006

Response by poster: aubilenon - Yep, going to go manual. The only automatic I'd even remotely consider is a DSG manual like on the jetta GLI/golf GTI. It's basically an automatically shifted manual (clutches, no torque converter, etc.)

Other than being tempted by that, it's manual all the way.
posted by 1024x768 at 4:18 PM on April 19, 2006

ninjew: to be fair, I'm basing my mustang handling slams on 2004 and earlier models.

The only 05+ I've driven was so thoroughly modified as to be a useless metric.
posted by I Love Tacos at 4:38 PM on April 19, 2006

Manual is fun, though if you tend to like sporty cars, you might (though not necessarily) like reckless sports. In my experience, I went with an automatic because I knew that I'd have to deal with sports related injuries. And when I had surgury on my knee, it paid to be automatic! Just saying.
posted by |n$eCur3 at 5:22 PM on April 19, 2006

In that case, forget the WRX and get the Saabaru 9-2x.
posted by b1tr0t at 4:59 PM PST on April 19

Oooh. Good call. Basically a WRX wagon, but you can get some nice options like HIDs, mure subtle colors, and a generally more tasteful look. $3000 rebates currently as well.
posted by ninjew at 5:34 PM on April 19, 2006

You may want to consider checking out the TV show Top Gear. Specifically, you may want to go here. It's a clearing house of all their episodes (in bit torrent format). While it's a British show, many of the cars listed in this thread have been reviewed.

If you are going to spend $30k, you might want to take the time to download some of the episodes and check out a more hands-on type review.

Plus, it's really funny.
posted by quin at 7:05 PM on April 19, 2006

Best answer: Sorry, make that link: here
posted by quin at 7:06 PM on April 19, 2006

Best answer: Saab 9-2X. Thirded.

I've driven the WRX. Solid, cheap transportation.

The RX-8 is a warranty-abusing uncomfortable POS. Road tripped in one--hated it. I loved the previous gen RX-7, so I'm no hater.

Nissan 350Z - Drove one. Felt heavy, fairly quick.

Mustang GT - Rented a V6 (not a GT). Turd. Ugly plastic interior. Typical crap Ford.

Jetta GLI - Not really in the same category??

Mercedes SLK convertible - Please, for the fucking love of god do not buy a Mercedes. My mom's 1992 S-Class, mostly dead at 200k miles was a great car. The replacement, a 2001 E-Class w/ 50k miles--has turned into a steaming pile of crap.

My daily driver, Acura TL. Nice car, somewhat sporty. 25MPG in mixed driving, 30MPG on the road. Premium fuel required. Very comfortable and quiet. Not a head turner by any means. $31k w/o navigation new, only a couple options for this car, so they all come loaded.
posted by vaportrail at 7:19 PM on April 19, 2006

I've owned and enjoyed a WRX Wagon, Audi TT, G35 Coupe, and an Acura RSX type-S.

Of all of those, my favorite was actually probably the TT, but it wasn't reliable enough for me (and it's above the range you're looking for on anything but used, and you definitely don't want a used TT).

From your list above, I'd reccomend the WRX as the best bang for the buck. Very fun car if you don't mind the looks.

One car that no one has mentioned, and there is probably no chance in hell of you actually getting is a Subaru Forester XT.

My wife has one of these and it is faster than anything I've owned. Car and Driver placed it at 5.2 seconds 0-60 and I belive it. It handles pretty well for something as tall as it is as well.

I think you'd be happy with just about anything on the list though.
posted by freshgroundpepper at 9:47 PM on April 19, 2006

Miata. Hands down.

The reliability of a Camry. The cost of a Celica. The handling of a Porsche. And it's convertable. Get one that's a year or two old unless you really, really like the look of the 3rd gens (aka "Audi-TT-esque").

With the leftover $10 grand, throw in a supercharger. Or just get a MazdaSpeed Miata with one built-in. Same difference. If you want really crazy performance, get an FM turbo. 300 hp. at the rear wheels on a car that weighs 2300 lbs == uncatchable.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:54 PM on April 19, 2006

I have to say that I love the Miata, though I can't fit in one. From the cars you listed, I would say the 350Z would definitely be my choice, but considering your price range (20-30k) why WOULDN'T you go with the G35? Base price on that bad boy, brand new, is 33,000. Compared to 27 and change for the 350Z, you are getting (IMO) a much better car for a paltry extra 6 grand. And used, I can't see how a 2004 G35 wouldn't fit into your budget. I'm betting there's TONS of lease returns coming in from pansy-ass executive types who babied the things.

My personal favourite car at the moment is the Dodge SRT-4, though. As far as bang for buck, that car pretty much wins hands down. The coolness factor, not so much, unless you're really into the Neon form factor (which I happen to be, but I can understand that many many people are not).
posted by antifuse at 2:32 AM on April 20, 2006

Response by poster: Quin - Thanks much for the link. I've seen a few topgear vids on youtube/google video and have liked their straightforward (and humerously cheeky) opinions on cars. I haven't been able to find a large clearing house of their eps until now.
posted by 1024x768 at 6:15 AM on April 20, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! This thread turned out even better than I thought. I marked a few responses as best answer but please don't feel slighted if they weren't yours, I think most of these responses were fantastic.

So due to your responses I've pretty muched scratched off the 'stang and the mercedes (only really liked the convertible hardtop on that one anyway :) and added the Honda S2000 and Acura TL to my list (both I'd probably get used to save mucho $$$, plus they are both honda's and so I'd imagine rock solid reliable even if a few years old.)

A lot of what I'd dub luxury upgrade suggestions, i.e. 350Z->Inifiniti G35, Subuaru WRX->Saab 9-2X, VW->Audi, etc. I will certainly take under advisement but they seem to add cost without adding much I really need (if it has a decent audio system and air conditioning I'm happy). If I found a good deal on one of those used, I'd certainly take it but am not impressed enough that I'd be likely to get one new.

My own quick little summary of my impression and reactions:
350Z - Love the look, fast, but tepid handling.
Subaru WRX - bang for buck leader; basically a great drivetrain with econobox looks/interior.
Jetta GLI - Kinda meh and will fall apart.
Acura RSX type-S - Solid but unexceptional
Mazda RX-8 - Some absolutely love it but it leaves me cold.
Honda S2000 - Pure, unadulterated sports convertible.
Acura TL - Sporty upscale sedan.

Bonus points to SpecialK and ninjew for recommending dealerships and to davejay and quin for the further reading.
posted by 1024x768 at 6:57 AM on April 20, 2006

The evo has only been mentioned once in the thread, but as a new owner of one I'd ask you to take a longer look. There's a dealership in LA (don't worry, they ship!) that has the evo 9 (IX) for $29k. I paid a little more for the MR, and it's got a little softer ride and a 6-speed rather than 5, but they're the same car. After test-driving it back-to-back with an STI, the Subaru felt like a bit of a pig. The Evo's quicker steering and incredible throttle response is what finally sold me. You're welcome to email me for more info as well.
posted by wzcx at 11:05 AM on April 20, 2006

Response by poster: wzcx - Wow, that's a phenomenal deal, I'll definately take a look at it for that price. Thanks for the info.
posted by 1024x768 at 12:38 PM on April 20, 2006

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