The Best Enthusiast Cars Under $10K
July 2, 2021
So, you have $10K and you want to get yourself a new project car. Hell yeah.
I have a running list of cars I want to own one day, and many of them are on this list too.
Here’s the good news. There are some SWEET cars on the market right now that have huge aftermarket support and endless performance and cosmetic potential. And, $10K isn’t bad for a solid enthusiast car.
The bad news? Well, finding the cars on this list in good condition with decent mileage can be a little tricky sometimes. You might just need to dig a little deeper and broaden your range to find the best of both worlds—price and decent mileage. Otherwise, you’ll have to give your new project car a little extra love; they’re called project cars for a reason, I suppose.
Some of these cars may be slightly underrated while others are more mainstream, but regardless, they speak for themselves. You’re also going to see some of these are cars are on the lower end of $10K, giving you extra cash to put towards mods, while some are closer or at our $10K budget. I’ve mixed in a little bit of both to keeps things interesting and realistic, so let’s get into it.
The Best Enthusiast Cars For $10K Or Less…
The Honda Civic
Generations/Years: 5th gen 1991 - 1995 | 6th Gen 1989 - 1999 | 7th gen - early 2000s
Budget: $4K to $10K
Mileage: 100K to 200K
Issues: Not many...
Look, I know what you’re thinking—”Of course a Civic is the first car on this list”. How could I not include the Civic?
The king of reliability and aftermarket support. There’s a ton of generations of the Civic and many of the earlier gens are super easy to get ahold of for under $10K. Way under $10, actually.
But, here’s the catch. We all know that the Civic is also kinda, sorta, the king of ricer mods too. So, finding one in decent condition with low miles AND that doesn’t look like the ricer Civic eBay page puked all over it can sometimes be tricky.
Overall, the Civic has a huge, and I mean HUGE, aftermarket community with tons of performance potential in terms of power and handling.
You can snag a 6th or 7th gen for under 10K pretty easily, leaving you some dough to put towards wheels, tires, and suspension upgrades, and performance mods.
Honda/Acura RSX Type-S
Generations/Years: 2002 - 2006
Budget: $7.5K to $10K
Mileage: 110K to 180K
Engine: K20A2 2.0L inline 4-cylinder | 200 HP and 240 lb-ft torque
Issues: 1st and 2nd synchros are known to be rough
Another hot enthusiast car you can find under $10K is...another Honda; specifically, the RSX Type S. This car made the list because it’s incredibly fun to drive, and there’s also a lot of great mod potential here.
Since it’s a Honda (or Acura, whatever), it’s going to be reliable. I know that a lot of enthusiast cars either start as unreliable or become unreliable when we start bolting this on and deleting that. Still, the RSX Type S is known to be a reliable, fun, FWD car with a very desirable engine.
You can grab one of these anywhere between $7.5 to $10K depending on the mileage and the area you live in. Don’t be surprised to find a lot of these already modded, so beware that it’s still somewhat clean.
Even as reliable as this car is, if it’s been beaten on its entire life, chances are you’re going to be giving your new purchase a lot of love.
BMW 3 Series | BMW 325i
Generations/Years: 5th Gen. 1997 to 2011
Budget: $5K to $10K
Mileage: 80K to 150K
Issues: Battery cable corrosion, somewhat unreliable engine, water pump issues
We’re making a crazy transition to a euro car, specifically the BMW 3 Series. You just can’t go wrong with a 3 series. Depending on the generation, they make great drift cars, show cars, and fun daily.
The E90 is a great platform, but you also have the 4th gen E46 which is also super popular.
Especially if you snag a 6-speed manual 3 series, these are super fun to drive on some back curvey roads.
3rd gen 325i’s are easy to find for a good price, and maybe even with fun mods too.
The 3 series is known to have some engine reliability issues and since they are European manufacturers, parts can be a little more pricey compared to your average Miata, for example.
Mazda MazdaSpeed 3
Generations/Years: 1st Gen | 2007 - 2009 | Some 2nd gens too
Budget: $3K to $10K
Mileage: $120K +
Engine: 2.3L 4-cylinder Turbo | 263 HP 280 lb-ft torque (on 91)
Issues: Reliability issues, Prone to rust
This is a platform not many people talk about anymore. The MazdaSpeed3 has questionable reliability, but it’s manual, a hot hatch, and has a little turbo...all good things.
These cars are super fun to drive and also have some great mod potential. A downside to these cars is they are known to be finicky unless you follow the mods in order.
There is more maintenance involved with these since they are turbocharged, but like anything else, take care of it and it should take care of you too.
Overall, this hot hatch makes pretty good power out of the factory but a few bolt-ons can really bring out its fun driving experience, making it the perfect enthusiast car.
Mazda Miata (NA & NB)
Generations/Years: NA 1989- 1999 | NB 1999 - 2005
Budget: $5K to $10K
Mileage: 50K to 160K
Engine: 1.6 L DOHC inline 4-cylinder | 115 HP & 100 lb-ft torque (painfully slow…)
Issues: Leaky roofs aka Rust
The Miata had to be on the list as well. These cars are incredibly fun to drive and also have HUGE aftermarket support.
While they may be painfully slow, their well-balanced chassis and mod potential are endless.
You can’t go to a car show or autocross event and NOT see a Miata.
You can pick up a NA or NB Miata for significantly under $10K, leaving you plenty of cash to start building it.
And the thing is, the Miata doesn’t really need much to perform well on the autocross track or for a fun daily. Plus, you’ll get pop headlights with the NA, which counts for a lot.
New wheels, some sticky tires, coilovers, sway bars, an intake, and exhaust maybe, but that’s it. You really don’t need much to make this little go-kart super fun.
If you want to take it 5 steps further, you can swap in an LS, SR20DET, or K series engine, which is super badass.
Depending on how much you end up spending on a NA or NB, you’ll have plenty of cash to throw at a higher horsepower engine swap.
Toyota Celica GT/GTS
Generations/Years: 7th generation 2001 - 2006
Budget: $2K to $5K
Mileage: 100K to 180K
Engine: 1ZZ-FE or 2ZZ-GE 1.8L 4-cylinder | 180 HP & 130 lb-ft torque (also painfully slow…)
Issues: High engine idling
Wait, what? A Celica? I may be slightly (very) biased here, but the Celica has always been highly underrated in the community.
Similar to the Miata, the Celica isn’t the quickest car on the road, but its well-balanced and light chassis can hold its own on the curvy roads with the Evo and STI, for example—obviously keeping the power and general platform differences in mind.
The Celica is another platform that has a pretty decent aftermarket and awesome power potential.
These cars don’t weigh much at 2.4K to 2.6K lbs and generally handle very well, so throwing a little turbski on the 1zz or 2zz with a few other bolt-ons can all be done under $10K (including the cost of the car).
The only trick with the Celica is finding one that isn’t beaten to death. Regardless, you can find one between 2K and 5K very easily.
With the Celica and every other car on this list, be patient and find one with decent mileage that's not riced out.
It’ll be worth the wait.