Cheap performance cars can wear a number of disguises. There are of course the entry-level versions of hot brand new models that offer a respectable amount of handling and get-up-and-go at a reasonable price. Then again, there are also older, used cheap performance cars that deliver excellent speed at a price that satisfies even those on a smaller budget. Whether you choose to go new or used is up to you and your comfort level when it comes to secondhand automobiles, but there's no denying that a significant amount of fun can be had when spending between $20,000 and $25,000 on a performance car. Let's take a quick look at 10 cheap performance cars and see what they bring to the table.
1) 2015 Chevrolet Camaro LS
The 2015 Chevrolet Camaro LS retails for an MSRP of $23,705, and before you call it the “consolation prize” of Camaros due to its entry-level status, check out what the two-door coupe has to offer: a 3.6-liter V-6 engine that generates a very healthy 323 horsepower and 278 lb-ft of torque. Match that with the vehicle's standard six-speed manual transmission, and you've got a fairly potent daily driver that manages to turn in better than average acceleration on top of its 30 mpg highway rating. A dual exhaust system helps add to the performance image, and sweetens the aural pot for the six-cylinder Chevrolet Camaro.
2) 2013 BMW 135i
The 2013 BMW 135i represents a German take on the traditional muscle car philosophy of stuffing an overpowered engine into a tiny, two-door vehicle. In this case, it's a 3.0-liter straight-six that has been turbocharged in order to grind out 300 horsepower and 300 lb-ft of torque. But wait, there’s more. The BMW 135i also comes with a six-speed manual transmission, a stiffer sport suspension system that gives its rear-wheel drive chassis better cornering capability, and its relatively light curb weight and compact proportions serve it well on a race track. BMW phased out the 1 Series after the 2013 model year, which means now’s a great time to look for a solid used example. The price for all of this fun is roughly $25,000 on the secondhand market.
3) 2015 Mazda MX-5 Miata
The 2015 Mazda MX-5 Miata isn't the fastest car on our list, nor is it the most exotic. For $23,970, however, it offers cheap performance car fans with one of the purest driving experiences they are ever going to find. First and foremost, the Mazda MX-5 Miata roadster pleases those behind the wheel with its perfectly balanced chassis, which benefits from an extremely low curb weight and excellent suspension tuning. The ability to brake late and hold speed through the corners gives the Miata excellent road course manners, and keeping its 167-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine on the boil with the car's standard five-speed automatic transmission guarantees a good time on any twisty road.
4) 2013 Mazda MAZDASPEED3
The 2013 Mazda MAZDASPEED3 is a brutal rush of a compact hatchback, one that pairs a front-wheel drive layout with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine that strains and pulls at the steering wheel under heavy acceleration. The grunt that is produced by the vehicle's 2.3-liter mill, checking in at 263 horses and 280 lb-ft of twist, is not to be trifled with, as it allows the Mazda MAZDASPEED3 to leap to 60 mph in just a few ticks over six seconds. A six-speed manual transmission handles all of the shifting duties for the hatch, and the car also gains a performance-oriented suspension system and an eye-catching body kit. Mazda killed off the MAZDASPEED3 after 2013, but a clean used specimen will still offer plenty of fun.
5) 2014 Subaru Impreza WRX
The Subaru WRX was revised for 2015, which means that the still-awesome previous generation is a potentially great deal. The 2014 WRX features a stiff chassis and a powerful drivetrain, centered around a turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder that makes 265 horsepower and 244 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed manual transmission allows the driver to make the most of the power, and Subaru’s excellent all-wheel drive system is what helped this car earn its reputation as both a reliable year-round commuter and a rally-ready weekend joyride.
6) 2015 Ford Fiesta ST
The 2015 Ford Focus ST further demonstrates the potency of turbocharged hatchbacks on our list of cheap performance cars. The Ford Fiesta ST is a more refined subcompact hatchback that still packs decent power thanks to the presence of a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, producing 197 horsepower and 214 lb-ft of torque. This mill enables the Fiesta ST to hit 60 mph in just a tick over seven seconds. A six-speed manual rounds out the Fiesta ST, and there's no slushbox option, but the car does feature more rapid steering than the entry-level Fiesta, as well as a distinctive body kit and a better tuned suspension. The 2015 Ford Fiesta St starts at $21,400.
7) 2014 Volkswagen GTI
The 2014 Volkswagen GTI is another hot hatch, albeit one that trades more in refined handling and a near-grand touring feel than all-out acceleration. For many buyers, however, that's exactly the combination they are looking for in a quick compact car, making the Volkswagen GTI one of the most popular budget-friendly go-fast options. Under its hood, the VW sports a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that provides drivers with 200 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual transmission is included with the car's $24,200 base price, but for a bit more cash it's possible to have a dual-clutch automated manual unit installed that shifts through its six forward gears faster than a human being ever could. The 2015 GTI marks a new generation (and a base price that creeps above the $25k mark), so there may be some good deals on any 2014 examples that are still sitting around.
8) 2015 Fiat 500 Abarth
The 2015 FIAT 500 Abarth features a powerful engine crammed into a little car, a favorite method of coming up with an inexpensive and attention-getting performance car. The Abarth nameplate betrays the otherwise modest hatchback’s source of power: a 1.6-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine under the hood, yielding 160 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual transmission adds some fun, and the Abarth also features a stiff suspension system for more oomph than the base Fiat 500, all starting at $22,395.
9) 2011 Mazda RX-8 R3
The 2011 Mazda RX-8 R3 was the last hurrah for the Japanese brand's unique rotary-powered sports cars, a drivetrain design done-in by thirsty fuel consumption and upcoming emissions regulations. The used market is replete with sub-$25,000 examples of this fantastic performance car, as the vehicle's excellent weight distribution, low mass philosophy, and engine that revs to 9,000 rpm give it a special character. The Mazda RX-8 R3 was a special edition of the car offers a six-speed manual transmission, the car's most track-friendly suspension settings, and Recaro sport seats up front. 232 horsepower and 152 lb-ft of torque are standard with the RX-8 R3.
10) 2015 Scion FR-S
The 2015 Scion FR-S is basically the mechanical twin of the Subaru BRZ, developed as part of a partnership between Toyota and Subaru. The Scion FR-S boasts a 200-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that yields 151 lb-ft of torque, and a choice between manual and automatic six-speed transmissions. There's a subtle difference in suspension tuning when comparing the two vehicles, with the Scion model coming across as a bit more focused, although Scion adjusted the suspension on the 2015 model to make it more closely emulate the Subaru. The single-trim FR-S also happens to be marginally cheaper than its BRZ counterpart, starting at $24,900, just low enough to meet our criteria for this list.