2021 CarBuzz Awards Finalists: Affordable Fun

2021 CarBuzz Awards / Comments

Having fun without breaking the bank is a niche that only a few are capable of filling.

The Affordable Fun Award is new to the CarBuzz Awards, replacing last year's Surprise Of The Year, which was won by the 2020 Nissan Sentra. This year we changed it to Affordable Fun, which encompasses enthusiast cars that can be had for a bargain. They must be fun to drive on the street and on a weekend track day, and maybe have a little utility, though it isn't required.

This year's list of nominees included three vehicles from the Hyundai/Kia group, mostly from the N variety of vehicles. We had the small Elantra N, the hatchback Veloster N, and the new Kona N. Those three picks are bookended by the Subaru BRZ and Toyota GR86, which we're considering as one vehicle, and perennial all-star, the Volkswagen Golf GTI. After a few hours of arguing, we came up with our top three, in no particular order.

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Volkswagen Golf GTI

The Mk.8 VW Golf GTI is a marvel of modern technology at just over $30K with destination and handling. Its 2.0-liter turbo four now delivers 241 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque to the front wheels through a six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. Its kicker is the new Vehicle Dynamics Manager, which combines the adaptive suspension, electronic stability control and front electronic differential to send power to the wheel with the most traction.

It's an ace on the track, but it's just as good or better as a daily driver. It starts with the hatchback configuration that nets the GTI almost 35 cubic feet of cargo space. That's enough for a set of race tires. It won't beat you up on normal roads, especially if you opt for the adaptive suspension, and it gets 28 mpg combined if you don't floor it all the time. But you'll want to, because this car is a joy to drive.

Volkswagen
Volkswagen
Volkswagen
Volkswagen
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Subaru BRZ/Toyota GR86

We put these two together because they share a platform and a ton of engineering, though they each have their own flavor. They both sport a 2.4-liter Boxer four-cylinder making 228 hp and 184 lb-ft and a standard manual transmission. Both amazingly start at less than $29,000 with destination. Their competitors are few, with the Mazda MX-5 and base Ford Mustangs and Chevy Camaros being the core rivals.

These cars have back seats, but they're really for child seats and not much else. Average-sized people will have to scoot their seat almost all the way back to drive, though we did manage to fit three adults, one side-saddle, in the BRZ.

These cars didn't need a bunch more horsepower from the 205 that came with the original. But now there's just no denying it, they're a bargain on par with the base Chevy Corvette, at least as far as smiles per dollar go thanks to the extra torque. For the new model, both cars get modern tech, new screens, and a materials overhaul, which helps immensely over the sparse but useful outgoing cabins.

Toyota
Toyota
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Hyundai Kona N

Hyundai had to make an appearance on the podium of this category considering it had three entries in the list. All of the company's cars fall on the affordable end of the spectrum and this Kona N should land at a little over $30,000 (we don't have an official price yet). It features a 276-hp, 289 lb-ft turbo four-cylinder and an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission. The Kona N is front-wheel drive only, but like the GTI, features a limited-slip differential splitting power. Unlike the BRZ/GR86 and GTI, it can fit five adults for a medium-length road trip.

In our first drive, we admitted that the hot subcompact crossover market is probably replacing what's left of the hot hatch market. They do have the same advantages: extra space, small footprint, and a liftgate back. For something that needs to be a daily driver, and fun on the commute, the Kona N has a ton of appeal.

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