In my last listicle, I found a few engaging cars to drive under $20k. At that price, you’re often settling for 10+ year old cars that will almost certainly have wear and tear maintenance issues within a few years. In this list, there’s only one... maybe two.
To up the ante and find more interesting cars, I’m raising this article’s bar to $30k.
SUV: 2011 Land Rover Range Rover Sport
Target Price: $26,000, mileage < 70,000
Yes, I’m starting an enthusiast article on fun to drive cars with a 5,800lb behemoth. It entices you to keep reading.
The Range Rover Sport is equipped with a supercharged V8 putting out 510hp and 461ft-lb of torque. It can hit 60mph in less than 5 seconds and come to a stop from 70mph in less than 160 feet. The mass does come at a price – body roll is quite present under aggressive driving, even with the dynamic setting toggled.
The interior is full of quality materials and the design still looks relevant today. This SUV is also hugely capable off road and comes standard with the terrain response dial and all wheel drive.
Alas, the quality interior and speed come at a cost. Land Rover isn’t known for making reliable vehicles. Coil packs, water pump and control arm failures are common and some have complained about interior materials degrading quickly. Superchargers also are a frequent failure point.
Expect 10-12mpg in the city and 17mpg on the highway.
Classic, low mileage: E31 1991 BMW 850i
Target price: $24,000, mileage < 60,000 miles
First released in 1991, the BMW 850i was a looker. Slick lines, a great interior, and a V12 engine attracted Wall Street bankers and movie stars who could afford the $90k asking price ($162k in 2017 dollars). For that price, you got a 5 liter engine producing 296hp and 332ft-lb and capable of a 6.3 second run to 60mph. Oh how far engine technology has come.
The 850i is paired with a 6 speed manual or a 4 speed automatic. We recommend holding out for the manual – because, who doesn’t want manually row a V12? The exterior still retains a certain charm to it. Expect to receive frequent compliments from enthusiasts who know the car. Just don’t let anyone close to the interior – it’s old and comes standard with a tape player. Hope you still have the AUX to tape converter from the late ‘00s.
If you’re looking to pick one up, absolutely have the car inspected by a mechanic who knows these cars. At 26 years old, much can go wrong. The V12s are also quite heavy and wear the suspension parts quickly. Expect to replace suspension parts, transmission and intake gaskets.
Hey, if you want reliability, buy a Camry.
Expect 10mpg in the city and 17mpg on the highway.
Mainstream: F30 BMW 435i
Target price: $28,000, mileage < 40,000
The 435i is the daily driver enthusiast pick. Stiffer and wider than its lame sedan sibling, the 335i, the 435i is capable of a 4.5 second 0 – 60 and comes to a complete stop in less than 170 feet. Engine response is silky smooth and the twin turbo setup provides constant thrust through the entire RPM band. Handling on the twisties is sufficient, though the car lacks on-center steering feel. The car can be equipped with a six speed manual, though most used examples on Autotrader are automatics.
The interior of the 435i hasn’t changed much since the E46 3 series, leaving a rather dull look. The good news is the F30 435i is complete with all modern tech, so playing music from spotify over Bluetooth from your Harmon Kardon speakers while you look at the heads-up display is totally possible.
The reliability judge is out, but the BMW is technically covered under manufacturer warranty for another two years.
We average about 20mpg in the city and 28mpg on the highway.
Track car: 2008 Lotus Elise
Target price: $29,500, mileage < 60,000
The Lotus Elise is a track monster that doesn’t depreciate. Stuck at $28-30k for years, you can have your very own not-quite-exotic-but-no-one-knows-its-not-an-exotic Lotus Elise and practically drive it for free for years. The Elise is one of the most thrilling cars on the road for the price. Don’t let the 190hp Toyota four cylinder scare you. The Elise is capable of a 0-60 of 4.9 second run and eats twisties like it’s not even trying. The six speed manual is precise and fun to row.
Lotus prides itself on making light cars, so don’t expect much from the interior in the form of sound deadening, plus materials, or even a glovebox. Opt for one equipped with a Touring package to get access to a decent radio, sound system and cup holders. Just be thankful it comes with seats. Even with the Touring package, there’s hardly any room for more than a duffel bag in the trunk, so pack lightly for track day and enjoy one of the most pure driving experiences available in the US.
The Elise is quite reliable. The Toyota engine is nearly bullet proof, but the Lotus parts may give you trouble. Oil cooler lines can leak, requiring replacement and the water pump is known to leak water.
The fiberglass body of the Elise is separated into two parts. If one of these cracks, fractures or breaks, insurance companies are known to total the car due to the cost. Don’t crash it.
The Elise is a fuel sipping machine – expect 21mpg in the city and over 30mpg on the highway.
That one car you always forget exists: B7 Audi RS4
Target price: $29,000, mileage < 80,000
The Audi RS4 was released in the US just in time for the economy to tank. The US had to wait nearly 7 years for another RS four seater to come stateside in the form of the Audi RS5.
The RS4 shares a V8 engine with the R8, the 4.2L produce 420hp and 350ft-lb. 0-60 could be had in less than 4.5 seconds and the RS4 does a quarter mile in about 13 seconds. The torque curve is pretty flat throughout the RPM band and the RS4 comes standard with AWD which guarantees you a blast at each stoplight.
The car comes standard with almost modern conveniences and uses the second generation of the MMI system, which isn’t horrible to use. The car loses the flat bottom steering wheel and smart key which was standard in Europe. To compensate, Audi imported the car with excellent Recaro seats which still hold up today. Opt for an example with the Premium package, and you’ll get navigation, a Bose sound system and heated rear seats.
The RS4 has proven relatively reliable. Look for an example that has had the clutch replaced and carbon cleaning done. Control arms also need to be replaced every 50k miles.
Expect 16mpg in the city and 24mpg on the highway.
Agree, Disagree or have some to add?
There you have it! My list of five fun cars under $30k. Comment in if you agree, disagree, or want me to look at more.