It is generally accepted in the automotive world that one must "pay to play" - the more power and capabilities an owner desires, the deeper they must plunge into their wallets. This is not to say, however, that individuals on a budget do not have options for entertaining vehicles that are as economical as they are fun.
Consistent joy can be had from a car without the necessity for the latest and greatest technology, and the market is flooded with testaments to this fact, provided that individuals are willing to look for them. For those who seek a spirited experience behind the wheel that won't break the bank, here are ten phenomenal budget performance cars that can still be found today.
10 Chevrolet Cobalt SS
The Cobalt SS is nothing short of an unsung hero. When the naturally-aspirated base models were not enough, Chevrolet developed a supercharged version of their 2.0 liter I4 capable of 205 horsepower, followed shortly after by an even better turbocharged iteration making 260 horsepower. The latter even came factory-equipped with launch control and no-lift-shift capability, making this economy cruiser quite the sleeper. True to the wishes of enthusiasts, all Cobalt SS models were sold with a 5-speed manual transmission.
Alas, all good things must come to an end. Following the introduction of a more "sophisticated" (if that word can be applied to a Cobalt) SS sedan in 2009, the model was axed the following year. Fear not, though, as well-kept examples can be found for sale for around $6,000 or less.
9 Mini Cooper S
Ample power and handling prowess in a compact package is the epitome of budget performance. Enter the Mini Cooper S, a sportier version of the famed Mini hatch. the first-generation Mini Cooper S (R53) was equipped with a supercharged 1.6 liter I4 making 164 horsepower, while the turbocharged R56 choked out an additional 11 horsepower. This may not seem like much, but in a package weighing less than 2,600 pounds, the Mini Cooper S is a blast to drive.
Hard corners are a breeze with the nimble Mini's sport suspension, and enthusiasts will relish in the fact that the manual transmission option was decidedly more reliable and popular than the abysmal automatic. Maintenance may not be for the faint of heart, but with used models for sale in the $4-$6,000 range, it's worth taking the leap.
8 Mitsubishi Eclipse GSX/Eagle Talon TSi
Before the lifeless Eclipse Cross dragged its feet across the Mitsubishi assembly line, the nameplate was one that evoked excitement. Driven by the famed 4G63 2.0 liter turbocharged I4, the Eclipse GSX and Talon TSi were barrels of fun. Few drivers would not enjoy a 210 horsepower, all-wheel-drive sport coupe with a manual transmission, and many certainly still do.
GSX and TSi models are becoming a little difficult to come by, but only take a few thousand dollars to purchase when located. Modifications for the platform are plentiful and inexpensive as well, giving the GSX and TSi fantastic potential for the track or "alternative" racing locations.
7 Audi TT
Don't let the moderately-feminine hips fool you; the Audi TT is a car meant to be driven hard. The MKI TT massaged the widely-used 1.8T I4 engine into a tiny package that could be complete with both a manual transmission and Audi's famed Quattro all-wheel-drive technology. Base models pushed out 180 horsepower, while the "TT 225" crammed an additional 45 horsepower into the mix.
The Audi TT is so much fun for such a little car, and with prices hovering near the $5-$6,000 range for first-generation examples, they're a difficult candidate to ignore. Additionally, the 1.8T's use across multiple models has created an extensive aftermarket, so adding that extra push is relatively cheap and easy, too.
6 Mazda Miata
The term "performance" does not necessarily coincide with horsepower. The Mazda Miata is a sound testament to this fact, providing as much continuous entertainment as a vehicle can with less than 130 horsepower at its disposal.
The Miata's reputation as a very capable roadster was not built on power, but rather on its 50/50 weight distribution, usable rev range, and strong construction able to withstand abuse. No matter the risky corner or coned track, the Miata handles each turn and late shift with a smile. Happily, with over one million units sold, the Miata is a plentiful commodity, and earlier generations can be purchased for around $5,000 or less.
5 Nissan 350Z
It is usually difficult to go wrong with a car that offers nearly 290 horsepower, a six-speed manual transmission, and rear-wheel drive. These qualities and more allow the Nissan 350Z to grace this list.
The 350Z is quite well-rounded; it has ample power for straight-line fun, is balanced enough to enjoy on the track, and is a crowd favorite at drift events. The 3.5 liter VQ35DE is a peppy engine, if its owner can combat the notorious oil consumption issue, and they can have quite an attractive tone (with a proper exhaust system, of course). The 350Z has remained widely popular since its release, and clean examples can still be found for well under $7,000.
4 Volkswagen GTI
The term "hot hatch" practically owes its life to the Volkswagen GTI. In 1976, the German automaker crammed over 100 horsepower into their light economy hatchback and updated the steering and suspension to match, thereby creating a formula that automotive enthusiasts still crave to this day.
Each generation of GTI brings different benefits to the table; the MKI and MKII GTI's, for example, handle outstandingly well under aggressive driving conditions. At the other end of the spectrum, later turbocharged generations are just as nimble while putting out around 200 horsepower or greater, depending on engine choice. No matter your generational preference, the GTI is tough to beat when considering cheap fun.
3 Volvo S60 R
With a reputation for safety and sensibility, it may be surprising to see a Volvo on this list. On the contrary, the S60 R is a tazmanian devil in a tuxedo. Volvo's esteemed T5 turbocharged five-cylinder engine affords a whopping 300 horsepower to be sent to all four wheels, and an optional six-speed manual transmission makes for great control during spirited driving.
The S60 R's adaptive suspension makes for a volatile ride; a comfort setting allows for a smooth ride during relaxed driving, while sport and advanced modes offer increasingly stiffer suspension adaptations for handling the tightest corners. For those that are a bit mechanically inclined, picking up a used S60 R for around $6,000 or less almost feels like theft.
2 Ford Fiesta ST
Whereas the Volkswagen GTI gave the hot hatch moniker its meaning, the Fiesta ST is one of a decreasing few that truly keeps the category alive. A well-received addition to Ford's lineup, the Fiesta ST serves as an excellent combination of thriftiness, efficiency, and enjoyableness.
197 horsepower is delivered by a 1.6 liter turbocharged I4, modulated by a six-speed manual transmission with no option for an automatic. Simple bolt-on modifications can make this figure climb, but with how much fun the Fiesta ST is while stock, that may not even be necessary. With gently used ones plentifully available for under $15,000, the ST is the youngest "cheap" performer on this list.
1 Mazda MAZDASPEED 3
Put simply, the MAZDASPEED 3 embodies everything an inexpensive performance car should be. The 263-horsepower 2.3 liter turbocharged I4 is full of life, the steering is responsive and translates road conditions well, and the mandatory six-speed manual transmission doesn't skip a beat.
True to its name, the MAZDASPEED 3 is faster to the quarter mile and from 0-60 than direct competitors such as the GTI. Despite its impressiveness, Mazda has tragically revoked the nameplate and shows no signs of its return anytime soon. Cleaner examples have therefore gone up in value, but the MAZDASPEED 3 is still some of the most factory fun a driver can have for under $10,000.