The Top 5: Best Cheap Sports Cars for Teenagers
Buying your first car can be an exhilarating experience, but it can also be a bit frustrating. Young driving enthusiasts often have a great deal of difficulty finding cars that are both affordable and fun to drive. On top of your budget and the car's cool-factor, its practicality and reliability have to be considered. For example, you can buy a Porsche 944 for less than ten grand, but insuring and keeping the car running will more often than not push the cost of ownership out of range for the average student.
I've prepared the following list based on these factors, with priority given to performance and affordability. Based on what someone might earn from a summer job during school, I'm working with a budget of roughly $5,000. I originally compiled this list when I was shopping for my first car with a similar budget.
5. Toyota Celica
Toyota started building the first Celica in 1970, but the cars that will appeal to the young prospective buyer are models of the sixth (1993-1999) and seventh (1999-2006) generations. These are the newest Celicas, so they are the most common in the used car market and will have fewer miles on them.
Between these two, the 7th generation is much better looking and obviously newer. The one you'll want is the GT-S, which has a wing! More importantly, it has Toyota's 2ZZ-GE engine. Yamaha contributed to the engine design, which means that this 1.8 L inline 4 behaves much like a sports bike engine—it revs to 8,000 rpm and pushes out 180 hp in this application. This is the same engine that Lotus used in the Series 2 Elise, albeit with different software that manages to drag an extra 10 horses out of the engine.
You can expect to spend anywhere from $4,000 to $13,000 on a Toyota Celica, depending on year, miles, and condition. Clearly, the 7th generation GT-S is the best, but unfortunately "best" also means "more expensive." Even if you can't find a GT-S in your price range, a regular Celica will provide lots of fun in an economical and practical package.
The Verdict: In addition to the fantastic engine, the Celica has all the practicality of a hatchback. It is also front-wheel drive. Although this is less fun than an RWD sports car, your parents (if you're still in high school) and insurance agent will probably appreciate it! Another thing to keep in mind is the legendary reliability of Toyota cars. You can count on this lasting well past 100k miles without anything more than oil, brake pads, and tires. If something does go wrong, the parts for this car are cheap.
4. Mitsubishi Eclipse
The first Mitsubishi Eclipse was sold in 1990, but, like the Celica, the most appealing Eclipse models will be the second through fourth generations (1995-2012). Obvious benefits of these later generations are that they will be newer and carry fewer miles, but another factor to consider is the major styling upgrades that separated the later generations from the first.
The second generation Eclipse (1995-1999) came with a number of different engines, both naturally aspirated and turbocharged. The RS and GS models came with a 140 hp Chrysler engine, and the GS Spyder came with a slightly larger (2.4 L instead of 2.0 L) Mitsubishi engine. These trim levels, in addition to the GS-T (with a 210 hp 2.0 L Mitsubishi powerplant) came with FWD. The higher-end GSX is powered by the same engine as the GS-T but features an AWD drivetrain that provides better grip under acceleration. All second-generation Eclipses came with either a four-speed automatic or a five-speed manual for drivers who prefer to use both feet. Mitsubishi used smaller turbos in the second generation compared to the first in order to reduce turbo lag, so the boost from the turbo will come more quickly. Convertible versions of the GS and GS-T were also built. Expect to spend anywhere from $3,500-$10,00 depending on the trim (it'll be more for the turbo), mileage, and condition.
In 2000, Mitsubishi rolled out the third generation Eclipse. This generation featured more angular styling than the previous generation and did not include any trim levels with a turbocharger or AWD. The suspension was altered to provide a more comfortable ride, and they changed up the engine options. RS/GS Eclipses came with a 2.4 L motor that made 150 hp. The GT came with a 200 hp 3 L V6 while the GTS model carried an improved version of the same V6 that pushed out 210hp. Mitsubishi also made convertible versions of the GS, GT, and GTS trims. You can pick up a third-generation Eclipse for anywhere from $4,500-$10,00. Again, pricing will depend on mileage, condition, and the used car market in your area.
The fourth generation Eclipse marked a return to more rounded styling similar to the second generation, but it also shared styling components with other Mitsubishi vehicles of that period. You can choose between a 162 hp 2.4 L I4 or a 3.8 L V6 packing 263 horses under the hood. All of these will be front-wheel drive, and there are convertibles available as well. Though you can find an old model from a private seller for less, a fourth-generation usually goes for around $9000, so it'll be out of the price range for most young people.
The Verdict: The Mitsubishi Eclipse is a great Japanese sports car with a variety of solid engines, and a number of different body styles to suit different tastes. You can get a coupe or convertible, FWD or AWD. The Eclipse isn't a hardcore "driver's car" like some of the cars that follow in this list, but it'll be a hoot to drive and is not completely impractical.
3. Acura Integra
From 1990-1993, Acura sold the second-generation Integra, perhaps the most popular among enthusiasts. You'll want to find one with the 1.8 L engine producing 130 hp or the top level GS-R Integra which was first introduced in 1992. Featuring Honda's VTEC (Variable valve Timing and lift Electronic Control), the GS-R's engine produced160 hp and proved to be a favorite for tuners and enthusiast drivers alike.
The third-generation Integra featured a major update in styling—you either love it or hate it. The base engine was upgraded to a 142 hp 1.8 L I4, while the GS-R engine got an upgrade to 170 hp and kept the VTEC. In 1997, the Integra Type-R came to the United States with its upgraded version of the GS-R's engine making 195 hp and revving safely up to 8400 rpm—much higher than any other streetcar of the time. It'll be tough to find one, but if you do, go for it! The limited quantity available of the Type-R (750 imported to North America in 1997) is the main reason the Integra isn't higher on the list. It's often considered to be one of the best-handling FWD cars in the world—even compared to modern designs. Expect to pay anywhere from 3-9k—there is a wide range of conditions and levels of modification, so you should be able to find what you're looking for, given time. Obviously, the GS-R and Type-R models will be more expensive and much harder to find (especially unmodified), but if you find the right car, you could end up a very happy buyer!
The Verdict: The Acura Integra is one of the best-handling FWD cars from the 1990s, and it was supplied with solid engines throughout the entire history of the car. As a hatchback, it's somewhat practical but will still be an Autocross champ.
Acura Integra Second Through Third Generation Comparison
3-door liftback, sedan
These are very difficult to find; prices will vary
In 1984, Toyota brought out the surprising MR-2, which was very different from the practical and uninteresting family sedans that made the manufacturer successful. The first generation (1984-1989) was extremely lightweight and featured, like all generations to follow, an MR (mid-engine rear-wheel drive) layout more commonly found on supercars such as the Ferrari F355 and Lamborghini Countach. The combination of lightweight chassis and perfect front-rear weight distribution via the mid-engine layout resulted in a car that handled like a champ and didn't need a huge engine to provide sufficient performance. The 1.6 L inline-4 only produced 112 hp but could hit 60 mph in just over eight seconds.
In 1988, Toyota introduced a supercharged model which made 145 hp and could accelerate the lightweight sports car to 60 mph in six-and-a-half to seven seconds.
The styling of the first generation is very angular and geometric—you either hate it or love it. The price range for this generation should be around $1,000-$7,000 although certain examples with extremely low mileage may have higher prices as collector cars (especially the supercharged model).
The second-generation MR-2 (1989-1999) had very different styling and has been called a "poor man's Ferrari" due to some aesthetic similarities between the Toyota and Ferrari's 355/348. The US received two engine options: a 130 hp 2.0 L naturally aspirated I4 and a 200 hp turbocharged 2.0 L I4. For 1992-3, Toyota changed the suspension geometry to reduce "snap-oversteer" which made the car safer to drive quickly and on the limit. If you've got experience driving sports cars and are looking for a car with a real edge to it, try to find one from the few years before this change. If you just want to be able to corner quickly and not make a fool of yourself, definitely look for a later version with the more forgiving handling. This is, for most, the best of the MR-2 generations to buy because it is newer, more powerful, and better-looking than the first generation, but less expensive than third-generation models. You'll probably be looking at 5-12k for pricing, although there is always room for variation with individual cars. The turbos are going to be harder to find unmolested and will be more expensive, but if you can find the right car, it's going to be much faster and more fun to drive than the still spectacular NA version.
The third-generation MR-2 (1999-2007) was called the MR-2 Spyder, or MR-S in some markets. It was only sold as a true convertible and had only one engine option—a 1.8 L inline-4 with 138 hp. While the engine was less powerful than that of the previous generation (especially the turbo), the car's lightness allowed it to perform equally well as cars with more power. A third-generation MR-2 is going to run you about 8-18k.
The Verdict: The MR-2 is a surprisingly fuel-efficient sports car with a mid-engined layout and rear wheel drive performance. With a huge aftermarket following, it won't be difficult to find parts and modifications to spec the car up to wherever you want it. It's going to be hard to find a better-handling car at this price point!
2. Toyota MR-2
The Mazda Miata earned its spot on top of this list for one reason: It is the best "driver's car" of the bunch—the one that dominates Autocross events nationwide and single-handedly resurrected the old-fashioned British Roadster concept. The Miata is anything but practical, and, for those living in northern climates, it won't be particularly great to drive in the snow, but the handling and rear-wheel drive brilliance all summer long will more than make up for it. In fact, many Miatas in northern areas such as "Minnesnowta" and Wisconsin have been summer-only cars since they were first purchased. Therefore, you'll be able to find a purist driver's car with relatively few miles on it (considering the age) on a reasonable budget.
The first generation Miata was first sold in 1989 with a 1.6 L I4 that made 115 hp. For the 1994 model year, Mazda upgraded the Miata's engine to a 1.8 L making 131 hp. Like the MR-2, the Miata makes do with less horsepower because it is very lightweight with good weight balance and rear-wheel drive. A limited slip differential was offered as an optional extra with manual transmission cars (an automatic transmission was offered, but proved unpopular). There wasn't much in the way of luxury, especially in the first few years of production. Air conditioning, stereo, power steering, and alloy wheels were all absent from the base model in 1989 in order to lower the entry price, although features such as these became standard later on. A first generation (1989-1998) Miata will run you $1,500-$8,000, with price varying based on age, mileage, and condition.
The second-generation Miata (1999-2005) phased out the pop-up headlights and got a little bit bigger, yet more aerodynamic. The 1.8 L engine was upgraded to run at 140 hp, and ABS was added as an option. In 2001, Mazda refreshed the second-generation Miata and upgraded the structural stiffness of the chassis while adding a six-speed manual gearbox to the top line model. For the 2004 and 2005 model years, a MazdaSpeed Miata was also available in limited quantities. This Miata featured a turbocharged version of the 1.8 L that made 180 hp and could reach 60 mph in 6.2 seconds. Mazda upgraded the suspension and fitted wider rubber to the lightweight alloy wheels. A MazdaSpeed Miata will cost $10,000-$15,000, while a normal one will cost $2,500-$12,000 based on condition and mileage.
The Verdict: The Mazda Miata provides the handling capability of much more expensive sports cars in an affordable package. While it isn't practical and won't carry more than one passenger, this is the best performing sports car in its price range. If you need something practical, this isn't the car for you. But if you are looking for a car that you can use as a daily driver and also take to the Autocross course and have success, you'll want to take a serious look at a Miata!
1. Mazda Miata
Volkswagen GTI: The ultimate hot hatchback, this sporty version of the Golf barely missed the top five. The main thing holding it back is the higher maintenance cost of German vehicles. With solid turbocharged I4 and V6 engines, the GTI is truly a fantastic combination of hatchback practicality and light-your-hair-on-fire performance.
Subaru WRX: The WRX was a bit pricy for this list, but it makes it to the honorable mention list due to the great performance and rally heritage offered by the '90s Subaru sports sedan/wagon. With a turbocharged flat-4 and Subaru's legendary AWD system, the WRX will be quick on any surface and is relatively easy to modify for more power.
BMW E30: The E30 generation 3-series are fantastic cars, and favorites among BMW enthusiasts. The biggest problem other than maintenance cost is the difficulty of finding an affordable example that hasn't been completely worn out. E30 BMWs either have over 150,000 miles or are going to cost more than the budget of an average high school/college student.
Honorable Mention Car Photos
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.