Good performance cars
10 High-Performance Used Cars You Can Actually Afford
PROS: For the price of a 2012 Nissan Versa you can have one of the most balanced, poised and enjoyable sports cars of the past two decades. The tiny, 1.3-liter rotary engine revs freely to nine grand, and the steering, suspension and slick six-speed are all perfectly simpatico with the track-day feel of the RX-8. And yet, with two extra half-doors, the rear seats are reasonably useful, especially for kids. That extra cargo space makes the RX-8 an ideal daily driver. Plus, considering this car sells for $33,000 new, you can’t beat the discount.
CONS: Early RX-8s melted through a lot of oil (even though Mazda says they corrected that flaw). And despite a messianic zeal that Mazda has had for the rotary for several decades, you don’t see the company putting this kind of engine out in huge quantities. There’s probably a very good reason for that. Did we mention the 16-mph city rating? That’s worse than a lot of SUVs these days.
PROS: The turbo version of the Cobalt was a much better way to get some scoot into this econobox than Chevy’s earlier supercharged models. It came on a smaller-displacement 2.0-liter (versus a 2.4-liter) motor so the car was a bit lighter, and with 260 hp it was plenty fast. All told, the turbo got 55 more horsepower than the supercharged model. The sport-tuned suspension also delivered serious cornering grip, and the Cobalt even came with disc rotors sourced from Brembo.
CONS: There just aren’t many of these to be found, as coupes (from 2008) or as sedans (from 2009). Plus, its five- rather than six-speed gearbox can lead to a buzzy cockpit in a car that wasn’t especially quiet to begin with. Compared to the new Cruze, which feels solid all around, the Cobalt feels second-rate—from the pure fit of the doors to the bolster of the seats. And GM knew it; the carmaker felt there was zero brand equity in the name, and started over for the Cruze.
PROS: The second-generation Lightning was a fire breather, putting out 380 hp and a menacing 450 lb-ft of torque from its 5.4-liter blown V8. The sticky Goodyear Eagle F1s proved up to the task of keeping the truck straight—mostly—and if you drove one on the track you would be stunned by how relatively smooth such a big vehicle could be. The ride was lowered 2 inches out front and an inch in the rear versus the stock F-150.
CONS: The Lightning had a series of engine weaknesses, from problems with the supercharger to some minor flaws that led to recalls, though nothing was so dire that it kept these trucks from maintaining a serious following. Other concerns: The Flareside look seems quite dated, and let’s not even discuss what it’s like to drive a Lightning on a wet or snowy road.
PROS: While Ford’s SVT team tweaked a lot of Focuses and Mustangs and F-150s in its day, the Contour was a short-lived project. So you’ll have a tough time spotting one of these, let alone finding one that hasn’t been beaten down. Still, given the specs, it may be worth digging, because the SVT folks stuffed a small 200-hp 2.5-liter V6 under the hood of the four-door Contour, swapped in four-wheel disc brakes and altered the suspension to tighten cornering. Ford boasted that the car put out more horsepower per liter than the BMW M3 of the same era, but that M3 would likely set you back roughly three times the Contour’s price.
CONS: Ford only made about 11,000 Contour SVTs. And unfortunately, their original owners may not have seen the upside in keeping them pristine. As with any car where the base model is merely vanilla transportation, the “hotter” version tends to get flogged.
PROS: You’ll note that the heavy discount you typically see on a used Jeep isn’t evident here. That’s troubling to some, but you’re shopping for an SUV with monster potential, a 6.1-liter Hemi V8 rated at 420 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque. Speed costs and, in this instance, we’re inclined to think the SRT8 Jeep Grand Cherokee is still a bargain. It handles surprisingly well on its 20-inchers, and the Brembos haul it down from blistering speeds with ease. Talk about a sleeper: Most people won’t know that your grocery getter can smoke sports cars costing $70,000 or more and even chase them through your neighborhood’s local S-turns. That guy in the Cayenne has no idea you’re coming.
CONS: Jeep doesn’t have the best rep for reliability, and we’d have this hot rod thoroughly gone over by our own mechanic before plunking down the considerable cash most sellers want. Also, gas prices aren’t coming down, and with 11 city/14 highway fuel economy, you’re going to be your local service station’s very best friend.
PROS: The MR2 is the “un-Miata” in many respects. Although it sold in multiple versions from 1984, including a few that had far more sporting pretensions than the late-gen 1999–2007 cars, the smaller, later cars went back to their fun-first roots. And if you get a car like this on the track, with its low weight (2200 pounds) and 138-hp engine, it dances delightfully, making an amateur driver look like a hero and letting you set a perfect drift with very little practice. Maybe just as important, the MR2 was rarely scary on a windy track or road, always veering toward forgiveness rather than finding the nearest oak tree to wrap around.
CONS: There aren’t many, but any convertible-top car should get an inspection to see how well it seals. The later MR2s were gutless, and the ride, though placid on Highway 1 cruising toward Santa Barbara, Calif., isn’t exactly meant to be Buick sedentary, so if you want a long-haul highway car, this isn’t it.
PROS: While the G8’s recommended price is around $29,000, we’ve seen dealers asking in the low $40,000 range. The former isn’t nuts, but the latter is. Still, we have to recommend this car. You’ll find a Corvette-purposed, 415-hp 6.2-liter V8 mated to either a six-speed auto or, our preference, a six-speed manual. Some magazines recorded 0-to-60 times of 4.5 seconds, and skidpad figures right around 0.9 g’s. That’s on par with some very elite company—cars that will easily cost you well over 40 grand, so it’s no surprise some sellers think it’s worth that much. And this is a nice, roomy car, too, with Audi-A8-like space (if not quite that level of panache).
CONS: Sorry, but there’s no way this Pontiac is going to hold its value in the long run. Look at the resale of any modern car from an “orphaned” brand and you’re going to see stone-like drop-offs. There are exceptions, such as muscle cars, but are you going to hold on to your G8 for three decades to find out?
PROS: When you get a 5.3-liter V8 with 303 hp and 323 lb-ft of torque for econobox money, you can feel like you’ve been let into a secret club. This GP will scoot to 60 mph in well under 6 seconds flat, allowing the dad-mobile to blow past the guy in his 328i. The Pontiac is both comfortable and reasonably agile, with quick steering and predictable cornering. As a daily driver, the GXP is about as good as you might ever find for the dough— especially if you can nab one with lower miles for cheap.
CONS: The V8 is mounted from beneath. Good luck explaining to your dearest spouse why you sought out this car when repairing it requires yanking the motor. Did we mention that nobody builds front-wheel-drive V8s, for good reasons—one of which is tremendous front-tire wear? One more thing: Pontiac’s “We Build Excitement” body panels look as bulbous, plasticky and cheap today as the day they were born.
PROS: Acura hasn’t explored the lower-end sports car market for quite a while now, and neither has parent company Honda. But the RSX Type-S makes us hunger for them to get back in the game. The car’s beautifully revving i-VTEC (intelligent variable valve control) engine with dual-phase cams delivers more muscle at higher rpm. It made this an incredibly fun coupe with serious zip at the top end, even though total output was only 210 hp. That might seem meek compared to the likes of Subaru WRXs, but the RSX Type-S was never meant to win stoplight races. It was meant to be light and fun and just speedy enough, and at that mission it was certainly successful. It came with one of the most beautiful shifting six-speed manual gearboxes ever made. Even BMW could’ve learned something from what Acura had here. It was fairly frugal, too, with 27 city/33 highway mileage.
CONS: Shop with caution. Racers have beaten up most of the Type-S cars you can find on the market. These are tough, reliable cars, but nothing’s bulletproof, especially not in the face of flashed chips, suspension mods and other alterations that will lead to bent frames, cracked cylinder heads and fried ECUs.
Price: $22,000 and Up
PROS: While Kelley Blue Book says you should be able find the hotter version of the Sky convertible for $18,000, these cars hold their value. The 2007 models are going for more like $22,000, but the good news is that many are certified/preowned, so you’ll come out with a warranty and a really fun car. The Sky Red Line kicked out 260 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque from a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine, and the rear-wheel-drive two-door clothtop could scoot to 60 mph in less than 6 seconds—making it meaner than the MR2, not to mention any Miata.
CONS: Saturn was finally hitting its stride with cars like this when GM axed the brand. And buying from a “dead” limb on the GM tree should give you pause. Yes, GM is honoring warranties and they can easily service Saturns and Pontiacs. But it’s one thing if you’re already a Saturn owner—quite another to be seeking out such a car.