For some, driving a flashy, opulent, and incredibly expensive monument to rubber-burning fury is a lifelong dream. Dreams of Nissan GT-Rs and Porsche Camera 911s dance through your head at night, but when it comes down to plunking down money for a new car, you might have significant barriers to overcome. Significant others, college education funding for your children, or practicality are often auto enthusiast dream crushers. Oh, and the lack of monetary funds might serve as a formidable barrier as well.
Fear not! With the world’s new-found fascination with frugality (thank you, Mr. Recession), road driving euphoria can still be had at a practical price. Since the idea of a “practical price” varies from person to person, I will attempt to cover a range of cars starting from the bottom of the spectrum all the way up to $25,000. Here are my top five choices for budget performance vehicles:
1) Civic SI: Coupe & Sedan (MSRP: $22,055)
The Civic Si (Si stands for “Sports Injected”) has come from a long line of proud, affordable performance vehicles. For the current generation (which started in 2006), the Civic Si underwent a complete redesign from the inside-out. Both the coupe and sedan feature a rev-happy 197 hp 2.0 liter V-TEC engine (8000 RPM redline!) which help it achieve a 0-60 second time of 6.7 seconds. Its handling is snappy and superb, hugging tight turns while maintaining stability due to stiffened sway bars and springs. At a suggested retail price of $22,055, it’s won’t break the wallet (and your kids might even dig the futuristic, alien-like look of the steering wheel and driver controls).
2) Mazda MAZDASPEED3 (MSRP: $23,195)
Oh, Mazda3, let us count the ways that we love you.
Practical storage within the confines of your attractive hatchback shape, with sporty lines and room for five? Check.
Gas sipping MPG, an affordable price, and high quality materials inside and out? Check.
A screaming turbocharged 2.3 liter engine producing 263HP (5.3 second 0-60 time) and a reputation as a “STi killer” for about $23K? Check, check, check, check.
Meet the MazdaSPEED3 – all the practicality of the award winning Mazda3 with some very unpractical performance characteristics. Despite a new front grille that looks like the car has taken a bit too much Prozac, the MazdaSPEED3 retains the same turbocharged engine, stiff suspension (although torque-steer is a concern with 263HP going through the front wheels), and classic hatchback handling. It’s a small wonder that car magazine and website writers rate this car as one of their annual favorites.
3) Mazda MX-5 Miata (MSRP: $21,750)
There is no Mazda bias here – I just felt it would be too much of an offense to all the Mazda MX-5 Miata fans out there to leave this iconic, two-door convertible out of the lineup. For an estimated MSRP of $21,750, the Mazda MX-5 Miata gives you nearly 50/50 weight distribution for responsive handling, enough pep in its inline four-cylinder 167 horsepower engine (running through the rear wheels) to feel spirited, and its trademark go-cart looks. Although it isn’t as practical as other cars in its price range, due to its sub-par MPG rating (hovering around 23-24mpg), small truck space, and two seat configuration, it makes up for it in pure automotive exhilaration. This car provides good Youtube fodder, often showing this little car falling behind much faster vehicles on the track, only to roar ahead by eating sharp turns for lunch and asking for seconds.
4) Chevy Cobalt SS (MSRP: $23,425)
The Chevy Cobalt often exemplified what was (previously) wrong with the compact car class - it was looked boring, was made of flimsy and cheap materials, and nobody wanted to sit in it for a long period of time. Although things are quickly looking up for popular econo-boxes, the performance aspect of a practical compact car often was overlooked. Unless, of course, you drop a 260 HP turbocharged inline-four engine into it, add direct fuel injection, and revamp the suspension.
This is exactly what Chevy has done with the Chevy Cobalt SS. Chevy was wary of the reputation that their high powered cars have had about their unresponsive handling, so they stiffened the chassis with strut bars, lowered the height and added aerodynamic fittings, and added firm springs to reduce body movement. Granted, there are some flaws with this vehicle: the application of so much horsepower and torque (260 ft/lbs) at the front wheels guarantees torque spin, and torque steer is strong during enthusiastic driving. The steering and body roll can be a bear to control and electronic stability features can get in the way of trying to determining what the car can really do. However, for just about $23K MSRP, you can sit yourself in one of the true sleepers on the road with only subtle visual cues and a SS badge hinting at the 260 horses under the hood.
5) Volkswagen GTI (MSRP: $23,230)
Long a leader in the affordable performance car category, the Volkswagen GTI hatchback has been a favorite among new college students, car magazine editors, and track enthusiasts alike. With its refined interior, ride, and classic looks, the GTI gives little mention to onlookers about its turbocharged, direct fuel injected 200HP engine. After you step on the gas and endure the turbo lag, however, the GTI really comes to life and shows how it can achieve 0-60 in under seven seconds. This power is mated to a smooth-shifting 6 speed manual transmission, and is easy to control – upgrades over the regular Rabbit include brake upgrades, performance suspension parts, and unique trim components.
The knocks on the GTI hatchback is that it is usually more expensive than the competition, is slower, and doesn’t exhibit quite the same cornering and turning ability as, say, the MazdaSPEED3. However, it more than makes up for it in refinement (cabin noise is minimal, ride is smooth, and build quality is amazing) and practicality (its hatchback shape and fold-down rear seats offer a surprising amount of room).
If you can think of a car I have omitted, let me know and I’ll try to to include it in a future blog post.