Despite all the fuel economy and safety regulations forcing engineers and designers into corners, right now is a glorious time for gearheads. Here are a bunch of cars that prove that we enthusiasts are more spoiled than we think.
Car enthusiasts tend to fall into the trap of blind nostalgia, getting obsessed with the idea that old cars are always so much better than the new stuff rolling off the line. I know I’ve felt that way.
But after helping build more than 160 Buyer’s Guides, I’m beginning to reel that sentiment back in a little, because there really are a lot of awesome enthusiast’s cars on the market right now. Here are a few that come to the top of my mind. What’s your favorite right now?
Ford Mustang: $24,145
The Mustang has always been an inexpensive enthusiast’s car. Okay, maybe not always; it did start out life as a bit of a secretary’s car.
Still, the 2016 Mustang is definitely not built for the little old lady at the front desk. Nope, it’s an enthusiast’s car no matter how you configure it (okay, don’t get the automatic).
And there are many, many ways to configure a new Mustang. Engine options include a 300 horsepower 3.7-liter V6 in the base car, a 310 horsepower 2.3-liter turbo I4 in the EcoBoost Fastback, a 435 horsepower 5.0-liter V8 in the GT, or a 526 horsepower V8 in the GT350 and GT350R.
All of those engines can be mated to six-speed manuals, and zero to 60 times range from about six seconds to under four. There’s also a line-lock feature that makes ripping nasty burnouts a breeze. Because, you know, everyone needs to rip burnouts in their daily driver.
Subaru BRZ/Scion FRS: $25,395/$26,100
The Subaru BRZ and Scion FRS need no introduction. Lightweight construction and a small, low-mounted flat-four engine feeding the rear wheels via a six-speed manual transmission is a car enthusiast’s dream come true.
And while the car only makes 200 horsepower and scoots to 60 in an unimpressive seven seconds, it’s the agility, not the outright speed, that makes this one of the best enthusiast’s cars in recent memory.
Jeep Wrangler: $23,895
Some enthusiasts aren’t just people looking to go fast around a track or at a drag strip. Some enthusiasts like to take their vehicles in the sticks. And for them, the Jeep Wrangler is king.
The Wrangler is by far the most capable off-road vehicle you can buy today in the U.S. There’s no other affordable mainstream SUV with two solid axles, much less one available with a disconnecting sway bar, two lockers and approach and departure angles that would make a mountain goat jealous.
The Wrangler is a beast even in $23,895 base Sport trim, but if it’s me, I’d grab a manual Willys Wheeler model with its 3.73 limited slip rear differential, 32-inch tires and rock rails. At $28,195, it’s great value if you’re looking for pure off-road capability.
Ford Focus ST/RS: $24,425/$35,730
The Focus RS is a monster. There’s a reason we called it “God In Hatchback Form” after this test drive. Its 350 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque sent to all four wheels means it accelerates from zero to 60 in only 4.7 seconds.
But outright speed isn’t the RS’s only talent, as, like its brother the ST, it’s a hoot to drive in the corners.
And not only are the twins quick, but the RS and ST are practical, with plenty of room under the rear hatch for your gear (even after you install your roll cage).
Volkswagen Golf GTI/R: $24,995/$35,650
After Subaru quit making a hatchback WRX STI, the Golf R became the king of semi-affordable all-wheel drive hatchbacks. At $35,650, it’s not as cheap as many of the cars on this list, but then, there aren’t many cars on this list as versatile as the R.
That’s because, like new Ford’s Focus RS, the R is a bit of an all-rounder. It’s got plenty of space to carry your camping gear, it’s got all-wheel drive to conquer the snow, it handles well on a track and it gets good fuel economy. It’s a Renaissance Car.
And the GTI, at about 10 grand less, is actually a great value if you’re looking for a front-wheel drive, fun, practical hatchback that’s good on gas and actually looks a bit more sophisticated (read: not boy-racer-ish) than some of the competition.
Dodge Challenger R/T: $31,995
It’s hard to think of a sports car that offers as much power for as little coin as the Dodge Challenger R/T, particularly in Scat Pack trim.
The standard $31,995 R/T makes do with the 5.7-liter HEMI’s 375 horsepower, but the R/T Scat Pack gets the big motor: a 6.4-liter 485 horsepower goliath that’ll rip burnouts with the slightest application of the throttle. You can attempt to manage all that power with a six-speed manual transmission.
At $38,995 for 485 horsepower, the Challenger R/T Scat Pack reminds us how good we enthusiasts have it these days.
Chevrolet Camaro: $25,700
Andrew Collins took the new sixth-generation Camaro on a road trip, and discovered that even a basic V6 model is a great enthusiasts car, saying:
...after a 1,000 mile road trip across the west, I can tell you the smart money’s on the unofficial “Working Man’s Edition;” the 1LT V6. Cloth seats, stick shift, 335 horsepower of essential Camaro for the enthusiast driver who doesn’t need rainbow ambient lighting to feel good about their car.
With an MSRP of $25,700, the new Camaro looks like a true bargain for enthusiasts.
Subaru WRX: $26,595
When we drove the WRX for the first time, we said “...there are very few cars that are more fun at road speeds than this new rex.”
That’s high praise, but the WRX really is a scalpel, out-handling the previous model which was already absurdly capable in the corners.
You could argue this is the best WRX yet.
Mazda MX-5 Miata: $24,915
Somehow, despite safety regulations, Mazda has built a featherweight convertible. At 2,332 pounds, the ND Miata is not much heavier than the original car that debuted over 25 years ago, and that’s a remarkable feat.
If you want a pure, fun, cheap sports convertible, the ND Miata isn’t just good for 2016, it’s one one of the best there’s ever been.
Fiat 500 Abarth: $22,495
The Fiat 500 Abarth only has 160 horsepower, but it weighs 2,500 pounds. It’s a blast to drive around an autocross course, and, because it’s small, it also makes for a good city car.
Did we mention that it sounds like a baby Ferrari? The noise alone is worth double the price of admission. Fortunately, you won’t have to pay that much.
Toyota Tacoma: $23,300
Wait, what? Why is there a Toyota Tacoma on a list of enthusiast’s cars?
Simply put, it’s a cheap pickup that you can get with a manual transmission, rear locking differential and lots of underbody protection. It’s basically a modern-day Jeep pickup, and for off-road enthusiasts, that’s exciting.
When we drove the new Taco, we thought it felt a lot like the outgoing model. But that’s not a bad thing, because the outgoing model is awesome.
Ford Fiesta ST: $20,970
If Mario and Luigi were driving around throwing shells and bananas out of their windows, they’d almost certainly be doing so in a Ford Fiesta ST.
It’s small, it’s nimble, it’s cute, it’s fun, it’s cheap. It might be the best first-car ever. But even if you’re not a 16 year-old high-schooler, it’s a great option if you don’t need tons of space and just want something cheap, fun and efficient.
Mini Cooper S: $24,100
The new Cooper S is perhaps one of the most overlooked in the current crop of hot hatchbacks and fun premium cars, but it shouldn’t be. Yes, it’s bigger than its predecessors, but it’s still an absolute blast to drive. Tight, responsive handling, a punchy turbo engine and a surprising degree of practicality make it a great choice.
These days the Mini is more like a smaller GTI with cute looks that happens to be made by BMW than Alec Issigonis’ classic tiny city car. If you’re down with that vision, you’re in for a good time.