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Best budget cars to drive before you die | opinion


Here’s six modern classics you can buy right now for much less than a house deposit.

Once the laws are passed for mass use of driverless cars we should be able to sit back in comfort pawing smartphones, clipping toenails, or reading 50 Shades of Dismay. Sounds like truckloads of fun, right? Not.

If this is indeed the future then the idea of a great ‘driver’s car’ could be on borrowed time, which raises the question:  What are the best road cars to drive while we still have the chance? 

Everyone's got their opinion and a shortlist of six is pitifully not enough - but then again neither would 100 be either. For most of us dollars will be the ultimate limitation, but thankfully there are great driver’s cars out there to be had for less than a deposit on a Sydney single-bedroom unit.  

With that in mind, you could do a lot worse than the six highlights we’ve put together.  

Or let us know any we might have missed in the comments below. 

1. Honda S2000

By the time the second cam kicks in above 6000rpm, the raucous cacophony emanating from the stylish two-seat roadster on its way to the 9000rpm redline is blood-curdlingly euphoric. People always talk about car engine sounds as 'banshee wail' this and 'banshee wail' that. Short of a pre-hybrid era F1 car, to four-cylinder fans the S2000 is the mother of all banshees – and she’s a little angry the kids haven't cleaned their rooms and forgotten to flush the toilet again.

Landing in Australia in 1999, it was a relatively affordable front mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive roadster that finally gave Mazda MX-5 owners something to think about. The S2000's naturally aspirated 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine whacked out a colossal 176kW. Its six-speed manual transmission was one of life's simple pleasures to use, short in the throw and felt sublimely authoritative in slotting the titanium shifter through each gate. Fast-cornering grip levels were mostly under control, though the spirited rear-driver has power-oversteer written into its F1-derived DNA.

Why drive it: It has the sophistication to tootle around town impressing the latte-sipping social elite while happy to unleash fiendish fury on a track when you make the call - if you dare. Driving the S2000 at 8/10ths is probably enough to blow your mind - anything more will require an honest appraisal of your own driving skill underwritten with a healthy dose of chutzpah.

2. Renault Sport Clio 

Do you speak French? It matters not. When you are behind the wheel of a Renault Clio Sport 182,  the high-revving fun-loving Frenchie will have many believe you are fluent as you scream out sacré bleu and 'oui!' while barrelling through your first set of twisting corners. 

You’ll be heel-toeing instinctively thanks to 'quirkily perfect' footwell pedal placement. It's a true hot hatch, with the diminutive three-box body propelled by a 124kW 2.0-litre revvy engine driving the front wheels via a five-speed manual gearbox. 

It's just an amazingly fun car to drive. So willing and flexible is its drivetrain that it eggs you on even further to push the lightweight Clio's superb handling and on-road dynamics. It’s perfect for hillclimbs or weekend car-club track work.

Why drive it: It will be some of the best fun you could ever have with your clothes on, in a purely platonic car-driving kind of way. Are you still here? Just go get one already.  Au revoir…        

3. Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VI Tommi Makinen Edition

It was WRX verses Evo day in, day out for rally fans over a decade ago with only five of the ultimate Rex – the Subaru WRX STI 22B - ever released in Australia (and thus Buckley's chance of ever getting a steer of one these days). So you’ve got a much better chance of finding one of the 100 official Ralliart-imported examples of its contemporary adversary: the Mitsubishi Lancer 'Evolution' VI Tommi Makinen edition, which started arriving here in 2001. 

You may also know it by its colloquial name of ‘Evo 6.5’, and its 100-strong official figure has increased significantly thanks to grey import channels. 

Stomp the go-loud pedal and you get a blissfully rude shove in the back through the Recaro race seats as the turbocharged and intercooled, twin-cam, 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine hurtles the all-wheel-drive Evo into hyperspace almost instantly - or so it feels. That's what 373Nm from as low as 2750rpm and a claimed 0-100km/h of 4.6 seconds feels like, sling-shotting itself corner to corner as it snakes its way through rally stages.

Why drive it: Even if you can’t drive like a rally driver you sure as heck would look the part with helmet on going through a fast-food drive-through. The rapid acceleration and sensation of speed even around town is not to be missed.  Buy one in red with the distinctive Makinen decal pack. The trainspotters will love it.

4. Lotus Elise Mk2

The swooping lines and curves of the lightweight 'waif-like' two-seat mid-engined roadster give it the looks to match its almost-supercar performance – thanks to its featherweight bonded aluminium chassis.

The Series II Elise in 111S guise was the most powerful version of the last Rover K-Series engines, which were replaced by more reliable Toyota 1.8-litre VVTL-i units in 2004.

The naturally aspirated Rover engine made 119kW and sent power to the rear wheels via a close-ratio five-speed manual gearbox.  

With its kerb mass of just 860kg, it had a power-to-weight ratio to 'drive' for. This helped it sprint from 0-100km/h in 5.1 seconds and, combined with the agility of a cheetah, the Elise 111S is a true track car for the road.

Why drive it: Everything about it is designed to connect the driver with the road. From the sports suspension to the hand-finished fibreglass body to the non-power-assisted brakes, it's a stripped-out and divinely raw driving experience. Plus it's got a removable roof, so that’s instant social media acceptability - regardless of your dress sense and questionable musical taste. 

5. Mazda MX-5 Clubman

The original MX-5 of 1989 didn't just win over hearts and minds with its pop-up-headlight happy face and cheeky looks. It was all about its exhilarating driving dynamics and handling. The front-engined MX-5 has 50/50 weight distribution and its nimble chassis is easily 'chuckable' on racetracks, happy to be coaxed into power-oversteer.

Winding country roads and twisty bits are its forte, where the original 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine puts out a mere 86kW and is transferred to the rear wheels via a slick five-speed manual gearbox. It loves to rev all the way to the limiter and it's a pleasure to use the stick shift as each short throw snicks crisply into gear. 

Many say the track-focussed MX-5 Clubman of 1994 was the highlight of the first generation, with the later 98kW, 1.8-litre engine teamed with an exotic Torsen limited-slip differential and Bilstein suspension all around. No power steering though, so it will save you some gym time.

Why drive it: Its neutral balance and superbly set-up handling simply needs to be experienced by driving aficionados and curious punters alike. Testimony to what a winning formula the MX-5 is, the fourth-generation was released only recently with all indications it too will be a collectable driver’s car for many years to come.

6. Volkswagen Mk5 Golf GTI

When the Mk2 Golf replaced the gorgeous Giorgetto Giugiaro-designed Mk1 of 1976, the bigger and heavier second-generation had a heck of a reputation to live up to. The 16v GTI was the halo car and its superb 113kW/tonne power-to weight ratio would only be matched three generations later by the Mk5 GTI, which arrived here in 2005. 

Unfortunately, Australia only got the 8v Mk2 GTI, so getting behind the wheel of a privately imported 16v is a rarity, making the modern Mk5 interpretation a more realistic proposition

One of the best handling hot hatches produced at the time, the front-drive 2.0-litre turbo Mk5 Golf GTI made the most of its 147kW, laying down the challenge to WRXs and Type-R Hondas. The best news these days is they can now be had for about the same coin as a basic city runabout.

Why drive it: With the Mk3 and Mk4 GTIs losing the hot-hatch plot, the Mk5 was the long-awaited correction to the bloodline and one not to be missed.

YOUR CALL
That’s just our top six budget driver’s cars, but other notable mentions include the E36 BMW M3, B5-Series Audi RS4, R32 Nissan Skyline ‘Godzilla’ GT-R, Honda Integra DC2 Type R and the BMW-era Mini John Cooper Works.

What are your top budget cars to drive before you die? Let us know in the comments section below.