Cars are too expensive. The average transaction price of a new vehicle is hovering in the $34,000 range, which is actually down from the all-time record of $35,309 set in December 2016 according to Kelley Blue Book. You’ll probably get more out of a new car than a year or two of college, but still, it’s a lot of money.
We can’t blame automakers. We’re the ones opting for bigger vehicles and expecting efficient powertrains, cozy interiors, advanced safety features and some reasonable degree of connectivity.
Overlooked in our crossover-crazy times is the affordable sports car, a subsegment booming with low-slung, stick-shift whips that are fun to crack and won’t break the bank. These cars, starting under $34,000, are accessible without being overwhelming, fun without being dangerous and mature enough to be calm around town or wild wherever you may roam.
We’ve included only cars that are redesigned or refreshed for 2017 or 2018, so the excellent Chevy Camaro (redesigned in 2016), and 2018 Ford Fiesta ST, which bizarrely hasn’t been announced for North America, don’t make the cut.
Honda Civic Si
Base price: $23,900
Powertrain: 1.5-liter turbo four-cylinder engine; six-speed manual transmission to front wheels
Output: 205 horsepower, 192 pound-feet (260 Newton-meters) torque, 0-60 mph (96 kph) estimated between 6.0 and 6.5 seconds.
Each iteration of the 10th-generation Honda Civic impresses us more. The roomy sedan won the North American Car of the Year in 2016, then the edgy hatchback cut the overhangs and added vents and a spoiler to stand out, and now, finally, the Si. The tuner’s beloved sports car gets its first turbocharger and an overall package that is exceptional at this price. We only got a couple of laps in at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., and while we prefer the fresher styling of the sedan, the coupe impressed with short throws of the seamless six-speed manual, responsive throttle with peak torque coming earlier at 2,100 rpm and superlative braking. The forthcoming Type R might hurt the Si, but dollar for dollar this might be the best affordable front-wheel-drive sports car available.
Base price: $26,255
Powertrain: 2.0-liter boxer four-cylinder, six-speed manual to rear wheels
Output: 205 horsepower, 156 pound-feet (211 Nm) of torque, 0-60 mph (96 kph) in 6.2 seconds
Though the interior of the Subaru BRZ is sharper, we prefer the overall feel of its production mate, the Toyota 86, formerly known as the Scion FR-S. In back-to-back laps at Road America, the BRZ demonstrated better braking, but the 86 felt lighter on its rear-wheel-drive feet. More responsive than fast, the lightweight balanced coupe with Subaru’s 2.0-liter boxer engine stays low to the ground for tight handling.
Mazda MX-5 Miata RF
Base price: $31,555
Powertrain: 2-liter four-cylinder engine, six-speed manual to rear wheels
Output: 155 horsepower, 148 pound-feet (200 Nm) of torque, 0-60 mph (96 kph) in 6.1 seconds.
The Fiat 124 Spider is attractive and worthy of a spot, as is the Mazda3, but the retractable fastback Miata appeals more to our all-season driving preferences. It’s slightly taller and 100 pounds heavier than the soft top, but the perfect weight balance maintains the fun-to-drive factor. The six-speed manual is tighter than the Golf GTI, with a shorter clutch step, but the real advantage of the RF is the gorgeous design. The Targa-style roof flows more seamlessly into the tail, and there is less wind noise with the top down and less road noise with the top up than the previous hardtop. For a fun-to-drive toplessness under $32,000, you can’t do any better than the RF.
Base price: TBD (on sale in fall 2017)
Powertrain: 2.3-liter turbo four-cylinder engine in six-speed manual or 10-speed automatic to rear wheels
We haven’t driven the 2018 Mustang — few have — but the Shelby GT350-inspired refresh must make the list. It gets a lowered hood to reduce drag and improve sightlines, and when we got the walkaround in January, it looked meaner and beefier than the 2015. Inside features a customizable 12-inch LCD digital instrument cluster. New shock absorbers and stabilizer bars are intended to improve handling, and the available 10-speed transmission should be quicker and more efficient. The V-6 engine is gone. Specs and pricing will be available closer to the fall 2017 release date of the world’s best-selling sports car. If you can’t wait, test-drive the $40,000 Focus RS, which is so worth the hype.
Base price: $26,995
Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder boxer engine, six-speed manual to AWD (all-wheel drive)
Output: 268 horsepower, 258 pound-feet (350 Nm) of torque, 0-60 mph (96 kph) in 5.0 seconds (based on 2015)
The WRX is the more affordable and manageable of the rally-inspired AWD twins; the STI is the one with the giant wing. Redesigned in 2015, the refreshed WRX gets a larger, lower grille, retuned suspension and an allegedly more natural steering feel. The ride should be quieter, and the display screen and infotainment screen get bigger. We’re thrilled to get behind the wheel next month.
Base price: TBD
Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder engine, six-speed manual to front wheels
Output: 220 horsepower, 258 pound-feet (350 Nm) of torque, 0-60 mph (96 kph) in 5.9 seconds (2017 Sport).
The GTI is the standard-bearer for what an affordable sports car should be: adaptable to the driver’s ability (and mood), fun to drive, and has the smoothest six-speed manual available. As one of the roomiest hatchbacks, it’s also versatile enough for the owner to grow from a driver to a spouse to a parent without having to sacrifice car fun. All Golf models get refreshed for 2018 and will be available fall 2017. The GTI gets a bump of 10 horsepower standard to 220 (which was part of last year’s Performance package) and comes only in five doors across S, SE and Autobahn trim levels. LED taillights and daytime running lights come standard, as well as improved infotainment screens and available safety features.