Cars are expensive. I remember a time not very long ago when between school and ramen, I didn't have much money left over to fuel my car hobby. If I wanted a car, it had to be shockingly cheap if I had any chance of taking it home. I've been lucky enough to be able to have nicer cars since then, but I'll always remember the lessons I learned back when I wanted a V8 but I couldn't even afford the fuel for it.
These are my top 5 sports cars to buy for $500. To be completely clear, I'm defining "sports car" as any car that is fun to drive that also meets the SCCA height and width requirements to run autocross events in stock form. This list really only applies to North America since that's the market I'm most familiar with.
5: 1998-2004 Chevrolet S-10
This seems odd, and it may be the only time where an S-10 pickup stumbles into a top sports car list, but hear me out. This Chevy mini truck is available as a fairly light vehicle with a respectable 4.3L V6 engine powering the rear wheels through a 5 speed manual gearbox.
I used to own an S-10 and I loved that little truck. They are small and honest pickups that you can use to haul people or cargo just about anywhere while still having just a little bit of speed. Even better yet, this final generation of truck is now extremely cheap and available so you should have your options of trucks while you're shopping.
4: 2004-2007 Pontiac Grand Prix GTP
The Pontiac brand lived a glorious flame of a life that slowly and painfully burnt out over 30 years of making mediocre cars that weren't any different from their other GM siblings. Pontiac's final days were painful to watch, but there was the occasional spark that showed someone in the division still cared about performance.
Meet the Grand Prix GTP. It shared a platform with the Buick LaCrosse, the Chevy Impala, and the Chevy Monte Carlo, and was powered by the 3.8L V6 that powered nearly everything GM made for a few decades. The GTP was a little special, though.
The GTP package comes with a supercharger. This means that you are just a pulley, some fuel injectors, and some tinkering away from making some respectable power.
The Pontiac Grand Prix GTPs are cheap and easy to find, but be ready to replace the transmissions you will inevitably destroy if you start hopping up the supercharged retiree under the hood.
3: 2001-2004 Ford Focus
I absolutely love the Ford Focus. You can get them in sedan, hatch, and wagon forms. The 5 speed manual and Zetec 2.0L make for a wonderful drivetrain while the car's light weight makes back roads a fun time. Oddly enough, these cars held their value pretty well until recently. Now, you can find them for a few hundred dollars just about any day of the week and parts are pretty cheap.
Word to the wise - avoid the 2.0L SplitPort engine like the plague. While it has the same displacement as the Zetec engine, it's an older single cam design from a few earlier that was brought out of retirement. It lives its life making more noise than power, only to drop a valve seat around 130,000 miles and destroy itself. It's a great time.
2: 1994-1996 Buick Roadmaster
GM used to name their car platforms with letters. Camaros and Firebirds were F-bodies, 2000's Cavaliers were J-bodies, and 1980's Monte Carlos were nothin' but a G thing, baby. My favorite platform, however, is the B-body.
The B-body was in production for around 70 years. That is not a typo. The first B body platform cars rolled out of the factory in 1926. While changes were made through production, the chassis idea and name didn't change until the platform ended in 1996. By the end of the platform in the mid 90's, the B-body was an ancient chassis from times long gone by. You could get a few cars on this platform of the era - namely the Chevy Caprice, the Impala SS, and the Buick Roadmaster.
The Buick Roadmaster is not what you think about when you think sports car, but bear with me. It was a front engined, V8, RWD, tire slaying, family hauling station wagon. That is a wonderful recipe, but the engine for the 1994-1996 cars was a special treat. Being very similar to the engine from the Corvette of the day, these last Roadies came with a 5.7L LT1 V8 that made enough torque to pull a house.
I love LT1 Roadmasters so much that this picture is of my first LT1 Roadie wagon. It would rank number one, but they are a little harder to find at a cheap price these days, they usually have rust if you're in the northeast, and the 4L60E transmission is woefully ill prepared to handle even a stock LT1 V8 torque when not babied everywhere. I averaged about 6 months between transmission rebuilds.
Tires are evil and must be punished
1: 1998-2011 Ford Crown Victoria
The Ford Crown Victoria takes the number one spot on this list by a large margin. For insanely low prices, you get a respectable V8 powering the rear wheels, cheap parts and a well supported performance aftermarket, and a car that just doesn't die. 300,000 miles on one of these "Panther" bodies is not only common, it's expected.
These cars are absolutely everywhere. Police departments used them nearly exclusively, taxi companies kept them running, and everyone's grandparents seemed to own one. This sturdy car is expected to live a long life doing anything for anyone, and doing it well.
Need to stay in a highway pursuit for 2 hours without a break? Police got the Crown Victoria. Need to have a comfortable highway cruiser? Crown Vic. Need to take it down some rough dirt roads covered in snow to get home. Vic it is.
Like the Roadmaster, the pictured Vic is also my personal car. It was a car I was given for FREE, so I've spent my time rescuing this quarter million mile beauty only to enter it in every kind of motorsport I can find. Take a look at my previous stories and watch for some of the shenanigans that are coming up.