If I had to take the phrase "big fun, little cash" and condense it into two carefully chosen words, it would have to be "hot hatchback."
In the eighties, the idea of tossing some red pepper onto plain old cheese pizza hatchbacks became a huge hit in Europe. They mixed the oil and water pair that is fun and practicality. Before you knew it everyone was singing praise to the hot hatchback, and over all of them ruled one king: the Volkswagen GTI.
The Mk1 started the craze with its subtle style and heavenly handling. The Mk2 improved the recipe. In 1985 it won Motor Trend's Car of the Year award... although I can't imagine America put up any stiff competition back then. However, it still earns praise today, as this clip from Fifth Gear will show:
If you want a GTI, you have to stick with the Mk2. Hardly any Mk1's made it to the States, and they weren't officially the GTI. They were the Rabbit GTI. The Mk3 and Mk4 were burdened down with safety regulations, making them heavier. Look back through reviews for the Mk3 and Mk4 and you will find that they were a bit of an upset. Critics were always left pining for the Mk1 or Mk2. They didn't get the power increase they deserved until the Mk5, which isn't quite cheap yet.
So, stick with the Mk2. Look hard, because a clean and unmodified one is getting to be a rarity. Volkswagens have gotten extremely popular with the tween tuners these days. Find a good one, and you will be guaranteed to have a blast every time the car starts. Just hope it starts every time...