The Best Handling Cars Under $15,000

Corner carving on a budget is easier than you think. Here is our list of the best handling cars under $15,000.

Fun on a Budget

When it comes to raw speed, driving enthusiasts naturally gravitate toward big V8s and forced induction. And while this list features its fair share of each, the emphasis here is on handling at an affordable price. The Mazda Miata, see below, is the center of that Venn diagram of low budget and high-performance fun. For most of us, it is not entirely practical to own a second or third vehicle solely for weekend jaunts up the coast or across the desert (pick your local, picturesque geography). But capping the price at $15,000 makes that discussion a whole lot easier, and leaves room for mods and upgrades later on. Below is our list of some of the best handling cars you’ll find at $15,000 or less.

2009 Audi TT 

2009 Audi TT Coupe - netcarshow.com
2009 Audi TT Coupe - netcarshow.com

The second-generation Audi TT is a playful German two-seater that still looks sharp after more than a decade on the road. For 2009, the TT offered a choice of either a 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder with 200 horsepower or a naturally-aspirated 3.2L V6 with 250 horsepower. The latter pairs the TT’s impressive handling capabilities with loads of oomph for slingshot cornering. The Audi TT also features a magnetic ride system that allows drivers to stiffen the suspension at the push of a button.

2010 Mazda Miata

2010 Mazda Miata - news.mazdausa.com
2010 Mazda Miata - news.mazdausa.com

From a “hairdresser’s car” to always being “the answer,” the Mazda Miata MX-5 is recognized today as a go-to for those looking for cheap automotive thrills. The NB (second gen) Miata’s 2.0L four-cylinder does not make a ton of power, at 167 horsepower for the manual equipped version, but that is more than compensated for with the Miata’s brilliant, giggle-inducing handling. With loads of aftermarket support, there is also plenty of room for modifying your new Miata to your heart’s (and imagination’s) content.

2010 Ford Mustang

2010 Ford Mustang GT - media.ford.com
2010 Ford Mustang GT - media.ford.com

The classic American muscle car has a lot to offer the thrifty car buyer. The 2010 model year is a good starting point as the Mustang saw key updates to exterior and suspension that year (including performance tweaks from the prior year’s Bullitt Mustang). For maximum fun, you’ll want to seek out the GT model which carries a 4.6L V8 making 315 horsepower. Rear-wheel drive and optional five-speed manual round out a solid package that can be further upgraded via the optional Track Pack that further stiffens the suspension. With that guttural V8 rumble, the GT Mustang sounds great too.

2010 Nissan 370Z

2010 Nissan 370Z - usa.nissannews.com
2010 Nissan 370Z - usa.nissannews.com

The pedigree of the Nissan Z car is a storied one and the 370Z features prominently. The 370Z had a long tenure, 11 years in production, a testament to the initial design’s quality. A devoted fan-base and long production run mean this Z has lots of aftermarket support for mods and customization. The 370Z runs a potent 3.7L V6 making 332 horsepower and could be optioned with either a seven-speed automatic or, preferably, a six-speed manual with rev matching.

2003 Porsche Boxster

2003 Porsche Boxster - netcarshow.com
2003 Porsche Boxster - netcarshow.com

The first-generation Porsche Boxster got a lot of flak back in the day, some for its “ugly” headlights and yet more for not being a 911. And yet, the Boxster is hardly the boxed wine equivalent of the 911’s fifteen-year-old cabernet. The midengined roadster saw its power nerfed to not upstage its big brother 911 because Porsche could not help themselves but build a supremely capable sports car. That is indeed what the Boxster is, including twenty-year-old examples. The mid-engine weight distribution makes for excellent balance while the 2.7L and 3.2L flat sixes (slightly downgraded versions of the 911 Carrera’s engine) make 222 and 254 horsepower, respectively.

2014 Scion FR-S / Subaru BRZ / Toyota 86

2014 Subaru BRZ - netcarshow.com
2014 Subaru BRZ - netcarshow.com

Three brands, two companies, one car. The Toyota 86 / Subaru BRZ is a car to be thankful for, a purely frivolous machine from two companies that brand themselves as deeply practical. Like the competing Mazda Miata, the 86/BRZ eschews power for lightness and playful, rear-wheel drive handling. The 2.0L flat-four under the hood makes just under 200 horsepower but the car’s agility and eagerness to lunge into corners more than makes up for any straight-line deficits. And unlike the Miata, the 86 is a 2+2 so there is additional space for luggage or kids in the back.

2014 Volkswagen GTI

2014 Volkswagen GTI - netcarshow.com
2014 Volkswagen GTI - netcarshow.com

The Volkswagen GTI is a classic hot hatch that mixes city runabout fun and daily driving practicality. A roomy, high-quality interior makes the GTI livable day-to-day. The GTI features communicative steering, agile cornering, and three engine options that includes a torquey diesel and a turbocharged 2.0L making 200 horsepower. Look for the optional GTI sport seats for added bolstering. Few cars hit the fun/practical bullseye quite like the Volkswagen GTI.

2010 Chevrolet Camaro

2010 Chevrolet Camaro - netcarshow.com
2010 Chevrolet Camaro - netcarshow.com

Another American muscle car worth considering is the fifth-generation Chevrolet Camaro. Its standard 3.6L V6 grants over 300 horsepower (304 to be exact). The Camaro SS runs a pair of 6.2L V8s, the 400 horsepower L99 and 425 horsepower LS3. The former comes with a six-speed automatic with paddle shifters while the LS gets a six-speed manual. Whichever configuration you go for, the Camaro can put a smile on your face with jolting off-the-line speed and its surprisingly smooth ride.  

2002 BMW M3

2002 BMW M3 - netcarshow.com
2002 BMW M3 - netcarshow.com

The E46 generation BMW M3 does an excellent job reminding you of the company’s “Ultimate Driving Machine” tagline. Under the hood of the M3 is a powerful 3.2L straight-six 333 horses allowing the M3 to jet from zero to sixty in around 5 seconds (the coupe being a bit faster than the heavier convertible). Steering accurate laser and the M3’s balanced chassis makes it the perfect canyon carver. Naturally, the M3 has a BMW quality cabin with great fit and finish and comfortable, well-bolstered front seats.

2015 Ford Fiesta ST

2015 Ford Fiesta ST - media.ford.com
2015 Ford Fiesta ST - media.ford.com

We could not let the Volkswagen GTI to be the sole hot hatch represented on this list of affordable handlers. The Ford Fiesta ST is another master of front-wheel drive fun. Its turbocharged 1.6L four-cylinder makes 197 horsepower, more than ample for this hot hatch to rip through corners on your morning commute. Power runs through a six-speed manual transmission for added driver engagement. A set of Recaro front seats round out one of the best driving experiences you can find for under $15,000.

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Chris Kaiser

With two decades of writing experience and five years of creating advertising materials for car dealerships across the U.S., Chris Kaiser explores and documents the car world’s latest innovations, unique subcultures, and era-defining classics. Armed with a Master's Degree in English from the University of South Dakota, Chris left an academic career to return to writing full-time. He is passionate about covering all aspects of the continuing evolution of personal transportation, but he specializes in automotive history, industry news, and car buying advice.

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