First of all, can I put in my own suggestion?
I did a lot of research last year for a great car, at a great price, with good gas mileage, that looks sporty, is fun to drive and might even turn some heads.
Now, I love the Scion TC, but you'll be hard pressed to find a good used one considering how new they are. If you buy new, even thought their base is moderately priced, it's the extras that make the car cool and they can skyrocket the price pretty quick.
So, here's my shameless marketing pitch; Mazda. I ended up buying a 2003 Protege just because it fit better into my budget, but the Mazda3 is awesome. I really think it turns some heads since it doesn't look like your typical, run of the mill Honda/Toyota sedan. It gets great gas mileage, has some cool features and it really is fun to drive (a friend of mine has the Mazda3 and I drove it a few times). All in all, it's a great car for the price. Yeah, the RX-8 is totally awesome, but I'd say a rotary engine is probably a little out of your price range for a first car... I'd call that something to shoot for.
Also, I would definitely go with a manual transmission... I got my Protege as a 5 speed and I was a little worried at first; I hadn't drove stick since I was 17. But I picked it up in a second (it's like riding a bike) and now I don't think I ever want to go back to automatic again. As for RWD, what cars are you looking that even have RWD? I thought only sports cars have RWD nowadays? In any case, FWD is definitely the way to go if there's any chance of snow in your area. My girlfriend has an old 1990 Volvo with RWD and it's a real pain in bad weather, including just heavy rain.