Many enthusiasts hold that the E46 3 Series is the pinnacle of the BMW formula: a marvelous combination of sporting character and everyday usability in a timeless design. In fact, we heartily sing its praises in our E46 buying guide, calling it “one of the most enjoyable drives available in an affordable used car.”

But there are downsides. For example, the E46 interior can age poorly. Rubberized plastics on the center console and the door cards tend to scratch and flake; headliners are prone to sagging. And there are a few dogs in the range with sub-200 hp ratings that can feel pretty anemic compared to more modern machines.

Fortunately, the next generation 3 Series, the E90, along with its shortened-wheelbase cousin, the E82 / E88 1 Series, largely rectified these problems. Both are terrific cars. And the latter, with its tidy, E30-sized footprint and significantly lower price point, is possibly the last, best way for a budget-minded enthusiast to experience the purity of BMW’s original engineering magic, which has sadly been diluted in most of the automakers’ more recent models.

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While there are some excellent battery-powered vehicles like the new Chevrolet Bolt trickling into our garages, the good, old fashioned, oil pumping, octane swilling, internal combustion engine is still at the heart of the automotive experience. It has been ever since, some 130 years ago, Karl Benz bolted a one banger of his own design onto the back of a three-wheeled cart.

And it’s been a glorious run. Sure, there were low points, like the anemic power plants that wheezed through the 1970s while automakers struggled to cope with strict new emissions and fuel economy regulations. Anyone remember the 1975 Ford Granada? Its 4.1 liter inline six had a California variant that puttered out just 71 horsepower. Folks, that’s less than 20 horsepower per liter.

These days, though, your average minivan throws down 250 ponies and still gets nearly 30 highway MPG. Meanwhile, muscle cars like the Camaro ZL1 routinely deliver 600+ horses, and supercars are converging on the magic 1000 figure. These numbers would have boggled the mind not long ago — and likely would have caused poor Mr. Benz, whose motor wobbled out just two-thirds of a horse, to burst a mental gasket.

It’s clear that we’re in a golden age of engines. And that’s great news. Because who doesn’t want more power? Or more efficiency? Or both? The more great mills that are produced, the greater the chances that one will find its way into a budget-minded enthusiast’s heart… and driveway.

Which got us to thinking, what are the very best engines to be had in cars that most anyone can afford? The Klipnik brain trust gathered recently to hash it out. We gave ourselves just two simple rules: 1) keep the picks from within the last 25 years and 2) make them choices that can easily be attained for less than $25,000 — preferably much less.

Here are the ten exceptional motors that made our list (in alphabetical order by automaker).

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Long a favorite of driving enthusiasts, BMW’s 3 Series has nonetheless gotten bigger, heavier and less engaging with each successive generation. Nowadays, even a car buff could easily mistake a newer 3 Series sedan for a 5 Series. Make no mistake, the 3er’s performance is still impressive, but for many who relish time behind the wheel, the less quantifiable “fun to drive” factor has dropped off.

Indeed, many enthusiasts feel that the E46 generation marks the last time the 3 Series was truly engaging and true to its roots — a spry athlete of a car that offered not only quick reflexes but communication through the steering wheel and seat of one’s pants that let you know in no uncertain terms what the tires were doing.

And with cars from this generation now at least ten years old, depreciation has already taken its toll, making good examples as cheap to acquire as they’re ever going to be.

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