Best performance cars: 10 cars with style, speed and a dose of practicality

2013 Dodge Challenger Rallye Redline apocalyptic background

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 that easy.

Building a lot of cars that are both fun to drive and relatively affordable, though, 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. We call them “performance cars.”

Luckily, several carmakers have taken up the challenge, producing some great affordable performance cars that are fast, fun, and don’t require a lobbyist’s salary to buy. Here they are, ordered by base price from least expensive to most expensive.

Fiat 500 Abarth white front three quarterFiat 500 Abarth

Base price: $22,000; $26,000 (Cabrio)

The Fiat 500 may look like a cute Italian fashion accessory, but look! This one has a scorpion on it!

The scorpion is the symbol of Abarth, legendary performance tuner of all things Fiat. This particular example has had its turbocharged 1.4-liter “MultiAir” four-cylinder engine massaged to produce 160 hp and 170 lb-ft. That’s a lot of power for a car that looks like it has the wheelbase of a bar stool.

However, the Abarth isn’t really fast in a straight line; it takes about seven seconds to reach 60 mph. The fun factor comes from flinging this car into corners, revving the MultiAir like there’s no tomorrow, and generally treating the Abarth like it’s a go-kart for grown-ups. The bonus is you can drive it every day and it actually gets pretty good mileage as a commuter.

2014 Ford Mustang actionFord Mustang

Base price: $22,200 (V6); $30,900 (GT)

The Mustang is one of the original performance cars, and the formula still sounds good today: rear-wheel drive, powerful engines and classic good looks.

For slightly less than most hot hatchbacks, Mustang buyers can get a 3.7-liter V6 with 305 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque that brings a 0 to 60 mph time of 5.2 seconds. Buyers looking for the full muscle car experience can upgrade to the GT’s 5.0-liter V8, which has 420 hp, 390 lb-ft, and a 0 to 60 time of 4.5 seconds.

Plus, it’s a Mustang. That means you’ll get more thumbs up and nods of approval than Jon Hamm in a burning Ferrari.


Honda Civic Si

Base price: $22,715

Thanks to its connection with a certain bald street racer, the sporty version of the Honda Civic has become a hipster’s delight: like Pabst Blue Ribbon, it’s so obvious that it’s fashionable.

Some argue that the Civic Si has been watered down over the years, but there is still plenty to like about it. The 2.4-liter inline-four, with 201 hp and 170 pound-feet of torque, is a rare naturally aspirated motivator in a forest of turbochargers.

That gives the Si smoother power delivery than fellow four-bangers, while still being decently quick: 0 to 60 mph takes 6.3 seconds. Honda’s VTEC variable valve timing system also allows it to rev to a screaming 7,000 rpm. And it looks pretty sharp, too.

Mini Cooper S front three quarter motionMini Cooper S

Base price: $23,300

The original Mini dominated the World Rally Championship, and much of that DNA has been reconstituted in this New Millennium re-imagining.

As the Mini lineup has evolved with more body styles (convertible, Clubman, Countryman, Coupe, Roadster) and models (John Cooper Works), the basic “Hardtop” S has actually moved to the bottom of the brand’s performance hierarchy, but it’s still a performance car proposition.

Under the bonnet is a 1.6-liter turbocharged inline-four, with 181 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque. That’s enough to get it to 60 mph in a respectable 6.6 seconds. As with the Fiat, though, the main attraction is a low curb weight and short wheelbase, which allow for go-kart style handling and Italian Job-style antics… if there are no cops around.

2013 Ford Focus ST front three quarter motionFord Focus ST

Base price: $24,115

Ford didn’t invent the hot hatchback (see the next entry on this list) but the Focus ST has reinvigorated the segment. Just look at that body kit, and that whale’s mouth grille.

Behind that grille is a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine from Ford’s EcoBoost line. It produces 252 hp and 270 lb-ft of torque. The sprint to 60 mph takes 5.7 seconds.

Keeping that power under control is a Torque Vectoring Control system, which uses the front brakes to modulate power and lessen the “torque steer” that often plagues powerful front-wheel drive cars.

However, the ST is still a Ford Focus, so when you’re done using the local backroads as a rally stage, you’ll be able to take it to the grocery store and haul the kids around.

Volkswagen GTI Mark 6 front three quarter whiteVolkswagen Golf GTI

Base price: $24,200

In 1975, Volkswagen took a practical front-wheel drive hatchback, added some tech in the form of then-new electronic fuel injection, and created a new segment: the performance economy car, a.k.a. the hot hatchback. Today’s GTI is still one of the best.

Under the hood is a 2.0-liter turbocharged four, producing 200 hp and 207 lb-ft, enough for a 0 to 60 mph time of 6.1 seconds.

All of this is concealed in a very stealthy package: a red stripe on the grille and bigger wheels are the only clues to this car’s true nature. Unless you look inside and see the plaid seats, that is.

With its combination of affordability, practicality, and fun, the GTI is just about all the car most people will ever need.

Hyundai Genesis Coupe profile blueHyundai Genesis Coupe

Base price: $24,250 (2.0T); $28,750 (3.8)

So, what if you want a reasonably priced rear-wheel drive coupe that isn’t an American muscle car? Hyundai has your answer.

The Genesis Coupe doesn’t have a V8 under its hood or a pony on its grille, but it is a bona fide rear-drive four-seater, making it quite the value. This is Hyundai we’re talking about, after all.

The Genesis Coupe is based on Hyundai’s Mercedes-fighting Genesis and Equus sedans, but this isn’t a staid luxury car. Buyers can chose from a 2.0-liter turbocharged four (274 hp, 275 lb-ft, 0 to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds) or a 3.8-liter naturally aspirated V6 (348 hp, 295 lb-ft, 0 to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds).

Hyundai has come a long way from the 1985 Excel.

2012SubaruImprezaWRXSubaru Impreza WRX

Base price: $25,795; $34,295 (STI)

Like all of Subaru’s other products (except the BRZ) this rally warrior is a fundamentally good car with the added benefit of all-wheel drive.

All-wheel drive gives the WRX plenty of grip on dry roads, while allowing it to not be completely useless in the rain or snow.

Of course, the WRX isn’t just an all-wheel drive compact with a big rear spoiler. Under the hood is a turbocharged 2.5-liter boxer-four, producing 265 hp and 244 lb-ft. That’s good enough for a 0 to 60 mph time of 5.0 seconds.

If that’s not enough, there’s also an STI model with 305 hp and 290 lb-ft, although that’s not enough to dramatically affect acceleration times.

Alongside cheap rear-drive two-doors and front-drive hot hatchbacks, the WRX represents a third class of affordable performance car: the rally racer for the road. It’s the perfect alternative if you live in New England. Or the Northwest, where they apparently hand them out at the border.

2013 Dodge Challenger Redline looking badassDodge Challenger

Base price: $25,995 (SXT); $29,995 (R/T)

The Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro get plenty of press, but what of the pony car from the land of Mopar?

The Challenger is the most avowedly retro of the three reborn muscle cars, and it still has the equipment to back up those looks. Base SXT and Rallye models get Chrysler’s 3.6-liter Pentastar V6, which produces 305 hp and 268 lb-ft. The R/T (Road and Track) gets the legendary 5.7-liter Hemi V8, with 375 hp and 410 lb-ft.

The Challenger can scoot to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds with the V6 and 5.1 seconds with the V8. A big brute like this won’t be much fun in the corners, but those straight-line sprints should be endlessly entertaining.

Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution profileMitsubishi Lancer Evolution

Base price: $34,995

Because the car world loves a good rivalry, here’s the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. It’s the Mustang to the WRX STI’s Camaro.

Like the WRX, the Evo has all-wheel drive and a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, which makes 291 hp and 300 lb-ft. The Mitsubishi also features more advanced tech, including a dual-clutch automated transmission and “Super All-Wheel Control,” which adapts the car to different road surfaces. Zero to 60 mph takes 5.3 seconds.

Also like the WRX, the Evo also comes in a practical sedan body and its all-wheel drive traction is just as good at keeping you out of snow drifts as it is at providing grip on your favorite back road.

The Evo sounds like a pretty complete package, but then again, Mitsubishi needs a car this good to stay on enthusiasts’ radar, considering the mediocre models that currently populates the rest of its lineup.

Did we miss your favorite do-it-all fun car? Make your case in comments.