You have a problem. You want a performance car, but you don't have the means to get a Ferrari or even a Corvette Z06... unless you want to live in it too. But don't fret, Mr. or Mrs. Gearhead, because the automakers have plenty of budget choices for you. This is our roundup of what you should buy and what you should stay away from.
You might not have expected it, but this decade has brought a plethora of fantastic budget performance cars that are leagues better than their predecessors. In a world that supposedly no longer cares about cars, the people who do still care are spoiled for choice.
Think about this: There is a performance version of almost every small car on the market in the US. And the ones that don't have a performance version yet — we're looking at you, Mazda3 — are a genuine hoot to drive.
We live in an era were Ford offers two hot hatchbacks and a turbo Mustang. Where Subaru and Mitsubishi both have quick rally-ish sedans available. Where Toyota and Subaru worked together to build a car that isn't a boring econobox but is the posterchild of the drift scene. And where the VW GTI is once again earning accolades as the finest hot hatch that Wolfsburg can produce.
It's a good time to love cars.
But some of them are getting old and tired and others just aren't as fun. Let's cut through the bull: What's the best one you can buy?
Over the course of the last year, we've driven basically every single performance car on the market that's less than $30,000.
And we haven't babied them, either. We've taken them to the track, we've gone on roadtrips, and we've used deserted back roads to get a measure of them in the real world. But we've also made sure that they're livable on a daily basis. The idea behind these cars is that they're your only car, they need to be able to do everything.
They have to go from the park to Lime Rock Park. They need to pick up kids and pick up groceries. The need to keep your date comfortable and they need to hit apexes comfortably. They are the under-appreciated honor students of the car world.
Best Overall: Subaru WRX
When we first saw the 2015 Subaru WRX, we were concerned. Compared to the stunning concept that we saw at the New York Auto Show, the WRX was C-SPAN levels of boring to look at. But someone at Subaru told us "wait until you drive it."
They were so right.
The money that wasn't spent on making it look like a rally car was clearly invested in making it drive like one. The old 2.5-liter turbo four has been replaced by a brand new turbo version of the FA 2.0 liter direct injected four cylinder that does service in the Subaru BRZ/Scion FR-S. The new engine is missing that distinct flat four thrum of older cars because it has equal length headers, but that only matters to diehard Subie fans who prefer that their cars sound like a John Deere.
It may only have three more horsepower than the last WRX, but it feels so much faster almost everywhere in the rev range. And the excellent (if a bit too light) electric steering combined with the new all-wheel drive system that uses brake actuated torque vectoring make for a car that is at home on any road and any surface.
The WRX might not have the greatest interior, but it can seat four comfortably and has a large trunk. It might not look like much, but if you want to stay under the radar that's a plus. And well equipped, it comes in at less than $30,000. Performance parts are plentiful and cheap. It ticks all the boxes.
It truly is the sort of car that you can use to pick-up grandma for dinner and then take it to the autocross, rallycross, or track the next day. Or take your grandma to autocross if she's cool with it.
Best Value: Ford Fiesta ST
The Fiesta ST has a starting price of just less than $21,000. For $23,600, you're getting a hot hatch with beefy Recaro seats and navigation.
And not only that, but you're getting one of the most fun to drive cars on the market. The 197 horsepower Fiesta ST is a revelation. It's eager and excited. It's an intern on the first day of work before he realizes that his job will be getting coffee and giving executive foot rubs.
Why isn't it best overall? It's tiny and therefore cramped for your friends. MyFordTouch blows chunks (though it may be slightly better than it was in the past). It doesn't make a lot of evocative sounds. It isn't the greatest long distance cruiser.
But that's really minor. It's such a good car that you'd be stupid to not buy it.
Best Hoonmobile: Subaru BRZ/Scion FR-S
We'd be remiss if we didn't give a tip of the chapeau to the Toyobaru twins and their compliant rear drive architecture. These are cars that have reminded us that Toyota can build a hell of a fun car when they want to and that Subaru doesn't just have to build cars with AWD.
The best part is just how accessible the Toyobaru twins are. Both start around $25,000 and you really need no options on them to get the best out of the cars. Right out of the box they want to go to the track, they want to slide. It's a surprise that there isn't a video of someone drifting out of the dealer parking lot right after buying one.
There's an active aftermarket community, which I think migrated over from people who used to think the Civic Si was the car to have. Rear-wheel drive is better, anyway.
Best Daily Driver: Volkswagen GTI
Of our four bests, the VW GTI is the only one that really qualifies as a car for adults. In a land where most interiors have the aesthetic pleasure of meth face, the GTI is Mila Kunis. It's almost as if the person who designed the interior has working eyes and hands. It's better than cars that cost twice as much.
Thankfully, that interior is stuffed inside the best GTI in years. That's high praise, because the last two GTIs have been pretty excellent. This one feels far faster than the declared 210 horsepower would have you believe. The steering is fantastic, the gearboxes are fantabulous, and torque steer is nearly non-existent.
The GTI tells people that you no longer live in your parents' basement and you pay your own phone bill. And even if you do live there and are still on the family plan, don't you want people to think you've matured?
Seems weird that a website that professes the Miata is the greatest car to ever car wouldn't include the Miata on this list, right? We think so, too. However, the 2015 Miata is the old NC, a car that has been around since 2006 and is being replaced this year by the ND, a car that we haven't driven yet (but is apparently fantastic).
We can't include something we've never driven, unfortunately, which puts us in a weird position: We don't recommend the current Miata (no matter how much we like it) as one of the best performance cars for less than $30,000.
Fiat 500 Abarth
The 500 Abarth competes almost directly with the Fiesta ST in every measurable way. And in almost every measurable way, it falls short. The five speed gearbox feels dated and wants for a sixth gear. The handling, ride, and steering aren't as good as the ST. The seating position is the same as when you're taking a dump and the entire interior feels no different than the base 500, which is to say, it feels cheap.
But the Abarth does have character. With its straight pipes it sounds like an angry tug boat. It has the looks of a kindergartner on steroids. It may not be quantifiably the best, but it still manages to find a way to worm into your heart.
Honda Civic Si
What was once the performance coupe for less than $30,000 has become a shadow of its former self. In fact, have you even seen a brand new Civic Si on the road?
The issue is that the Si used to be a manic rev machine. But in the interest of drivability, it's gone to a 2.4 liter VTEC that's lost that revvy feeling. On top of that, it looks like the Pep Boys accessories department designed it. It's too bad, really, as the Civic Si used to be the performance bargain that high schoolers everywhere wanted. What happened?
Nissan Juke Nismo RS
This is an interesting one. The Juke isn't quite a crossover and isn't quite a hatchback. In its base guise, it isn't really a performance car at all, but it is pretty decent to drive. The Juke Nismo is fun, too. But the Juke Nismo RS is a bit of a mess.
It torque steers like mad and the steering is lifeless. There's no feel in the clutch and it uses a stick carelessly wedged in drying mud instead of a gearbox. You can't get a manual with the torque-vectoring all-wheel drive, you have to get a CVT instead. Why punish someone for wanting AWD?
It does have great seats. That's about it. If you must have a Juke, do yourself a favor and just get the Nismo, forget that the RS exists.
Ford Focus ST
The problem for the Focus ST is that the Fiesta ST exists. On its own, the Focus ST isn't bad, but the Fiesta ST makes you realize just how good a Ford hot hatch can be.
When people see the name Recaro on a seat, they just assume they're fantastic, but the Focus ST is supremely uncomfortable. MyFordTouch stinks and the whole interior is kind of crap. It's fun to drive, but it feels huge compared to the Fiesta ST or even the GTI.
The only reason to get a Focus ST now is that the Fiesta ST is too small and you just refuse to buy a GTI or WRX for some weird sadistic reason.
Ford Mustang Ecoboost
The new turbo Mustang starts at $25,995, which a great bargain for a 300 horsepower Mustang. In fact, it was just 15 years ago when the fastest Mustang had 320 horsepower from a V8. How times change.
Problem is, the Ecoboost takes quite a few options to get good. Once you get the performance pack and the good seats in a base Ecoboost, you're knocking on the door of $30,000. And no matter what sounds Ford pumps into the cabin, you'll be jealous of anyone that has a V8 and wish you saved for a bit longer.