With the economy still slumping and the average new car price inching closer to $30,000, a reliable used car is a hot option for more and more people these days. And just because your budget doesn't allow for a brand new car, you don?t need to settle for something dull or unexciting in order to get a car you can depend on. With that in mind, we've developed a short list of ten sporty, yet dependable cars that can still be attained with a relatively limited budget of around $20,000.
18 City / 25 Hwy
Available as a sedan or four-seater coupe, the rear-drive G35, which debuted as a 2003 model, is known for its sharp handling and robust V6 engine. With performance rivaling European competitors, the G35 shines for its reliability; J.D. Power ranks its overall dependability as "better than most." Any well-maintained G35 is a great buy, but we prefer '05 and '06 models which received styling updates and a power bump over older G35s, keeping them at the top of the pack among sport sedans. Also worth a look is the Nissan 350Z, which shares the G35's platform and engine ? and offers a convertible version.
19 City / 28 Hwy
The rear-drive Pontiac Solstice convertible debuted for 2006, but our favorite version ? the turbocharged 260 horsepower Solstice GXP ? which goes from zero-to-60 in 5.5 seconds ? was released for 2007. The interior is snug, but the two-seater Solstice's wide track and responsive steering more than make up for the cramped cabin. We recommend a 2008 model, as many low-mileage '08s are available with a lot of time remaining on their factory warranties ? which General Motors will honor despite the discontinuation of the Pontiac brand. We also suggest considering the Solstice's mechanical twin, the Saturn Sky Red Line.
18 City / 24 Hwy
The fact that one has to go all the way back to 2005 to find a good WRX STi for $20,000 is a testament to the reliability ? and desirability ? of this rare performance sedan. Manufactured by Subaru beginning in 2004 as the "ultimate" Impreza, the WRX STi used a 300 horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine mated exclusively to a 6-speed manual transmission. If you're on a more restrictive budget, check out the Impreza WRX, a less-powerful version which still offers turbocharged thrills, but for the wildest all-wheel drive fun, look no further than the STi.
17 City / 25 Hwy
For years, the Mustang has been a good way to get cheap automotive thrills, though its reliability has been mostly hit-or-miss. Recent models have shed those quality problems, ranking well in J.D. Power's initial quality studies and even earning the firm's recognition as the "most appealing midsize sporty car." The Mustang GT, available as a coupe or convertible, is the one to have. Not only does it seat four adults in relative comfort, it features a 300 horsepower 4.6-liter V8, rear-wheel drive, and head-turning retro styling inspired by the original 1960s Mustang.
20 City / 29 Hwy
It may be surprising to see a Porsche on a list of cars under $20,000 ? and perhaps more surprising to see one on a list based on reliability ? but some good '04 models have made it to below the $20,000 price point. Plus, J.D. Power named the Boxster its "most appealing premium sports car" and rates its mechanical quality "better than most." Sure, $20,000 won?t buy you the high-performance Boxster S, but the two-seat Boxster's 228-horsepower flat-six propels it from zero-to-60 in around 6.5 seconds, while still offering legendary Porsche handling and fantastic balance characteristic of mid-engine cars.
18 City / 24 Hwy
The first-generation Lexus IS could be seen as the perfect blend of reliability, crisp handling, and stellar styling. After a 2001 debut, changes for 2002 included a rare station wagon body style called the IS 300 SportCross and a hard-to-find sedan-only manual transmission. Automatic or manual, the IS300's 215 horsepower six-cylinder allowed for low-seven second zero-to-60 times. Strong reliability was the icing on the cake, as J.D. Power called the IS 300 the "most dependable entry premium vehicle." The IS was redesigned for 2006, but if you can live with the older body style, a 2005 model makes a fantastic used car buy.
20 City / 26 Hwy
After a 2000 debut, the rear-drive S2000 steadily improved over the years, adding a glass rear window for 2002, more torque in 2004, and an anti-skid system in 2006. Though these changes made the S2000 more drivable, it remained a noisy, cramped, minimalist sports car ? which is exactly why it's so much fun. The manual-only S2000's small engine required high revs to drive quickly and its firm suspension helped it match or beat the handling of its European competitors. If you can live without the creature comforts of more expensive rivals, the S2000 provides tremendous bang for the buck.
17 City / 23 Hwy
While competitors like Lexus and Mercedes-Benz were trying to appeal to the masses with conservatively-styled luxury SUVs, Infiniti dedicated itself to performance with the strikingly-styled FX35. The FX35 boasted 280 horsepower, 55 more than the six-cylinder BMW X5, its closest performance SUV competitor. That makes for very quick low-seven-second zero-to-60 runs, placing the FX35 among the fastest SUVs. Its handling also rivaled many sporty cars due to its low center of gravity and firm suspension. A V8-powered FX45 was also available, but with just 35 more horsepower it was only slightly quicker than the tremendously potent FX35.
21 City / 27 Hwy
A minivan on a list of fun cars?! With charming styling and car-like handling, the Mazda5 certainly earns its place here, but don?t let the sliding doors fool you into thinking it's a minivan ? we think its real competitors include the Toyota Matrix and Honda Civic. The Mazda5 couples seating for six with compact-car costs, and manages to achieve more than 20 miles per gallon. A nice '09, which should still have some of its warranty remaining, can easily be had for $20,000.
17 City / 21 Hwy
If your fun is off the pavement rather than on, look no further than the FJ Cruiser. The FJ's expressive styling ? including mirror-mounted fog lights and three windshield wipers ? hides a serious off-roader, with four-wheel-drive models featuring a two-speed transfer case, skid plates, and, in manuals, a locking rear differential. Perhaps its strongest asset is an extremely strong 239 horsepower V6 which helps the FJ scramble up hills with ease. A nice FJ Cruiser might be a stretch for $20,000, but you can find many on AutoTrader.com right now ? including some with four-wheel drive and certified warranties.
Clearly, $20,000 can go a long way in today's market in terms of buying a dependable, fun used vehicle. And with the quality of the vehicles on this list, you may not miss the manufacturer's warranty that comes with a new car ? or the depreciation that invariably follows. The best part is that with the strong performance and excellent quality of the car you choose, you may have to look at the odometer to remind yourself that you bought a used car.
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