Top 10 Fun-to-Drive Cars

Don't be fooled: Sports cars are fun to drive, but they're not the only cars that can offer you a thrill behind the wheel. You need not sacrifice a backseat or have a monthly payment so steep that you eat only ramen noodles to enjoy driving your car. We've detailed 10 models that are fun beyond expectation. Some are sports cars; others cater to families or first-time buyers. What they share is exceptional performance that sets them apart from their respective competitors.

Won't Break the Bank
2011 Ford Mustang

The Mustang has always been fun to drive, in a raw, muscle-car way. The 2011 is so much more refined that it now competes with what most people consider to be sports cars. It gets the nod because it beat the Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Challenger in our comparison test and because the V-6 model's 305 horsepower and 31 mpg highway are staggeringly good for the price.
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2011 Mazda3

Affordable cars are becoming better performers, and the Mazda3 stands among the best. Spot-on steering, strong brakes and responsive drivetrains will make the daily commute a bit of fun. Want more? The turbocharged MazdaSpeed3 hits 60 mph in a blistering 5.2 seconds — muscle-car numbers from a hatchback that's less than $24,000.
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2011 Mazda MX-5 Miata

From its specs alone, you might be wondering how the Miata made this list. It has a four-cylinder engine, and at 158 hp it doesn't sound like it would be a driver's car. Numbers don't always tell the whole story, and with the Miata, driving is believing. Great balance, precise steering and an available short-throw manual shifter all contribute to an exceptional driving experience at an affordable price.
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Fuel-Efficient Enjoyment
2011 Honda CR-Z

Add a hybrid powertrain to a small, lightweight sport coupe and you get what could be called the first sport hybrid for the masses. The all-new CR-Z has three selectable drive modes. One is for maximum mileage, but Sport mode completely changes the driving dynamics for a sportier ride. For the driving enthusiast, that's the mode that will be on all the time.
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2011 Mini Cooper

The 37-mpg Cooper is among the best-handling front-wheel-drive cars around. Don't let its modest 121 hp fool you: On sweeping curves, you can put the hatchback into four-wheel drifts. Excellent handling need not require extra power, but if you want it, the turbocharged Mini Cooper S moves out.
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Family-Friendly
2011 Mazda CX-9

Having a family vehicle doesn't mean you can't enjoy road trips and carpools. The CX-9 is one of many three-row crossovers on the market, but it's the only one that exudes sportiness from all angles, including the driver's seat. The steering is precise, and the engine is no slouch, even when the crossover is loaded down with kids and cargo.
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2010 Suzuki Kizashi

The Kizashi is as fun to drive as it is to say. Smaller and nimbler than the reigning family cars, it packs road manners and ride quality that are both a cut above. The Kizashi is a refreshing break from the suburban troupe of Toyota, Honda and Ford sedans. If your neighbors ask why you got a Suzuki, a quick ride should turn them into believers.
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2011 Volkswagen Tiguan

The little-known Tiguan is an exceptionally fun-to-drive compact crossover. The base front-wheel-drive trim level comes with a manual transmission, which Honda's and Toyota's models lack. Also, it has the excellent turbocharged four-cylinder with direct injection that has breathed new life into many Volkswagen models. Its relatively short wheelbase makes it nimble, feeling more like a car than SUV.
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Fun, Bar None
2011 BMW 3 Series/M3

The BMW 3 Series is legendary in enthusiast circles for good reason. It's an entertaining driver's car, and the one we'd take in a heartbeat to attack our favorite back roads. The high-powered M3 is a track-ready variant that doesn't give up any of the base model's commendable ride comfort. Many automakers have tried to copy the 3 Series formula; some have come close, but none have equaled it.
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2010 Porsche Cayman S

Frankly, we could fill half this list with Porsche models. Porsche is about performance, which equals fun. Why the Cayman? Because it's one of the most affordable Porsches, second only to its roadster sister, the Boxster. The 911 is so unflappable that it's almost boring to drive unless you're on a racetrack. The Cayman is fun to drive in normal circumstances, especially in its S form.
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Mike Hanley, David Thomas and Joe Wiesenfelder contributed to this story.

© Cars.com 09/15/2010