The truly affordable new sports car is hard to come by. That we’ve set the budget for our round-up of the latest contenders at a fairly lofty £30,000 is indicative of that, but the quality at this level is, as you’ll see below, remarkably high.
Unfortunately, that budget does rule out a few contenders, including the evergreen Lotus Elise, and unique British offerings like the Ariel Nomad and Zenos E10 S. But we’ve tried to keep those that remain to a simple, appreciable formula: Relatively untamed by electronics, rear-wheel drive, and a manual gearbox.
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Abarth 124 Spider
The bare numbers on the Abarth 124 Spider are quite tempting; on paper, it's the turbocharged Mazda MX-5 we've been waiting for. 170bhp, 184lb ft of torque, and a 0-60mph time half a second quicker than the Japanese-badged car. Both are build in Hiroshima, of course.
It's a better car than the less aggressive Fiat 124 Spider too, and the styling is definitely more appealing, with a retro vibe that the regular 124 seems to mask beneath a layer of dumpiness. Most importantly, it gets a limited-slip differential - denied to the Fiat, but an integral component of the more involving MX-5s.
Unfortunately, it retains the slightly soft feeling of the Mazda, so while it's far more of a sports car than its Fiat equivalent, it's not quite the step over the MX-5 we were hoping for. Expensive too, but there's still plenty here to like.
Caterham Seven 270R
This isn’t the cheapest Seven you can buy – that honour falls to the 3-cylinder Suzuki-engined Seven 160. But the 270R, fully built by the factory, comes in at £27,490 and offers both a 4.8-second 0-62mph time and thrills bettered only by even more powerful Caterhams. Jethro Bovingdon raved about the 270R in evo 209:
‘The 540kg Seven does rather question all the various ‘asistance’ systems that seek to protect us from ourselves. From the steering to the brakes and, of course, the balance, the 270R offers such clarity and responsiveness that you feel liberated and make the car dance absolutely to your tune.
‘The 135bhp engine is really, really feisty and you never crave more power, helped by the hilariously tightly spaced ratios of the optional six-speed gearbox.
‘Overall it feels manic and exciting, but still sweetly balanced and delicate as grip ebbs and flows around the lap.’
Fiat 124 Spider
Like the Abarth above, the Fiat 124 Spider is actually a Japanese interloper in Italian clothing, but for us the 124's clothing is least appealing of the lot. It doesn't have the tautness and compact proportions of the Mazda, and it lacks the light-hearted fun and red-blooded aggression of the Abarth.
That continues to the way the 124 drives, which is softest of the bunch - and given none of the trio are as sharp as cars like the Toyota GT86, that's not a characteristic worthy of praise in this instance.
It'll play the role of boulevard cruiser of course, but given it's both more expensive and less adept than the Mazda on which it's based (despite the apparent benefit of a turbocharged engine) it's our least favourite of the trio. At least it adds variety to the market.
We're being a little sneaky here, as the Ford Mustang technically starts at more than £30k, with a £31,745 entry point. And for that, you don't get the Mustang we all really want, which is the 5-litre V8 GT.
But while the Mustang is clearly a special kind of Ford it's still a Ford, which means you should be able to squeeze a few quid off at a dealership, and being the 2.3-litre EcoBoost rather than the more desirable V8 may lubricate the deal somewhat. Anyway, the EcoBoost is still fun, still makes enough power and torque to get you down the road at a pace, and looks little different on the outside.
There's not the character of the V8 here, but this latest Mustang, like its forebears, represents a tempting amount of car for the money. And if you really must have the V8, it's only around £5000 more than our £30k budget.