• Aug 10, 2008

Who says rich folks have all the fun? Granted, exploring the Amalfi Coast from behind the windshield of a Ferrari 599GTB or throwing fistfuls of $100 bills into packs of mere wage earners just to watch them scrap like famine-stricken dogs are lovely ways to pass an afternoon, but neither extravagance makes lobbing the $15,445 Hyundai Accent SE into a switchback at full tilt any less fun. Besides, if you wad up the Hyundai, you can replace it for roughly the price of an oil change and set of tires on the Ferrari.

Fun doesn't necessarily mean fast; speed in many expensive cars is simply a trait required of the price tag, delivered with digital efficiency and little soul. Proof that slow can be fun: We once met a professional race-car driver whose daily driver was a five-year-old Suzuki Sidekick, because it was the only vehicle he found dynamically challenging at reasonable commuting speeds.

This isn't to say cars on this list can't boogie and birth smiles as they wend down mountains or up hillsides; if anything, it's their jolly analog demeanors that landed them here. Fun comes in all shapes, sizes, and abilities, and here are five examples of power to hoi polloi, for less than $20,000.

2008 Honda Fit Sport || Get a Free Price Quote

Base Price: $15,905

The Fit Sport has been on our 10Best Cars list for two years and beat out six other little brawlers for first place in our "$15,000 Cheap Skates" comparison test. That it was deemed the only car in that roundup offering any driver satisfaction weighed heavily in the results. With an underwhelming 109-hp engine, speed is about conservation of momentum, something well accomplished with precise steering and an eager chassis, especially when paired with the 15-inch wheel-and-tire package of the Sport. Lackluster thrust is at least good for fuel consumption; in 40,000 miles, our long-term Fit Sport eked out an observed mileage of 33 mpg, and we rarely drive calmly.

Like an itty-bitty pygmy SUV, Honda managed to endow the Fit with real measures of comfort and practicality by keeping the load floor flat enough to swallow 42 cubic feet of goods with the second-row seats folded. Pop the front wheels off a couple of bicycles, and you can stow the bikes upright inside -- all in a car barely more than 13 feet long. A new Fit is coming for 2009 and promises an even more cavernous interior.

2008 Hyundai Accent SE || Get a Free Price Quote

Base Price: $15,445

Not that we're telling you to do so, but thanks to a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty that includes such things as valve guides, transmission synchros, and wheel bearings, you can and should know the 6500-rpm redline of the Accent SE biblically. With a 1.6-liter, variable-valve-timing-equipped engine making 110 horsepower, the SE needs to be kept at full song for spirited forward progress, even with a modest curb weight of 2500 pounds. The upshot to the SE's small-displacement four-banger is fuel economy of 27 mpg in the city and 32 on the highway. Hyundai is apparently aware that the five-speed manual transmission of the more softly sprung base Accent GS ($11,425) offers precision on par with a Huffy 10-speed, so the company makes a B&M short shifter standard on the SE.

Modest mass pays dividends in corners, where the SE plays happily, thanks to a host of upgrades over other Accent models, including stiffer springs, a thicker front anti-roll bar, and speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering. Sure, the SE tends toward understeer, but that is fixable with an aftermarket rear anti-roll bar or prudent use of left-foot braking.

Sixteen-inch wheels wrapped in 205mm-wide, low-profile tires ride under the SE. That's a lot of rubber for not much car. Splurge on a set of super-sticky tires in the stock size, and go harass zero-talent sports-car owners on twisty bits, or at least those on a downhill.

Next Page: Volkswagen Rabbit, Jeep Wrangler & V-8 Tata Nano



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