Buying your first car can be an incredibly difficult decision. It feels like everyone has advice for you, and if you’re an enthusiast, it probably feels like every non-gearhead is telling you to buy the least expensive beige-mobile you can find.
It’s true that you probably shouldn’t blow a ton of money on your very first car. But practical, safe and affordable doesn’t mean you can’t have fun.
1. Volkswagen Golf GTI
Few cars offer a mix of approachable performance, practicality, and fun like the Volkswagen GTI. It’s a daily driver that’s as fun as many of the best sports cars on the market. The fifth-generation (Mk5) GTI is a particular sweet spot with its 200-hp turbocharged four-cylinder and choice of manual or dual-clutch automatic transmissions. It’s quick, but not too quick for an inexperienced driver.
2. Honda Civic Si
Everyone knows that the Honda Civic offers practical, efficient, reliable transportation for the masses, but many of them are genuinely fun to drive too. That’s especially true for the Civic Si. Every generation Civic Si is manual-only, and it’s a great car for learning to drive stick. Two-hundred horsepower from a naturally aspirated four-cylinder in this eighth-generation Si keeps things fun too.
3. Jeep Wrangler
One of the most practical ways to make sure your first car isn’t oppressively boring is to buy one that you can take on off-road adventures. It might not be fast or luxurious, but you can’t deny how fun a Wrangler is to drive just about anywhere. Even one that’s unmodified will get you much further away from civilization than you might expect.
4. Ford Mustang (V-6 or Inline-four)
Starting out driving a brand new 5.0-powered Ford Mustang GT is recipe for disaster for most drivers. The late model V-6-powered and EcoBoost inline-four powered ‘Stangs provide some surprising performance, making as much power as a V-8 from a decade ago. You can have plenty of fun in this affordable rear-drive coupe.
5. Nissan Sentra SE-R
Go test drive a B15 Sentra SE-R. Its engine is plenty powerful, but what you’ll mostly appreciate is its handling. The limited-slip differential and well tuned chassis combine to give the Sentra SE-R much better handling than you’d ever expect from an affordable sedan.
6. Subaru Forester XT
For the driver who wants more off-road capability than a WRX, but who still likes the idea of a little power, the turbo version of Subaru’s not-quite-an-SUV Forester from the mid 2000s is the perfect compromise. You can get it with up to 235 horsepower, and it will still handle the toughest winter you can throw at it.
7. Acura RSX
It would be easy to dismiss the RSX as nothing more than a tarted up Honda Civic coupe, but doing so would mean missing out on the enjoyment of driving one of the most talented front-wheel drive sports coupes in the last 15 years. Even though the power goes to the wrong wheels, it’s still a precise handler that any new driver could enjoy immensely.
8. Mazda MX-5 Miata
If a list of fun cars doesn’t include the Mazda Miata, it better be called “10 Fun Cars That Aren’t the Mazda Miata.” It’s that much fun to drive. In fact, the Miata is so good, it’s almost cliche to include it because it’s such an obvious choice. Driving one will make you a better driver, but it may also ruin other cars for you.
9. Subaru Impreza 2.5RS
One of the best things about a late 1990s Impreza 2.5RS is that its design has aged so well. It’s just a darn attractive car. Like most of the cars on this list, it isn’t fast by today’s standards, but it still shines in the handling department. As you’re learning to drive, having all-wheel drive will also probably end up being a blessing several times.
10. Honda Fit
Though the Honda Fit might not have a turbocharged engine or a sport-tuned suspension, enthusiasts everywhere swear by it. Why? Well, it’s a fun, tossable, practical hatchback that you can get with a manual transmission. Plus, because it’s a Honda, it’ll be dead reliable. What’s not to like?
11. Ford Fiesta ST
While it’s sad the new Fiesta ST isn’t sold the United States, we still love the old one. Multiple R&T staff members have owned examples, showing just how much we like this car. It’s fun, reliable, practical, and now, early used examples can be purchased for under $10,000. As a value proposition, we can’t think of anything better.
12. Fiat 500 Abarth
The 500 Abarth is for the person who wants something fun and practical like the Fiesta ST, but also wants to stand out from the crowd. The bubbly looks and shouty exhaust give it the edge over the Fiesta for style, and like the Fiesta, examples can be purchased for very little money.
13. Mini Cooper
Minis aren’t as “mini” as they used to be, but if you’re a new driver, that’s a good thing. There’s modern safety equipment and more space to put your stuff and carry people around. But Minis are still quirky, so if you want to stand out—and what young driver doesn’t?—it’s a great choice.
14. Hyundai Veloster
Like the Mini, the Veloster stands out in a crowd. It may not have the historical significance like the Mini does, but it’s still a fun car to drive, and you can’t beat that 10-year warranty. We wouldn’t recommend the top-spec Veloster N for new drivers, but the mid-range R-Spec is a good starting-off point.
15. Volvo 240
The 240 is one of the oldest cars on this list, but don’t count it out because of its age. It’s a tank of a vehicle, able to take hits and roll over without so much as a dent in the hood. Treat them right, and they’ll last forever, too.
It may not be as exciting as the Miata, but the Mazda3 is seriously fun for what it is: a practical, economical, reliable hatch with plenty of space and a surprisingly nice interior. So if you want a Miata but need room for more than yourself and one person, the Mazda3 is the car for you.
17. Subaru BRZ / Toyota GR86 / Scion FR-S
Want a fun balanced sports car, but don’t like the Miata? Luckily for you, Subaru and Toyota have just the car. The two companies collaborated to build the BRZ and 86 (formerly the Scion FR-S), a lightweight, rear-wheel drive coupe that produces plenty of smiles behind the wheel.
18. Volvo V70 R
Volvo is known for making some of the safest cars in the world, but occasionally, it likes to make something fun to drive, too. The old V70 R is a subtle sleeper, which offers plenty of space, all-wheel drive and a ton of performance from its near-300-hp five-cylinder. The V70 R had a sedan counterpart, the S60 R, but we think the wagon is the way to go here.
19. Volkswagen Jetta GLI
Want a GTI, but don’t want to deal with all the hot hatch hype? Pick up a GLI instead. They’re essentially the same underneath, except the GLI uses the Jetta’s more traditional sedan bodystyle. And delivers the same amount of fun.