Fun on a budget. Bang for the buck. Just because we’re not all fabulous millionaires (and, ahem, we ain’t) doesn’t mean we can’t all have fun. While I finally decided to opt out of that like it was a TSA groping, it’s not to say you can’t acquire a seriously fun set of wheels for well less than half the average new-car transaction price in the US. If you know where to look and what to look for, you can plaster a mile-wide smile on your face for less than 10 grand. Here are a few suggestions of mine; please let us know what you think the best sub-10k funbucket is in the comments below!

4th-Gen Chevrolet Camaro SS (1998-2002)

Do you like a car with some finesse? A transmission you shift from the wrist, a powerplant that revs to infinity, and suspension that dances over road imperfections? Well, this is not the car for you. There is nothing particularly refined about the 4th-generation GM “F-Bodies.” The chassis itself debuted in 1993 and was in production until 2002, and it’s…. traditional. MacPherson struts up front, a live axle with coil springs out back, and a big engine. While early 4th-gen F-bodies had the iron-block 5.7L LT-1 V8, later models came with a detuned version of the C5 Corvette’s all-aluminum 5.7L LS1 engine.

With 305 horsepower in the Z/28 model and 320 in the SLP-tweaked SS, the Camaro was a seriously quick car. Transmission choices were a Borg-Warner (later Tremec) T56 6-speed manual or a 4L60E 4-speed automatic. A stock Camaro SS would blow by 60mph in the high four-second range, and of course none of them are stock any more. The sky’s the limit with the LS1 engine, with mild bolt-on and cam upgrades yielding power in the 500whp range, and forced induction examples cresting 1,000whp by now. Want to go really fast for very little cash? Hard to beat a Camaro SS. A decent-condition late model Camaro SS (or it’s uglier cousin, the Pontiac Trans-Am WS6) can be found, usually modified, for under 10k all day long.

1st Generation Honda S2000 (AP1, 2000-2003)

Hard to believe, but Honda’s howling S2000 is down below the 10k barrier nowadays. Originally created as 50th birthday present to the company, the S2000 was the descendant of bike-engined S500-S800 models of the 60′s. For a while, it held the record for highest specific output (bhp/displacement) of any naturally-aspirated production vehicle at 120bhp/l. It’s an uncompromised, hard-core sports car for people who like a pure driving experience.

The star of the show is the powertrain. Called the F20C, the all-aluminum 2L engine is mounted behind the front axle for ideal weight distribution. With a stratospheric 9000rpm fuel cut, the S2000 doesn’t make much torque below the valve-lift coming on at 6,000rpm, but when it does, hang on- the S2k rips towards redline like it’s got no flywheel. The 6-speed transmission has one of the most precise actions in the industry, with short throws and linkage like a freshly-greased rifle bolt.

Suspension is independent at all four corners, there’s a Torsen LSD in the back, a powered vinyl roof above your head, and that’s about it. What’s not to like? Well, early S2000′s are starting to show some problem areas these days. The early transmissions had weak synchronizers, which were upgraded on later models. All S2000′s have issues with the cloth top wearing through at the pivot points on the frame, and it’s a bear to replace. And, of course, the desire to pop off 9000rpm shifts constantly will probably have you taking public transport within a month. Budget about $9,000 for a higher-mileage AP1 model if you’re interested. One dollar per rpm!

Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG (W210, 1998-2002)

Want the power of the Camaro SS, but don’t want your snobby neighbors turning their nose up at your mullet-mobile? May we interest sir in an AMG Mercedes? Although the E55 was ridiculously expensive when new (nearly $70,000!), Merc’s AMG models have always been known for two things: thunderous, bellowing acceleration, and alarming depreciation. Now would be a great time to take advantage of both.

The W210 E55 was a bit of a sleeper. The only way to tell it apart from a regular E-class were the tasteful 5-spoke AMG monoblock alloys, a bit of a body kit, and the dual exhausts poking out the back. The strongest non-AMG W210 you could get was the 4.3L, 275bhp E430, which was a quick car. The E55 used an AMG-fettled version of that same V8, punched out to 5.4L. With belt-driven SOHC 3v heads, the AMG punched out 349 horsepower and 391 lb-ft of torque. Fed through a 5-speed automatic to the rear wheels, contemporary buff books said this tire-smoking execu-sled would do the 0-60 trick around 5 seconds flat, on to an electronically limited top speed of 155 mph.

Sadly, it’s not all perfect. Older Mercedes models can cost an arm and a leg to keep running, and AMG-specific parts carry a significant premium over their usual Mercedes counterparts. If the transmission is slipping or recalcitrant about going into reverse, walk away – it could cost almost as much to replace as you just paid for your aging German hot-rod. It’s best to find one that had a loving owner with a thick stack of maintenance records. Most of these are in the lower 10k range, although a low-mileage well-kept example can run you closer to $20k. Still, it’s a slice of Fillet Mignon at Burger King prices. You only live once.

What’s your choice of budget fun-machine? Drop a comment in the box below!