You’ve been in this situation more than once before; you pull up to a red light, jam your tunes and casually mind your own business. From behind, a luxury car pulls up next to you, sleek and long. The immaculate craftsmanship and sumptuous styling scream baller from the mountain tops.
Your car isn’t necessarily an engineering masterpiece, but it’s your trusty steed, and it takes you where you need to go. Usually, this is adequate. But next to the lustrous styling of the six-figure saloon next to you, you suddenly feel a bit inferior. You know you can’t afford one; not yet anyway. You’re a working man (or woman) and stately luxury isn’t in your budget. Whatever. Many people are in that same boat.
But then the light turns green, and the real problem presents itself. The six-figure sedan pulls effortlessly away – engine barely revving up. You mash your foot deeper into the floor, not to race him, but just to try and not look slow by comparison. It’s no use. Your trusty steed isn’t any good off the line. There’s nothing wrong with driving slow cars, or cheap cars – we drive cheap cars too (don’t feel bad).
But it’s time to settle the score because for as hard as you work, you deserve to show those lavish motorists that you are also something of a force to be reckoned with!
We’ve put together a list of econo-barnstormers that may not necessarily “blow the doors off” those luxury sedans you wish you had, but they’ll all give them a solid run for their money – and you can get ‘em for around $10,000 – all day long!
20 2005 Nissan 350Z
What can you say about the 350Z? You can say a lot, actually. It’s a legendary nameplate for the Far Eastern automaker. You may remember it from decades ago as the 300ZX (or 240Z, depending on how you hash it up), the Z took a hiatus as a few lackluster imitators tried to fill its shoes. When it came back, the 2005 350Z had a top speed of 155.3mph (because the 0.3mph is critical for bragging rights against those Euro-tuner dudes), and could slam out a 0-60mph pull in 5.7 seconds. It’s not lightning fast, but it only had 287hp, and girls still thought you were cooler than you actually were if you had one.
19 Infinity G35
Many people will say the G35 is a “girl’s car!” Don’t listen to them. Just because it’s a total girls car, doesn’t mean you need to go get all self-conscious, put a wing on it, and slam it into more negative camber than a VIP. You’re going to do that anyway (we know you are)! But in case you actually have a performance bone in your body, bear this in mind – the G35, with its 350Z underpinnings, wasn’t built to drag axle on a shallow driveway at a 45° approach angle, as you block traffic like a tool trying to get into the gas station. 0-60mph in 5.9 seconds (and 0.86g of cornering grip).
18 Chevrolet ZR1 Corvette
Admittedly, this one is towards the upper end of the $10,000-range; you’ll have to get really lucky to find one at $10,000, but they're out there. Wanna know why a 405hp, 1995 model-year can command such a high asking price? Because, despite your perception that this car is for old men (and your run-of-the-mill mid-life crisis), it’s actually a really fast Corvette! 0-60mph in 4.9 seconds – and in another 5.9, you’re at 100mph! It has a top speed of 180 (take THAT Euro–tuners!), and with more mid-range power than a Ferrari F355, you can smoke the tires at 70mph! This is one car you’d better leave traction control on unless you really know what you’re doing.
17 Ford Mustang GT
The 2005 Mustang is arguably the most iconic Mustang we’ve seen since the legendary Foxbody, which was the ugliest car that we’ve ever loved – but how could you not love a Foxbody? Ford, in their infinite wisdom, decided to bring back nostalgia with a body style that set the modern market on fire. The retro-fever that we’d been waiting for had arrived, and they even made something for grandma. The 4.6L V-6 was a joke, and we’re still laughing at guys who bought it, thinking it was sporty. We also laugh at the people who think the 2005 GT is a joke. Its 0-60mph-time is on-par with SVT Cobra sprints (only 5.4 seconds). (2003 SVT Cobra: 4.4 seconds – Motor Trend.)
16 Chevrolet Z28 Camaro
Muscle cars have had an interesting run since their gas-guzzling heydays in the ‘60s and ‘70s; we’ve seen them ignite the strip with more heat than a California wildfire. We watched as manufacturers tweaked them into pitiful, small-displacement shadows of what we remembered. They wouldn’t leave us hanging for long though; the performance embargo couldn’t last forever. The fourth-gen street stomper may not have been able to wheel-stand off the showroom floor, but the LT1-equipped Z28s could hit 60 in 5.7 seconds as soon as you pulled off the dealership lot. Also, cool about the forth-gens – that’s when the SS model came back!
15 Mitsubishi 3000GT
If you’re feeling brave, you can opt for a cheap 3000GT VR-4; you can find them as low as $2,500. Don’t expect a clean title, and be ready for all the risks that come with a salvage vehicle – but you’re trying to go fast on a budget, right? The 3000GT is a monster unlike most; the Supra-level performance can be found at the upper end of the RPM range, where all the ponies hide! You can make peak torque at only 2,500rpm, but you need to wind it up to 6,000rpm to wrangle up all 320hp from the twin-turbo 3.0L, 24-valve DOHC V-6. 0-60 runs can be done in 4.9 seconds!
14 Chevrolet Cobalt
Let’s get one thing out in the open, right now – the Cobalt leaves a lot to be desired in its stock form. It’s basically good for two things – being completely unspectacular stock, and dominating the Continental Tire Series GT racing in the ST (Street Tuner) class. That’s right – this thing is either driven by the dude just trying to get from A to B on the slow, or that racecar driver blasting from start to checker on the go! The supercharged SS can hit 60mph in 5.9 seconds; but most impressive is the top speed. GM made sure to allow it an extra 3mph (158mph) over the unofficial standard 155mph that you’ll find many production cars limited to.
13 Dodge Neon SRT4
Everyone laughed at the Neon when it first came out – even Dodge! It’s just a fugly looking little beater that you drove in college; you likely didn’t respect it very much until you looked back and realized how economically it shuttled your broke-back lifestyle around until you could figure out your life. If you opted for the SRT4, however, your sentiment of the Neon would change dramatically. The car was actually underrated by Dodge, purposely, at 230hp, although shaft horsepower is estimated at around 265hp, and credible independent testing has measured almost 240hp at the wheels. It’ll do a 5.6-second 0-60mph run all day long, and dance around the Maserati in the corners.
12 Audi S4
If someone had to find a car that was, for lack of a better phrase, “built right,” it could quite possibly be the Audi S4. Sure the electrical system is more complex than the space shuttle, but certain European manufacturers just can’t help themselves. We can thank them for pumping the super-cheap little S4 with everything needed to make this affordable track blaster, but it really wants to hug tight corners more than barrel down the quarter-mile. All S models are equipped with the proprietary quattro all-wheel drive, and engine options are sumptuous in the right trim. From twin-turbo V-6s to big V-8s, the S4 is positioned to compete with BMWs M3.
11 Chrysler 300C SRT8
Ok, it’s time Chrysler gets a momentary reprieve; we spend more than our fair share of time bashing the brand, for various reasons – but when you build things like the PT Cruiser, you’re asking for vituperative critique – from all angles. For all the bad decisions we’ve seen them shovel through their vast assembly line network, the SRT trim is their redemption song. The 300C SRT8 is a game-changer; the heavy 4,212lb-car has enough horsepower to jam it down the road faster than the CTS-V AND the AMG lines by a hefty margin (at 173mph), and can reach 60mph in 4.7 seconds! The best part – this bunker buster isn’t going to blow your bank!
10 BMW E38
The 7-Series is a premier getter, and everybody knows it. Even when you get one from the ‘90s, it’s still a performer that commands respect in today’s automotive circles, and for good reason. BMW, in their infinite wisdom, knew what it was that made cars awesome: power. Sure, people are attracted to bells and whistles like gnats to a bug zapper, but when you really get down to it, how many CDs you can jam into your dashboard at one time only means so much, especially if the car lugs itself off the line like a dump truck. BMW stuffed these things with V-12s to make sure any dump truck-like proclivities were all but washed away.
9 Foxbody Mustang
You’ve heard the name thrown around like butter across the dinner table, but many people outside Mustang circles don’t have any idea what a Foxbody is until they see it – then EVERYBODY knows what a Foxbody is. We’ve all seen them putting around, many of them on their last legs…but that’s because they’re super old. The Fox platform actually started rolling off assembly lines in the ‘70s and kept going until the early ‘90s. The mid-‘80s Foxbodies were known to be some of the fastest ones, particularly the 1986 year-model, and being something from the ‘80s, you can get them dirt-cheap. You either love or hate the body style, but you probably can’t go faster for cheaper.
8 BMW M3
Some people are all about the badges, and the brand means little. If a standard, run-of-the-mill BMW isn’t enough to impress you, perhaps you need to move into a performance badge to ignite your jollies. In which case, you can still get performance on the cheap, and it comes with actual handling, rather than just a massive V-12 to shoot it indiscriminately into oblivion. The badge is the M3 label, and if you don’t mind dipping into the ‘90s (again), they can be had for almost nothing! The ‘90s were actually a performance-rich playground of power if you knew where to look.
7 Jaguar XJR
The Jaguar XJR isn’t just for luxury cronies, not anymore! When they roll off the line, they’re usually exclusive enough to be far out of the budget range of the average Joe, like ourselves; but give it a few decades and they’ll eventually filter down to a reasonable price point. The performance, however, is hard to tame – even by time. The satisfying net result of thrust vectoring 370hp through the longitudinal engine design leaves little to be desired when your primal urges implore a heavy right foot. Some people complain about the lack of rear seat space for adults; but that only works in your favor, because you’re not looking at this 21-year-old car for sumptuous transport, at least anymore.
6 Pontiac Firebird
The Firebird legacy stretches back to the days of CB radios and T-Tops; Pontiac wasn’t about to let the Mustang have all the fun! While you’re likely not in the market for something that pre-dates a cassette deck as a factory option, the Pontiac Firebird ran all the way into the 2000s, meaning your iPhone and AUX cable can tag along. Don’t expect a Bluetooth option for your budget Firebird, but you can rest assured you’re going to plow through 0-59mph quicker than a bolt of lightning (not really), and hurdle through quarter-miles in less time than it takes most other things at the price point to. Just make sure to ask for the Trans Am edition!
5 Pontiac GTO
Pontiac has had more than its fair share of indiscretions as far as styling and performance are concerned, and we don’t need to dust off all the old files to prove our point; but if we had to, the Aztek and Prowler instantly come to mind. While we're tempted to bash the brand into the ground for these unforgivable offerings, Pontiac has more than provided adequate redemption – but that’s mainly why we judge them so harshly. The 6.0L, 400hp GTO runs 0-60s in the sub-five-second range, and tops out at 175mph! This is extremely impressive, and even more so that you can get these things for a decent price when you can find them!
4 Chrysler Crossfire
Now hold on one second, before we get all rowdy at the sight of the Crossfire on a list of “good performance deals,” we have to say one thing—we know it’s a questionable car to start with. Pontiac isn’t the only brand to put out some wacky cars, and the Crossfire is arguably one of Daimler’s more “ambitious” attempts at making something from nothing. They didn’t just pump out a total turd though. The Crossfire (actually the first Chrysler to wear the SRT badge) was essentially an SLK Mercedes underneath. It can chuck a 0-60 in a hair over five seconds (5.1, to be exact), and if you can get past the clunky Chrysler design work of the body, you may just find a hint of pride in ownership.
The Scion/Subaru joint venture blew the doors off their respective boring lineups with a baseline consumer-focused car that was built to carve corners out of the very earth they were laid. The biggest beef we have with the car, being a Subaru build, was the innate lack of foresight with the engine design. Subaru should have turbocharged the car from the factory, but then the WRX would be in direct competition with it. Nonetheless, it can still hit 60mph in 7.5 seconds, which, admittedly, leaves a lot to be desired – until you crank this road dart around a corner. It literally sticks like glue; any discrepancies in straight-line performance are more than compensated for by the sport-tuned suspensions.
2 BMW Z3
The BMW Z3 is the sports coupe we love to forget about, but that only works in your favor if you want performance on the cheap. Since we’ve all but forgotten the little roadster, it’s not necessarily on the forefront of anybody’s mind as they’re scouring car listings for a little road rocket. MacPherson struts, roll bars, and trailing arms stick it to the pavement while the legendary BMW inline-six packs enough ponies to keep the 0-60mph numbers under 6.5 seconds. It may not blow your socks clean off your feet, but it’s an old car that maintains adequate performance today, and still looks awesome while doing it! You could almost say the design is timeless.
1 Impreza WRX STi Limited
The little WRX Impreza is one of the best deals you’ll ever find, for a number of reasons. It’s no secret Subaru is beholden to customer “satisfaction” surveys, and the dealerships will literally bend over backward to incite a five-star rating from their customers. This means you can literally abuse your brand new “Rex” until you blow the internals out the bottom of the six-speed gearbox, claim they just “fell out,” and get a new one for free (seriously.) Even out of warranty, Subarus aren’t anything to be taken lightly, and when you do find an older, mid-2000s STi for a good deal, you’d better jump on it quickly – they are out there, but not for long.
Sources: Road and Track, Motor Authority, Auto Blog, Auto List, Top Speed, Car and Driver, Motor Trend, KBB.