Fun cars for less than $10,000

While American politicians continue to struggle with that country’s monetary woes, we decided to take a look at some fun-to-drive wheels that won’t result in a credit downgrade of your own. S&P, eat your heart out.

Here are the ground rules: The car must be newer than 1995 and cannot cost more than $10,000. The former seems to be the year that many provinces are setting as a cut-off to try and get emissions-unfriendly cars off the road. The latter is an attempt to avoid a run-in with the Republicans in your house.

In some provinces, cars older than 1995 cannot be restored from a write-off and, barring extraordinary circumstances, insurance adjusters appear to be leaning toward writing such a car off when possible. (Classic cars and vehicles of extraordinary condition are typical exceptions.) Other jurisdictions may have different policies, but 1995 is also a good year for making sure you get certain safety items such as air bags.

The following list is split between front-drive pocket rockets and rear-drive classics. If you’re looking for some fun, low-dough go, here’s your list:

1998-1999 Acura Integra GS-R

Spotted online for about $8,000, these cars were only one step down from the topline Integras of the day. They sported a 1.8-litre engine rated for 170 horsepower and were typically mated to five-speed manual transmissions. If you can find one with a good, rust-free body, it will provide reliable service and a crisp handling experience. Like all Honda four-bangers of the era, watch for the timing belt. It has a typical lifespan of 100,000 kilometres — and missing its replacement can turn an $800 belt job into a $4,000 head job.

1996 Chevrolet Corvette

If you’re going to buy a C4 Corvette, get at least a 1996 model. Earlier C4s were as buggy as Windows 2000. By 1996, those bugs were worked out and, in that year, the Grand Sport arrived with a 330-hp LT4 V8 engine. We found what looked like a reasonable 1996 Grand Sport for about US$8,500. Of course, the fibreglass body meant body rust wasn’t a concern, but rust can attack structural members, so if you can find one from a rust-free climate, you’ll always be better off. While the Vette was available as a droptop, we think the coupe provides the best handling.

2002 Honda Civic SiR

This British-built pocket rocket is probably the most fun Honda has ever packed into a Civic. It looks entirely different than the run-of-mill Civics of the day, not the least of which is because it’s a hatchback, the same three-door variety. Honda sold so well in Canada but killed for North America because it never gained traction in the United States. It shared a 2.0L 160-hp twin-cam engine with the Acura RSX and sported a high-mount shift lever for the five-speed close-ratio manual transmission, its only gearbox offering. We weren’t sure it would fit in our sub-$10,000 price class, but we did find a few online between $8,000 and $10,000. Its handling was sharp and responsive despite being a front-driver. And, while it’s British, it’s also Honda, so the electrics are fine. When you’re this much fun, they call you SiR.

Ford Mustang GT

We kept the model year off this one because we have seen a few 2005 Mustangs (the first year to sport a variant of the latest design) lurking online around our $10,000 cutoff. Certainly, a 2005 Mustang with the V6 engine is available in our price range. But to be certain to be less than $10,000, look toward 2004 or 2003 GTs, the last two years of the previous-generation design. Even the GTs are available in reasonable condition under our cutoff. Sure, the manual transmission might be a beast, but it has a lot of jam and even these models handled better than their solid rear axle might suggest. As always when shopping used, be careful. Be on the lookout for body filler and rust. On any car, if there’s anything more than mere cosmetic rust on the front strut towers, run, don’t walk, away. And remember, a safety certificate is not a guarantee.

Photograph by: Ford, handout