The old saying used to be “cheap, fast, reliable – pick two.” Nowadays, however, automakers have stepped up to the plate and offer an impressive list of inexpensive, fun-to-drive vehicles that provide respectable performance for not much money. They also come with full warranty protection and much better dependability than the same style of speed demon street machines produced during the last decade.
Everyone has their own definition, of course, of what defines cheap. For our purposes, we’ve chosen the $30,000 MSRP as our cutoff mark. Once you move above this price point, you start to come across luxury and premium vehicles that don’t exactly fit into the “inexpensive” category. The sweet spot between $20,000 and $30,000 offers some interesting takes on the compact performance formula, as well as a few surprise entries to keep things interesting from a variety perspective.
Now that we know the price range we are operating in, the next step is to determine just how “fast” an automobile needs to be in order to be included on this list. In some cases, we’ve made our decisions based on the manufacturer’s published acceleration specs – specifically, zero to 60-mph times – but in others, we’ve taken a look at what the aftermarket has to offer in terms of tuning and performance parts for each model. Often, the difference between a quick car and a very fast car is just a few thousand dollars of investment under the hood – or in the automobile’s ECU programming.
Let’s take a look at 10 of the cheapest, fastest cars currently availably, and grade them based on how fast they go, how much aftermarket support they can count on, and how much they will set you back going out the dealership door.
01. 2011 Ford Mustang
Starting MSRP: $22,310
Engine: 305-hp, 3.7-liter V-6
0-60-mph time: 5.1-seconds
When taking a look at price versus performance, it really doesn’t get much better than the base 2011 Ford Mustang V6. Boasting a 3.7-liter, six-cylinder unit that offers up 305 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque, the Ford Mustang V-6 offers all of the performance of the V-8 powered GT models of years past, but at a much cheaper price. A six-speed manual or automatic transmission can be ordered with the Mustang, and the vehicle’s fun factor can be amped up even further through the selection of the V-6 Performance package, which adds GT-level suspension tuning, bigger brakes and large wheels wrapped in sticky summer rubber.
02. 2011 Mazda MAZDASPEED3
Starting MSRP: $23,700
Engine: 263-hp, 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder
0-60-mph time: 6.0-seconds
Sure, it’s almost a full second slower to 60-mph than the Mustang, but it’s just a hair more expensive, giving the 2011 Mazda MAZDASPEED3 a great balance between cost and thrills. The compact hatchback’s 2.3-liter, four-cylinder engine churns out 264 turbocharged horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque, and it comes exclusively with a six-speed manual transmission. As with most hi-po front-wheel drive cars, torque steer is an issue, and while its limited-slip front differential does its best to send as much engine output to the tarmac as possible, the Mazda can easily light up its tires if the throttle is mashed. Still, there’s a significant amount of go locked up inside the MAZDASPEED3’s turbocharged package – especially if the boost is turned up via aftermarket software – making it a solid cheap performance car choice.
03. 2011 Subaru Impreza WRX
Starting MSRP: $25,495
Engine: 265-hp, 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder
0-60-mph time: 5.3-seconds
The 2011 Subaru Impreza WRX is almost the very definition of affordable power. The 2.5-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine sitting under its hood puts out 265 horses and 244 lb-ft of torque (numbers that are easily tweaked thanks to copious aftermarket support), and a world-class all-wheel drive system ensures traction across a wide range of driving conditions. The Subaru WRX is available in both hatchback and sedan editions, and its performance is very much the mirror of the more expensive Impreza WRX STI at the top of the model range. A five-speed manual transmission is the only available gearbox with the Subaru WRX.
04. 2011 Dodge Challenger R/T
Starting MSRP: $26,895
Engine: 372-hp, 5.7-liter V-8
0-60-mpg time: 5.0-seconds
You might notice that the 2011 Dodge Challenger R/T posts an almost identical 0-60-mph time as the Mustang V6, despite offering a much more powerful eight-cylinder engine. There’s a very simple reason for this apparent disconnect: weight. The Dodge Challenger is a very heavy coupe, and it needs each and every one of the 372 horses that its 5.7-liter V-8 can produce to deliver a good time. 400 lb-ft of torque don’t hurt either. The affordable Challenger R/T is a blast to drive, allowing for tire-smoking shenanigans and respectable acceleration, and it comes with the choice of either a five-speed automatic transmission or a six-speed manual gearbox.
05. 2011 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart
Starting MSRP: $27,695
Engine: 237-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder
0-60-mph time: 5.8 seconds
Yes, the 2011 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart is considerably more expensive than some of the other vehicles on this list – including the V-8 powered Dodge Challenger that precedes it. However, the Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart is also much faster than many of the automobiles that follow it in positions six through ten, thanks to the 237 horsepower and 253 lb-ft of torque generated by its 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine. The Lancer Ralliart also benefits from high-tech gear such as a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission and a full-time all-wheel drive system. The price to enjoy such a gifted compact performance sedan might be a bit higher, but the rewards of ownership are also that much greater when behind the wheel.
Starting MSRP: $23,700
Engine: 181-hp, 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine
0-60-mph time: 6.6-seconds
The 2011 MINI Cooper S sits at the other side of the weight spectrum when compared against the portly Dodge Challenger, which is why it is able to hit 60-mph so quickly despite possessing one of the smallest motors on this list. The MINI Cooper S features a responsive chassis design, one that sees its wheels pushed out to each corner and which is perfectly paired with its 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine. This motor pushes out 181 horsepower and up to 192 lb-ft of overboosted torque thanks to the judicious application of forced induction via a turbocharger. The inexpensive Cooper S can be had with either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission.
07. 2011 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V
Starting MSRP: $20,620
Engine: 200-hp, 2.0-liter, four-cylinder
0-60-mph time: 6.8 seconds
The most impressive aspect of the 2011 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V – aside from its ultra-long moniker, of course – is its price. 200 horsepower and 180 lb-ft of torque from a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine for just a tick over $20k is a deal that many compact performance shoppers just can’t pass up. The Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V is only somewhat slower than a few of its much more expensive competitors, and it also comes with go-fast gear such as a lowered suspension system and bigger brakes. The Nissan can be outfitted with an optional limited-slip front differential, and it features look-at-me exterior styling that is sure to rile up the driver sitting in the lane beside it at a stop light.
08. 2011 Hyundai Genesis Coupe 3.8 R-Spec
Starting MSRP: $26,750
Engine: 306-hp, 3.8-liter V-6
0-60-mph time: 5.9 seconds
It might seem strange that a contender like the 2011 Hyundai Genesis Coupe 3.8 R-Spec sits so low on this list. Even more unusual is the fact that despite matching the Mustang V6 in terms of power, the Hyundai Genesis Coupe’s 306 horsepower and 266 lb-ft of torque (from a 3.8-liter V-6) is not enough to come close to equaling the much cheaper pony car’s acceleration times. In any case, the Genesis Coupe 3.8 R-Spec is still an appealing package for those willing to pay the extra cash required to put its keys in their pocket: the compact two-door offers 19-inch wheels, a limited-slip rear differential, pleasing driving dynamics and Brembo brakes to go with its sport suspension system. A six-speed manual transmission is the only transmission to be found with the R-Spec trim.
09. 2011 Volkswagen GTI
Starting MSRP: $23,695
Engine: 200-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder
0-60-mph time: 6.8 seconds
The 2011 Volkswagen GTI is often the choice of compact performance enthusiasts who want to pay a reasonable amount of money for a car that is not only quick, but also comfortable. Sure, the Volkswagen GTI’s 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine isn’t the most potent mill on the market (200 horsepower, 207 lb-ft of torque), but a legion of aftermarket tuners will be all too happy to offer a long list of potential power improvements – and handling upgrades to boot. The Volkswagen GTI provides a six-speed manual as its standard transmission, but an advanced six-speed, dual-clutch automated manual can also be ordered with the hatchback.
10. 2012 Honda Civic Si Coupe
Starting MSRP: $22,205
Engine: 201-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder
0-60-mph time: 6.9-seconds
The 2012 Honda Civic Si Coupe has been completely redesigned, a move which installs a larger 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine under the hood that is good for 201 horsepower and 174 lb-ft of torque. The Honda Civic Si continues to base its reputation on the rev-happy nature of its engine and the solid engineering of its front-wheel drive chassis, not simple straight-line speed. The Civic Si, which comes with a six-speed manual transmission, is definitely fun to drive and still the darling of the sport compact aftermarket, but the lack of a significant power boost from one generation to the next has left many former fans searching for the next level of performance in the form of a competitor’s product.