Can you really find a sporty coupe for Camry money?
Behold the Toyota Camry: safe, spacious and sensible. The ideal family car then. With the recent redesign rectifying the previously uninspiring exterior styling and a new platform introducing an uprated suspension it looks and feels a bit sportier now too. It may still be a mid-size sedan but not unlike a middle-aged middle manager, it has grown slightly in every direction. The driving experience is smooth and unruffled and you have a choice of three engines, one a hybrid, with plenty of trim levels to suit your specific requirements.
The base L model starts at an entirely reasonable $23,495 and for that you get, well, not very much actually. Toyota’s Safety Sense driver aid package comes standard as does a reversing camera and LED daytime running lights, but most shoppers will pay the extra $500 for the LE trim which adds 17-inch alloys and a power driver’s seat while also opening up a selection of optional equipment. The range has been cleverly staggered to slowly upsell you in small increments until you unwittingly find yourself driving off the showroom floor in the range topping XSE V6.
This trim packs all the toys. Aside from the 301-hp 3.5-liter V6, notable standard features include a panoramic sunroof, color head up display and a big 8-inch touchscreen. Pricing starts at $34,950 but once we add a fancy exterior color, the advanced driver assist package and an all-weather floor liner package we manage to spec an XSE up to a few dollars shy of $40,000. That is a fair chunk of change for a family runabout and we are now encroaching into the territory of some very capable and luxurious European rivals, not to mention a fair few sporty coupes.
Now a small two-door coupe is clearly not a direct competitor to a Camry but think about how regularly you actually need those rear seats and that huge trunk. That’s right, hardly ever. Plenty of coupes offer rear seats too, big enough for the school run and with some clever packing you could squeeze enough into the trunk for a family of four. So, with that in mind, we set out to find some of the best sub-$40,000 sports coupes out there as well as a few 2-seater convertibles for good measure too.
Let’s start with the driver focused coupe from Toyota themselves. The 86 has been around for a while and under various guises too (think Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ), yet despite the usual complaints that its 200-hp 2.0-liter boxer engine is a bit gruff and breathless, it offers one of the best driving experiences around. Starting at $26,975 for the base model, you can spend up to $30,900 on the GT Black edition. That’s a whole 10K less than the Camry and it includes the available TRD lowering springs and performance exhaust too.
If you feel that your children should rather make use of the school bus than the family car then the Mazda Miata suddenly becomes a tempting possibility. The base Sport trim starts at $25,295 but the one you should get is the mid-range Club trim. For around $3,500 more you also get an uprated suspension as well as improved shocks and a limited-slip differential. Pick the automatic transmission though and you lose all of these track-biased features, as you should. This is a manual transmission only type of car. RF models offer a hard-top convertible and are also well within our budget.
The Fiat 124 Spider may be heavily based on the Miata but other than the different exterior styling and turbocharged engine, it offers its own unique suspension setup and driving feel. With this one you will want the top Abarth trim as it is the one that offers the performance-tuned suspension, uprated brakes and LS-diff. You will need around $29,000 for this one, which is the equivalent to a well-equipped 2.5-liter XLE model in Camry world. No hardtop coupe-style alternative available with this one and the two-seat layout does limit its practicality so let's look at a few more options.
The 370Z has been around for so long it’s almost as if Nissan forgot it was still building it and never bothered to switch off the robots at the factory. Drive one and the old-school V6 and weighty controls definitely feel as if they are from a different era. Yet there are signs of modernization, there is a clever rev-matching manual transmission and various tweaks throughout production have resulted in a very enjoyable driving machine. You can spend almost $50,000 if you go for the top NISMO trim but the real value lies with the 370Z Sport which is a much more reasonable $33,570 and offers an LS-diff and sport brakes over the base trim.
BMW may be all about big 6 and 8-cylinder luxury sports sedans these days but it earned its sporting reputation with small and nimble 4-cylinder models like the E30 3-series and earlier 2002. The contemporary 230i is a modern equivalent of these cars and its 248-hp 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine gives it plenty of pace too. Prices start at $34,950 which leaves you with a bit extra to spend on the myriad of pricey options.
The Mustang GT is not quite as sharp a driving tool as the little 2-Series but it still has a lot going for it, not least a characterful 460-hp 5.0-liter V8 and more space inside for the family. Sure you can get an even less pricey turbocharged 4-cylinder Mustang too but if we are looking at $40,000 as our budget then the GT Fastback or even the luxuriously-equipped GT Fastback Premium are the ones to have.
The Camaro has a similar set of skills compared to the Mustang. It also offers tight yet usable rear seats, is pretty handy along a mountain pass and it too has a big 455-hp 6.2-liter V8 under its hood. It may be down 5-hp on the Mustang but it does offer 35 lb-ft more torque and an even more intoxicating sound track. Stick to the 1SS trim and you will dip below the $40,000 mark too.
The Dodge Challenger is a more traditional take on the muscle car theme, it is more of a straight-line specialist than the rest of the cars here but if you want the most power for your money then this is the one for you. The R/T Scat Pack produces 485-hp from its 6.4-liter V8 and also offers spacious rear seats and a trunk that's more than big enough for family holiday duties. Aside from the thirsty V8, it is an entirely usable daily-driver that offers much of the practicality of a Camry sedan and a whole lot more driving thrills.