The Honda S2000 makes it.
In a world proliferated with uber-expensive sports cars and supercars, not to mention the exorbitant markups that sought-after vehicles like these attract, being an enthusiast who wants to own and drive something fun seems almost impossible.
But not everything out there is a six-figure scandal, and there are quite a number of options for the performance enthusiast with an eye on the budget.
Before we go any further, let us explain what we're looking for. As with our other sports car lists, we're going to keep to some strict parameters - to qualify as a sports car; it has to have two doors and rear-wheel-drive. In this case, it must also have an asking price below $30,000.
If we're real, the purest sports cars on this list are the Toyota GR86, its twin, the Subaru BRZ, and the ever-present Mazda MX-5. There are major differences between the two (three?), though. They're both rear-wheel drive and balanced beautifully, but the GR86/BRZ has a back seat (that you'll use for storing things, not people) and isn't available as a convertible. However, it does offer the same purity of the driving experience that doesn't rely on power for enjoyment. With its 228-horsepower engine and crisp six-speed manual transmission, the GR86 and BRZ sit alongside the MX-5, representing the cream of the crop for sports cars for under $30k. At the time of writing, the base model GR86 is $27,900.
It's impossible not to repeat ourselves on the MX-5, so here it is: If you want the purest expression of a sports car in the classic sense, buy an MX-5. It doesn't matter what generation, and ignore the naysayers on the previous NC generation. The current ND generation is the sharpest of the four, though, and with the top down, there's no better smile-per-dollar car out there for under $30,000. At the time of writing, it starts at $28,050 and is powered by a responsive four-cylinder engine that makes horsepower. How many ponies are produced is irrelevant; the way this car behaves is enough to put it right at the top of our favorites list.
The days of cheap V8 pony cars are gone, but the 2.3-liter Ecoboost Mustang with its 310 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque is one of the quickest cars you can pick up for under 30 grand. It'll hit 60 mph in five seconds and then be an absolute riot in the bends. For $27,470, you're not getting much in the way of frills, but for an extra $2,600, you can add the Ecoboost High package and come in just $70 over budget. Sure, cheap V8s are no longer a thing, but the days of needing a V8 in a Mustang are over too, and if you want more power later, the aftermarket has your back.
The same goes for the Chevrolet Camaro as the Ford Mustang, but we prefer the Mustang's power plant over Chevrolet's 2.0-liter turbocharged engine. What we like is that Camaros are a less common sight on the roads, and their styling is pitch-perfect - if you can deal with the sub-optimal visibility for traffic. Like the Mustang, though, the Camaro is also now a world-class sports car and cheaper to get into than a Mustang at $26,100. In the bends, it's arguably a better car to drive too.
Now we're into used sports cars for under $30k, and it's a treasure trove out there - particularly since used car prices are finally starting to go down. The go-to for a used Porsche on a typically non-Porsche budget is the Boxster, but you can go for a Cayman with this budget. We found a lovely 45,000-mile 2008 example for $27,321, but there are, of course, caveats. You'll be paying Porsche prices when it needs servicing and maintenance, so a new Mustang might be your better bet, especially if you want more power. The Cayman's engine makes 245 hp. However, its engine is mid-mounted, and the handling on this 14-year-old car is still Porsche quality.
Shop around, and you can find a nice sub-60,000 mile 2016 BMW Z4 for a shade under $30,000, but the E89 generation started in 2009. That means you can go older and get higher trim levels, but any which way, you're getting a great sports car with a retractable hardtop and a version of BMW's excellent N52 straight-six cylinder engine. On top of that, the Z4 E89 Z4 has aged wonderfully. However, there are caveats again. Luxury cars get cheaper to buy as they age, but they won't stop demanding luxury car money to maintain and repair. Just make sure you know what you're getting into.
If you want a seriously fast car under $30k, you have to look at Corvettes. You can find some great sixth-generation models for just shy of $30,000, and we would go for a later 2012-ish model with the 6.2-liter LS3 V8 making 430 hp and 424 lb-ft of torque. You'll want the manual transmission because it doesn't matter what you do; you're going to get 15 mpg unless you put your foot down, where it'll quickly drop into single digits. That's what you sign up for, though, with a Corvette. For raw thrills, not much comes close at this price point.
Why the hell not just go all out for car enthusiast credibility and get yourself a Honda S2000? Sure, they're arguably overpriced for a 20+-year-old car if you park one next to a new Toyota GR86 with a warranty and delivery miles on the clock. However, they're not going to drop in value anytime soon - even if you dump a lot of miles on it, the depreciation won't be huge unless it's crashed. Plus, you get a peach of an engine in the form of Honda's high-revving 2.0-liter F20C engine and a little more room inside than an MX-5.
Yes, people have paid silly money for an S2000 in the past couple of years, but you can still pick one up for under $30,000. Likely because people haven't been looking for them much after reading about the cars that have been drastically overpaid for. We were thinking about putting the E46 generation BMW M3 on here, but it's a fact that a sub-$30,000 example is going to be a bucket of expensive problems. However, the S2000 is a Honda, and while it's a 20+-year-old car, it's still a Honda.