Pontiac Solstice GXPClick to enlarge picture

When the Pontiac Solstice first arrived, it was priced under $20,000. Two years and a turbocharger later, the 260-hp GXP version costs under $28,000.

Alphabet cars, basic transport from point A to B to C, have their place. Super exotics that ooze status and wealth have their place. But what about the middle ground? What about cars that have personality, are a blast to drive, and do so without breaking the bank?

There are plenty of cool-to-own propositions out there, even models tarted-up with higher trim levels to let you arrive in style. We tracked down a collection of entertaining rides from the 2008 model year -- including a brace of convertibles -- with window stickers well below $30,000.

Ford Mustang GT Premium Coupe — $27,020
Few machines strike a domestic chord like V8-powered, rear-wheel-drive coupes, and you can flex your American Muscle in this iconic superstar. The current Mustang, which hit the streets in 2005, sports a retro look inspired by the 1969 edition, but it rolls on Ford's latest platform. The option-loaded GT Premium version provides an authoritative rumble thanks to its 300-horsepower 4.6-liter V8, and a modern chassis to help reign in all those ponies.

Honda Civic Si Coupe — $21,110
Although intended for a younger demographic, the Civic Si has style, efficiency and power that can be appreciated by all. With a sleek, futuristic silhouette, the Si is home to a stout 197-horsepower 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine. The Si's high-tech powertrain features Honda's i-VTEC variable valve timing system, a Drive-By-Wire throttle setup, and a six-speed manual transmission. The frisky Si coupe serves up spirited acceleration and 21/29 (city/hwy) mpg performance from the pump.

Jeep Wrangler Rubicon — $27,355
Battlefield-tested throughout World War II and in ensuing years on trails from Moab to the Badlands, the Wrangler is the ultimate expression of freedom for rugged, outdoorsy Americans. The current model is a cool combination of off-road grit and around-town civility — the convertible top only adds to the Wrangler's broad appeal. We're big fans of the Rubicon, which features a 3.8-liter V6 with 202 horsepower, 32-inch BFGoodrich Mud Terrain tires, 17-inch wheels, the uplevel Rock-Trac 4WD system and a stout suspension.

Mazda MX-5 Miata Grand Touring w/retractable hardtop — $27,395
The Miata is a modern classic. Forged in the mold of European roadsters of yore, it brings the thrill of driving without the finicky powertrains and electrical snafus that lurked behind their sporty aura. This good thing has been made better by the addition of a powered retractable hardtop to the Miata lineup. The new cap combines the joys of open-air motoring with the security of a solid roof. It doesn't get much cooler than a wind-in-your-hair driving experience that can be transformed into a sheltered coupe in a mere 12 seconds.

MINI Cooper S Convertible — $26,050
The top-of-the-line S trim transitioned from supercharging to turbocharging for the 2007 model year. The turbo MINI generates 172 horsepower from its 1.6 liters of displacement — an impressive 107.5 horsepower per liter. Power is funneled through a six-speed gearbox to effectively propel this bantamweight European, which tips the scales at 2,888 pounds. For those longing for more turbo thrust, there are factory John Cooper Tuning parts good for up to 207 horsepower. . . . Cheers to that.

Pontiac Solstice GXP — $27,995
With prototype styling and boost coursing through its veins, the Solstice GXP is General Motors' most exciting vehicle this side of the Corvette. While there are half the cylinders under the hood compared to the 'Vette's V8, the GXP's 260-horsepower 2.0-liter Ecotec mill flexes 130 horsepower per liter via turbocharging and direct injection. This free-revving convertible can be tuned with options including a stainless-steel exhaust and a high-flow intake system.

Nissan 350Z Enthusiast — $29,600
Made for driving enthusiasts on a budget, the venerable Z-Car begs for a heavy right foot. Its award-winning 3.5-liter V6 pumps out 306 horsepower and 268 lb-ft of torque. Close-coupled and brimming with feedback, this two-seat rear-wheel-drive coupe provides impressive performance for the sticker price, and the Enthusiast version sports grip-enhancing features such as traction control and a limited-slip differential. Interior goodies include illuminated steering-wheel-mounted audio controls and aluminum pedals.

MAZDASPEED3 Grand Touring — $24,690
The sculpted shape of the MAZDASPEED3 makes a promise that gets backed up by 263 turbocharged horses. Big anti-sway bars, 18-inch rolling stock and a limited-slip differential help turn that power into traction. The Grand Touring model features lighting upgrades, a Bose stereo, leather seat bolsters and an available navigation system. As one of the most powerful front-wheel-drive cars on the market, the MAZDASPEED3 is the ultimate anti-alphabet car.

Message board: What other vehicles should have also been on this list? And why? Voice your opinion!

Subaru Impreza WRX 5-Door — $24,850
The big news in the Subaru camp is the five-door hatch version of the WRX that replaces the traditional wagon style from 2007. The soul of the car remains the 224-horsepower turbocharged 2.5-liter boxer engine and Subaru's capable all-wheel-drive system. With turbo-spooled acceleration to feed the ego, and all-weather competence to satisfy the id, who needs yoga?

Volkswagen GTI — $22,730
The new GTI lets the boost flow to the tune of 200 horsepower. You also get VW's distinctive Euro styling, an inviting cockpit and a proper suspension. Like the original, this GTI is a balanced attack that always seems on top of its game no matter how twisting the road or how far open the throttle. If you like the VW vibe but want an open-air driving experience, the hard-top convertible VW Eos ($28,915) checks in well-below our $30K line in the sand.

Chevy Cobalt SS — Under $25,000?
Just announced at the SEMA show, the 2008 Cobalt SS will feature the over-achieving, 260-horspower turbocharged and direct-injected Ecotec 4-cylinder from the hot-rod versions of the Sky/Solstice twins. Styled for the younger crowd, this cool compact should have plenty of bite to match its bark, and will feature a 5-speed manual transmission with a "no-lift-shift" function, 18-inch wheels and an "FE5" Nurburgring-tuned suspension. The new SS should come in well-below our budget, so a number of personalization and performance options could be installed and financed at the dealership.

Some other sweet rides for under $30K:

From 1992 to 2005 Evan Griffey was an editor of Turbo & High Tech Performance magazine, a pioneering force in the creation of the import/sport compact tuning industry. Today Evan is a freelance writer working for Import Tuner, Sport Compact Car, Honda Tuning, Turbo & High Tech Performance, Car Audio and Siphon magazines.

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