There are a few things that everyone - regardless of age, gender, or orientation - should want in a car. First, it should be able to carry enough groceries for you to eat for a day. Second, it should look like an elegant addition to anyone’s ensemble, like a fine suit or a blouse with all the frilly bits and whatnot. And third, it should get you from point A to point B in the minimum amount of time and the maximum amount of fun. In other words, it should be fast.
But there’s a problem. Most people think that unless you have several thousand dollars burning a hole in your bank account, you simply can’t afford a fast car. Speed is for the financially elite, the “one percent”, the Illuminati of lizard people controlling the government and oppressing the poor and velocity deprived. Those of moderate means are forever cursed to drive reasonable family sedans that can’t run a quarter mile in less than 30 seconds. I have some wonderful news for those people: they’re wrong.
There are plenty of options for those speed-conscious consumers who don’t have millions of dollars but do have a desire to get through that amber intersection before it changes to soul-crushing red, and you won’t need to remortgage your house to buy it either.
Here are 15 of the fastest cars you can own for under $30,000.
15 Ford Focus ST
When anyone says “sensible but fast,” the first thing that comes to mind is a hatchback, and the first hatchback that comes to mind when you say “fast” is always the Ford Focus. For decades, this hot hatch has been the sensible car for every young man or woman that wanted both style, comfort, and above all, nimbleness.
The fastest Focus is the RS, which can skid around a track like a berserk go-kart, but the trim model below that - the ST - is a perfectly acceptable example of Ford engineering for those who are a bit more budget conscious. It still comes armed with a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine putting out 252 hp, which is quite a lot for a small car and can propel it from zero to sixty in 6.2 seconds. That’s a steal at only $25,995.
14 Hyundai Genesis Coupe 3.8 R-Spec
As in any car category you can think of nowadays, you can’t discount the Koreans. Hyundai has been slowly taking market share from Toyota for over a decade, to the point where it seemed the storied-Japanese manufacturer was ceding the sports-compact market to them altogether. For nearly six years, the Hyundai Genesis Coupe only had a Nissan to contend with in that particular market segment, and as with anything Hyundai, they beat everyone on price.
The R-Spec version of the Genesis comes with a naturally aspirated 3.8-L V6 that puts 348 ponies to the tires and allows the sportiest of Hyundais to jet to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds. You won’t be able to find a new one, though, as they stopped making the coupe in 2016. That, however, should allow you to pick one up for under 30 grand.
13 Mazda MX-5 Miata
The heir to the British roadster is none other than the Mazda Miata, a strange twist considering it’s a Japanese car company. And yet, the Miata has consistently been awarded as the best convertible that you can buy, full stop. That’s high praise for a car you can buy brand new for under $25,000.
A 155-hp 2.0-liter engine doesn’t sound like much on paper, but you have to remember that the Miata weighs only 2,400 pounds. That gives it a power-to-weight ratio that outperforms many cars both heavier and more expensive and allows it to reach 60 miles per hour in just 5.9 seconds with a good driver at the wheel.
The only downside, of course, is that its small size makes it very difficult to take the kids to soccer practice, especially if your kid is 30 years old and 6 foot 2.
12 Volkswagen GTI
Even the Germans can be fast and affordable when they want to be. The Golf was the consummate VW car for decades, with the GTI version single-handedly birthing the “hot hatchback” segment of small, sporty, 3- to 5-door cars.
The modern GTI is a marvel of German engineering, with a 2.0-L turbocharged engine that puts out 210 horsepower and can launch the car from zero to sixty in 5.7 seconds on the available 6-speed manual transmission. And you don’t have to break the bank doing it, with the 2018 model starting at $25,595.
It’s easy to see why the GTI’s combination of performance and price have kept it in the top 10 of the rankings on every major car publication for over a decade.
11 Honda Accord Touring Coupe V6
Getting a fast Honda used to involve buying a Civic and then taking it to a garage filled with guys named "Mick," who would would then drop some other car’s engine inside it, give it an ostentatious paint job, and send you on your way, only to have your transmission drop out from under you a few miles later. Now, you can get a fast Civic but only if you’re willing to break our $30,000 budget.
But there’s another Honda that actually comes just under budget and just over 5.6 seconds in a zero-to-sixty race: the Accord Touring V6. Equipped with a 3.5-liter V6 producing 278 horsepower and 252 lb-ft of torque, the V6 will make sitting behind the wheel feel just like riding a Mustang but with some advantages. The ride is refined, the brakes, responsive, and there’s enough room to fit a family of moderately sized dogs.
10 Subaru Forester XT
Well, this is interesting. You probably thought this would be a list filled with nimble hatchbacks and reasonable sport-compacts. What’s a sports utility vehicle doing on a list filled with fast but reasonably priced cars?
If it were the base model, your incredulity would be well founded. But the Forester XT has a surprise in store - a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine capable of putting out 250 horses of go. Combined with Subaru’s legendary all-wheel-drive and Lineartronic continuously variable transmission, you have an SUV capable of going from zero to sixty in 6.3 seconds. That’s faster than most midsize sedans.
Amazingly, all three-and-a-half tons of engineering and metal can be had for just under $30,000.00, and it still comes with all the bells and whistles you’d expect. If you had to buy an SUV, this would be the fastest SUV to buy - and therefore, the best.
9 Dodge Charger SE
The beauty of American muscle cars isn’t the fact that they can go incredibly fast in a straight line and incredibly sideways at the mere suggestion of a curve. No, the beauty of American muscle cars is even if you can’t afford the highest-end version with an engine the size of Delaware that puts out more horsepower than a jumbo jet, there’s always a base model that still looks just as good but costs half as much. And you don’t need to worry about plowing into a telephone pole just for tapping the gas.
The Charger SE may be the base model, but it still comes with plenty of power - 292 horsepower, to be exact. That’s enough to push the Charger to a zero-to-sixty time of just under 6.2 seconds - certainly not the fastest time for a muscle car, but respectable, considering you only had to pay $27,995 for it.
8 Toyota Camry XSE V6
I know what you’re thinking: “Toyota? Fast? Surely he’s gone mad!” Well, that may be true, but that doesn’t mean this sensible family sedan can’t hit speeds more often seen on sports compacts and cars with huge rims and silly oversized mufflers. The reason being is that Toyota put an enormous (for a family sedan) 3.5-L naturally aspirated V6 under the hood that can shoot this thing off a stop line like a rocket to the moon. However, even though it can hit 60 mph in a bare 6.1 seconds, you still won't quite get the same feel as you would with other cars on this list owing to Toyota's emphasis on comfort above all else. The other problem is they didn't put brakes nearly large enough to combat its unwieldy engine, making it far harder to stop than to go.
This year's model comes close to 35 grand, but you should be able to find last year's model under budget.
7 Scion FR-S
Well, we’re already five entries in before we get a proper sports car. And don't be fooled by the sub-30k price tag; the FR-S is the first truly affordable sports compact to be made by almost any car manufacturer in over a decade.
The engine itself isn't particularly noteworthy, putting out barely 200 horses when you put your foot down. It's everything else that gives the FR-S its incredible performance, from the rear-wheel driven, 6-speed manual transmission to an old-school mechanical limited slip diff. All of them combined make the car superbly agile and sublime to drive.
And it's fast, able to get to 60 in just under 6.1 seconds. With a price tag of just over $26,000, it's perhaps the best bang for your buck on the road today.
6 Ford Mustang EcoBoost
The Ford Mustang has historically been the cheapest car with the biggest engine a limited budget can buy. However, the Ford Mustangs lacked power, but fortunately, not the latest generation of pony-grilled autos from Ford. They've learned well the lessons of prior stallions, and now, Mustangs also allow the driver to survive taking a corner at speeds Mustangs have always been known for. And on top of that, the most recent generation has a five-star crash rating for when you inevitably misjudge that snow-covered bend.
But nobody buys a Mustang for how safe it is to drive - they buy it to burn rubber, and that's something the Mustang still does better than anything else. The base model Mustang starts at $25,585 and its 310 hp turbocharged inline-4 engine will take it from zero to sixty in just 5.9 seconds.
5 Chevrolet Malibu 2.0T Premier
If there’s anything even more boring than a Toyota Camry, it has to be Chevrolet’s midsize family sedan, the Malibu. Named after a delusion in grandeur, the base models drive in roughly the same way, with their owners convinced they’re driving something far more luxurious than it is.
And that all remains true up until you get the most expensive trim for the Malibu, the 2.0T Premier. "2.0T" for the 2.0-Liter turbocharged engine, and "Premier" since it can boost far off the line and reach sixty in just 5.7 seconds. Imagine being able to out drag race a Mustang in a family mobile - the ultimate sleeper.
However, much like the Camry, you may find it difficult to stop your family rocket when you’re going dangerously fast and the traffic light turns red. Luckily, you should be able to afford a good lawyer since the car only costs $29,850.
4 Chevrolet Camaro LS
For years, the Mustang was your default choice for American muscle. Then the latest Camaro generation came along in 2015 and started stealing some of the Mustang’s thunder. The base model LS comes with a 2.0-L turbocharged engine that produces 275 horsepower, which certainly sounds less than the 310 from the Mustang, but it still manages to propel this car to sixty miles per hour in 5.5 seconds.
How does it manage to beat the more powerful Mustang? Well, first it shaves off several hundred pounds from the chassis. Then the engineers performed some sort of voodoo witchcraft to the drivetrain to give it unparalleled torque in its class. The final product is a car that goes incredibly fast for a mere $25,905.
3 Subaru WRX
If Subaru can make an SUV that hits 60 miles per hour, then surely it could make a car that also accomplishes that feat. And they did! It's called the WRX, which stands for World Racing… Xenophobe. Which is odd, considering it's an import.
It doesn't stand for that - it actually stands for World Rally Cross, which reveals its racing heritage. Fully equipped with Subaru's legendary 2.0-L boxer engine providing 268 horses to its standard all-wheel drive transmission, the WRX can launch itself to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds. For just under $27,000, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more capable car.
2 Nissan 370Z
Nissan has never given up on fielding a genuinely good sports compact and putting it on the market for a fair price. From the Datsun Sport to the 240SX to the iconic 350Z, Nissan is a company that has always known how to make a small car go around a track very, very fast. In fact, Nissan may be relying on that old-school knowledge a little too much. While newer versions of the venerable Mustang and Camaro start fiddling with newer, smaller, more fuel-efficient turbocharged engines, the 370Z chugs along with a 3.7-L V6 that has nothing helping the air across the cylinders. While this gives reliable and expected power across all of its RPMs, it’s not exactly high-tech.
Performance, however, is never in doubt. Getting to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds beats out many cars much more expensive than the $29,990 price tag of the 370Z.
1 Dodge Challenger R/T
If I’m honest, I was a little hesitant putting the Challenger at the top of the list. Yes, it can hit 60 mph in 5.1 seconds, which is quite a bit faster than any car in its price range and even faster than many cars double the price. What it sacrifices for straight-line performance is almost everything else. It feels like a big, heavy, American muscle car and is capable of speeds that would leave you a blended pile of meat if you were to ever even twitch when going all out.
But there’s also a certain joy to be had in such a car as the Challenger. The noise is biblical, the speed, messianic, and the price tag, fit for a pauper. Even brand new, the MRSP is just $27,995, which will leave most of us with enough money to spare for the inevitable speeding ticket. Or noise complaint. Or possibly both.
Sources: CarandDriver; Top Gear; Wikipedia