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These performance cars prove you don’t have to spend much for speed

2018 Subaru WRX
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Building a supercar is easy. Just throw a few million dollars at the problem, charge a king’s ransom to recoup that money, and build so few that no two examples will ever occupy the same time zone. It’s a simple job, really.

Building a car that is both fun to drive and relatively affordable, in large volumes, is a challenge. Carmakers can’t rely on exotic materials and 1,000-horsepower engines, so the fundamentals have to shine. Since these cars are marketed to people that use them as daily drivers, they have to be (somewhat) practical as well. The best affordable performance cars can put a smile on your face without breaking the bank.

The past few years have seen a resurgence in affordable performance cars. From hot hatchbacks, to sports cars, to V8-powered muscle cars, there are quite a few options to choose from. We’ve compiled a list of some of the best ones right here, listed by base price from lowest to highest.

Ford Fiesta ST ($21,195)

2018 Ford Fiesta ST

Fiesta rally cars may get the spotlight in Ken Block’s Gymkhana videos, but the smallest Ford largely flies under the radar in the U.S. That’s a shame, because the Fiesta ST has plenty to offer the driving enthusiast on a budget.

The Fiesta ST’s compact proportions work in favor of handling, and its 1.6-liter turbocharged EcoBoost four-cylinder engine produces a respectable 197 horsepower and 202 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed manual transmission helps the driver make the most of that power.

The Fiesta ST is a back-to-basics performance car that recalls the original generation of hot hatchbacks. Because it’s a hatchback, the ST also offers a modicum of practicality that a full-on sports car can’t match.

Honda Civic Si ($24,100)

2018 Honda Civic Si

The Si isn’t the sportiest Civic—that would be the Type R. But the Si also costs about 10 grand less than its more raucous sibling, and still has plenty of good things going for it.

Available as a coupe or sedan, the Si is powered by an upgraded version of the 1.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine used in the standard Civic. The Si version makes 205 hp and 192 lb-ft of torque, which is sent to the front wheels through a six-speed manual transmission. It also boasts stiffer suspension with adaptive dampers, and a limited-slip differential.

All of that performance hardware wouldn’t matter much if the car it was attached to wasn’t very good, but that’s not an issue for the Si. The current-generation Civic is a very good compact car that can handle whatever you throw at it.

Mini Cooper S ($25,200)

2019 Mini Cooper S

The current-generation Mini Cooper really isn’t really “mini” anymore, but it’s still a solid small car. Mini also offers more powerful John Cooper Works versions, and a plethora of different body styles, but we think the Cooper S in original Hardtop 2 Door form offers the best combination of value and performance.

The Cooper S is powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, which makes 189 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque. A proper six-speed manual transmission is available, although Mini offers the option of a six-speed automatic as well.

Despite growing in size over the years, the Mini remains remarkably agile and fun to drive. Mini’s promises of “go-kart handling” are more than just advertising hype. Plus, you get distinctive retro styling and considerable opportunities for personalization.

Mazda MX-5 Miata ($25,295)

2018 Mazda MX-5 Miata

Since its launch over two decades ago, the Miata has become the quintessential small sports car. The current generation may be one of the best Miatas ever, combining Mazda’s attractive “Kodo” design language and a peppy engine from the automaker’s Skyactiv line.

The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine generates 155 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque, which doesn’t propel the Miata to insane speeds. But what the Miata lacks in outright pace, it makes up for in character.

The engine is naturally aspirated, not turbocharged, so it feels responsive. You get a six-speed manual transmission to play with (an automatic is available as well). Rear-wheel drive, a relatively low curb weight, and a 50/50 front/rear distribution bring the Miata to life in corners. It’s too bad all cars don’t feel this good.

Subaru BRZ ($25,595)/Toyota 86 ($26,255)

2018 Subaru BRZ

The BRZ/86 twins are essentially Subaru and Toyota’s answer to the Miata, distinguishing themselves with the added practicality of a hardtop “2+2” body, and more power courtesy of a Subaru-developed 2.0-liter boxer-four.

The naturally aspirated engine develops 205 hp and 156 lb-ft of torque with the available six-speed manual transmission, or 200 hp and 151 lb-ft with the automatic (as if you needed another reason to get the stick). Like the Miata, the BRZ/86 combines rear-wheel drive and a lack of weight for lively handling.

Other than a slight difference in price and styling, the Subaru BRZ and Toyota 86 are identical (the 86 was previously sold as the Scion FR-S in the U.S.), so you have twice as many dealers to work with to get the best price.

Volkswagen Golf GTI ($26,415)

2018 Volkswagen Golf GTI

VW created the modern hot hatchback with the first-generation GTI, and today’s version is still one of the best of its kind. The Golf itself has grown up into one of the most refined compact cars around, and the GTI makes the most of that solid foundation.

Under the hood, a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine makes 220 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. That power is sent to the front wheels through six-speed manual or DSG transmissions. The latter is a dual-clutch gearbox that is a step above conventional automatics in terms of responsiveness.

The GTI is also a practical five-door hatchback with high-quality interior trim and the refined manners of Volkswagen’s ubiquitous MQB platform. Unlike many other hot hatchbacks, the GTI also sports restrained exterior styling, which it makes it good for flying under the radar. If you want a little more visual pop, you can always order the optional plaid seats.

Subaru WRX ($26,995)

2018 Subaru WRX

Subaru’s WRX is the perfect performance car for winter warriors. Bred from rally cars, the all-wheel drive WRX doesn’t need a track or a dry patch of pavement to be entertaining. It’s one of the few performance cars you can use all year round.

All-wheel drive also gives the WRX more grip on dry surfaces, helping to make the most of the 2.0-liter turbocharged boxer-four’s 268 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. Subaru still offers a good old six-speed manual in the WRX but a continuously-variable transmission (CVT) has creeped into the lineup in the name of convenience.

If the standard WRX isn’t potent enough, Subaru also offers the 305-hp WRX STI. However, the STI costs a bit more, and the gap in performance between the two models isn’t enormous, making the standard WRX a better value.

Nissan 370Z ($29,990)

2018 Nissan 370Z Heritage Edition

Nissan seems to have forgotten about the 370Z. Other than strapping tank tracks to one as a publicity stunt, the automaker hasn’t done much with this two-seat sports car recently. But that doesn’t mean the 370Z deserves to be forgotten.

Carrying on the legacy of Nissan’s legendary “Z” cars, the 370Z sits between entry-level sports cars like the Mazda Miata and Subaru BRZ/Toyota 86, and higher-end models like the Chevrolet Corvette and Porsche 718 Boxster/Cayman in terms of price and performance. If you want a two-seater that’s fast and affordable, the 370Z is your best bet.

Taking care of the “fast” part is Nissan’s ubiquitous 3.7-liter V6. It makes 332 hp and 270 lb-ft in the standard 370Z, but Nissan also offers a pricier NISMO version with 350 hp and 276 lb-ft. Rear-wheel drive and an available six-speed manual transmission (an automatic is available as well) make this a proper sports car.

Ford Mustang GT ($35,095)

2018 Ford Mustang GT

The current-generation Ford Mustang is a great all-rounder, adopting handling moves traditionally associated with European sports cars, while maintaining its American swagger. While entry-level Mustangs get a competent EcoBoost turbocharged four-cylinder engine, we’ll focus on the 5.0-liter V8 GT. It’s not the cheapest version, but V8 power is really what makes a Mustang a Mustang, and the GT still won’t break the bank.

Reworked for the 2018 model year, the “Coyote” V8 produces 460 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque. Ford continues to offer a six-speed manual, but the Mustang is also available with a 10-speed automatic. A line-lock system automatically locks the front brakes, making YouTube-worthy burnouts a breeze.

The 2018 styling update has proven a bit controversial, but the Mustang still has the look and feel of a classic American muscle car. Combine that with modern technology and refined handling dynamics, and you’ve got a pretty impressive package.

Chevrolet Camaro SS ($37,000)

2018 Chevrolet Camaro SS

Like its eternal rival, the Ford Mustang, Chevy’s Camaro now emphasizes handling as well as raw power. That’s a good thing for buyers looking for a well-rounded performance car with an American feel.

Chevy offers lower-cost V6 and turbocharged four-cylinder versions of the Camaro, and a range-topping ZL1 model, but the SS offers the best compromise between performance and value. Its 6.2-liter V8 is shared with the Corvette Stingray, and produces 455 hp and 455 lb-ft of torque. Six-speed manual and eight-speed automatic transmissions are available.

For serious track rats, the Camaro SS is also available with the 1LE package, which includes upgraded brakes, Magnetic Ride Control suspension, an electronic limited-slip differential, and more. Like the Mustang, the Camaro is proof that American muscle cars can do more than drive fast in a straight line.

Editors' Recommendations

Stephen Edelstein
Stephen is a freelance automotive journalist covering all things cars. He likes anything with four wheels, from classic cars…
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