The classic Dodge Challenger.

Even for shallow pockets, these rockets afford sporty fun under the sun

CASEY WILLIAMS  |  Auto Reviewer
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If you have the deep pockets of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, you can buy any sports car you want. But welcome to the real world. If your budget is closer to, say, $35,000, your choices become more limited. But even at that ceiling, you won’t have to sacrifice much to buy some incredible performance and even snazzy styling. Go hammer one of these!         

Nissan Sentra SR Turbo. The least expensive car on this list is far from the least entertaining. It dresses its conservative shell with 17-in. wheels, sill extensions and rear spoiler. A 1.6-liter turbo-4 delivers a spirited 188 horsepower. Get the 6-speed manual transmission (CVT optional); an upgraded suspension, steering and front brakes make the car a hoot to drive. Interiors can be optioned with heated sport seats, Bose audio, adaptive cruise, forward crash mitigation braking and blind spot warning. Rear seats accommodate giants.

Base price: $21,990.

Honda Civic Si. Since the 1985 CRX, “Si” has equaled cheap fun. It continues in the latest Civic Si with a 205 horsepower 1.5-liter turbo-4 that delivers 28/38-MPG city/hwy while enlivening the drive with a 6-speed manual transmission, sport-tuned suspension and Normal/Sport driving modes. Identify it by an aggressive gloss black rear wing, aggressive face, 18-in. alloys and center hexagonal exhaust outlet. Bolstered front sport seats, steering wheel, and shift knob with red stitching glitz the interior.

Base price: $23,900.


Fiat 124 Spider

Fiat 124 Spider. It has classic Italian style, but the underpinnings are pure Japanese — as in, from Miata and built by Mazda. Fiat cues include round headlamps, grille outline and rectangular taillamps. The long hood makes me wet, but so does the Fiat-built 1.4-liter turbocharged engine that puts 160 horsepower through the delightfully mechanical 6-speed manual transmission (auto optional). Expect 26/35-MPG city/hwy. For under $30k, you can get automatic climate control, rearview camera, blind-spot warning, parking sensors and heated leather seats.

Base price: $24,995.

Ford Mustang. All you have to do is look at this car’s wide sexy ass and long… um, hood to know why it’s out-selling the Chevy Camaro. It’s one handsome car, with styling cues reflecting the original 1964-1/2 and enhancements made for 2018. The base engine is a 300 horsepower 3.7-liter V6 delivering 18/27-MPG city/hwy. If you’re especially frugal and spunky, step up to the 2.3-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that kicks out 310 horsepower and 21/30-MPG. More money brings on V8s that will pile-drive your skull.

Base price: $25,185.


Chevy Camaro

Chevy Camaro. Top Camaro is the 650 horsepower ZL-1 that costs $64,000, but you don’t need that to have fun. For less than half, the base car — sharing the same Cadillac-derived architecture — comes with a 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that delivers 275 horsepower and frugal 22/31-MPG city/hwy. If you need a little more thrust, click for the 335 horsepower V6. No matter which you choose, you’ll drive a sexy beast of a muscle daddy that’s been a legend for 50 years.

Base price: $25,905.

Toyota 86. Co-developed with the Subaru BRZ, it’s like a bargain-priced Porsche Cayman. Up front is a Subaru 2.0-liter horizontally-opposed 4-cylinder engine developing 205 horsepower. The engine sits low in the chassis and drives the rear wheels for agility — especially when attached to the snick-snick 6-speed manual transmission. Two people fit comfortably, but a couple of munchkins fit in the rear for short hops. It only lacks a convertible top to be truly divine.

Base price: $26,255.

Mazda Miata RF. In any form, the Miata is a performance bargain. Toss in a power-retractable targa top that opens in just 13s and we’re sailing. The normally aspirated 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine generates 155 horsepower and 26/35-MPG city/hwy. If you’re feeling flush, get the available Bose audio system with headrest speakers. Safety tech includes rear cross traffic alert, lane departure warning and blind-spot warning. With a 6-speed manual or automatic transmission, you’re guaranteed smiles for miles.

Base price: $24,915 (soft top)/$31,555 (RF).

BMW 230i. Though small, it’s every inch a real BMW. It’s stoked with a 248 horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine and adjustable drive modes from Eco through Comfort and Sport. Definitely choose the 6-speed manual transmission. Fully throttled, blip 0-60 mph in 5.3 seconds. Drive gently to see 24/35-MPG city/hwy. Super comfy sport seats, Bluetooth and iDrive infotainment control come standard, but spend a little more for the sweet Harman Kardon audio system.

Base price: $33,150.

Dodge Challenger GT AWD. Understand what this car is: The basic chassis dates to the ‘90s Mercedes E-Class while the 305 horsepower 3.6-liter V6 is pure Chrysler. Throw in all-wheel drive and an 8-speed transmission for an all-weather muscle car that achieves 18/27-MPG city/hwy. Adding specialness are 19-in. wheels, projector foglamps, rear spoiler and heated/cooled Nappa leather seats. But wait! There’s more! Alpine audio, bright pedals and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, too. It’s the muscle car with few compromises.

Base price: $33,395.