With today’s booming economy and low gas prices, we’re starting to see more and more people looking to get back into a performance car. Although there are plenty out there to choose from, from various manufacturers, it can be a little eye-opening to some when they see the sticker price.
Many of the higher-end performance cars of today can ring in well over $80,000, and to some, that’s a bit out of reach. However, just because you might not be exactly “raking in the Benjamins” just yet, doesn’t mean you can’t slide behind the wheel of a proper performance machine for a fraction of that price.
Some of us around the office have kicked around the idea of putting together a list of “affordable” performance cars for some time, but with “car season” now upon us, the timing couldn’t be better.
In order to do so, we had to set a benchmark, and some guidelines:
First, we’re going to focus on rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive performance cars. Although there are some properly quick vehicles out there that rely solely on the front wheels for motivation, we wanted to make this list as focused as possible. We’re going to leave out the performance trucks and SUVS, too, for the sake of simplicity.
We’re also going to focus on the cars that range from 5-15 years old — as of 2019. There are some obvious bang-fo-the-buck buys out there, like LS1 F-bodies and Fox Body Mustangs. but then we’ll be opening up our scope to much older vehicles. The idea for this story is to get an understanding of what’s out there in regards to [relatively] modern vehicles.
Oh, and last but not least, we set a budget of $15,000. It’s not a ton of cash, but it’s a price point that we felt was affordable to about 90% of car buyers out there, and still provides enough dough to get you a late-model car that you will enjoy for years to come.
1. 2004-06 BMW E46 M3/2005-14 E9x 3-Series
The M3 is one of the most popular tuner cars out there, and you can pick up a ’90s E36 for less than $10,000 all day long. However, they’re a bit too old for our list to recommend. That said, the E46 is from 2000-2006 is more up our alley, and the later examples are still relatively new enough to make the cut.
Packing 340hp from a 3.2L DOHC I-6, it propelled the 3400-lb. car through the quarter-mile in the 12.9-13.1 ET bracket, and a top speed of 155 mph. The sprint to sixty arrives in 5.1 seconds, too, which was blistering for its day. You can grab a very decent example, even a convertible, for $14,ooo-$16,000, typically. If you look hard enough, and haggle enough, we bet that you can drive one away for about $12,000.
If you’re really looking for cheap and cheerful, or bang for the buck, then look at the 2005-14 335i, 328i or even the 325i. The 335i packs a twin-turbo 6-cylinder engine, good for 300hp, 0-60 sprints in 5-seconds and quarter-mile times in the 13s. They can be had for well below our budget and with the help of the turbos, can be made far quicker, fairly easily.
If you step down to the naturally-aspirated 3.0L 328i, power output drops to 230hp and quarter-mile times fall to the 14.2-14.4 bracket. Still fairly quick, and on par with the fastest production car of the ’80s; the legendary turbocharged Buick Grand National. Spec a 335 or 328 in xi or X-Drive versions, and enjoy the same type of performance, with weather friendly all-wheel drive. We’ve seen several 335i and 335xi models between $10-15k for this vintage, some even cheaper, with the 328i for about half of that amount.
There are plenty of European tuning companies out there, that can provide plenty of performance and cosmetic updates for these cars.
2. 2004-2007 Cadillac CTS-V
What first launched as an obscure, but interesting way to enter into the German field of BMW M-series and Mercedes-Benz AMG cars, the CTS-V has grown into something of a cultural phenomenon. These days, it’s packing a supercharged 640hp powerhouse, but the car initially featured more humble beginnings.
Looking back to 2002-2003, the GM Chairman at the time, Bob Lutz, wanted Cadillac to redefine itself as an American luxury brand for the demographics who tend to gravitate toward the German cars. Using the newly-unveiled CTS as a basis, and as an initial starting point for the entire V-series brand, its was the car to start a new Cadillac revolution.
The CTS-V, more often than not, met or exceeded the performance of many of its European competitors, in sheer performance and handling, and still offered a Cadillac-like comfy ride. Even today, the 400hp/400 lb-ft. still offers very decent performance (0-60 in 4.6 seconds, 13.0-second quarter-mile time, 163mph top speed).
For you hot-rodders, the LS6 (2004-05) and LS2 (2006-07) powerplants offer endless performance potential, and have a vast aftermarket for you to transform your CTS-V into a thoroughbred powerhouse.
3. 2001-2004 Chevrolet Corvette Z06
The Corvette Z06 is a rather notable and highly-regarded American sports car the world over. Spanning now three generations (four, counting the C2 race car), the Z06 has set records on the Nurburgring, earned tons of street cred in drag racing circles and is a force to be reckoned with on the autocross and road courses of America.
These days, the outgoing C7 Z06 produces 650hp, like the current (and outgoing) CTS-V it shares an engine with. However, much like the CTS-V, it had humble beginnings with a 400hp LS6 V8. OK, technically 385hp in 2001, and 405hp in 2002-2004, but we digress.
The suspension in these cars were phenomenal, especially for its time, and the LS6 under the hood, naturally, is ripe for modification. These cars can tip the price scale at $22k, still, but if you search enough, and haggle enough, you can drive off in one for slightly under $15,000.
4. 2004-2006 Pontiac GTO
Ahh, the GTO. The love-it-or-hate-it Pontiac muscle car that some claimed resembled lesser GM models, or weren’t “true GTOs” due to its lack of Pontiac engineered power. For those who are less “purist,” this is probably one of the best cars out there for the $15,000 budget-minded enthusiasts.
With 350hp (2004) or 400hp (2005-06) on tap, the performance is already there. You could have your choice of a 4-speed automatic, or the tried-and-trued Tremec T-56 manual 6-speed. Real wheel drive, of course, with a fully-independent rear suspension. The 2005 and 2006 cars get the PBR brake calipers, twin hood scoops and dual outlet exhausts.
They were rare when they were new, and finding a completely stock, well-cared for example these days can prove to be difficult. Many of those can eclipse the $20,000 bracket, but you can find plenty of deals if you look hard enough. From what we’re seeing, $7k-15k is pretty much the norm.
5. 2006-2009 Dodge Charger SRT8/Chrysler 300C SRT8
Today’s late-model HEMI cars are among the most popular going — particularly the Hellcat, Scat Pack and 392-equipped R/T and T/A models. However, many car buyers sometimes forget about the earlier examples, even the first SRT cars that paved the way for the Hellcats of today.
Looking back to the mid-2000s, and you’ll find 425hp Chargers, Challengers, 300Cs and even the Jeep Grand Cherokee. For the sake of this article, the SRT8 Chargers and 300Cs are what fit the bill, and from what we’ve been seeing, locally and abroad, you can grab one of these cars with some higher-milage all day long for $10-15k. There was even a 2008 SRT8 Charger Super Bee (1 of only 1,000 made) for $9900 just down the street from our offices at a used car dealer a couple of weeks ago.
The SRT8 300C offers all of the same mechanical attributes as the Charger, but also adds some additional class and refinement. Chrysler wanted to tap into that budding performance market, but still wanted to stick with its luxury car roots. Like the Charger, it received the 425hp 6.1L HEMI, beefed-up suspension, larger brakes, 20-inch wheels and improved aero in the front, with a much more subtle rear spoiler than what the Charger received out back.
Performance was pretty much on par with the CTS-V mentioned earlier, with 1/4-mile times in the 12.9-13.1 second range, 0-60 in the mid-4s and a top speed of over 160mph. You can grab one today for about the same price as an SRT8 Charger, or less, oddly enough.
6. 2009-2014 Dodge Challenger R/T
With the prices of 300C and Charger SRT8 in the mid-teens, you would think you could score a Challenger SRT8 for roughly the same coin. Despite our best efforts, it seems that you (generally) can’t. At least not one that hasn’t been destroyed within an inch of its life, or high very high mileage. We searched for hours the other day, and we found one 2010, and one 2012 example; both with over 120,000 miles for under our budget. For whatever reason, the 425hp Challenger just isn’t widely available at our price point, and thus, can’t make our list.
However, the 5.7L HEMI does make the cut, and with nearly 400hp on tap, you can score yourself a HEMI-powered Dodge pony car at that price point. In fact, some were listed for nearly $20k or more, even early 2009-2010 examples with a very low-mileage HEMI. It seems Hellcat Mania has helped the resale value of the older Challengers, so it may be a little more difficult than what you’d like to do so.
We think with some haggling, especially with a private party seller, it can be quite easy to drive away with the R/T of your dreams for around $12,000-13,000. We just picked up a 12,000-mile 2014 R/T Redline Edition with some tasteful mods for $22k, which is a pretty amazing deal. So you can get them at a decent price, you’re patient and if you really look.
7. 2010-2012 Chevrolet Camaro SS
When the 2010 Camaro first hit the scene mid-2009, it was a breath of fresh air for Camaro fans everywhere. No longer lusting, hoping or simply left wondering if there would be another Camaro to fill the slot of their aging 4th-generation car, the Camaro was back for 2010.
Instead of the archaic, wedged-shaped body, solid axle, and cheap interior plastics, we got a fully-modernized, yet, retro-styled Camaro SS with an extra 101hp under the hood from where it left off in 2002. Independent rear suspension, severely-needed updated electronic gadgets, and a body that was absolutely ripe for customizing, it still checks all of the same boxes today.
We have to admit, though, these things have held their value decently well. You can get behind the wheel of an early 2010-2011 Camaro SS for $12,000 all day long, with most of them being closer, or over, the $15,000 threshold. Newer models than that, especially the updated 2014-2015 examples still bring in over $20,000. If you’re stuck on that $15,000 budget, you may as well forget about a ZL1, unless you find a wrecked example from Copart.
8. 2011-2013 Ford Mustang GT
This one should be a given, but considering the amount of power and ultimate performance potential the 5-liter Coyote powerplant provides for its owner, this is probably one of the best bang for the buck cars on the list.
The basic architecture of this generation, the S197 as it’s known internally at Ford, dates back to 2005 and a refresh in 2010 added an aggressive styling update to the car. But it wasn’t until the 2011 model year where the Mustang could take on the then newly-released 5th-generation Camaro head-on. The DOHC 5-liter Coyote powerplant provided over 400hp, and continued to be improved upon as the years wore on.
In addition, continuous updates every year made the car faster, more powerful and more appealing overall. Like most of the cars on this list, the aftermarket is substantial and very healthy for these cars. You can pick one up between $12k-15k all day long, with acceptable mileage.
9. 2003-2007 Subaru Impreza WRX STi
If you’re looking for one of these, that have been completely unmodified, you’ll have your work cut out for you. Almost immediately, enthusiasts flocked to the parts catalogs and online retailers for performance and styling upgrades, as soon as these cars hit out shores.
With over 300hp on tap from a turbocharged 2.5L 4-cylinder engine, the AWD, and relatively low curb weight, it instantly makes sense. Their capabilities on the dirt and through the snow are on point, and they make for the perfect year-round daily driver, as well as a sports car for those living in the Midwest.
Being relatively rare, and in demand, these things still bring some coin — especially for unmolested examples. It’s a fickle market for these cars, as prices for modified examples plummet, even for those that have been professionally modified. Expect to pay roughly our full budget amount for one these cars.
10. 2003-2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VIII/IX
Essentially in the same league, and in the same situation as the STi above, these cars offer all of the same type of fun and performance attributes that the Subaru comes equipped with. Much like how the Mustang and Camaro are direct competitors, the Mitsubishi Ev solution and Subaru WRX STi are each other’s doppleganger.
There are some differences, however; the Evo packs a 2.0L turbo, rather than a 2.5L, and there are several varieties of these cars that you can obtain. There seems to be endless versions of these cars in other parts of the world, but even here in there United States, we had several.
There was the MR, GR, GS-R, RalliArt and several other that we can’t even list here. Each one offered a different combinations of wheel options, transmission options, brake upgrades and other tweaks that set each apart from each other. These special editions tend to break the $20,000 mark, but you can get a “standard” Evo VIII or IV, with some mileage on it, for around our $15,000 price point.
11. 2007-2009 Pontiac Solstice GXP/ Saturn Sky Red Line
Built on the Kappa architecture, the Saturn Sky and Pontiac Solstice was GM’s answer to the Miata, Boxster and just about every other affordable 2-seater out there. Featuring a 2-liter turbocharged Ecotec engine, RWD and an available 5-speed manual, the Solstice GXP and Sky Red Line were amazing little cars. The fact that they produced 260hp and weighed 2,800 pounds made it more fun.
What many people fail to realize, is that they were built on a budget, using plenty of parts bin components. The rear axle was from a V6 CTS, the 5-speed was out of a Colorado, and the door handles were off the Cobalt. In the case of the Solstice, the front parking light/foglight assemblies were from the 2004-2008 Grand Prix, and the reverse lamps/reflectors were straight off of the GMC Envoy. There are other examples of this cost savings found thought the vehicle.
This was intended to help keep costs down, and it reflected in the car’s MSRPs. As a result, they were affordable when they were new, and even more affordable now. You can expect to pick up an example of either, with decent miles for around $7,000-9,000. Which isn’t bad, for a car that ran high-13s in the quarter-mile!
12. 2004-2008 Porsche Boxster/2006-2008 Cayman
Often regarded as the poor man’s Porsche, those really in the know understand that it’s an often-overlooked budget corner carver that’s fun to drive and rather quick. Though the earlier examples left a lot to be desired in the power department, the later examples provide the punch you’re looking for, for not a ton of coin.
Launched in 1997, the Boxster arrived with a very modest 2.5L flat-six engine, and progressively grew larger every few years until it ended up as a 310hp 3.4L in the 2012 Boxster S. The current generation sports a turbocharged 4-banger, but they’re far out of our $15,000 price range.
Early Boxsters can be had for as little as $5,000, which is a heckuva deal, but for those who require a newer model year, more power and a better driving feel, pony up for something from around 2004-2005, at least. They’ll provide you with 240-280 hp, respectively.
If you like the look of the Boxster, but prefer a solid roof, then the Cayman is your car. Released in 2006, it offers essentially everything you’d find in the Boxster. Like their big brother, the 911, both are rear mid-engine, and rear wheel drive. Search for the best deal, and haggle a little, and you can drive one off of the used car lot for less than our budget.
13. Nissan 370z/Infiniti G35/G37
These can be a little tricky… Built on the same platform as their G35 and 350z predictors (which can be had for well below $10,000 all day long), the G37 and 370z appeal to different markets. Despite being the “more grown up, sophisticated cousin” to the 370z, prices for the Infiniti seem to come in a roughly half of the street price for a comparable 370z.
Perhaps the Nissan variant is more in-tune with the performance crowd, or his simply more popularity with the aftermarket, but with roughly 330-350 hp on tap, depending on year, you can’t go iron with either car — it just comes down to your personal preference. We should point out that the 370Z brings an additional 20hp to the table, even though both cars pack the same 3.7L V6 engine.
Now, it should also be said that the G37 is available in fin two or four doors, all-wheel drive or rear wheel drive, and is tuned for a more comfortable ride. It can be your toy, and in sedan and coupe versions, make for good date night cars, too. It’s also perfect for a young professional who has to play Mr. Corporate Monday-Friday, but wants to hit the track on Saturday.
For added cool factor, you can also say that your G37 is a Nissan Skyline, because in its country of origin, it is. We’ve been seeing G37s on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, eBay, and just about everywhere else, for $12,000-15,000. The 370Zs can bring more money, well into the $20k bracket but you can score an earlier one for a lot less.
14. 2008-09 Pontiac G8 GT
Rare, unassuming and often-overlooked, the Aussie-born G8 was a short-lived bright spot at the end of Pontiac’s life. Often credited as the last Pontiac muscle car to roll off of the GM assembly line, it offered a 360hp 6-liter V8, based roughly on the LS2. With a couple of bolt-ons, and tuning, the flywheel horsepower of the L76 would sore passed the advertised claim of 400hp from the more powerful LS2.
There’s two sides to the coin, when it comes to the styling of these cars; first, it’s a sleeper and though handsome, looks nothing like a performance car. And second, it looks nearly identical to it’s slower, V6-powered sibling. The only obvious difference, are the wheels and the taillights — V6 cars got the solid red, GT earned the smoked housings, similar to an ’06 GTO.
Built on the Zeta architecture, which it directly shard with its Holden Commodore and Maloo sibling, as well as the 5th-gen Camaro, the GT was only available with an automatic transmission. If you want a manual, you’ll have to pony up around $20k for the one-year only 2009 GXP. It packed 430hp from an LS3 and a manual 6-speed.
15. 2010-15 Ford Taurus SHO
In its final year of production for 2019, the Taurus SHO is a sport sedan that can trace its roots all the way back to the 1980s. Always offered in four doors, and usually front-wheel drive, it isn’t until the fourth iteration that launched in 2010, where the SHO would become an AWD animal.
In addition, it was also the generation that finally earned boost, by way of a pair of turbos. The first- and second-ben cars were Yamaha V6-powered, and the third-gen packed an additional two cylinders. But for 2010, Ford equipped the SHO with a twin-turbo V6, 3.5L EcoBoost generating 365hp.
As with anything with factory boost, these cars are relatively easily tunable, and there are aftermarket companies and parts suppliers willing and able to crank up the power. With performance numbers like 0-60 in 5.1, and quarter-mile times deep in tho the 13s, the potential is certainly there. Browsing online, we found quite a few SHOs built between 2010-2015 for under $15,000.
Rick Seitz is the owner and founder of AutoCentric Media, and has a true love and passion for all vehicles. When he isn’t tuning, testing, or competing with the brand’s current crop of project vehicles, he’s busy tinkering and planning the next modifications for his own cars.