Ferrari. McLaren. Lamborghini. Porsche. These names are among the most vaunted in the industry, and they're presumed to be synonymous with incredible driving experiences—fun, fast, simply phenomenal. But you don't have to spend supercar money to have serious fun behind the wheel. In fact, you don't even need to spend more than $15,000 to have a great time in some of the best machinery ever built for the pursuit of driving fun.
The Chevy Corvette probably had the most power and highest sticker price from the factory of any car on this list (though the M3 and Boxster S may give it a run for its money) when it was new. But now that it's aged a bit, the Corvette is actually one of the least capable cars on this list, but only because not many Corvettes have dipped down below the $15,000 mark, and those that have are likely to be from the C3 or C4 generations, which are generally down on power and not the best handling examples made. If you can find a C5-era Corvette for under $15,000, you just might want to snatch it up--those are very nicely balanced, powerful sports cars that any enthusiast will get years of enjoyment driving.
While not as fast, as pretty, or as exclusive as the Corvette when new, the Ford Mustang is much more affordable, so the $15,000 price cap buys you a lot more car. Mustang fans are also frequently enthusiasts themselves, so chances are very good you can find a Mustang with aftermarket modifications that enhance it well beyond factory performance levels—no matter whether you like drag racing, autocross, track days, or just a spirited canyon drive on the weekends.
A standard—a benchmark, really—of the sports car world, the BMW M3 is a car every enthusiast should drive at least once in their lifetime, and one they should own if money and desire align. For under $15,000 you'll mostly be looking at older M3s, especially those from the E46 era or older. Fortunately, these are some of the most iconic and desirable M3s, too—the prices on them just haven't run away yet, like they have with essentially all Porsche 911s.
Possibly the best bargain on this list, the Nissan 350Z (note: not the 370Z) delivers lots of horsepower, great handling, and timeless style for not very much money. There's also a lot of aftermarket support for the Z line, including the 350Z, so you'll be able to modify your car to further enhance it—something you'll almost certainly have budget left over for, since even a very nice example of a low-mileage 350Z probably won't spend all of your $15,000 budget.
In many ways, the Honda S2000 is the purest driver's car on this list. It's been honed down to the core essentials, so much so that the car simply doesn't make some compromises that you might wish it did. The steering wheel position can't be adjusted; combined with a snug driver's seat and limited range of motion for that seat, taller and heavier drivers may not fit in the car at all, or may find their knees interfere with use of the steering wheel. For those who fit, however, the S2000 is a must-drive—many have likened it more to riding a motorcycle than driving a car. It's just that involving and direct.
Less powerful, less razor's edge than the Honda S2000, the Mazda MX-5 Miata is the sports car everyone should drive, enthusiast or not. Why? Because it's fun, it's inspiring, and it's completely accessible. This is perhaps the most confidence inspiring fun-to-drive car on this list (or any other list), and it's nearly ubiquitous, meaning you can buy a Miata and still have as much as $10,000 of your $15,000 budget left for things like car improvements or driver training.
Other cars on this list present greater value per horsepower, or less expensive maintenance regimes, or may just be a bit more economical to run. But though the Porsche Boxster S may not be the cheapest choice, it's easily the best all-arounder for nearly anyone. Porsche's brilliant flat six engine, impeccable chassis dynamics, and the fact that this is one of the only mid-engined cars you can find at this price point (as well as the best), and you have a recipe for a car enthusiast's dream. The aftermarket for Porsche Boxsters is also very good, should you decide you wish to get more serious about your driving.
No matter which of these cars you pick, you're sure to have a great time driving, whether it's to work and back every day, to the canyons or hills on the weekend, to the drag strip, to the local mall parking lot for an autocross, or to the track for a day of high-performance driver education.
Figured out which of these you want in your driveway? Start searching on Instamotor and see what's available near you!
automotive freelance journalist