Top 3 used sports cars for £7,000: Mazda MX-5, Porsche Boxster, Nissan 350Z
"Dear Carbuyer: I want a great-handling convertible sports car for back-road fun in the summer. What should I buy for £7,000?"
Time was that small, cheap sports cars were a common sight on Britain's roads. Today, though, motorists tend to pick a hot hatchback like the Volkswagen Golf GTI, Ford Focus ST or SEAT Ibiza Cupra for sensibly priced, high-performance motoring. Or, for those on a smaller budget, the Ford Fiesta ST and Suzuki Swift Sport still offer fantastic fun on a twisty road.
Meanwhile, you'll be lucky to find a brand-new, genuine convertible sports car for less than £20,000, and driver-focused cars like the Toyota GT86 and Subaru BRZ are only available in tin-top coupe form. Fortunately, you have far more choice if you look at secondhand options, and might be surprised what you can find for as little as £7,000 if you don't mind driving something a little older.
Read on for our choice sports-car picks for driving fun on a relative shoestring.
Mazda MX-5: the all-round choice
For: Handling, gearbox, running costsAgainst: Sluggish in this company
The Mazda MX-5 has been a worldwide hit since its introduction at the turn of the 1990s, and its timeless appeal means that older examples are just as desirable as the latest version. Its compact, round-edged form recalls the British sports cars of the past, and nobody has quite matched its lightweight two-seat package at the price. Although no MX-5 offers the last word in sheer speed, enthusiastic drivers love its rear-wheel-drive layout and well sorted handling, and there's lots of potential for modification if that appeals to you.
The post-2009 generation of MX-5 further refined the formula. While the two-seat interior is fairly tight, all but the tallest drivers should find it comfortable. The 150-litre boot is boosted by a lockable compartment between the seats. You'll find a facelifted 2.0-litre example for under £7,000, and the 'sunny days' nature of the MX-5 tends to keep mileages relatively low.
There's a rare folding hard-top version, but you'll be unlikely to find one of those within our £7,000 budget. The soft top is easy to use though, but make sure of the condition of any example you consider buying. Check for uneven gaps between body panels that could indicate a crash repair, and be wary of a notchy-feeling gearbox, which could hint at a costly repair being necessary soon.
Nissan 350Z: The stylish choice
For: Muscular looks, strong performanceAgainst: Tricky handling, thirsty
If the Mazda MX-5 echoes the small sports cars of the 1960s and '70s, the Nissan 350Z harks back to hairy-chested coupes like the Ford Capri and Toyota Supra – but with rather more power. It's powered by a muscular 3.5-litre V6 engine that has no trouble at all spinning the rear wheels, and many enthusiastic drivers love this sleek coupe's boisterous nature.
It's not as sensitive or precise in corners as the Mazda, but makes up for this with sheer power. It's also far more comfortable on a long journey – the top GT model packs features such as heated leather seats, with electric adjustment for the driver. There's not a lot of space for luggage, though: the 130-litre boot is split by a horizontal beam that helps to keep the car's chassis rigid. We found a 56-plate 350Z Roadster for £6,900 with 58,000 miles on the clock.
The 350Z's biggest drawback is its heavy fuel consumption, and maintenance costs are likely to be far higher than the MX-5, too. The V6 engine is renowned for its appetite for oil, and exhaust replacement can be costly, so check for the blowing sound of air escaping where it shouldn't. Inspect closely for signs of accident damage, too.
Porsche Boxster S: the purist’s choice
For: Sublime chassis, great engineAgainst: Parts and servicing prices
It really is a gift that you can buy a mid-engined sports car for under £7,000, and even more so when it has a Porsche shield on its nose. Although the Boxster is overshadowed by its Porsche 911 sister, it's arguably better able to entertain on ordinary roads, with something of the MX-5's feeling of balance and precision, but a lot more power under the bonnet, and a spine-tingling soundtrack.
Until the latest Porsche 718 Boxster arrived, every model had an engine of a similar flat six-cylinder design as the 911. First-generation models could be chosen with a 2.5 or 2.7-litre engine, but the 3.2-litre S is the one to have – and by far the most sought-after. Despite that, you'll still find them within our budget, probably a car from around 2002 that's covered around 80,000 miles.
There are small luggage compartments at the front and rear that are best suited to soft baggage, but should handle a long weekend for two. The S also has leather upholstery and an upgraded stereo, should you tire of the Boxster's built-in audio accompaniment. The only real downside is how much the Boxster costs to run. It's more economical than the 370Z, but Porsche's service costs are rather higher than Nissan's. Fortunately, the Boxster is generally reliable, but check for oil leaks which can be costly to fix. With used Boxsters now relatively affordable, check for panel damage and wear to the tyres and brakes, which can be signs of hard use on a racing circuit.