You can only buy your first sports car once, so it’s worth taking the time to get it right. Whatever your budget, be it £2,000 or much more than that, there are so many potential candidates that navigating your way through the second-hand marketplace can be daunting.
What’s more, the way can be littered with pitfalls. Which his why in this guide we’ve picked out our favourite used sports cars at various price points, telling you exactly what you need to know to bag yourself a good’un.
WHAT COUNTS AS A SPORTS CAR?
We’ve been strict on our definition of a sports car, too. Importantly, only cars that were designed from a clean sheet of paper for that purpose have been included, which means you won’t find anything like an Audi TT here (because that car, despite its sporty appearance, is really just a rebodied Volkswagen Golf). All five cars listed below are purpose-built sports cars, each one designed first and foremost to make a smile spread across your face when the road opens up.
In most cases, they won’t cost a fortune to run and maintain.
RUNNING COSTS COUNT
This being your first sports car, you’ll want something relatively straightforward to keep and inexpensive to repair. Sadly, that means no lairy TVRs. Nor anything with a V8 engine. There are certain things you should keep in mind when buying your first sports car, too, because while mismatched tyres or worn suspension bushes hardly matter on a small hatchback or family saloon, on a sports car such things can ruin the driving experience. Using the right engine oil, keeping the wheels properly aligned, making sure the suspension is in decent health and the brakes up to scratch can make all the difference, too.
Finally, any car with sporting pretensions will be more expensive to insure than one with no such aspirations. So do your homework. Buy wisely and your very first sports car could leave you with a lifetime of joyful memories.
BUDGET £2,000: MAZDA MX-5
Predictable, obvious and entirely unsurprising, but all for good reason. For many years the Mazda MX-5 has been the go-to affordable sports car, because while others such as the MG TF and Toyota MR2 have plenty going for them, neither even gets close to matching Mazda’s venerable little roadster for reliability, value for money and fun.
With this sort of budget you’ll be looking at a second-generation MX-5, known as the NB and launched in 1997. You can find them for less – half the price, in fact, so long as you don’t mind tatty bodywork and intergalactic mileage – but for £2,000 you’ll pick up a well-cared for car with a sensible number of miles behind it (80,000 or so). Look for the more powerful 1.8, which with 138bhp in a car so light is plenty to be getting on with.
Rust can be an issue with these cars, so inspect the underside as thoroughly as you can. Check the arches, the chassis rails and the jacking points for signs of corrosion. If you find it, walk away. The four-cylinder engines are famously reliable as long as they’ve been serviced properly, while baggy handling can be put right with new bushes and dampers for not much outlay.
BUDGET £5,000 – PORSCHE BOXSTER
File under ‘brave’. For every tale you’ll read of carefree Porsche motoring on a bargain basement budget, there’ll be at least one horror story of endless bills and hopeless reliability. Cheap Boxster ownership can go one way or the other, so the question is: are you feeling lucky?
The scruffiest first-generation Boxsters (the 986, from 1996 to 2004) start at less than £4,000, so with this sort of budget you’re giving yourself at least some chance of avoiding the no-hopers. And you can mitigate the risk to some extent by being diligent with your research: more buying guides must have been written about the Boxster than any other sports car. The best advice, as ever, is to buy from a dedicated Porsche enthusiast. Somebody who knows these cars inside out and has been obsessive about maintenance. There are plenty out there and you won’t struggle to tell the enthusiasts apart from the chancers.
It’s worth taking your time to find exactly that sort of seller, because when they’re right, these Boxsters are wonderful to drive. Balanced, agile and quick, with communicative steering and a slick gear change. The main ailments to look out for include intermediate shaft bearing failure and leaking rear main oil seals, although both should have been rectified by now if the car in question has been properly maintained.
BUDGET £8,000: BMW Z4 COUPE 3.0SI
BMW’s dainty coupe was never quite as brilliant to drive as a contemporary Porsche Boxster or Cayman, but there remain two very good reasons for buying one nonetheless: the mini supercar styling for one, and the glorious 3.0-litre inline six for another. Even today, 14 years after it first appeared, the Z4 Coupe is a handsome machine with the proportions and intricate surfacing of a concept car.
Although it’s not a full-blown M-car – and not as sought-after as a result – the 3.0si offers plenty of performance thanks to its 261bhp. That comes from the creamy smooth six-cylinder engine that howls away ahead of you the way only a BMW engine could (past tense, regrettably, because they’re all turbocharged and somewhat tuneless these days).
Happily, there really isn’t much that goes wrong with these cars. Rear springs can crack, but replacements aren’t expensive. If the engine light is on you’ll most likely need a new Vanos solenoid, but again, that’s not particularly costly. These cars are actually smaller on the inside than even their compact exterior dimensions would suggest, which means very tall drivers simply won’t fit. Prefer top-down driving? You could buy a Z4 roadster instead, although you’ll have to put up with a troublesome fabric hood and less precise driving dynamics.
BUDGET £11,000: TOYOTA GT86
This sort of budget will run to plenty of far more exotic cars than a four-cylinder Toyota, but the GT86 gets the nod because it is arguably the definitive starter sports car. It’s the perfect place in which to begin your sports car odyssey, being designed from the outset to be affordable to buy and run, and fun to drive even at low and medium speeds.
The GT86 (and its Subaru twin, the BRZ) arrived in 2012 and since then early cars have more than halved in value. They are fast enough with 197bhp but not searingly so. Their engines displace only 2.0-litres and make do without any sort of forced induction, which means they don’t chew through sickening amounts of fuel. The playful rear-wheel drive chassis balance, excellent seating position and decent boot (plus two small rear seats) count in its favour; coarse power delivery, an over-light clutch pedal and questionable interior quality do not.
What’s most appealing about these cars is that they’re known to be durable and reliable. That means rather than fretting about one particular issue you should concentrate on finding one that’s been looked after rather than neglected – prudent owners follow the service schedule religiously and keep bodywork in good condition – while avoiding any that have been clumsily modified. A budget of £11,000 is healthy as far as GT86s go, so you can afford to be picky.