Starting off our list is the Subaru WRX. It’s a great choice for enthusiasts looking to buy a car on the cheaper end of the scale. The vehicles in this price range will likely be the 2002 style models, nicknamed the “bug-eye”. The 2002 is powered by a 227-hp 2.0-liter turbocharged flat-four, capable of accelerating the 4 door sedan to 60 mph in less than 6 seconds and on to a top speed of 145 mph.
First released in 1992 for the Asia and European markets, the states received the standard Impreza in a the fashionably late year of 1994. The standard model proved very popular, thanks to its practicality and all-weather capabilities, coming in both front wheel drive and all-wheel drive configurations. The all-wheel-drive system was forgiving and fairly refined, unlike some rivals at the time.
There aren’t many cars you can buy for this price that have true rally heritage either. After multiple international rally and autocross championships as well as widespread fame through the Gran Turismo and Colin McRae Rally games, Subaru decided to bring the WRX model to the U.S. market in 2001. It proved a popular choice from the get go, combining impressive speed with excellent road holding, even in the most punishing conditions.
If you are feeling brave, the Mazda RX8 could prove to be one of the best cars you can get in this price category. If you aren’t feeling brave, stay well away! The RX8 comes in a 2+2 seating configuration, however it offers 4 doors, 2 suicide doors at the rear and 2 conventional doors at the front. There is absolutely nothing on the market quite like this, so if you want a coupe but have more than one friend, you can easily carry 3 people around for short journeys. It even has a sort of Maserati Quatraporte style look to it, with 4 doors but a swept back, coupe like roofline.
One of the biggest advantages of the RX8 is that you get a rotary engine. The nature of the rotary engine allows the car to be beautifully smooth and refined. There is plenty of power too, but only if you’re prepared to thrash the car to its 9000rpm redline. The RX8 hits 60 in a spritely 6.4 seconds, with a lovely 6 speed manual gearbox, as you would expect from Mazda with their experience from the mx5, the handling is also finely balanced.
Mazda MX-5/Miata NB
In at number 3 is the Mazda MX5. This car is the answer, despite the overused phrase. Great handling, 50-50 weight distribution and a zippy, if slightly slow engine. When seeking a sports car for under $5,000, it’s hard to argue with this one. With 130-140 horsepower to play with, produced by its 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine, it should be just about enough to use all of its performance. Buy an NB, 5 speed manual model and you will have a great vehicle that you can drive every day. The NB is more refined, better handling and easier to live with although there isn’t a huge amount of difference to the NA. The Mazda MX-5 Miata provides a lightweight and fun roadster platform that will out handle cars triple its price. It’s easy to work on too, and it will be very reliable, due to its simple design and construction.
Number 2 leads us to a slightly more oddball choice, the BMW Z3. Although not exactly comparable to the MX5 due to its 300lb extra weight, the Z3 offers a lot more in many ways. You get air conditioning, traction control, stability control, ABS, leather seats and a properly sorted, Germanic build quality. The Z3 will be a lot more refined and easy to live with every day. As well as this, for 5k you can get the proper 2.8 litre and 3 litre 6 cylinder engines, putting out 190 horsepower and 227 horsepower respectively. They both reach 60 in under 7 seconds. Ditch the automatic though! You will be talking cars with over 100k miles for under 5k but the build quality is good so it will last if you take care of it.
BMW E36 3 series
Finishing off the list is the E36 BMW. Thanks to the E30 M3, the newer model is often cheaper than the E30, making the e36 somewhat of a bargain. They are a good compromise between the unworkable, complicated electronics of the newer cars and the analogue feel and ease of fixing of the older cars. With all the safety features you would expect from a modern car, the E36 is also a great car to drive. Rear wheel drive, compact size and a low-slung seating position add to the fun. There are a whole host of engines, ranging from a tiny 4 cylinder to the largest 3 series engine, the 3 litre 6 cylinder. Chances are, you might have to be a little bit flexible engine wise to get a car for under 5k. I would say having a stick shift car is the most important bit, as even the smaller engined vehicles can be fun when you control the gears. The E36 is the perfect daily driver. You can carry your friends around, get decent fuel economy, enjoy fun handling, cruise with refinement on the motorway and if the worst happens, there are safety systems to minimise injury.
Do you have any other suggestions? Let me know in the comments.