Here are ten different ways of going fast for not much money.
A list of the best used fast and sports cars for under $20k can be pretty divisive because fast is a relative term. Your definition of fast depends entirely on how many vehicles you've experienced over the years.
As an automotive hack, your faithful correspondent has been behind the wheel of several McLarens, and they tend to rewrite the definition of fast with each new model. Compared to a 675LT, a Mazda Miata moves at the speed of molasses climbing uphill. So please remember that as you look over this list of cheap fast cars.
We tried to keep the list as comprehensive as possible, including fast, reliable, luxury, sports, and AWD cars under $20k.
As always, feel free to add any fast cars under $20k we may have missed (and we're sure there are plenty) in the comments below.
For less than $20,000, you can get into an early fourth-generation ND Mazda Miata, equipped with a 2.0-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine that produces 181 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque. It can reach 60 mph in less than six seconds, but that hardly matters.
Two CarBuzz employees can attest that the Miata is slow AF, yet we still own and adore them. A Miata may not be fast, but it feels fast. It's the ultimate feel-good toy and will enhance every commute or journey you undertake. It belongs here and in any list of the best sports cars under $20k.
Obviously, an ND is first prize, but if your budget doesn't stretch that far, don't stress. We'll gloss over the NC, which Miata owners lovingly call a yacht, and recommend a second-gen NB or first-gen NA.
The two CarBuzz employees with Miatas can't agree on which of the latter is best, so the solution is to own both. But because the author owns an NA, that's what we're going with. Find a low mileage example, upgrade it with a cold air intake, buy an aftermarket limited-slip differential, and start enjoying life. But be warned: electronic nannies that stroke your ego will not be a part of the driving experience.
It's surprising how much Subaru WRX you can get for $20k. We found several 2015-2016 WRXs with roughly 100,000 miles on the clock for between $15k-$20k. The VA WRX, introduced in 2014, is a bit timid, and we prefer older models with the larger 2.5-liter turbocharged flat-four. It's one of the best fast AWD cars under $20k.
Why not an STI? Well, it's a bit too hardcore, and it's difficult not to look like a kid behind the wheel. The WRX is a bit more socially acceptable in these EV-friendly times.
We found a third-generation 2014 WRX with $75,000 miles on the clock for just $14,000. It's one of the best fast 4-door cars under $20k if you stick to the recommended maintenance schedule. You don't want to hear that infamous 'knock-knock' sound.
You can go one of two ways with the Charger. You either opt for a sixth-generation model, in which case you can get a 5.7-liter HEMI V8 version for as little as $9,000, or a seventh-gen V6 facelift, which goes for roughly $15,000. Don't think of anything more modern because the markups are insane.
The performance gap is smaller than you might think. A V6 model takes 6.5 seconds to hit 60 mph, while a V8 can get there a second earlier. Having said that, the Pentastar 3.6-liter V6 doesn't sound nearly as pleasing as the old-school V8. Whichever one you choose, it will be one of the best fast cars for under $20k.
Being one of America's favorite muscle cars, various engine, suspension, and design modifications are available for these cars. So whatever you have left over from the $20k budget, you can spend on mods.
The first turbocharged Honda Civic Si (2017 model year) is now dipping below $20,000. We found a decent example with 68,000 miles on the clock. Slap on a set of alloy wheels, and you have the ultimate boy racer's dream.
Honda's lukewarm coupe is slower than a GTI, thanks to a 1.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that only produces 205 hp. Those are rookie numbers by today's standards. But power isn't everything, as one soon realizes when you start rowing through the gears of the six-speed manual.
In previous naturally aspirated Si models, you had to work the engine hard, but the turbocharged engine brought more balance.
This is how you combine luxury, looks, and speed. We're talking about the third-generation 7 Series and not the awkwardly designed horrors that followed. The E38 looks cool, particularly due to the James Bond connection (it starred in Tomorrow Never Dies).
It's still possible to get a facelifted 2001 model with less than 100k on the clock for $15,000. While it may be cheap to buy, it won't be cheap to run.
While a V12 engine was available in the 750i, we'd go 740i all the way. The 4.4-liter V8 produced 282 hp and 325 lb-ft when it was new. It doesn't sound like a lot, but the E38 7 Series is smaller than a modern 5 Series. If the engine is in good condition, it definitely qualifies as one of the best fast cars under $20k.
The E38 7 Series is an epic piece of German design, and it handles a lot more crisply than you may expect.
Buying an E46 BMW 328i or even an M3 is too much of a hassle. You can get them, but good luck finding one that hasn't been abused and sells at a decent price. Thanks to depreciation, there is a better way of buying a fast, compact sedan.
In 2014, Infiniti launched the Q50, and nobody cared. The default choice remained the BMW 3 Series, and the few Q50s that were sold lost value quickly.
You can buy a 2015 model for as little as $15,000, and it will be equipped with many modern luxuries. More importantly, it will be powered by the same 3.7-liter V6 as used in the Nissan 370Z, for which many modifications are available. Put another $3,000 into it, and you'll have an offbeat sleeper.
Several 2019 twin-turbo V6 models are also available for just under $20k. If you go this route, you'll get 300 hp and 295 lb-ft. We know for a fact that it's cheap and easy to push the output up to 400 hp reliably...
The first-generation SLK 55 AMG was not a good car. In fact, the whole SLK and SLC project was a failure, which is why Mercedes canned it without a successor.
It failed for one reason: the existence of the Porsche Boxster. The SLK 55 would lure you in with its giant lump of a V8 engine and the noises it made, but then you'd drive a Boxster and realize that the Merc felt like a wilted piece of celery in comparison. Finding a (decent) Boxster for less than $20k is impossible, which gives the SLK 55 the upper hand.
We don't want to slate it entirely because it is a highly charming vehicle, which can be yours for between $13k-$20k, depending on condition and mileage. We found a 2006 model with 78,000 miles on the clock for $150 shy of $20k.
The SLK 55 retained the usual Merc comforts, but the driving experience is dominated by the naturally aspirated 5.5-liter V8 that produces 355 hp. Because of its size, it feels like you're driving two seats bolted to a massive V8 engine, and that's cool.
General Motors produced the C5 between 1997 and 2004. There are loads of damaged models available because it predates intelligent stability control, but you can find a fine example for $20k.
Unfortunately, the Z06, with its tuned LS6 V8, is out of range, but the standard 5.7-liter LS1 produces between 345 hp and 350 hp. Models made in 2001 onward gain an additional five horses, which you can't feel anyway.
The C5 represents an old-school sports car recipe. It has a V8 in the front, a six-speed manual in the middle, and all the power goes to the rear. You'll find none of the fancy AWD stuff in the modern Corvette E-Ray.
If you can't do a burnout in a C5, there's no hope for you.
Let's get one thing straight before we begin: the Cadillac XLR was a terrible car when it was new. Built between 2003 and 2009, it was Caddy's attempt to go after the magnificent Mercedes-Benz SL. An XLR-V was introduced in 2005 with a supercharged 4.4-liter V8, meant to go after the Corvette Z06. It failed equally hard.
Because it sucked so much and almost nobody wanted one, you can pick one up for a song these days. You can get into a high-mileage example for roughly $14,000, while a late-model with 50k on the clock is between $18-$19k. That's a lot of luxury and speed for little money. The 4.6-liter Northstar V8 is good for 320 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque.
It's good fun in a straight line, but don't ask it to go around a corner. Also, the build quality is terrible. The XLR was an atrocious car when it was new, but you can forgive its shortcomings at these prices.
It doesn't matter which Mini you buy, as long as it has a John Cooper Works badge pasted to the rear. The only exception is the Countryman and its all-wheel-drive system. The two-door/five-door hatch and Clubman models are acceptable. You can even go for the infamous Coupe or Roadster if you can stomach the bone-jarring ride.
The best of the lot is the standard two-door hatch, however. For as little as $6,000, you can find a rough fixer-upper. For roughly $16,000, you can get the last of the 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder models. The 2.0-liter turbocharged engine that replaced it only produced 20 hp more (up from 208 hp) and didn't have nearly as much character.
Having 208 hp in a car the size of a shoe, with a wheel at every corner, is a lot of fun. It doesn't handle like a go-kart (this myth needs to die), but it's right up there with the Megane RS as one of the finest FWD cars ever made.
Remember that PSA Peugeot Citroen and BMW co-developed the Prince engine (1.6). It's known for having timing chain issues, but preventative care can save you huge chunks of money.
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