Most online auto authorities don't care to come out with this kind of list. $2,500 is really reaching when you want a sporty car for an enthusiast. On top of that, you have to deal with reliability and fuel economy of older cars. But I really believe there's some gems to be had, so long as you're vigilant and patient. Just remember that you're probably gonna get something that has cosmetic issues but as long as it runs well and is mechanically sound...well, what did you expect for $2,500?
So, here's the elitist enthusiasts' top picks for the 5 cars under 25 hundred dollars (alphabetical order):
1. Honda Prelude (92-96)
This is the ugly duckling of Preludes. Everyone knows the futuristic dash was a mistake. Looking like a weird hatchback with an aggressive front was a departure from the previous generation's subdued and handsome coupe lines. But get past the looks (or embrace the aggressiveness) and you've got a solid performing car, even for the present day. The base models were pretty down on power, rocking about 130-ish hp, but the Si models (very common) stepped it up with 160 hp from the 2.3 liter H23 engine. Even more rare was the VTEC trim which bumped it up further to 190 hp and the now famous H22 2.2 liter engine. Weight was around 2900 lbs but its got the muscle to back it up. Most people covet the final (97-01) generation and prefer the looks of the previous generation, so demand will be lower, thus lower prices. It wasn't nearly as popular as Civics and Integras when it came to the tuner scene, so you'll find some nice stock ones too.
2. Mazda Miata (90-97)
Could any list of top anything not have Mazda's famous roadster? Lightweight (2100-2200 lbs) and rear-wheel drive, this is the enthusiast's holy grail. With so many people racing the Miata, they'll be in demand. But that also means lots of aftermarket support and cheap replacement parts. Its simplistic design that lacks many comfort features and electronics makes it a reliable choice too. From 90-93, the Miata packed a 1.6 ltr inline-4 making around 115 hp and was then bumped up to the 1.8 ltr in 94, making around 130 hp. The car was never about power and all about an awesome chassis and handling that put most cars of its day to shame. Even today, its loads of fun to drive. But lets face it, its kinda scary when a semi switches into your lane at 90 mph.
3. Mazda Protege (99-03)
The most practical and the only sedan on this list, its also the newest (most reliable) one here. Which also means its kind of on the higher end of $2,500. When compared to its contemporary competitors, it was the sporty econo-sedan of its day. The base 1.6 ltr was good for 115 hp and 34 mpg and the 1.8 was 130 hp and 30 mpg. That also makes it tied for the highest mpg car here. It weighed in at a nice 2450 lbs. It was fairly popular so lots of examples are still on the road. And like every car on this list, its got a manual transmission standard. Most people have decided to go for this car's "protege", the Mazda3, and forgotten completely that this car gets the same or better mpgs while delivering spirited performance, especially when it comes to road feel and handling. Because its at the high end of the price spectrum, you'll get some bad examples for $2,500 and you should look out for rebuilt and salvage titles (a total no-go for me)
4. Nissan Sentra SE-R (91-93)
The very definition of a sleeper, the Sentra SE-R is an awesome econo-coupe with a classic design. Power comes from Nissan's legendary 2.0 engine: the SR20DE. Better known for its use as an engine-swap for the Nissan 240SX, the SR20-series of engines have lots of aftermarket potential and support, meaning plenty of cheap replacement parts. This rendition of the engine will give you a whopping 140-hp, which was a lot for its time (and still is for its weight of 2200 lbs). Disc brakes all around and a standard limited slip differential make this car a definite gem in the sea of rusting econoboxes. Finding one will definitely be the hardest part. Most people that own this car are well into motorsports so finding a bone stock example will be even harder. Newer Sentra SE-R models may also be found that had the SR20DE but they may be a bit more expensive, especially the 200SX SE-R (its a Sentra coupe) and the Nissan NX2000 (super rare).
5. Toyota Celica (94-99)
The secretary car. This model of the Celica was widely known for its lack of power and controversial quad-headlight arrangement. The previous generation boasted the All-Trac with a turbo engine and all-wheel drive while the generation after had the high-revving 180-hp and radical looks. But most people don't know that this Celica generation weighed less than the earlier 90s ones prior to this at a lean 2400 lbs. That means better fuel economy and theoretically, more potential for motorsports. The ST base model had the 1.8 ltr that produced 118 hp and yielded 34 mpg while the GT trim had the 2.2 ltr producing 135 hp and 28 mpg. The car definitely looks the part with a timeless sporty lift-back design, but you could also get the lesser-known coupe model too. The hatchback will give you lots of utility and the engines are related to those found in other models like the 90s Camry, so finding replacement parts will be easy too. With a little aftermarket work, this light front-drive hatch/coupe could yield lots of fun and be a great daily driver.
So, what cars almost made the list? The not-Top 5 under 25 starts here:
1. Acura Integra: Most stolen car in America. Still? The damn car's been out of production for over 10 years! I swear people are just stealing already stolen cars. Most are modded and are falling apart from the abuse anyways. Any clean stock examples will command top dollar.
2. Honda Civic: See Acura Integra above.
3. Mazda RX-7: Can a car be light, rear-drive, stylish and practical? Yes, but it can also have a rotary engine that is known for burning oil and apex seals and leaving you stranded. The car only got less reliable in time and turbo charging. Any rotary-head guy will tell you I'm wrong and that rotary engines are reliable and God's gift to mankind.
4. Nissan 240SX: The popularity of this car rose dramatically when the drifting scene made it to the US, meaning higher than normal prices. Now all you see on the road are dirty, body-panel missing rust buckets. Any great examples will probably cost a pretty penny. And there's a whole army of wanna-be drifters waiting for a great deal when one pops up.
5. Subaru Impreza: Found as coupes and sedans, front-drive and all-wheel drive in the 90s. Spunky cars with a knack for having their transmissions go out way too often. Rare to find and even harder to find manual transmission-equipped cars. Add in that you've got to worry about an all-wheel drive system and you've got a headache on your hands (and a handache on your head?)
So readers, what would you add to this list? There's a lot of people hungry for your responses (the millions of in-the-closet car guys)!