There are a vast number of fun cars for sale at the ten thousand dollar price point, which is high enough where clean, running, complete cars are the norm. But while there are many gems at this level of cost, there are money pits as well, and some cars whose utility and capability are less than advertised. Very occasionally it is even possible to find more expensive and desirable vehicles for sale under ten grand, but just as often true lemons and can find their way into the high reaches of this price bracket as well. These cars, good and bad, are best judged on an index comparing their reputation, actual performance, and cost.
The reputation of these various good finds and problem-cars varies between different people in car culture, but due to the nature of the car scene, consensus has generally been reached by most admirers and owners of these machines. There will always be contrarians though, and outliers who are willing to stomach things that most in the automotive scene can’t- like paying double a car’s purchase price in maintenance and repairs each year.
A car’s performance is a more objective measure, and includes not only raw numbers like acceleration and lateral G, but handling characteristics and quirks, as well as abilities like being able to launch the vehicle or drift it. All of this is measured against the car’s overall cost of ownership to determine its greatness or horribleness. These are the ten worst and best performance cars for 10 grand.
20 Not Worth The Money: Nissan 300ZX Twin Turbo (Z32)
Considered by many to be the ultimate generation of Nissan Z car, and certainly among the highest performance of the series, the Z32 stands in a special place. Technically advanced and armed with a pair of turbos, this car is seen as an achingly beautiful, supremely powerful, and surprisingly cheap chariot. But the tradeoff for technical sophistication is a sophisticate’s price tag.
These cars can be ridiculously fast, especially in a straight line, but parts costs are very high.
The reason such a high performer can be had for so cheap is that they are very expensive to keep on the road, and as such are a terrible car for most people in the 10-grand price bracket.
19 Best: Ford Mustang (Foxbody)
The last gunslinger, this car might look 80’s, but breathes 60’s muscle. The last bastion of the affordable muscle of a bygone era, the GT Fox rocks a classic 351 V8 of the same lineage that powered some of the original high performance pony cars made just as NASA was gearing up for a moon landing. In terms of performance, the Foxbody Mustang is quite respectable in it’s class, and for ten grand one could have one in showroom condition or very well modified. Simple, relatively lightweight, and commonly modified, the Fox is a great choice for one wanting to have fun for 10 grand.
18 Not Worth The Money: Porsche 944
While the word “cheap” by itself can be relative, “Cheap Porsche” is just an oxymoron. That is not quite the reputation for the 944, however. Those who can afford the Porsche markup on parts, service, and maintenance are generally those who manage to get their cars out to shows and tracks.
These cars can be quite cheap to buy, but their owners spend a significant percentage of the purchase price of the car in upkeep and maintenance yearly, often eclipsing 20%.
While some with the means to buy a ten thousand dollar car might not see this as deal breaking, and a ten thousand dollar 944 is a very nice 944, it is still a generally terrible buy for the money.
17 Best: Pontiac Trans Am (Fourth Generation)
The Trans Am is a good example of affordable muscle, that can be made genuinely fast for very little money. They are generally straight line machines, but have been used on track as well on occasion. 5.7 liter V8 rumble is what these cars deliver, without whimper, pretence, or caveat. They come equipped with roadholding upgrades compared to their standard Firebird siblings, and while this makes them less of a bargain than a V8 firebird, is does make them a more complete performance package out of the box. Trans Ams are generally quite reliable and simple, and parts are common and cheap. For ten thousand dollars total budget, the Trans Am makes a near-perfect muscle car buy.
16 Not Worth The Money: Volvo S60R (2004)
Volvos are supposed to be heavy, safe, and bulletproof reliable. This one is definitely not reliable or bulletproof. Fast, to be sure, with specs reminiscent of an R32 Skyline GT-R, but in practice a front-based all wheel drive system saps most of the fun one could have with the car, turning it into an understeering mess, and the rest of the systems are optimized for a stereotypical volvo driver instead of the hooligans who buy cars with “R” in the badge. This means clutches and drive components are not meant to handle the punishment given them, giving out prematurely at great expense. Perhaps for a cruiser this car would be a nice buy, but not for someone who drives hard.
15 Best: Toyota MR-S (MK3)
The MR2 is a bit of a hidden gem. Any of the three generations make for wonderful low cost performance cars, and even racers, but as an all around performance machine the MR-S, the final generation, is the most refined.
Under that roadster exterior lies a mid engine rear wheel drive layout that is both very lightweight and agile.
It provides both more excitement and more cornering capability than any generation Miata. While the initial purchase price of the MK3 MR2 is high for a car of it’s low power of roughly 130hp, and comparable to the seemingly overpriced Miatas of similar vintage. But it hard to fault Toyota reliability for a modifiable sports car.
14 Not Worth The Money: Dodge Charger (First Generation LX)
A stout Hemi, scowlingly angry looks, and the return of a classic and cherished name gave way to significant disappointment with the Charger’s return. Chrysler has a habit of building cars that last just long enough to complete the lease period, and that is essentially what happened with the full size sedan Chargers. About two to three years into their use the cars would simply start disintegrating, from the powertrain to the interior and in some cases even the chassis. These days their powerful hemis are just time bombs, and by modern standards not even that powerful. These are not good cars to buy, in spite of their performance numbers.
13 Best: Mazda Miata (NB)
There is a common saying in car culture that The Answer is Always Miata. Lightweight, reliable, maneuverable, incredibly easy to drive, cheap to maintain, and very modifiable, it is a saying that holds more than a little truth. The overall performance of the Miatas, even the later 1.8 liter variants, is not impressive stock. But the experience they give is about the most pure distillation of automotive fun one can get, at any price. You can watch a video of a guy blasting down a dragstrip in a Nissan GT-R as you wait for your class to start, and be confident you had more fun than that guy as you putzed your way to class in your Mazda. For real. It’s worth it.
12 Not Worth The Money: Porsche 924
At least the 944 that was meant to replace this car had fast versions. Early 924s made less than 100 horses, which has only deteriorated since. While the car is light at roughly 2400lbs, in terms of performance it still doesn’t keep up with even a stock NA Miata, which itself is slower in a straight line than a modern minivan. There were turbo versions, but these are so rare these days as to almost not exist.
When you can find one they are unreliable even after being restored.
You can find a 924 for less than ten grand very easily, but you will not find one that is worthwhile.
11 Best: Mitsubishi Eclipse (1G)
While the hype is often stolen by these cars’ younger 2G siblings, in terms of outright performance the first generation Diamond Star Motors trio -Laser, Eclipse, Talon- are kings of the hill. Light weight, turbo 4G63 power, and optional four wheel drive made this cars beasts on the drag strip, and for pennies on the dollar. These cars’ engines are so good that they are often swapped into the newer 2G cars when they are being built into something fast. While their reliability, especially when modified, is middle of the road, the original sport compact DSMs have such low purchases prices that a budget of ten grand makes perfect sense for them.
10 Not Worth The Money: Pontiac Fiero (Pre-88 Iron Duke)
These were supposed to be sports cars. And then the GM bean counters attacked, leaving the finished cars that arrived in showrooms to be shells of their originally envisaged selves. Like a soldier sent into battle with five minutes of training, a sharp stick, and a bad attitude, these cars are a danger to themselves. Frequently catching fire, and suffering from uncontrollable random oversteer, it is truly a wonder how many haven’t crashed or otherwise been destroyed. With dismal engines really only worthy of being tossed out entirely in favour of something actually not terrible, these cars are only worth anything as performance cars when the idea is to convert the car into something else.
9 Best: Honda Civic (EK)
A true everyman’s car, a Civic with a manual transmission and a plucky but terrible D-series engine can be had practically at any street corner for a couple grand. They are practical, reliable, fuel efficient, and as it turns out, incredibly modifiable. Despite their econobox origins, they weigh next to nothing, so very little is required to make them perform from a roll.
More upgrades are required to make them go from a stop and turn, but anything is possible for a civic, and for very cheap.
With a lower end model, it is very possible to literally go to a junkyard and upgrade your car.
8 Not Worth The Money: Porsche 914/4
This was originally a good idea. A lightweight, mid engine, low cost Porsche. Of course it was really a VW, and that’s where the problems started. At the very beginning. These days, more than forty years after these agile vehicles first left the production line, they form a tempting lure to empty the pockets of wide eyed car guys. As is normally the case with cheap Porsches, they aren’t cheap. At all. Hard to work on because of the engine placement, hard to get parts for, and expensive to maintain, while lightweight and nimble, these cars just aren’t worth it at the 10k price point.
7 Best: Honda CRX (Second Generation)
The CRX is the more sporting Civic. While still sporting a range of less than powerful D series engines, the CRX manages to be even lighter than its Civic sister, losing some passenger space but keeping cargo room. While they can be modified like a lego kit, even stock the CRX provides a driving experience from a front wheel drive layout that can rival some rear wheel drive cars for fun.
Prices of CRXs are rising, but they can still be had for under ten grand in immaculate condition, with a proper B series engine, in many cases.
This is an underdog, but one that will put a smile on its driver’s face.
6 Not Worth The Money: Mini Cooper S (First Generation)
The original Mini Cooper was a world beating underdog, a tiny little British city car that used light weight and balance to dominate the rally world and put up a fight against cars that were literally four to five times more powerful on track. This is not that car. This is a German compact that is nearly the size and weight of a mid-sized car, and is not ready for motorsport despite the Cooper name. While fine for running errands, extended use on track will cook the car’s innards, as the engine, brakes, suspension, and other components were not meant for actual performance driving. And since parts are expensive, that makes this vehicle a bad performance buy for 10k.
5 Best: Nissan 240SX (S13)
The creators of this car were the most surprised with how it ended up being used. Originally designed as a “date car” for guys to buy and girls to approve of, on release the S13 generation of the Silvia, called 240SX is the US, became a drifter’s weapon of choice. First in Japan, and then across the globe it was used almost exclusively for that purpose for decades.
Cheap, simple, easy to repair, front heavy, rear wheel drive, and easy to pilot, the 240SX is the perfect drift car.
While prices are high because of the “drift tax” that comes from so many of these cars being wrecked in pursuit of the perfect drift, if that’s what one is into, there is not something better.
4 Not Worth The Money: Dodge Dart (PF)
While being marketed as sporty, the Dart is not really a performance car. Too heavy, wallowy in suspension, and lacking power, it has a long list of faults. And this is even before we reach the car’s many electronic nannies designed to keep you from having fun in a car that is already devoid of such a thing. What is perhaps even worse is that the Dart suffers from reliability problems, including some serious powertrain maladies that would leave you stranded in everyday driving, without even going hard. While the commercials are cool, the car is not, and the Dart should be left in the zero-point space it landed in.
3 Best: Mazda 323 GTX
It is little known that Mazda had a significant rally effort at one point in time. A result of that era was an equally serious homologation rally machine, the 323 GTX. A humble hatchback by appearance, underneath lies a serious motorsport four wheel drive system and a turbo four cylinder engine. Over time, it seems all of this has been forgotten, so while the cars are rare they are not expensive. Parts are hard to find for certain areas of the drivetrain, but if you want homologation rally goodness that flies under the radar, for 10 grand, you can’t go wrong with a little Mazda that goes for less than five thousand dollars.
2 Not Worth The Money: Dodge Caliber SRT-4
The Caliber is a mixed bag. Some adore it’s bricky looks. Many despise them. Many hate the interior plastics that are literally worse than trash bins, but some don’t care, saying they just want to go fast.
But the bricky looks ring true to a bricky weight of nearly 3000lbs, for what is supposed to be a compact vehicle.
The overall package is just not appealing to many because objectively there are many better options on the market for both comfort, looks, and performance for the same price or lower. The Caliber SRT-4 is ok, but mediocrity is a boring result for ten thousand dollars of outlay.
1 Best: Subaru WRX (Hawkeye)
A stalwart of the car scene, the WRX is a well rounded package. Not overly fast, but turbocharged, and reliable when stock, the WRX is often seen as the yardstick other cars can be compared to. For the money it is a proper option, and while Subaru’s exquisitely engineered symmetrical all wheel drive will keep one from burnouts and most types of drifting, it will also keep new or unskilled drivers off the wall and away from immovable objects. With turbo flare and good suspension and brakes, the WRX is the standard to meet, especially for the price of ten grand.
Sources: ConsumerReports.com, CarAndDriver.com, AutoTrader.com