Molly is after an affordable but special used car.

It needs to look the goods, be fun to drive and have a manual gearbox. Being able to squeeze a couple of passengers into the back now and then wouldn’t hurt, either. Mazda’s RX-8 has piqued her interest.

The budget

About $15,000

The shortlist

At first glance, the RX-8 fulfills all of Molly’s needs but it’s not without its shortcomings and peculiarities. For some buyers, they just won’t be an issue. For others, they could cool the love in a big way.

Just who should buy a used RX-8 and who shouldn’t is something we can grapple with here. And if Molly decides she falls into the latter group, there are other options.

2003-11 Mazda RX-8, from $5200*

This Mazda’s unique four-door body helps it deliver both a dramatic presence and better back-seat access than your average coupe. With its free-spinning rotary engine, surefooted handling and easygoing ride, it’s fun to drive without punishing the senses.

It’s sharp used buying, too, with $15k enough to land a tidy 2006/07 example with a sub-50,000km odometer.

But the RX-8’s unique body isn’t easy to see out of and has its own useability niggles (the front doors must be open to get to the backs, for example).

Its unique rotary donk has caveats, too, from poor economy (12.6L/100km) and the fact it doesn’t produce its power until it’s revved hard to the fact it can flood with fuel if shut down cold, forcing workshop intervention. Engine failures aren’t unheard of, so rolling the arm over when it comes to pre-purchase mechanical checks or ongoing upkeep isn’t recommended.

Read Drive’s Mazda RX-8 reviews:

First drive: 2008 Mazda RX-8

Quick spin: 2005 Mazda RX-8 LE

Used-car review: Mazda RX-8

2010-12 Renault Megane RS250, from $9700*

This Megane’s three-door body is more dramatic-looking than cooking five-door models and it backs that up with a hard-hitting 2.0-litre turbocharged engine that delivers robust driveability and thrift (8.7L/100km). With its responsive, flat handling and massive roadholding reserves, it’s huge fun to drive.

Its back seat is more than up to occasional use and it offers access to features the older RX-8 misses out on such as Bluetooth and sat-nav. Molly can also target a later build plate for her $15k, with a clean, low-kay 2012 model a realistic goal.

But the RS’s firm ride, poor rear vision and fiddly switchgear mean it isn’t always easy to live with. Its mechanicals might be more conventional than the Mazda’s but they’re still highly strung and commonly hard-driven, so a similar level of pre-purchase and ongoing commitment is required to avoid reliability or hip-pocket woes.

Read Drive’s Renault Megane RS reviews:

Used-car review: Renault Megane RS (),

Road-test comparison: Toyota 86 v Mazda MX-5 v Renault Megane RS250

2012-16 Subaru BRZ/Toyota 86, from $17,300/$13,100

These Japanese twins have no answer to the sheer pace of an RS or RX-8 and are noticeably tighter in the back. Pinning down the Subaru, offered in a single luxurious spec and subject to the brand’s robust resale, will be tough in this budget range.

But a tidy topline 86 GTS is reasonably fresh fare (i.e. 2013, 80,000km) isn’t a pipe dream for this money. While its 2.0-litre non-turbo engine isn’t a hard puncher, its willing, free-revving vigour and throaty soundtrack make it fun to pedal. So does its agile, poised and assured handling.

It’s also cheaper to fuel (7.8L/100km) service and maintain than your average sporty number and, for those up front, reasonably easy on the senses. Like the Renault, it gets Bluetooth, sat-nav and other toys the older Mazda doesn’t.

Read Drive’s Subaru BRZ/Toyota 86 reviews:

Quick Spin: Subaru BRZ Premium

Road-test comparison: Toyota 86 v Mazda MX-5 v Renault Megane RS250

Used-car review: Toyota 86

Drive recommends

The Mazda does most of what Molly is asking but she needs to decide whether she can live with the rotary’s thirst, mediocre driveability and reliability question marks, and without some toys she could get elsewhere.

With its more contemporary spec and punchier, more fuel-efficient drivetrain, the Renault is less compromised than the Mazda. That gives it the edge on paper, but its hard-edged driving character and highly strung mechanicals raise question marks of their own.

An 86 won’t accelerate with the same gusto as an RX-8 or RS and adult-sized occupants won’t be as happy in the back. But in delivering big driving thrills and reasonably practicality while asking relatively little of the hip-pocket or much in the way of a mechanical gamble, it’s the used $15k sporty with the fewest inherent pitfalls. And the one wed pick first.

* Values are estimates provided by Redbook based on an example averaging up to 20,000km per annum and in a well-maintained condition relevant to its age.

Source: Drive

November 5, 2018