According to the Internal Revenue Service, the average federal income tax refund last year was about $2,700, and that number is likely to rise slightly as this year’s checks continue to reach taxpayers’ accounts.
What do most people intend to do with that windfall? According to the experts at Intuit in Mountain View, Calif., publisher of the tax-preparation software TurboTax, 42 percent of those receiving a refund will use it to pay down debt and cover the cost of living expenses, while another 25 percent will sock some or all of it in a savings account. Although that’s admirable, if you’re in the financial position to splurge why not take that refund check and invest it in a fun-to-drive coupe or convertible for recreational use?
To that end, we scoured databases of used vehicles to come up with the following assortment of 10 fun-to-drive rides that all retail in the $2,500 to $3,500 range based on price estimates gleaned from Kelley Blue Book in Irvine, Calif. Of course that kind of money won’t get you a new car - far from it. These are mostly models from the mid-1990s with 160,000 to 165,000 miles on the odometer, so they’re probably not well suited for one’s daily commute. Still, on the right day and traversing the right road, they’re sure to deliver an enjoyable return on investment.
• 1996 BMW 318i Coupe: Then as now, the compact 3 Series delivers flawless handling, tasteful styling and a supportive, but tight-fitting interior. Acceleration is strong in six-cylinder versions, but the four-cylinder is still lively, particularly when mated to a manual transmission.
• 1993 Dodge Stealth: This was the Dodge-branded version of the low-slung, aggressively styled, V6-powered sports coupe that was otherwise sold as the Mitsubishi 3000GT. It’s virtually identical save for a lower resale value.
• 1996 Honda del Sol: The compact del Sol was a peppy and crisp-handling two-seat version of the Honda Civic that came with a removable hardtop panel for open-air enjoyment.
• 1996 Honda Prelude: Honda’s since-discontinued sporty coupe delivered effortless handling and a reasonably smooth ride, with the “VTEC” four-cylinder engine affording the quickest acceleration.
• 1996 Mazda Miata: The lithe and limber two-seat Miata convertible remains a classic. It’s never been the fastest sports car, but with tenacious handling and a panoramic view of the scenery it affords maximum smiles per gallon.
• 1999 Hyundai Tiburon: This sporty budget-priced compact coupe was distinctively styled inside and out and proved fun to drive, with reasonably grippy handling.
• 1993 Mitsubishi Eclipse: Sharply styled with graceful curves, the first-generation Eclipse was a hit among small sporty cars. It really shines as a “pocket rocket” if you can find one with the higher-powered turbocharged four-cylinder engine.
• 1993 Pontiac Firebird Formula: A more expressively styled rendition of the Chevrolet Camaro, the Formula was essentially a lower-priced version of the top Trans Am that packed a punch with a 5.7-liter small block V8 engine.
• 1994 Saab 900S Convertible: Given its Swedish heritage, the Saab 900 has traditionally been one of the best convertibles for those living in harsh winter areas, with a well-lined top and predictable front-drive handling. Of course, it’s more fun in the sun.
• 1995 Subaru SVX: This remains an odd duck among mid-1990s sports coupes, featuring unique styling with “split” side windows. It was a blast to drive, however, with a six-cylinder engine and sharp handling that benefitted from standard all-wheel-drive.
Note that final transaction prices for any of these cars will vary depending on local availability, mileage, condition, whether the car is available from a dealer or private party and your own negotiating skills. As always, be sure to have any used vehicle under your consideration checked out by a trusted mechanic to determine its mechanical condition and which repairs might be required down the road.