The pinnacle of automotive engineering has always come in the form of sports cars. Major advancements in engine power, drivetrain mechanicals, suspension, and steering always begin in competition race cars, like Formula 1 and Le Mans Prototype categories, before slowly filtering down through the highest-end supercars, and then finally becoming standard fare on everyday daily drivers. Anyone who loves to drive feels the urge to drive a sports car every now and then, but most people don’t ever get the chance to drive aggressively on a race track or rally course. Instead, the average driver is much more likely to enjoy cruising on the highway or slicing up tight lines through canyons and mountain passes.
Updated March 2022: If you’re looking for an affordable car you can have some fun with on twisty roads, you’ll be happy to know that we’ve updated this article with more details.
Not all cars make aggressive driving fun, however, it takes something that offers decent power and agile handling. But while the lightweight sports car may not be very useful for everyday life, some drivers are lucky enough to either not need a lot of room for gear or to own two cars with two different uses. Most sports cars cost an arm and a leg, but even today plenty can be found on the secondhand market that offer impressive performance. Typically, the most reasonable choices don’t focus on outright power, but instead bring enjoyable driving experiences to the table thanks to tight suspension, balanced weight distribution, and nimble steering. As with any product, some are better than others, however. Keep scrolling for the 10 best canyon carving drivers’s cars easily found for under $15,000, and 10 that might seem like a good deal but are totally overrated.
20 Excellent Canyon Carver: Porsche 986 Boxster S
The Boxster represented Porsche’s commitment towards offering a relatively affordable, excellent driver’s car to help bring their products towards more of a mainstream audience.
Following in the tradition of the 914, which paired a mid-mounted engine with rear wheel drive – as opposed to the 912 and 928, which were rear- and front-engined, respectively – the Boxster, especially in S trim hit the market as a radically styled driver’s car with a touch of luxury but no frills. Today, a Boxster S is easily found under $15,000 with a six speed stick shift, and the combination of lightweight and perfect weight distribution makes it wonderful to power through tight turns.
19 Overrated: Volvo C30
Volvo introduced the C30 as a successor to their P1800 model after a gap of more than 30 years. And with an aggressive front end, a nifty hatchback rear end, and plenty of sporty touches, the C30 looks the business of a hot hatch. It even featured an optional turbocharged five-cylinder engine producing up to 250 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque in Polestar trim, and a six-speed manual transmission, as well.
But unlike the rest of Volvo’s T5 and Polestar offerings, the C30 never came in all-wheel drive, and the still relatively heavy hatch suffers from understandable understeer, minimal traction, and a lackluster driving experience despite its relative affordability.
18 Excellent Canyon Carver: Mazda Miata
Plenty of aspiring speed freaks think the ticket to gaining skill is to purchase a powerful car that slams drivers and passengers alike back into their seats. But many experienced drivers will tell a newbie that it’s more fun, and more educational, to drive a slow car fast.
A car like the Mazda Miata, which has never put emphasis on outright power, is a perfect tool for learning to push a lightweight, balanced chassis towards, and past, its limits while maintaining a semblance of sanity. The simple Miata has had many iterations since it burst onto the scene in 1989, and the first 3 generations can be easily found below $15,000.
17 Overrated: Audi B5 S4
Audi’s B5 generation of S4 sports sedans and wagons took the world by storm in the late 1990s, when it debuted as the world’s fastest production car. And with a twin-turbocharged V6 under the hood sending power to all four wheels through a standard six speed manual transmission, the result should be a car that’s perfect for plowing through tight turns.
But without major suspension tuning to help cope with the big 2.7T engine’s position forward of the front axle, the S4 suffers from a bit too much body roll to inspire the confidence needed to unleash its pure power.
16 Excellent Canyon Carver: E36 BMW M3
BMW had an instant hit with its first M3, the E30 generation. That era was only made in limited quantities, however, and with the debut of the E36, BMW was determined to make the M3 a more mainstream product. The result is one of the world’s best handling cars, churning plenty of horsepower and low-end grunt out of its S50 and later S52 inline six engines.
With a light steering feel, standard limited slip differential, and a notchy five-speed transmission on domestic examples, the E36 M3 offers a potent package, and other than cooling system issues, finding a higher mileage example under $15,000 can still be a solid investment with tons of smiles per gallon.
15 Overrated: Chevy Cobalt SS
Chevy repeatedly attempted to retool and restyle their entry-level commuter car, the Cobalt, into a sporty hatchback, but to no avail. From normally aspirated to turbocharged to supercharged, the Cobalt SS’s drivetrain couldn’t save the rest of the car from featuring cheap build quality, poor suspension, and ho-hum styling, and consumers just couldn’t be convinced otherwise.
One positive note of the Cobalt SS project, however, is today’s range of hot hatches that bring fun driving characteristics, overall daily utility, and relatively affordable entry prices onto the current domestic market. Unfortunately, they all manage to leave the Cobalt SS way behind in the dust.
14 Excellent Canyon Carver: Acura Integra
Snobs may sneer at including a front wheel drive car in a list of affordable canyon carvers, but the Acura Integra didn’t earn its reputation as the best handling FWD sports car of all time for nothing. With a peppy, high revving engine paired to excellent suspension geometry, the engineers at Honda and Acura managed to turn what could have been a slightly upscale Civic into a genre-defying driver’s toy.
Obviously, a Type R is the most sought after, but with prices for solid examples skyrocketing up towards $50,000 with no end in sight, a base Integra with a stick shift can provide nearly as much fun for a fraction of the cost.
13 Overrated: Acura RSX Type S
The successor to Acura’s awesome Integra was the RSX, which even came in what should have been an impressive Type S trim. Stylistically the RSX clearly resembles its elder sibling (and in Japan, it was even sold as the final Integra generation), with a bit of a more angular, aggressive profile.
The RSX lost much of the joy that earlier Integras offered, however, due to a revised VTEC system that focused more on low-end torque than higher RPM fun. In the end, buyers looking for the Integra experience would be better served sticking with a legit Integra rather than the RSX.
12 Excellent Canyon Carver: Subaru WRX
Audi and Lancia may have revolutionized the rally world with their championship-stock all wheel drive world, but there’s no doubt that Subaru took the mantle and ran with it, bringing all wheel drive to the masses.
The WRX debuted in Japan in 1992, but it was almost another decade before the sportier Impreza reached these shores. But what we got was an affordable, powerful, rally-bred sedan and hatchback duo that immediately gained a cult following. With plenty of aftermarket support and parts interchangeability, the WRX is a solid bet for anyone who wants to emulate their favorite rally racing idols without breaking the bank.
11 Overrated: Pontiac GTO
When word first circulated that Pontiac was resurrected the GTO, the automotive industry hoped the result would be a major effort to spark a new evolutionary stage in the waning brand’s history. Instead, the fourth generation GTO ended up being a rebadged Australian-market Holden Monaro.
At the very least, GM did toss in a powerful V8 engine, but the exterior styling and overall performance of the new GTO left consumers confused as to exactly how the car related to its iconic muscle car namesake. The truth was simply that it was a marketing ploy, and despite low prices on the secondhand market, buyers looking for a canyon carver should look elsewhere.
10 Excellent Canyon Carver: Subaru BRZ
Subaru fanboys hit the roof when the BRZ and FR-S coupes (from Subaru and Scion, respectively) hit the market without all-wheel drive and without a turbocharged engine. But the BRZ/FR-S, both now rebadged as the Toyota 86, was never about power figures or straight-line acceleration.
The entire goal of the project was to provide a car that could keep its speed high in the twisties thanks to low weight and a low center of gravity – all at a low cost. Adding all-wheel drive and a turbo would have increased weight, increased cost, and been completely against the point. Today, early BRZ and FR-S examples can be found with moderate mileage for just under $15,000 fairy easily.
9 Overrated: Honda Del Sol
The Honda Del Sol looks like a tiny, mid-engined sports car. The short hood, targa top, and flat trunk lid all contribute to the appearance that it should be a perfectly balanced toy, but in reality, the Del Sol is an overhyped Honda Civic with none of the tossability its profile suggests.
Instead, it features a front-mounted, 160 horsepower engine powering the front wheels, and some examples don’t even have a front sway bar, much less a rear one. Despite stylistic cues hinting at an NSX or MR2 type car, buyers should do their research and quickly exclude the Del Sol from any potential sports car list.
8 Excellent Canyon Carver: Toyota MR2
The 1990s were an era defined by spectacular automotive products coming out of Japan’s top marques. From the Acura NSX to the Subaru WRX to Toyota’s MR2, Japanese cars seemed to flood the market offering solid performance without sacrificing reliability or affordability. Often dubbed as “the poor man’s NSX”, the second generation, mid-engined MR2 offered significant upgrades over its previous generation.
Besides greatly improved interior comfort, the longer, wider wheelbase, more powerful turbo engine, and impressive gearbox combined to make the MR2 a great learning implement for drivers who just had to have that mid-engined feel. Today, low mileage MR2 Turbos are just starting to get more expensive, so grab one quick before they’re all gone.
7 Overrated: Mazda RX-7
It is possible to find a Mazda RX-7 for under $15,000. And the platform seems at first glance to be a solid one, offering a lightweight body, rear-wheel drive, sleek exterior, and of course a rotary engine. But unfortunately, everything that has almost entirely eliminated the rotary engine from today’s sports cars is exacerbated in older models.
From the factory, the Wankel-style rotary engine burns huge quantities of fuel, while aged engines burn both fuel and oil due to worn-out rotor seals. All the potential fun is totally outweighed by the downsides, so despite the mythos surrounding the RX-7, buyers looking for a used sports car should look elsewhere.
6 Excellent Canyon Carver: Audi TT Mk1
The radical Audi TT hit dealer floors in 1998 without having sacrificed the core shape, futuristic aluminum interior, and all-wheel drive platform of its 1995 concept car. And though FWD was an option, today a high-spec TT with Audi’s legendary Quattro drivetrain, a nearly-bulletproof 225-horsepower engine, and a six-speed manual transmission can easily be found for less than $10,000.
Make sure the timing belt has been replaced, tune the ECU, add an upgraded rear sway bar, and the TT can easily transform from a car many reviewers at the time reviled as not sporty enough into a solid canyon sprinter with plenty of style, lots of oomph, and even snow-charging capabilities.
5 Overrated: Mercedes-Benz SLK230 Kompressor
Mercedes-Benz’s cute R170 generation of SLK230 Kompressor hardtop convertible from the early 2000s seems to occupy the exact niche in a company’s lineup that should be for perfect canyon carvers. Simple exterior design, a supercharged four-cylinder engine, and the potential for open-top driving round out the package – which in reality is a relatively heavy car with just over 200 horsepower paired to an automatic transmission as the only option in the domestic market.
At the very least, European markets got a stick shift, and though an AMG tuned edition did eventually reach these shores, it also strictly came with a sluggish automatic trans.
4 Excellent Canyon Carver: Datsun 280ZX
The lineup of Z cars from Datsun, and later Nissan, has always maintained a focus on inline-six engines, rear-wheel drive, and a comfortable, driver-focused interior. The classic coupe’s long-hooded shape helps to define its sports car status, though a few upgrades can easily help turn somewhat of a tourer into a legit canyon carver.
Unicorns may be gaining market value, but a well-used 280ZX, with plenty of life left, can be found with plenty of budget under $15,000 left to spare for suspension and other performance upgrades. And with nearly perfect weight distribution, any Z car will be a joy to drive for years to come.
3 Overrated: Fourth Gen Ford Mustang
Any car with a Mustang badge is liable to pique the interest of gearheads, regardless of generation, simply because of the iconic role the model has played in the history of the automobile. But for buyers who hope to get in on the fun of a Mustang by finding a cheap fourth generation example, be warned that the model has seen its fair share of ups and downs.
And the fourth generation Mustang is certainly a low point, with cheap build quality, underpowered engines, lackluster handling, and iffy style. Despite the attractiveness of its price point, this era Mustang will require tons of modification to get anywhere near canyon carver status.
2 Excellent Canyon Carver: Mitsubishi 3000GT
Some might argue that the Mitsubishi 3000GT, and its alternately badged siblings, is too heavy to be a truly capable sports car. But with options like a twin-turbocharged V6, all-wheel drive, and futuristic features including active aero components and even rear-wheel steering, the 3000GT was a futuristic rocketship throughout the 1990s.
And given that the engine could be tuned up to 400 horsepower from the factory for special German editions, plenty of bolt-on upgrades can easily boost output well above stock levels, as well. Throw in that quintessential 90s look, plus a depreciation curve at or near its low point, and the 3000GT is a solid bet for a buyer looking to invest and enjoy simultaneously.
1 Overrated: Plymouth Prowler
Of all the cars that look like they should be perfect canyon carvers, the Plymouth Prowler might be the number one biggest disappointment. Everything that makes a hot rod a hot rod went by the wayside for the Prowler except its looks – under the long hood is a weak V6 generating little low-end torque, which is then paired to a slushbox automatic transmission.
It’s not even a light car, tipping the scales at 2,800 pounds despite such an airy design. And even a well-used Prowler will get right up towards the $15,000 mark, leaving little in the way of budget left for modifications.
Sources: bringatrailer.com, wikipedia.org, and caranddriver.com.
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