By Andrew Ganz
Thursday, Jul 12th, 2012 @ 11:45 am
 

These might be penny-pinching times, but that doesn't mean that we aren't allowed to have a little fun on the road.

Today, it's easier than ever to find a responsible sporting car, the kind of vehicle that will put a smile on your face with every gear change but won't empty your pocketbook every time you pass a gas station. Not only that, but all this fun won't cost you a fortune since 10 great cars can all be had for under $30,000.

Each of these 10 cars we've listed offers an engaging driving experience. We wouldn't have felt comfortable suggesting any vehicle here unless its steering was crisp and precise, its roadholding ample and its chassis well-tuned. Under the hood, our 10 choices go in vastly different directions: Some feature high-tech boosted small engines, while others go for more conventional fours and V6s. One even slips in just under our target price (before destination) with a honkin' V8. If that's not a recipe for good fun, we don't know what is.

Once upon a time, a sports car had two seats and a rakish profile, but such cars are few and far between these days unless they're exotic, mega-buck metal. For the rest of us, the term sports car has had to become more flexible, but we think all of these cars fit within broadened parameters with a much looser definition based on driving dynamics rather than seat count. Still, we agreed that a sports car must have two (or three) doors, which ruled out the three or five-door Volkswagen GTI and sedans and hatchbacks like the Mazdaspeed3 and Subaru WRX (we do love driving all three). After a heated debate, the Fiat 500 Abarth was invited to the party since even a standard 500 isn't all that practical.

If your needs require an extra pair of doors and more space, you'll want to check out our 11 Fun and Affordable Family Cars for Enthusiasts.

So this driving season, embrace your inner enthusiast with one of these great sport-oriented cars, each of which offers that unmistakable spark that will resonate with just about any car guy or gal.

Chevrolet Camaro RS Even though it's almost due for a mid-cycle refresh, the Camaro is still one of the most striking-looking cars on the market regardless of what's under its creased hood. And even if its 6.2-liter V8 doesn't fall within our budget parameters, the Camaro RS' 323-horsepower 3.6-liter V6 is a willing and able engine capable of returning better fuel economy than many four-cylinders. That's the kind of math we can easily get behind.

Dodge Challenger R/T A V8 for under 30 grand? Dodge delivers. The retro-styled Challenger is eye-catching even in base V6 form, but who could say no to a rip-roaring 5.7-liter, 375-horsepower V8 capable of delivering a NASCAR-worthy soundtrack (actually, we think the Challenger sounds better). Over the last couple of years, Dodge has reined in the Challenger's handling to the point where it is a truly entertaining coupe capable of doing more than simply going fast in a straight line.

Fiat 500 Abarth Leaving the standard 500 for Gucci-types, the crew at Fiat looked to its heritage with legendary Italian tuner Carlo Abarth for this special version of its retro coupe. Don't let its cute looks fool you; there's a snorting turbo-four on board that puts power to the wheels via a lowered and stiffened suspension. Moreover, the 500 Abarth's raspy, crackling exhaust note is worth the price of admission on its own.

Ford Mustang How can a car with a solid rear axle handle so well? Pry as we might, engineers in Dearborn aren't willing to share their magic handling dust with us. A new $1,995 V6 Performance Package transforms the Mustang even further, and while we really think pony cars deserve V8s, the Mustang's 305-horsepower 3.7-liter V6 certainly makes a real case for itself by delivering better real-world performance than the old V8 did just a few years ago.

Hyundai Genesis Coupe While it still gives up a bit in terms of dynamics compared to a few others on this list, there's no denying that the Hyundai Genesis Coupe is getting really, really close. A recent restyling has made it a real looker, while careful chassis tuning has it finally running with the big boys. We prefer the lighter and zippier turbo four to the torquey V6.

Mazda MX-5 Miata The original modern sports car is still a brilliant machine, even after all these years. Taking cues from the great British and Italian sports cars of yore, the Miata is reliable and refined, but also nearly as raw and pure as a modern car can be. An optional power retractable hardtop makes it more livable on a day-to-day basis, but we like the classic lines of the soft top รข€" not to mention its lighter weight.

MINI Coupe Cooper S Its polarizing style isn't for everyone, but there's no denying that the MINI Cooper Coupe is a riot to drive. Building on everything that makes the standard Cooper the taut, nimble machine that it is, the folks at BMW have tightened things down to deliver a package that's essentially ready to hit the track right from the factory. Lower, stiffer and sharper than the Cooper, the Coupe is your car if you relish switchbacks and don't mind a firm ride.

Scion FR-S Not only is the FR-S the first Scion we've ever lusted after, it's one of the best-driving cars to have ever hit the market. A pure, unfiltered sports car, the FR-S sends its power to the right wheels (the rears!) via either a good six-speed manual or a remarkably aggressive six-speed automatic. Rarely does a chassis this balanced and ready to induce utterly controllable oversteer make itself available right from the factory. Seize the opportunity!

Subaru BRZ Uh, read above! The BRZ is Subaru's version of the FR-S, a vehicle the automaker co-developed with Toyota. We actually like the BRZ's front fascia just a little more than the FR-S', but the Subbie comes standard with a frustration-inducing navigation system and it costs a little more. As a result, our money would probably be on the Scion, although the BRZ's relative rarity might win out. Either way, you simply can't go wrong with this sports coupe.

Volvo C30 Polestar Looking like a modernized version of Volvo's old P1800S, the C30 is the most practical car on this list. And it's the most surprising, especially now that Volvo is offering a performance upgrade from its Swedish racing partner, Polestar. A $1,295 option ups power from the snarling turbo five to 250 ponies, while an R-Design suspension package tightens this already stiff chassis for a romp in the twisties. After decades of staid wagons, the days of sporty Volvos are upon us once again.

Most photos by Mark Elias and Andrew Ganz.