Forget the hero cars, the “real” classics, and big performance icons—less is more. If you want a fun, cheap sports car to just get out and drive without busting the bank account then you have some used car choices. And right now $20,000 AUD is kind of the sweet spot to get you in quite a few interesting cars.
A lot of these cars will have high kilometres, but as long as they have a good service history, and you look after them, they will continue to give plenty of rewarding drives. Of course, there will be things that will nee changing, fixing, or updating but that’s to be expected for a car that may have been two, three, or more times the price they are offered at today. Just be aware that the more expensive the car was to purchase when new generally the cost to fix or repair will be higher.
If you’re not up for those high kilometre vehicles there are some safer bets here with more modern cars, and cars built by Japanese manufacturers who take pride in reliability and longevity.
Depending on your budget some of these will potentially allow some room for modifications or restorations which to be honest could add up very quickly to the entire price of the vehicle but then you’ve got something you’ve made your own or is back to “as new-ish” standard. Or if it’s a second weekend car, treat it as a project and get your friends involved.
Cheap sports cars are also a good base for getting into track days. With the cars listed here you’re not likely to set benchmark laptimes but you will be having a lot of fun.
There’s a bit of variety, let’s have a look.
Audi TT (2nd gen)
Everything from the original Audi TT to the more modern and arguably sharper update from 2010 will come under the $20,000 AUD mark in both manual and auto. These aren’t going to set the world alight with performance but there’s enough there for it to feel brisk enough, and enough to compete with something like VW’s Scirocco. The shape of the TT hasn’t moved on much since this second generation which means it will still look fresh today. Any of the 2.0L versions from 2006 onwards will have you rolling around in style.
BMW 135i Sport (E82)
Just squeezing under the $20,000 AUD mark is BMW’s 135i. Not quite the full 1 Series M (actually nowhere near it) it still delivers a real punch via a sweet sounding guttural 3.0L 6-cylinder BMW straight six engine. Rejoice, because these engines won’t be around forever. And it’s rear wheel drive. Enough can’t be said of that fact given the all-wheel-drive-only future that seems to be charging towards us (pun intended) and the fact you can get this in manual. It’s small, dynamic, and practical too. Eat your heart out Golf…
BMW Z4 (E85)
The other BMW on the list is a little older but no less fun. With a genuine BMW straight six up front in either 2.5L or 3.0L guise, manual transmission and rear wheel drive the Z4 is a roadster that has all the classic BMW features and styling cues to match the mechanical attributes. Bangle-era styling is standing the test of time and still looks fresh today with classic long bonnet and short overhangs. The cabin is more luxurious than the Mazda MX-5 and would be a better place for longer trips. Spend a bit freshening one of these up and you’ve got a roadster that will give plenty back for years to come.
Holden Commodore SS (VE)
Sorry, no HSVs on this list, they’ve left the building already and climbing into collectorsphere with the price tag that comes with it. Next best thing? It has to be a Holden Commodore SS. The SS nameplate is an important one to Holden as it signifies their top line sports V8 offering. A 6.0L naturally aspirated V8 is always going to be a fun thing to drive but these days it’s more about the sound and V8 vibration than pure performance as most modern hot hatches will run rings around it. Unless you start pumping money into it for modifications, that’s if you you have any left over from the fuel bills.
Mazda MX-5 (NB/NC)
You know it had to be on the list. There are decades of generations to now choose from but believe it or not, every generation is represented under the $20,000 mark, just. At time of writing there was a 2015 ND Mazda MX-5 with 61,000 kms for sale in Victoria. First generation NA MX-5s are commanding more than what they are probably worth due to demand, so they don’t quite hit the value button. The best choice right now is probably the least favourite NC series (3rd generation) although there are also quite a few 2nd generation NBs available too. If you want something closer the original MX-5 in size and intent, go for the NB. If you’re after an MX-5 that is a modern interpretation of the original in styling but with more modern touches, go for the NC.
Mini Cooper S (R56)
For well under the $20,000 mark you can have a choice of quite a few Mini Cooper S cars from 2010 onwards. It’s a good thing that these Minis don’t seem to retain their value from new as most of the depreciation will be taken out of these cars by now. The other good news is you’ll have a car with some modern features making it an easier proposition if you are buying as a one car, providing you don’t need to take people in the back as Minis aren’t exactly the last word on interior space. But you’ll get a real Mini Cooper S, with manual transmission and playful chassis as well as a car you’ll most likely look back on and smile after parking. Under the $20k mark you may find some John Cooper Works Specials but obviously with a few more kilometres.
Renault Megane RS 265 Cup/Trophy
It’s still unbelievable how cheap Renault’s Megane is and it’s now possible to get a 265 Cup or Trophy hot hatch for less than $20,000 AUD. More flair and style than a VW Golf, a more dynamic chassis and one of the most respected hot hatches ever, these RS 265s will eventually go up in value despite so many being sold in Australia. And especially so when French automakers are aligning with Euro policy makers virtually declaring the end is nigh for any internal combustion engine and sports car.
Serious style points, dynamic chassis, and punchy engine and in manual too.
The WRX is hanging onto what is an ageing (or is that aged?) platform and hasn’t had a huge amount of development or styling changes since 2011. The next generation due sometime next year (maybe) doesn’t look to provide much of a leap ahead, at least in styling which is a good thing if you’re after something older, something more tactile and raw. There’s plenty under the $20k AUD mark from 2005 to 2011 models, all having their advantages and disadvantages but unfortunately no STI-badged cars. The later gen cars will be modern enough to take on long drives without the fear of breaking down too.
Perhaps not as many Toyota 86s as you might think despite being one of the true sports coupes you can buy for under $50,000 in Australia, but early cars are now under $20k AUD. It’s a Toyota, so expect it to go on and on but you’ll still want to ensure it hasn’t been used a test mule for wannabe drifters. Early cars also came under a bit of fire for their low rent interior. But if you want to have something relatively modern, rear wheel drive, and manual the 86 has to be on your list. We all know by now they aren’t the fastest thing on wheels, but if you plan on doing some twisty roads or even track work at smaller tracks, there aren’t too many other cars at this price point that will entertain you this much.
VW mk6 Golf GTI and Scirocco
A VW Golf GTI is THE do-it-all hot hatch, so if you only have one car but need it for a bunch of other life stuff, then the GTI has to be top of the pile. The mk6 built upon the success of the mk5’s return to form with distinctive styling, a playful chassis and fizzy engine. Get one in manual and you’ve got a quality hatchback that was still built around fun with less emphasis on Nurburgring lap times.
If you wanted that GTI performance but with more style, there’s also the Scirocco. Sure you lose the everyday practicality of the GTI but you gain quite a bit of distinctiveness. It was decades before VW brought back the Scirocco nameplate and may very well be decades again before they bring it back, making this “fastback” hatch more of a rarity than the GTI. And this was at a time when VW interior quality was on a massive upturn. Get one now.
Ford Focus ST
A Golf GTI competitor, the Ford Focus ST can mix it with the German offering but not quite reaching the same level of all-round completeness. The advantage of buying used for under $20k AUD however is the Focus will be slightly newer for the same money.
The quirky Peugeot is like a styling mash up of Nissan 370Z and Audi TT with plenty of considered design cues throughout. The interior is all quality as Peugeot threw a lot at it to compete with the likes of the TT. It performs well and has that typical French flair. Call it the architect’s choice.
Off the list
Alfa Romeo Brera
The Brera wasn’t especially known as a high performing coupe with more style over substance. But for under $20k AUD you’re never going to set the world alight anyway so you may as well kick back and relax in what is one of Alfa Romeo’s prettiest modern cars. The JTS is a 4 cylinder car however Alfa did offer a V6 which also comes under our budget.
However, the stylish Alfa wasn’t exactly lauded back in the day and easy bested by competitors such as the Nissan 370Z, Audi TT, and Peugeot RCZ. Reliability, build quality, and performance were not up to par.