Bang for your buck. It's an American term, but it’s hard to think of a better phrase to describe the concept of getting a lot of performance car for not a lot of cash.
While it applies in the market for new cars, depreciation makes it even more relevant in the used car market, and the choice of some of evo’s past favourite performance cars now selling for pennies is vast. Cheap fast cars are what we're interested in here and, crucially, we've gone in search of models that can be bought, maintained and enjoyed relatively cheaply.
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Set yourself an upper limit of £10,000 - about the same price as a new mid-range Volkswagen Up with 59bhp - and you’ll find everything from V8 muscle cars to turbocharged rally legends and slick sports saloons, with top speeds in excess of 150mph and 0-60mph figures beginning with fives and sixes.
As such, we’ve broken that £10k limit down into four sections and picked three cheap fast cars in each section that should cover a wide range of performance and practicality considerations. What this isn’t is a buying guide (though we’ve dropped in a few nuggets of advice here and there), but where appropriate you’ll find links to cars we’ve covered in more depth elsewhere.
Consider it then more of a shopping list - a selection to tempt you when you want to park something a little more exciting alongside your financed diesel family wagon, or if you’re ready to take the plunge into ownership of your first proper evo car. And if you can think of any more, drop them into the comments section below or let us know on Twitter or Facebook @evomagazine.
Fast cars for £1000-£3000
BMW 330i (E46)
The classiest option of our cheapest trio, the 330i’s biggest bonus is ubiquity. BMW 3-series sales really started to take off with the E46 and before punitive CO2-based taxation there wasn’t a huge penalty in opting for the 3-litre inline-six with its 228bhp output. A 6.5-second 0-60mph sprint is the payoff, along with a limited 155mph top speed.
An agile chassis, rear-wheel drive and frequently, a manual gearbox give it the right drivers’ car credentials, as well as the performance benefits of that strident straight-six. Low prices mean finding one with the right kind of previous owner can be tough, and E46s have a reputation for rust - but for price and performance, it’s a compelling choice.
Skoda Octavia vRS
Skoda’s first proper performance car was a bargain at launch and is even more of a performance bargain now. Powered by the Volkswagen Group’s 1.8-litre turbocharged four-cylinder (just like its SEAT Leon Cupra and VW Golf GTI contemporaries, as well as the Audi TT and several others) it put 180bhp to the front wheels and, like the current Octavia vRS, was something of a family-friendly, pragmatic option in the hot hatch market.
It remains a thoroughly sensible yet curiously appealing option. For similar money you could still get the more stylish and similarly-powered TT, but the Skoda gets you proper back seats and a large boot, as well as the joy of unlikely speed in such an unassuming shape. Mechanicals are generally solid and interiors wear well, and with a good set of tyres there’s still the potential of keeping modern equivalents in your sights.
Subaru Impreza Turbo
Search around and it’s still possible to find turbocharged Imprezas for under £3000. Some of these will be the first-generation GC8 models (with facelifted cars the more commonly available), while basic “bug-eye” models still creep under this figure too. That’s a fairly narrow window from the dozens of Subaru Impreza variants that have hit the road over the years, but a turbocharged Impreza’s a turbocharged Impreza, right?
You’ll have to go in with your eyes wide open, as cheap Imprezas will likely have led quite a hard life. And if you take the plunge, you’ll also find that basic running costs like fuel and insurance will stack up quickly. But if the pursuit of performance is your game there’s little to match them for bang per buck. All develop more than 200bhp, all-wheel drive helps transmit it to the ground, and a nimble chassis makes them as capable in the corners as they are down straights.
Fast cars for £3000-£5000
Honda Accord Type R
The cheapest examples of Honda’s sports saloon can be had for less than £3000, but it’s not unusual to see the best examples now creeping upwards, as the ratty ones get driven into the ground and as the concept of a high-revving, naturally-aspirated powerplant in a sober-suited saloon looks ever more tempting.
In pure speed terms the Accord isn’t one of the more potent vehicles in this list, but few make the process of extracting their speed so enjoyable. The Accord Type R’s launch coincided with the launch of evo - we first drove it back in issue 001 - and it was a hit from the off, not just thrilling with its 7500rpm red line and 209bhp output, but also for its adjustable, exploitable chassis. And don’t be in any doubt: with a 142mph top speed and 7.2-second 0-62mph time, it’s still a rapid choice if you’re prepared to work for it.
Mazda 6 MPS
Few affordable performance cars fly under the radar quite like the Mazda 6 MPS. The clues to its potential are fairly subtle - a restrained body kit, slightly more bulbous bonnet and grille, and twin tailpipes - and it never sold in particularly grand numbers either, so they’re few and far between. Throw in this generation 6’s propensity to rust, and some can look quite sorry for themselves too.
But with a 256bhp, 2.3-litre turbocharged four-pot under the bonnet and all-wheel drive, it was something of an understated Impreza or Evo rival back in the day. Not quite as quick or exciting, admittedly, though 6.6 to 62mph and 150mph aren’t to be sniffed at even in a modern context, particularly for under £5k. We called it 'well worth a look' on its 2006 launch (issue 075), and if you can find a cared-for example, it remains worth a look today.
Renault Sport Megane R26
Renault Sport’s first Megane, the 225, was a decent but fairly unmemorable effort. As we’ve come to expect from the RS division though, it wasn’t long before small changes turned it into a seriously entertaining and competitive hot hatch, through Cup, F1 team and then later R26 models - culminating with the R26.R, one of the most intense hot hatchbacks ever made.
Those are hugely expensive though, so the regular R26 looks like much better value. You can find them for less than £5k in fact, for a front-drive, 227bhp hatch weighing in at a modest 1355kg. While it doesn’t have the straight-line performance of modern equivalents, there’s not much in it for entertainment on a twisty road (the Megane’s steering feel is better than most), and with 0-62mph taking 6.5sec you’ll hardly be left in the dust either. They’re relatively dependable, and specialists abound for making them even quicker.
Fast cars for £5000-£7000
Mercedes-Benz CLK 55 AMG (W208)
We couldn’t put together a list of affordable performance cars without a V8, and Mercedes’ AMG models have long been some of the best. The W208-generation CLK 55 AMG was a four-star evo car back in 2000 when we first drove it (issue 016, if you’re interested), and with 5439cc, 342bhp and 376lb ft at its disposal, it’s a high performance car even in a modern context: 0-60mph took 5.1 seconds and it runs into its limiter at 155mph.
Mercedes of this era have had their image tarnished by electrical gremlins and with the CLK especially, a propensity to rust quite badly - but AMGs should have been looked after a little more diligently than common-or-garden models. They may also have been driven with more verve too, so look for evidence of care, attention and regular servicing. By modern standards the CLK 55 probably feels a little unsophisticated, but for performance and value (without the added complexity of similar-aged CL and S55s) it’s tempting indeed.
Japan’s early 2000s muscle car is great value right now. The cheapest examples actually sneak below our £5k lower limit, though that won’t remain the case for long - interest in Japanese performance cars is growing and as one of the best of its era, the Nissan 350Z will be right near the front of that curve. Good ones are currently plentiful between £5k-£7k, though you’ll still have to search for the best examples.
What you get is a neatly-styled, surprisingly compact coupe powered by a muscular naturally-aspirated 3.5-litre V6. At launch the ‘six produced 287bhp, which rose to 306bhp over time. Even at its least potent it was good for a claimed 0-62mph time of 5.9sec and a 155mph limited top speed. The V6 can sound a bit coarse at times but it’s rarely short of performance. When we drove it in issue 048 back in 2002, we described it as ‘a coupe that’s as good to drive as it is to look at’.
Porsche Boxster S (986)
evo first drove the 986 Porsche Boxster S way back in issue 011, and gave it a full five stars straight off the bat. It’s not too difficult to see why - while the regular 986 was ever so slightly down on power compared to its rivals, the 3.2-litre S took power from 204bhp to 252bhp and torque from 181lb ft to 225lb ft. Big increases both, and enough for 161mph flat out with a 5.9-second 0-60mph sprint.
Today they’re awfully affordable too, thanks in part to the megaphone effect of the internet amplifying concerns about the longevity of Porsche’s early water-cooled flat-sixes. Buyers should still be circumspect, but most cars with issues will have either died or been fixed by now, so the risks aren’t what they were. Still best to find a looked-after example though, and when you do you won’t just get plenty of performance for the money (actually a little less than our £5k minimum, but above that figure you’ll find wider choice) but also one of the best chassis in this list.
Fast cars for £7000-£10,000
BMW Z4 3.0si Coupe
A limit of £10k won’t allow for the Z4 M in this list, but the regular 3-litre coupes have fallen within budget and promise a strong mix of performance and style. The Bangle-era BMWs are getting easier on the eye by the day and the Z4 Coupe was fairly attractive from the start, with traditional sports car proportions and sharply sculpted lines wherever you look. We called it 'stunning but not showy' on first acquaintance in issue 096, and they’re a touch more affordable today than the entry-level Cayman that debuted in the same issue.
With 261bhp at your disposal - 0-62mph comes up in 5.7sec - it’s undoubtedly quick, and like almost all BMWs it’s limited to 155mph. When launched that 3-litre ‘six was the lightest engine of its type and sounds rather wonderful, more so now we’re in an era where four-cylinder turbos are becoming the norm. You’ll want a healthy service history at this money and a history check to ensure the previous owners haven’t got too carried away given the rear-drive layout.
Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VI
£7k-£10k won’t get you a Tommi Makinen Edition. No great shame: It’s still enough for the regular Lancer Evolution VI, a car that dominated on the stages (unlike any of its successors) and even today feels utterly sublime on roads that would flummox all but the very best of modern hot hatchbacks. And you can still get one of those within our budget range.
It was a Makinen we drove relatively recently in issue 231 (February 2017) but you can safely assume our praise of it then - ‘it’s chassis is as capable and entertaining as any I’ve driven in 2016’ - applies to the whole bunch. Best of all, it’s still very quick indeed even by modern performance car standards. A basic Evo VI will hit 60mph in 4.8 seconds from rest and charge onwards to a noisy 140mph. Few, if any cars in this list will be quicker point to point. Few will require more frequent servicing or guzzle more petrol either, but these are the kind of sacrifices you’ll make for a car like the Evo VI.
Fast cars don’t come much more honest than this: Conservatively-styled coupe body shell, 5.7-litre V8 up front, manual gearbox, and power to the rear wheels. It is, as you might imagine, rather brisk: sub-6 seconds to 62mph, and 160mph-plus if you find a long enough stretch of derestricted road.
We drove the regular V8 Monaro (rather than the VXR version) in issue 081, frustrated by its relatively subtle soundtrack (easily fixed) and stodgy steering (not so easily fixed), but still rather taken with its easy-going performance and understated appearance. Four stars was the result, but for no more than £10,000 in today’s money (a third of its original price) the appeal of Holden’s Vauxhall-badged muscle car has grown significantly.