You'll be amazed by the amount of choice on the market.
It is a commonly accepted fact that big power and performance usually comes hand in hand with a big price tag. The additional expense of heavy duty drivetrain components and the development costs of setting up the chassis to handle it all tend to add thousands of dollars to a car's base price. That said, technology has moved on at such a rapid pace that you can now find a performance machine out there for under $50,000 that performs as well as or even better than expensive exotics from a decade ago.
In light of this we have selected a few of the best sub-$50k performance cars from all-wheel-drive hatchbacks to rear-wheel-drive family sedans that offer serious bang for the buck.
The WRX STI is not a refined and luxurious sedan. It does not offer a soft suspension setup to absorb road irregularities. What it does offer is Subaru’s symmetrical all-wheel-drive system, a 305-hp turbocharged 2.5-liter boxer engine and the kind of handling prowess that will have you hounding supercars up a mountain pass. At $36,095 it undercuts just about all of its natural rivals and is available solely with a 6-speed manual transmission.
The Volkswagen Golf R is a more refined proposition than the rabid Subaru but the additional luxuries do push its price up to $39,375. It has a turbocharged 292-hp 2.0-liter engine and thanks to the quick-shifting DSG dual-clutch transmission and a standard all-wheel-drive system, can get to 60 mph in under five seconds.
The S3 may share more with the Golf R than Audi would care to admit but the devil is in the details and while the S3 may produce an identical 292 hp, it blasts to 60 mph in an even quicker 4.6-seconds. The pricing is $4,000 more than the Golf R though and you can easily step over our $50k limit if you are not careful when ticking the options.
All-wheel-drive is great when the roads get slippery and they do provide useful additional grip when getting off the line but for tail-out antics there is not much to beat a well-balanced rear-wheel drive car. The BMW M240i fits that bill nicely and with 335 hp channeled to the rear wheels through either an enthusiast-friendly 6-speed manual or sharp 8-speed auto transmission, you can slide around corners all day long. The turbocharged 3-liter inline-6 makes a great sound too and that is what the 4-cylinder competition will be hearing as you launch to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds.
If you absolutely must have all-wheel-drive then the M240i xDrive is also available; the added grip also shaves a further two tenths off the 0-60 mph benchmark.
The Camaro may not offer the kind of interior refinements and polished handling you will find in a sporty German coupe but what it does offer is a great big 455-hp 6.2-liter V8 and enough torque to leave two long lines of rubber at the twitch of your right foot. It looks the business too and the best bit is that at $37,995, it is excellent value.
The Mustang has been an affordable performance car for decades, and the latest generation brings with it some big technological advances like independent rear suspension and a 10-speed automatic transmission. Don’t worry though, the good old Mustang character is still there especially if you pick the stonking 460-hp V8 which in GT fastback body style starts at a very reasonable $35,095. 0-60 mph takes a very quick 4.4 seconds and on a dollar-per-horsepower basis, the Mustang GT may be one of the best deals around.
For our chosen budget you could even get the Mustang GT Premium Convertible which starts at $45,495 leaving you enough left over for that 10-speed automatic ($1,595) and gas money for the next few months, or weeks.
The Camaro and Mustang are both great options, however neither channel their inner ‘60s muscle car heritage in quite the same way as the Dodge Challenger range does. This massive beast is all about big burnouts and big power. The R/T Scat Pack is the most cost-effective way to get behind the wheel of 485-hp of V8 muscle and, unlike its two rivals, the Challenger is big enough to seat five adults and still have space left over for their luggage.
It certainly isn’t the last word in dynamic ability but the effortless torque and awesome exhaust note make up for a lot and it still gets to 60 mph in a very quick 4.3 seconds. Pick the 8-speed auto in this one as rowing through the gears yourself detracts from the laid-back driving experience.
The Nissan 370Z has been around for almost 10 years now, yet it employs a tried and trusted formula that has kept it popular among car enthusiasts. In some ways it is comparable to the Mustang and Camaro in spirit thanks to the big naturally aspirated motor up front and the power being sent to the rear wheels, yet with a distinct Japanese flavor. The basic 332-hp 370Z starts at a tempting $29,990 but if you want to experience it in its most intense form then the S45,690 Nismo variant is the one for you.
For the not inconsiderable extra outlay you get an additional 18 hp and a number of chassis upgrades including Nismo tuned suspension, larger brakes and a sportier exhaust. Whether that is enough to justify the price is up to you, but whichever version you pick make sure to get the rev-matching 6-speed manual transmission.
If justifying your performance car purchase requires family-wide approval then the Dodge Charger sedan comes highly recommended. The Daytona 392 comes with the same big-hearted 485-hp V8 as the Challenger and offers similar performance but you get a few more luxuries such as heated and ventilated Nappa leather front seats and, as with the Challenger, you can add a whole range of extras without straying over our $50k budget. This one is automatic only though.
The Chevy SS is no more. This big and brash V8 sedan was a characterful alternative to the anodyne and all too straight-laced modern turbocharged sedan and it will be sorely missed. The big and booming 415-hp 6.2-liter LS3 V8 gave it proper pace with 60 mph taking only 4.7 seconds and you could even have it with a 6-speed manual transmission. It wasn’t all old-school either, magnetic selective ride control and powerful Brembo brakes were standard fitment, a bit of good news is that they are still listed on Chevrolet’s website which may mean that there are a few SS sedans still waiting for a new home.
There are plenty of capable and quick German, American and Japanese sedans out there but up until now not many Korean cars fit that particular description. The Kia Stinger is here to change all that, equipped with a 365-hp 3.3-liter twin-turbo V6 and a chassis that is set up with sporty drivers in mind, this sedan is sure to upset the established players. With a 0-60 mph time of just 4.7 seconds it is right in the ballpark performance-wise and the $38,350 price undercuts most rivals too.
All trim levels come with an 8-speed automatic transmission, AWD is available and once you are done ticking most of the options such as Nappa leather and the whole host of active and passive safety systems, the price will balloon up to $49,200. Perhaps it’s best to stick to the base model then.