By Chris Chase
Open up any car magazine and it seems that all they feature are fast cars no one can afford. Either that or there’s an article comparing the newest family sedans, minivans or SUVs. Boring!
What you’re dreaming of is a car that combines the best aspects of all of those types of vehicles: something fun-to-drive, with the responses and power of a sports car; something practical, with a useable trunk and rear seats; and finally, something affordable, so that you won’t have to give up your first-born in order to own it.
You could keep dreaming about this perfect car, or you could keep reading to find out which fun and practical used cars are available for a very affordable $20,000 or less. To be considered for inclusion in this article, a car had to possess a sporty flair – no run-of-the-mill family sedans or economy cars need apply. Also, the only candidates considered had to have useable seating for at least four people and a cargo area large enough to hold a week’s worth of groceries or luggage for a weekend road trip. The final criterion is the price stipulation mentioned above: each car had to be available on the used market for under $20,000. For the purposes of this article, we used the Canadian Red Book as our source for the value of each car.
What’s that, you say? Dream on? Au contraire! Read on to see which cars shatter the myth that fun, practicality and affordability have to be mutually exclusive.
1. MazdaSpeed Protegé
2003 MazdaSpeed Protege, Photo: G. Yoxon. Click image to enlarge
The last Mazda to bear the Protegé nameplate was introduced in 1999, and it won praise right from the start from auto writers and everyday enthusiasts for its ability to combine great handling and driving dynamics with a roomy interior. However, many wished it had more power than the uplevel 1.8 litre (early models, 122 horsepower) and 2.0 litre (later models, 130 hp) four-cylinder engines produced. In 2003, Mazda finally answered those wishes with the MazdaSpeed Protegé, which packed a 170-hp turbocharged version of the 2.0 litre under its hood. That added punch, a limited slip differential and firmer springs and shocks showed what this practical little sedan was capable of. MazdaSpeed Protegés were only built for two years – 2003 and 2004 – but only the 2003 model comes in at less than 20 grand, at $18,650.
2. Nissan Sentra SE-R/SE-R Spec-V
2002 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V. Photo: Nissan. Click image to enlarge
While this article deals with used cars, there are a few vehicles mentioned here that are still being produced. All of them are worth more than the $20,000 price ceiling I’m using as the upper limit, but there’s one car here that a keen negotiator might be able to pick up new for less than 20 grand. The M.S.R.P. for the 2005 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec-V is $21,998, so it’s conceivable that a buyer at the right dealership at the right time might be able to knock a couple grand off the price, especially considering this sporty car has been around since 2002. That said, if you’re not confident enough in your negotiating skills to pull that off, a used 2004 Spec-V is worth $18,000 and 2005s come in barely over budget at $20,200.
Something to keep in mind is that while all Spec-Vs feature a six-speed manual transmission, base SE-Rs from 2002 and 2003 got a five-speed, and a four-speed auto was optional. In 2004 and 2005, however, all base SE-Rs were automatics.
3. Acura Integra GS-R/Type R
2000 Acura Integra Type R. Photo: Acura. Click image to enlarge
Based on the Honda Civic’s platform, entry-level versions of the third-generation Acura Integra relied on a 140-hp 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine. That’s all fine and well, but the only Integras that fit the bill for hot straight-outta-the-box performance were the up-level GS-R and Type-R models. The Integra GS-R featured a sweet and smooth high-revving version of that 1.8 litre motor with 170 horsepower, and the Type-R upped the ante with 195 horsepower at a screaming 8,000 rpm. The Type-R did without niceties such as cruise and a sunroof, and was the only Integra not to feature standard air conditioning (it was an option, though).
Like most Honda and Acura products, used GS-Rs and Type-Rs command fairly steep prices. These sweet little cars were one of the inspirations for the sport-compact tuning craze that exploded in the late 90s. Values top out at $19,000 for a 2001 Type R.
4. Pontiac Vibe GT
5. Toyota Matrix XRS
2002 Toyota Matrix XRS. Photo: Toyota. Click image to enlarge
Toyota and General Motors have a relationship that dates back to the mid-’80s, when GM sold re-badged Corollas as the Chevrolet Nova. The association continued in the ’90s with more re-badged Corollas, this time sold as Chevrolet and Geo Prizms. The Pontiac Vibe is the General’s latest Toyota badge job, as Pontiac’s take on the Matrix crossover/sport hatch. The differences between the two cars are skin deep. The Vibe GT and Matrix XRS are the sporty versions of these funky looking five-doors, and both use the high-strung 180-hp 1.8 litre motor and six-speed manual transmission found in the Toyota Celica GT-S.
Looks are subjective, and many prefer one of these cars to the other, but used values vary thanks to the Vibe’s steeper depreciation. The Canadian Red Book values a 2004 Vibe GT at $19,200, and 2003’s are worth $16,550. You have to go back a model year to find a Matrix XRS for less than $20,000: Canadian Red Book values are $19,175 for a 2003, and $15,750 for a 2002.
6. Ford Contour SVT
1999 Ford SVT Contour. Photo: Ford. Click image to enlarge
The Ford Contour (and its Mercury Mystique twin) was the company’s first attempt at selling a “world car”: a single vehicle it could sell both in Europe and North America. When it was introduced here in 1995, it was praised here for its capable handling and good on-road behaviour, but a smallish back seat kept it from really catching on with buyers on this continent. But in 1998, Ford caught enthusiasts’ eyes with a hot version of the Contour that had been massaged by the company’s Special Vehicle Team, or SVT.
Exterior upgrades like upsized wheels and subtle body add-ons are the only visual clues that these were no ordinary sedans. A high-output 200-hp version of the 2.5 litre V6 wasn’t enough to make the Contour SVT a drag-strip champ, but the extra power and tauter handling made for a very entertaining overall package. The Contour SVT disappeared with the rest of the model line when the Contour was replaced by the Focus in 2000. Canadian Red Book values are low: $6,350 for a 1998 and $8,425 for a 1999, but sellers who realize how rare these cars are might ask for more than that.
7. Ford Focus SVT
2004 Ford SVT Focus. Photo: Ford. Click image to enlarge
In 2003, Ford revived the spirit of the Contour SVT with the Focus SVT. Ford followed the same formula with this car, limiting exterior cues to 17″ wheels and more aggressive front and rear bumpers. Under the hood was a high-revving 170-hp version of the 2.0 litre Zetec four found in lesser Focii, and the suspension was firmed up to take full advantage of the car’s great handling attributes.
The Focus SVT was available as a hatchback, with either two or four doors, and with the Focus’ spacious interior, this is a great car for carving up fun back roads, with or without a few of your friends. Like the Contour SVT, sellers who realize they have a fairly rare car on their hands may price these cars high, but values are $15,775 for a 2003 model, and $18,475 for a 2004.
8. Honda Civic Si-R
1999-2000 and 2002-2003
2002 Honda Civic SiR. Photo: Honda. Click image to enlarge
Honda’s history of selling hot Civics in Canada dates back to 1988, when it first stuck a 1.6 litre, 105 horsepower motor into its tiny Civic CRX Si. The Si line later expanded to include the regular Civic hatchback. In 1998, Honda introduced its Civic Si-R to North American in the form of a two-door coupe. With a 1.6 litre engine making 160 horsepower thanks to Honda’s revolutionary VTEC variable valve timing system, the Si-R had a good bit more high-revving punch than the standard Si did. The Si-R coupe stuck around for two years until the seventh-generation Civic bowed in 2001. That year, only the 127-hp Si coupe was available, and enthusiasts cried foul. Honda, looking for an economical solution to fill the demand for a hot Civic, retrofitted the euro-spec Si hatch for the North American market and revived the Si-R badge. Unfortunately, its tall, ungainly looks and less-raw performance kept it from being the hit the sixth-generation Si-R had been, and it disappeared after 2004.
Red Book value for a 2002 Si-R hatch is $15,900, and a 2003 is as new as they come for under $20,000, with a value of $18,925. A 1999 Si-R coupe is valued at $8,900, and a 2000 is worth $10,825. You may have to look hard for an Si-R at those prices, thanks to hefty mark-ups. It’s best to stick to examples unmolested by aftermarket tuners, too.
9. Hyundai Tiburon
2003 Hyundai Tiburon ‘Tuscani’. Photo: Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge
Hyundai’s Tiburon first arrived on these shores in 1996 as a 1997 model. It rode on a shortened Elantra platform and shared that car’s 1.8 and 2.0 litre engines. It was a fun little car, but things didn’t get exciting until 2002 when the Tiburon underwent its first major redesign and uplevel models got a 2.7-litre V6 and an available six-speed transmission. Technically, there are no 2002 Tiburons, though Canadian Red Book and some other sources have a listing for them. The confusion arises from the fact that redesigned Tiburons went on sale in early 2002 as 2003 models.
The Tiburon GT features the V6 and a five-speed manual transmission, and a V6/six-speed powertrain combo was initially offered in the GS-R model, and later in the Tiburon Tuscani. A four-speed automatic could be had in any V6 trim level, but it saps a lot of the fun out of the driving experience. The V6 models also include a nice firm suspension and 17-inch wheels. While depreciation hasn’t been steep enough to bring prices for 2004 models below $20,000, Red Book values for 2003 V6 models range from $14,900 to $18,825.
10. Dodge SRT-4
2004 Dodge SRT-4. Photo: DaimlerChrysler. Click image to enlarge
While some enthusiasts look down on the SRT-4 as “just another Neon,” this car is anything but a plebian economy sedan. A turbocharged 2.4-litre four cylinder engine making 230 horsepower transforms the geeky Neon from a 98-pound weakling into an impressive and aggressive compact four-door. A limited-slip differential ensures efficient delivery of the car’s prodigious power to the road, and a lack of mufflers makes for a growly exhaust note. The SRT-4 outright shuns subtlety with big wheels, a huge grille revealing a massive intercooler and a basket-handle of a wing on the trunk lid.
A 2004 SRT-4 barely squeaks under the $20,000 limit with a used value of $19,925. You may have to do some negotiating, as many used SRT-4s are priced in the $22,000 to $23,000 range.
11. Chrysler PT Cruiser GT Turbo
2003 Chrysler PT Cruiser GT 2.4 Turbo. Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge
If you find the SRT4 too flamboyant or you need more cargo space but still love the thrill of turbocharged thrust, the Chrysler PT Cruiser GT Turbo may be more your style. Moved by the same force-fed turbocharged engine, the PT Turbo isn’t quite as raw performance-wise as the SRT4 thanks to a quieter (and hence more restrictive) exhaust and more forgiving suspension settings. The horsepower rating is a little lower too, thanks to that exhaust system. The PT Turbo was available in two flavours: with a 215-hp engine or an optional de-tuned 180-hp version of that motor.
Canadian Red Book values 2003 and 2004 models at under $20,000, while nearly new 2005 models are valued a little over the limit at $21,275. Bear in mind that the PT is classified as a truck by Transport Canada and possibly by insurance companies too. Priced at market value, the PT Turbo is a great combination of performance and utility.
12. Ford Mustang GT/Cobra
2002 Ford Mustang GT. Photo: Ford. Click image to enlarge
The Mustang’s simple formula for fun dates back to the early days of the pony car: stick a powerful V8 in a compact two-door. It’s a much different approach than that taken by the import manufacturers, who lean towards high-revving four-cylinders rather than torquey V8s. It’s worked for Ford, however, as the Mustang is still a strong seller. The Mustang GT is the budget-conscious answer for V8-lovers, and the Mustang Cobra cranks up the fun a notch.
Go back to 1999, and Canadian Red Book value for a GT is $9,600 while a 2002 GT is worth $18,025. The Cobra was available in 1999 and 2001, with values ranging from $13,125 to $19,000.
13. Volkswagen Jetta
14. Volkswagen GTI
2002 Volkswagen GTI 1.8 T. Photo: Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge
If a refined sports car is what you’re looking for, consider a Volkswagen GTI or Jetta equipped with either VW’s 20-valve turbocharged 1.8T four-cylinder or torquey VR6 engine. These cars feature a beautiful interior, a comfortable ride and decent interior space. If four doors for people are what you need, go for a Jetta. If cargo flexibility is more of a priority, go for a GTI with its rear hatch and folding rear seat that conspire to turn this sporty VW into a commodious carry-all.
VW resale prices are on the high side, but it’s easy enough to find a GTI or Jetta 1.8T/VR6 for under $20,000. A 2002 Jetta VR6 is the most expensive of the bunch with a value of $18,475. A 2000 Jetta VR6 is valued at less than $15,000 and GTIs should be even cheaper.
15. Toyota Celica GT-S
2002 Toyota Celica GT-S. Photo: Toyota. Click image to enlarge
In the late 1990s, it looked like Toyota had forgotten about this once-terrific little car, with all Celicas getting the same Camry-derived 130-hp engine. In 2000, the GT-S got a desperately needed shot of adrenaline in the form of a Corolla 1.8 litre engine endowed with Toyota’s VVT-i variable valve timing system and producing 180 horsepower (the lesser GT model made do with a 140-hp version of the same motor). While the styling was polarizing and the engine was a peaky unit that required high revs to keep in the meaty part of its powerband, the GT-S was a reliable competitor to Honda and Acura’s sport-compact offerings.
The Celica’s Resale value is typically Toyota, so these cars aren’t terribly cheap to pick up in good condition. Canadian Red Book values a 2001 GT-S at $17,975 while 2000s are worth $15,575. For 2002, GT-S values are over $20,000. A 2002 GT is worth just under $17,000, but without the 180-hp motor, the GT is little more than a racy-looking Corolla.
16. Honda Prelude
1999 Honda Prelude HR. Photo: Honda. Click image to enlarge
Understated looks and smooth performance are what this Honda coupe is all about. It’s proven very reliable and gets decent gas mileage, as Hondas do. A nifty active differential that mimicked a limited-slip unit endowed this last generation Prelude with great power delivery in situations that would leave other cars spinning a single wheel in a futile attempt at acceleration. The back seat may not be the most spacious around, but it’s there, and a decent-sized trunk rounds out this reasonably practical package.
The sweetest thing about these cars is the price, with 2001 models carrying a value of $18,025. That’s a great deal, considering the less refined and less sophisticated Acura Integra GS-R from the same year is worth only a few hundred dollars less.
17. Chevrolet Camaro
18. Pontiac Firebird
2002 Chevrolet Camaro. Photo: GM. Click image to enlarge
These GM twins and the Ford Mustang are the only two rear-wheel-drive vehicles that fit the criteria for inclusion in this article. Everyone’s got an opinion about who does the pony car better, but remember that the Mustang is still in production and the Camaro and Firebird aren’t. Packing a big, torquey V8, these cars are capable of serious straight-line performance and both were available in two forms: The Camaro Z28 and Firebird Formula were the entry-level performance models, while the SS and Trans Am versions packed more serious punch. Each was offered with a V6 in base models, but these are better suited to boulevard cruising than drag-strip bravado. Factor in a useable, if small, back seat and the hatch that conceals the cargo area and you have a bruiser with a pragmatic side.
The cheapest of the bunch is a 1999 Firebird Formula Coupe, valued at $10,050, while a 2002 Formula Coupe tops off the list at $18,975. Camaros tend to run a little cheaper than their Pontiac cousins, so if the badge and looks aren’t priorities, pick whichever one you can find for less money.
19. Saab 9-3 Viggen
2000/01 Saab 9-3 Viggen. Photo: GM. Click image to enlarge
When it was introduced in 2000, the Viggen was the speediest member of Saab’s 9-3 model line. It’s a fitting name too for a sports car too, given that the Viggen name was cribbed from a Saab-built fighter jet way back in the 1950s. The cosmetic differences between the Viggen and the other 9-3 models were few: more aggressive-looking front and rear bumpers, side skirts and 17-inch wheels to replace the 15s and 16s found on more plebian 9-3s. It also packed a 2.3 litre turbocharged four-cylinder – in place of the blown 2.0 litre used in those lesser cars – from the larger 9-5 sedan that yielded 30 more horsepower and 50 extra lb-ft of torque. The requisite firm suspension tuning rounded out the changes that made the 9-3 Viggen a more sporting alternative to the rest of the line-up. One of the best parts about the Viggen it what it does share with the other 9-3 models: comfortable seating for five, a huge cargo hold under the rear hatch and a choice of three- and five-door body styles.
According to Canadian Red Book, the Viggen is a great deal too, with used values of $19,000 for a 2001 and $14,250 for a 2000 model.
20. Volvo S70/V70 (T5 and “R” models)
The Volvo S70 and V70 sedans and wagons were the evolution of the 850 that was introduced in the early 1990s. They kept the same boxy shape as the 850 too, and a couple of different high-performance models made these the fastest boxes on wheels you’ll find for your money. Speed freaks will be interested in two specific models. The first is the S70 or V70 T5, with its 236-horsepower, 2.3 litre turbocharged motor. Or there’s the V70R, which gets its motivation from a 247-hp version of the same engine coupled to an all-wheel-drive system. Be aware, however, that the V70R is only available with an automatic transmission, which makes it a little less fun to drive, but no less of a performance car. Sedans feature a roomy trunk, and the wagons are flat out huge in the back. Q-ship, anyone?
Prices are very reasonable for these cars too: The most expensive is a 2000 V70R, which is valued at $19,400 and the cheapest a 1998 S70 T5, valued at $11,725.
Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.
For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.