UNITED STATES—Originally this was going to be a list of the Five best affordable sports cars available right now. One problem. There may not be Five total affordable sports cars currently on the market. It turns out, the “affordable sports car,” defined for this article as a two-seat, two-door coupe or roadster available for under $50K (Yes, that’s right. $50K) is a dying breed. Years ago, we might be talking about cars around $30K or so. And these would be serious sports machines, not just Honda Civics with aftermarket mufflers. However, times have changed. Traditional two-seat sports cars for the masses are all but a myth, especially those of the high-performance variety.

Sure, if you are a Billionaire, you are still spoiled for choice with plenty of Ferrari’s, Lamborghinis, and Porsches available to choose from. In fact, many carmakers that previously catered solely to working class heroes now stock their stables with toys exclusively for the wealthy. Chevrolet and Nissan once competed for 9-5ers on the verge of a mid life crisis who were looking to spend some hard-earned cash to feel young again. Today, Nissan’s top performance offering, the GT-R, competes against Chevrolet’s Corvette ZO6. Neither of these vehicles would be even remotely affordable for today’s middle class shoppers.

So, for the sake of keeping this a debatable topic, lets call this list the “Top Three performance cars under $40K.” We’ll have to set some specific criteria to make it interesting, of course. So, let’s say “performance cars” means a manual transmission (another dying breed) is available. Let’s also say that four doors are not allowed. Let’s be honest. A performance car needs to look like its main purpose is to go fast. When you start tacking on more doors, you have to ask yourself, “Are these going to help me go faster?” Finally, let’s say rear-wheel drive is a must. Not only are rear-wheel-drive chassis generally better balanced, but they are also the only drive train that enables you to spin doughnuts during a victory lap. So, without further ado, here they are:

Third Place: Ford Mustang GT

2015 Ford Mustang GT
2015 Ford Mustang GT, photo courtesy of Ford.

It would not have been fair to not include at least one American muscle car on this list. After all, from a pure bang-for-the-buck perspective, America is still number one. So, it seems only fitting that we include the original pony car on this list. Not only because it became legend when it graced the silver screen in one of the most iconic car chases in motion picture history, but because it happens to be the most recently redesigned example of Detroit muscle. Now, while muscle cars are great loads of fun in a straight line, they generally don’t handle as sharply in the corners as traditional sports. The Mustang is no different.

As muscle cars go, it is no slouch around a track or a winding back road, but compared to a lightweight track machine, it will feel like a Grey Hound bus. Of course, the handling woes are attributable to the thing that makes this car so fun: That large American V8 hanging over the front axel. Of course, if Ford’s intent was to make the Mustang the finest all-around performance machine on the road, they could have pushed that V8 way back towards the center of the chassis and moved the driver seat back towards the rear of the chassis accordingly. Doing that, however, would have eliminated the rear seats. Ford likely never considered dropping the rear seats. Therefore, the Mustang retains some level of practicality and therefore leads one to the conclusion that while it prioritizes performance, performance isn’t its only purpose.

Second Place: Mazda MX-5

2016 Mazda MX-5
2016 Mazda MX-5, photo courtesy of Mazda.

For many enthusiasts, the perfect performance or “drivers car” is one that is perfectly balanced with minimal rolling mass. The Mazda MX-5 (Miata) has long been the symbol of this philosophy. Despite its relatively small naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine, the compact Mazda roadster has been regularly converted to track-only use by weekend racers everywhere. Because it was designed from the ground up to be a drop-top, the chassis is also inherently rigid without requiring the additional bracing that comes with converting a sedan into a convertible. The power plant doesn’t impress with high horsepower figures, but each horse is saddled with only a pittance of weight. Think of it this way. The Miata is like a 100 pound jockey riding a triple-crown winner, while most of the other vehicles in this contest resemble a team of Clydesdales pulling a stagecoach. The reason the Miata didn’t make the top spot is simply this: It is not an RX-7.

First Place: Nissan 370Z

2016 Nissan 370Z
2016 Nissan 370Z, photo courtesy of Nissan.

The Z makes our list at the number one spot, not because it is the fastest of the eight or so eligible cars in this contest, not because it is the best handling car, but because it is the only car in this contest that leaves no question as to its sole intention. It is uncompromised by additional rear jump seats from both performance and aesthetic standpoints. Its roofline is an elegant extension of the rear hatch. There is no need for rear headroom accommodations. Its cockpit is also designed with performance as a priority. A large center-mounted tach and three eye-level instrument pods assure that the driver needn’t divert his/her eyes too far from the road/track for vital information. This is not a car that can be wasted on trips driving your kids and their friends to and from school. It’s lack of any usable cargo space means you aren’t going to be wasting time picking up groceries at the market either. The Z isn’t practical in any way. It is a car made for those who enjoy the journey more than the destination, plain and simple.

So, that’s our list. What would be on your list? Maybe your list would include cars that are fun to drive but don’t fit within our strict criteria. Please let us know below in the comments section.