Even though the modern-day horsepower wars are leading to some seriously mind-blowing numbers—see, for example, the 556-hp Cadillac CTS-V—much of the fun is taking place in the industry’s upper-level segments where all that power can require a seriously wallet-blowing MSRP. On the other side of the spectrum, there are currently a wide variety of excellent vehicles on the market today that remain affordably priced under $20,000. Getting the best of both worlds can be tricky, but for drivers on a budget who still want to pack in as much horsepower as possible, here are ten worthy solutions that do just that.
1. GMC Canyon/Chevrolet Colorado
GM’s compact pickups may be competitively challenged on some fronts, but they lead the way by far in terms of how many horses you can stable for under $20,000. The base work truck models of the GMC Canyon and the Chevrolet Colorado start off with 2.9-liter four-cylinder engines spec’ed to make 185 hp—as much as the No. 4 Suzuki Kizashi—and thanks to a current $1,000 cash offer on 2011 models, you can upgrade to a 3.7-liter I5 putting out 244 hp, an extended cab and a four-speed automatic and just reach $19,305. And that’s for the Professional Grade (i.e., more expensive) GMC version.
2. Kia Optima/Hyundai Sonata
Continuing to build on all their other recent achievements, Kia and Hyundai also offer the most horsepower you can get in a mainstream car for under $20,000. The 2011 Kia Optima is rated a full 200 hp courtesy of Hyundai’s all-new Theta II four-cylinder engine with gasoline direct injection, and while the 2011 Hyundai Sonata starts with the same powerplant, it’s rated at 198 hp in its base trim level. Speaking of which, the Optima’s starting price is $19,200, while the Sonata begins at $19,695, in both cases with a standard six-speed manual transmission.
3. Nissan JUKE
It’s got the smallest engine, but Nissan’s mighty mite is in third place on the list thanks to the plethora of powertrain technology deployed on its 1.6-liter I4, including gasoline direct injection, turbocharging, and twin variable valve timing. Backed by that kind of tech and more, the Nissan JUKE has 188 hp on tap, and it gets routed through one of Nissan’s Xtronic continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) with Sport mode. The JUKE starts jumping at $19,570. Note that torque-vectoring all-wheel drive is available on the Juke as well, but it bumps the vehicle’s MSRP to $21,070.
4. Suzuki Kizashi
The 2011 Suzuki Kizashi continues to score highly in respected third-party quality studies, most recently topping the highly competitive midsize sedan segment in the 2011 J.D. Power and Associates Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) study, and with good reason. Starting at $18,999 for the front-wheel-drive model with a six-speed manual transmission, Suzuki’s giant-slayer delivers 185 hp from its 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. Adding to the excitement: Autobahn-tuned ride and handling enhanced by KYB shocks and Akebono brake components.
5. Scion tC
Offering 180 horses for a price tag of $19,305, the 2012 Scion tC was completely redesigned for the 2011 model year and now sits on a new platform with an enhanced suspension, holsters a more powerful 2.5-liter I4 with intelligent dual variable valve timing, offers a choice of two new six-speed transmissions, and wears fresh and fantastic sheet metal for a more aggressive appearance. And not only is the current tC faster than the previous generation, but it’s more fuel efficient, too.
6. Kia Sportage
Kia’s small crossover tips the dyno at 176 hp, and wraps it in some of the most dramatic sheet metal on the market. The base model Kia Sportage comes with a standard six-speed manual transmission, a 2.4-liter gasoline direct injection inline-four-cylinder engine and a base price of $18,500. That’s a lower MSRP than Hyundai puts on the Sportage’s counterpart, the Tucson, but even though that vehicle’s $19,045 entry price is low enough for a spot on the roster, its engine’s output of 165 hp comes up short.
7. Kia Forte/Forte Koup/Forte 5-door
A telling difference between the South Korean siblings is that Hyundai has just one model on the list while Kia has five models in four different body styles. Joining the Optima and Sportage are the cool Kia Forte Koup and versatile 5-door, both priced at $18,395 with a six-speed DIY gearbox and $19,395 with a six-speed automatic, and the Forte sedan, only available with a six-speed automatic transmission, showcasing a base MSRP of $18,895—all provide 173 hp in SX trim with Kia’s robust 2.4-liter I4.
8. Subaru Legacy
Subaru’s midsize sedan just barely sneaks onto the list with a starting price of $19,995 when equipped with a six-speed manual gearbox, but it does have the benefit of sending power to all four corners. And in addition to Subaru’s hallmark Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system, the Subaru Legacy also sports another Subaru specialty, a four-cylinder boxer-style engine. Its unique design enables a smooth-running 170-hp in a low-profile package for particularly well-balanced ride and handling.
9. Subaru Impreza 4-door/Impreza 5-door/Impreza Outback Sport
The next-generation Subaru Impreza will launch later this year with a smaller engine—and improved performance due to a lighter vehicle weight—but the 2011 models aren’t exactly slouches. They each have the same 2.5-liter four-cylinder boxer engine as the Legacy, the same standard Subaru Symmetrical All-Wheel-Drive system, and starting prices of $17,495 for the sedan, $17,995 for the five-door hatchback, and $19,995 for the rugged Outback Sport. All prices are for models with the standard five-speed manual transmission; MSRPs increase by $1,000 for a four-speed automatic, which still leaves the 4-door and 5-door under the $20,000 limit.
10. VW Jetta/Jetta Sportwagen/Golf/Passat/Beetle
It looks like Volkswagen’s efforts to attract more American buyers include appealing to their hunger for horsepower, as the all-new Beetle, Jetta and Passat models all reside near the top of their segments in this key measure, as does the perennially popular Golf. Coincidentally, all five vehicles offer a five-cylinder powerplant, a 2.5-liter unit that puts out 170 hp. Starting prices are as follows: Jetta, $18,195 (5MT), $19,295 (6AT); Golf, $17,995 (5MT), $19,095 (6AT); Jetta SportWagen, $19,995 (5MT); Passat, $19,995 (5MT); Beetle, $18,995 (5MT).