10 Best Budget Enthusiast Machines Under $20k

There is an overlying stigma that trying to buy a fun and sporty car will cost you an arm and a leg. We decided to set the record straight, and with a shoe-string budget of only $20,000 we have been able to come up with 10 brand-new cars that will make any enthusiast happy without breaking the bank. To make the list, each car must demonstrate a certain level of character, fun, and practicality. Cars were chosen based on weight, handling ability, and power. Also, every car chosen offers a manual transmission on the engine/trim level that we have chosen. So fun, practical and available with three-pedals. There isn’t much more that you really need when looking for a fun and cheap car.

Before you start frying about the great cars that are available for just a little bit more like the Mazda Miata and Ford Fiesta ST , or the amazing cars you can get used , we wanted to focus on the really cheap side of things. If you are already stretching your budget to get a $19-$20k car, buying something at $23k is just not an option. Also, if you are already stretching your budget to hit that $20k mark, the last thing you can afford is the cost of repairs and maintenance that comes with every used car. A full warranty is a very important thing for this market.

With all of that out of the way, let’s jump into this. As always, feel free to tell me how awesome and right all my choices are. If you think I left something off this list, let me know that too. Now hit that jump and enjoy.

See our top ten enthusiast cars for less than $20,000 after the break.

Chevy Sonic LTZ MSRP $18,815

Chevrolet Sonic

Let us start things off with a bang. Short of the Corvette, this may be Chevy’s best performance-bang-for-the-buck proposal. Even the base level LS is loaded with Bluetooth, keyless entry, OnStar and a seven-inch touchscreen stereo with six speakers. For the safety conscious, it is also loaded with 10 standard airbags.

While the standard 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission is good enough for most, it isn’t exactly enthusiast grade. For our purposes, we are going to jump to one of the highest trims available, the LTZ. Starting in 2015, this trim comes standard with the peppy, 1.4-liter, turbocharged engine and six-speed manual from the Sonic RS.

That means there is 138 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque awaiting the command of your right foot. It may not seem like a lot, but with a curb weight of around 2,800 pounds, that should make for one sprightly machine. Chevy has also made sure that the suspension setup of the new Sonic is one of the most playful in the class. Understeer is less than expected, and a good driver can swing some nice lift-off oversteer. Overall it is a tightly knit package, and the five-door is roomier than you would first expect.

As a bonus, upgrading to the LTZ gets you a ton of extra goodies. Chevrolet MyLink, Pandora Internet Radio, 17-inch alloy wheels, faux-leather seats, voice control and even heated front seats are all included in the LTZ standard equipment list.

So what does all this technology and turbocharging cost in the end? You can grab the LTZ Chevy Sonic Hatchback with the manual transmission for a few hundred dollars less than $19,000. That leaves you a grand for fuel and insurance. Considering Chevy is claiming the 1.4-liter turbo is good for 40 mpg, you should even have a bit of Taco Bell money left over.

Fiat 500 Turbo MSRP $19,500

Fiat 500 Turbo

With that unmistakable Italian style, a five-speed manual transmission and a downtuned version of the 1.4-liter MultiAir turbocharged engine from the Abarth Abarth , the 500 Turbo may be the most hoonable car in our list. Not only does the little engine make 130 horsepower, it dumps a full 150 pound-feet of torque toward the front wheels.

I have always had an affinity towards the quirky Fiat. Its styling is hit or miss for many people, but you can’t deny its fun factor. The car is a bit of a caricature of itself. It has lots of mild understeer, a high seating position and both the clutch and shifter are too sloppy for precise back road bombing. Despite those flaws, the engine revs to the moon, the steering feels great and it makes all the most wonderful noises you never knew a 1.4-liter engine could make.

Visually it also has all the boy-racer cues you look for to let others know you are in something a little special. There are 16-inch alloys with a two-tone color design tucked into all four corners, the brake calipers are painted red, and the car features a subtle body kit. The 500 Turbo also comes with fog lights, and the bezels around the headlights and taillamps have been finished in a gloss black.

The inside of the Turbo also gets some fun upgrades over its lesser kin in the form of a leather-wrapped steering wheel and sporty bucket seats up front. Like the Sonic before, the 500 Turbo comes with necessities like a voice control and Bluetooth.

It may not be a great car in the general sense of the phrase, but for someone who wants a car that makes them smile, you will be hard pressed to beat the Fiat.

Ford Fiesta Hatchback SE 1.0-Liter EcoBoost MSRP $17,150

Ford Fiesta

Opting for a car that is aimed at maximizing fuel economy may seem like an odd choice, but this Fiesta is something special. Not only is the tiny three-cylinder EcoBoost engine one of the most interesting and unique motors to get stuffed into an American car in a few years, it is also super lightweight. You may have heard that Ford’s engineers transported it in a standard suitcase, and it fit in the overhead bin.

Thanks to that tiny weight, the engine is very rev happy, and the small turbocharger helps keep power up. Total output of the tiny mill is 123 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque. That may be 15 horsepower down on the Chevy Sonic, but the Fiesta weighs a full 300 pounds less to help make up the difference.

Equipment wise, opting for the 1.0 gives you a manual transmission and a regenerative braking system. The regen braking acts as even more aggressive engine braking and can make a difference when you are slicing down your favorite canyon road. Sadly, the SE EcoBoost package does get rid of your slick 16-inch alloys and replaces them with a set of 15-inch steelies.

Aside from the wheel downgrade, the EcoBoost Fiesta comes with plenty of goodies like Sync, Bluetooth and more. If you want to take comfort and convenience over the extra fun of the EcoBoost three cylinder, you can get a top trim Fiesta Titanium model and still be under budget.

Impreza Wagon 2.0i MSRP $18,395

Subaru Impreza

The Impreza has a very long history of providing bargain-priced thrills for wannabe rally racers. With a modestly powerful, boxer-four engine, rudimentary but robust all-wheel-drive system and a manual transmission, it is the perfect car to learn about loose surfaces and four-wheel drifts.

If you want to be the next Tanner Foust, make sure you get the manual transmission model. If you choose an Impreza with Subaru Subaru ’s new CVT, not only will your driving experience be miserable, the CVT ditches Subaru’s classic 50/50 torque split AWD system for torque vectoring unit that normally operates as a FWD system to save fuel.

The new Impreza is also a softer car in its suspension setup and seating arrangement, so it is not quite as well equipped to handle hard-core hoonage. Even if it has been toned down, it is still one of the cheapest ways to get into an AWD car.

The engine in the new Impreza is also different for this new generation, the ancient EJ25 2.5-liter engine has been dropped in favor of a new 2.0-liter unit that is smaller, lighter, and more fuel efficient. This new engine hasn’t lost much in the way of performance; it registers in at 148 horsepower and 145 pound-feet of torque. It may be different than the old 2.5-liter the world is used to, but the new 2.0 still has that same thumpy boxer exhaust note and rev-happy nature.

To stay under our $20,000 target, we need to stick to the lowest-level Impreza, the 2.0i. That means you don’t have as much fancy equipment as the other cars here have offered, but the Impreza is easily the largest car so far. You get space and AWD capability, but you sacrifice interior quality and equipment.

It is a bit of a choose your destiny moment.

Scion tC MSRP $19,965

Scion tC Sports Coupe

Many people seem to forget that the Scion tC exists in the lineup with all the love and attention the FR-S has been getting lately. That said, the tC is one of the most powerful cars in this group, and it shouldn’t be overlooked. It is also one of the larger cars in this collection, so it is great for those who prefer a little more comfort when they have three friends crammed inside for a road trip.

The motivation for this machine is a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine that is rated for 179 horsepower and 172 pound-feet of torque. Per our preset rules for this collection of cars, that engine comes standard with three pedals and you even get a full six forward gears. While that engine is a nice bonus for us petrol drinkers, the real secret to the tC’s inclusion lies a little deeper into the body shell. The suspension of the tC is far more sophisticated than any car under $20k has a right to be. The front independent Macpherson strut layout is normal enough, but the rear suspension is an independent setup with double wishbones.

That space, suspension design and power does come at a cost though. The Scion tC just barely comes in under our $20,000 target price. Unlike the Subaru though, the Scion Scion may be a base level car, but it comes absolutely packed with equipment and features that many of the other cars here don’t have. Panoramic glass sunroof, 18-inch alloy wheels, auto headlamps and HD radio are all included free of charge. Of course you also get Bluetooth, a Pioneer audio system with large LCD screen and auxiliary and iPod connections.

Don’t forget that this is technically still a Toyota product. That means a load of safety equipment and features as well. From stability and traction control systems to a handful of airbags that even include front knee airbags for both driver and passenger, Toyota has thrown the safety book at the tC. Hell, it even comes standard with a first-aid kit.

If you want lots of power and lots of equipment, the tC may be just what you were looking for. That extra size adds weight, so it may not outrun some of the other cars in our list in a flat-out drag, but you are guaranteed to have some fun.

Mazda3 i Sport MSRP $18,945

Mazda3 Hatchback

The Mazda3 is nice mix between the Fiat’s style and the Subaru’s practicality. It features what I think is the most attractive design of this entire group, and it has one of the best overall combinations of exterior compactness with interior vastness. Basically it looks great, and it has been designed well.

The newest 3 makes full use of all of Mazda’s ultra-light Skyactiv technologies, so despite being one of the largest cars here it keeps its weights around the 2,800 pounds that the smaller Chevy Sonic weighs. The all-aluminum engine is the Skyactiv-G, 2.0-liter four-cylinder. It has dual-overhead cams and makes use of variable-valve timing. Horsepower sits at 155, with torque coming in at 150.

Mazda has a long history of making cars that are just plain more fun to drive than any of their competitors. That continues with the new 3. The engine revs quickly to its 6,800 rpm redline, the standard six-speed manual shifter is crisp and easy for beginners to learn with while making it satisfying for row-your-own veterans. Thanks to the low weight and friction-reducing technologies in the Mazda Mazda 3’s engine, Mazda claims you can see as much as 40 mpg on the highway as well. Fun and frugal are two great features to boast.

The suspension is a four-wheel independent setup, and while it’s not as sophisticated as the dual wishbone arrangement used on the Scion, it is more than enough to give you plenty of smiles and fun on your favorite road.

Some of the more desirable equipment like alloy wheels and leather steering wheels are not included in the base car that we have chosen, but a move to the next trim level the i Touring snags you all that. It does just barely break our $20k limit though with a retail cost of $20,095.

If you want great looks with fun driving dynamics all wrapped up in a practical package, the Mazda3 makes a strong case.

Dodge Dart Aero MSRP $19,995

Dodge Dart Aero

My next choice is another one of those odd “fuel economy specials” that actually makes a better enthusiast car than the other cars in the lineup — as long as we stick to our price target. The Aero version of the dart just barely squeaks under our cost limit by a fiver, but it comes with a version of the same 1.6-liter turbocharged engine that is in the Fiat 500 Turbo.

It may be the same basic engine as the tiny Fiat, but it is much more powerful. Rather than the 130 horsepower of the 500 Turbo, the Dart gets 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. Another difference over the Fiat Fiat is the transmission. While the stylish Italian only gets a five-speed manual, the Dart gets six gears. Yes, the slightly cheaper Dodge SXT has a 2.4-liter engine with just a bit more power, but it has less torque, and is only rated for 35 mpg. The Aero with its turbo engine is rated for 41. I think that more than makes up for the price difference.

Some of the other extras you get with the Aero trim include active aerodynamic tweaks — ergo the name — and some nice, subtle luxury items like a leather-wrapped steering wheel, Bluetooth, a six-speaker stereo and an 8.4-inch touchscreen Uconnect. Sirius Satellite radio, USB, and iPod control are also included as standard.

Nissan Juke S MSRP $19,170

Nissan Juke

It is not exactly a secret that I like the Juke. The Nismo version is much more fun, but the base model is not exactly a bag of boring. With a willing, 1.6-liter, turbocharged engine making 188 horsepower, the standard Juke S is a competent dance party for any form of hoonage. The slightly taller stance and looser suspension tuning will make it lag behind some of the other cars here when the road gets really twisty, but the swelling power from that engine and the ease of use for the six-speed manual transmission will make sure you can catch up on the straighter portions of road.

The taller ride height may hurt handling, but it pays dividends in other ways. The Juke has great forward visibility, plenty of head room for all passengers, and you never get afraid of entering steep driveways. No scraping concerns here.

Even though this is the base-model machine, Nissan still gives you 17-inch alloy wheels, iPod controls and Bluetooth. The Juke may not be the prettiest car on this list, but it does have a special kind of presence that is fun and funky. It will certainly make you stand out in the parking lot, and that is a hard thing to find these days.

Fuel economy is a little low considering the other cars on this list, but at 32 mpg on the highway, it still won’t drain your wallet.

Honda Fit EX MSRP $17,435

Honda Fit

Honda has a legacy as long as Mazda’s when it comes to making cars that are fun to drive. The Civic was one of the best cheap thrill makers for decades. In the last few years though, the Civic has grown large and lots its edge, but the Honda Fit has jumped in to take its place as a bargain-priced smile inducer.

All-new for 2015, the Fit has a more modern and sculpted look that feels much less “tiny minivan” — a problem the old car had in spades. The engine is small, only a 1.5-liter four-cylinder, and it is naturally aspirated, but Honda Honda has squeezed 130 horsepower from it. With a curb weight of less than 2,600 pounds this is enough grunt to make the Fit feel sprightly. The standard transmission is a six-speed manual and Honda builds some of the slickest-shifting units in the entire business.

One of the keys to the Fit’s fun is the way it handles. Honda does a great job of minimizing body roll, and with such tight exterior dimensions, the car feels very agile. To maximize space on the inside, Honda pushed the wheels as far out to the corners as possible. Having so much of the weight inside the wheelbase gives the car surprisingly quick reflexes.

Just like the majority of the cars on this list, you also get a nice collection of standard equipment with the Fit. A sunroof, fancy keyless entry with push button start, blind spot monitoring and a seven-inch display in the dash for the stereo and second-gen HondaLink system.

Overall the Fit is a worthy competitor in this group, and it is easily one of the most practical with its fancy seating arrangement and true flat load floor.

Volkswagen Golf MSRP $18,955

Volkswagen Golf Mk VII

I may be a bit biased, but this is my favorite car on this list. The all-new Mk VII Golf hits dealer lots in just a few weeks, and it is easily the best Golf ever created. It is larger and more spacious than the old model, but it also weighs less and has a new turbocharged engine.

The old car was powered by Volkswagen’s rather poor-performing 2.5-liter, five-cylinder engine. It was an interesting drivetrain, but it wasn’t very peppy despite its 170-horsepower rating, and it could sound harsh at higher rpms. The new engine, code EA888, is a 1.8-liter, turbocharged unit that makes the same 170 horsepower, but it has 200 pound-feet of torque at its disposal. Thanks to the inherent nature of forced induction, that torque arrives very early in the rev band at 1,600 rpm, making the car feel very quick and responsive.

More than that, Volkswagen is also giving every new Golf the XDS Cross Differential. This fancy front diff was previously only available on the GTI, and it helps to tame understeer and give you extra power when trying to accelerate out of a corner. The suspension setup of the Golf S is also very high quality. It’s a full four-wheel independent system, but the back makes use of a multi-link arrangement with telescopic dampers and coil springs. Overall the Golf was already a fantastic handling car, and the new one should be even better.

Since it is German, it will also be impeccably built, and there is no one that can compete with Volkswagen’s interior quality in this price bracket. The S model I have chosen here is just under $19,000 and it comes with aluminum-alloy wheels, V-Tex Leatherette seating surfaces and you will find real leather on the steering wheel, shift boot and hand brake. The Golf S also has Volkswagen Volkswagen ’s new VW Car-Net system. Every new 2015 Golf is also going to come standard with a new audio system that features a 5.8-inch display in the dash.

Honorable Mention:Mini Cooper Hardtop MSRP $20,450

Mini Cooper

The Mini Cooper is one of the all-time great enthusiast cars, but sadly the all-new model is just slightly too expensive to be included in the main list. That said, it’s only $450 over so I felt like it deserved a mention.

The Mini started the craze of “slow car fast” and to this day it is one of the best handling and most fun cars on the road. The engine for the base Cooper is an all-new 1.5-liter, turbocharged unit with 134 horsepower. While that may not sound like a lot, Mini Mini is quick to point out that the new Cooper will hit 60 mph a full 2.3 seconds quicker than the outgoing car. That is all down to the increased low-level torque from the turbocharger.

The Mini is also one of the few cars on this list with every petrol heads favorite new feature, a "Sport" button. Push the hoon button and the exhaust growls a little louder, the throttle inputs are a bit snappier and the steering wheel reacts a little quicker. You should just tape this button down.

It is a great car, but sadly it is just a bit too much for our budget.

Conclusion

It may seem like the world is full of over-priced cars, and to be fair I agree most of the time. That said, we wanted to prove that even with the smallest of budgets, you can take home a shiny new car that will still give you more smiles per gallon than miles per gallon. Now pick your favorite, head to the dealer and make sure you order yours with a manual transmission.

Or I will find you.


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