As we all continue to tighten our belts while we ride out the economic storms of recent months, the prospect of getting a loan for a new 911 on a lower middle class salary becomes less and less of a viable option. Fortunately, automotive performance really came a long way in the last decade or so.
Now, some of those awesome-yet-unattainable cars of the '90s and early 2000s can be had for next to nothing when they’re put out to pasture (as the bling-factor starts to lose its luster). But for those of you out there with a thin pocketbook, yet a big appetite for lateral G-forces, this is your golden era.
As we enter into a paradigm shift in automotive design over the next decade or so – one in which performance is a very low priority - this could be the last era of cheap high performance for a while, so now is the time to jump on these deals while they’re still out there. So here’s our picks for the top ten vicious rides for under ten grand.
10. 1995-98 Nissan 240sx
Despite being a bit underpowered in stock form by today’s standards, the 240sx platform has a lot going for it. Also known by its Japanese counterpart’s name, the Silvia, the car featured a sharp, yet understated design throughout its lifespan.
The 240sx also utilized a four wheel multilink suspension and a 5 speed gearbox which fed power to the rear wheels, making it a favorite among the drifting crowd. With all the attention it received from the tuner scene - a trend which has since slowed significantly - there are ample aftermarket parts like turbos, intakes, and suspension bits to be had for a pittance.
9. 1998-2006 VW GTI
The sport model of the Golf is a potent little car, and has the notable distinction of being the most hipster-friendly option in the bunch, due to its pleasing bodywork and subtle European refinement. As VW has probably indicated in the past, these cars are designed to hold their own on the demanding roads German autobahn. After all, that’s their home turf. So they’re actually quite nimble and responsive, with well-engineered suspensions and adequate braking systems. Pretty decent stock stereo, too.
The GTI came with several different motors, so the ones to look out for are the 4 cylinder, 1.8 liter turbo, making about 175hp, and its bigger brother, the VR6 motor, a torquey 200hp v6 found on the GLX model. Because the GLX was the top dog in the lineup, this one is going to be toward the upper end of that 10k budget, but they’re out there, and they’re totally worth it.
8. Z32 Nissan 300ZX
When the new twin-turbo 300ZX dropped in 1990, it was an absolute beast, creating a publicly underrated 276hp (more like 300) and 280ft-lbs of torque on a rear-drive platform, and Motor Trend was quick to dub it Import Car of the Year, and went on to grace various Ten Best lists as well, being compared to cars like the Dodge Viper, the Corvette and the Toyota Supra.
They can be had for well under 10k, but finding one that hasn’t been beaten to death by a Fast and Furious kid can get a little tricky. But they’re out there, and worth finding.
7. 1999-2005 Honda Civic SI
Honestly I’m a little torn putting this car on the list because, quite frankly, Honda Civics were never designed to be a performance car. It’s a fact. There’s nothing in the design of a base model Civic that points toward performance. A stock SI model makes a reasonable 160hp – but it’s only good for a 0-60 time of 7.5 seconds. My dad’s old Cadillac Eldorado was faster than that.
That’s probably why its whole-hearted embrace by the tuner crowd was sort of baffling to many enthusiasts. I think it had something to do with proving that the car could perform despite the design limitations, given the right (extensive) modifications.
The inherent problem there is that you have to do a ton of costly modifications to make it quick – and then you’re left with a Honda Civic and an empty wallet. Why not just buy something made to be fast and make it faster?
Regardless, the SI model’s heart is in the right place, and with the ubiquity of these cars now, it deserves a spot for those performance masochists out there.
But, if what you really want is a reliable, “sporty” car with great gas mileage, these cars will deliver that. Avoid anything that currently has (or had) a large wing, as that’s a dead giveaway that the previous owner dabbled in the douchey arts - and most likely beat the living hell out of it.
6. Third Generation Mazda RX7
Simply put, this is a great car. Let’s talk about the design – definitely one of the sexiest of the bunch, and a shape that has aged remarkably well, especially considering it was introduced sixteen years ago. Aside from having a great mid-engine/rear wheel drive layout, the 3rd generation RX7 was the first car to offer sequential twin turbos in a mass production vehicle, helping the RX7 produce 255hp upon introduction and 280hp by the end of its run.
This turbo design element is crucial – and people have been getting ridiculous power out of these engines for ages now because of it. 400hp is a no sweat with some fairly minor modifications, and we’ve seen plenty of these things pushing upwards of 700hp in more radical applications.
One drawback to this one is that, once the mainstream caught on after its role in the Fast and the Furious, the resale value of these cars totally took off, and for a car which is already pretty rare in the states, finding an inexpensive, unmolested requires more digging than almost anything else on the list. The reward more than makes up for it, and they’re definitely out there for under ten grand if you do a little homework.
5. Fourth Generation LS1-powered Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird
Well, I’d be lying if I said these were the prettiest or most advanced cars in the list. However, what these cars lacked in refinement they made up for with sheer brute force – the hallmark of a true muscle car.
In 1998, both the Camaro and Firebird received an engine transplant in the form of the new LS1 small block V8 – a vast improvement over the LT1 it replaced. Making a considerable amount more than the stated 305hp, it is widely speculated that the true power rating was kept under wraps simply because it was dangerously near the Corvette’s, which now shared the same engine block with its less expensive counterparts.
Paired with the Borg-Warner 6-speed gearbox and the seemingly endless amount of aftermarket parts available, these cars still shutdown nearly everything at stoplight drags everyday across the country. Best of all, they’re dirt cheap.
4. Third Generation Ford Mustang
One of the most popular cars in America – ever – the “Five-Oh” Mustang was largely in a class by itself toward the late 80s and early 90s. Despite the fact that the venerable 5-liter V8 found in the GT and LX models was only rated at about 225hp, the endlessly modifiable nature of this bulletproof motor meant that making this car move fast was a comparably effortless and inexpensive endeavor, with aftermarket bolt-ons provided by companies like Edelbrock and Ford Racing, and various supercharger kits helped to put these cars well into 400-500hp range.
True to the muscle car tradition, typical Mustangs were built for straight-line performance and used a live-axle design for the rear suspension (which Ford argues is better for drag racing). However, this design caused the back end of the car step out very easily if you offered it too much throttle around a corner. Thankfully, independent suspension kits from companies like Saleen are easily had on eBay for cheap, and with the simplicity of the car’s design, are pretty easy to set up.
A third generation Mustang can be had for next to nothing now. For 10k, you can make your own purpose-built Mustang and still have enough change left over for 2 years worth of gas to fuel it. Or just buy two stock ones!
3. Mitsubishi 3000GT VR-4/Dodge Stealth R/T Twin Turbo
For some reason, 3000GT flew under many enthusiasts’ radar the first time around. Hard to say why though; not only did the twin-turbo powered motor produce 320hp and well over 300ft-lbs of burly torque, it also featured some killer technologies. Adjustable suspension settings, full time all wheel drive, four wheel steering, and active front and rear spoilers that adjusted to speed and driving situations (like the ones you see on new Porsches and Lamborghinis) were all standard on the twin turbo models.
The Dodge Stealth, which was just a 3000GT with different badges on it (literally) also came and went with little fanfare. Although they didn’t sell a ton of these when they were new, they were also spared the Fast and Furious spotlight treatment when other cars in its class were not, so finding them cheap and intact is still fairly hassle free affair. They remain some of the best looking, fastest, and most well designed cars of the bunch.
2. C4 Chevrolet Corvette
These things are so cheap now, it’s crazy. An early 90s, 300hp LT1-powered ‘Vette can be had for well under the 10k mark. When the C4 was introduced way back in 1984, it was considered by the automotive press to be a groundbreaking achievement and a wholly new idea in automotive design.
A truly purpose-built vehicle, the C4 Corvette was designed with one thing in mind: performance. From the aluminum frame and suspension parts to the various innovations in engine design, the C4 is one of the few cars on this list that’s platform serves no other purpose than to go fast and look sexy while doing it. And the great thing about big V8 motors like the LT1 is that they really respond to simple modifications like cold air intakes and exhaust systems. Did I mention it has a 6 speed gearbox? Go get one – now.
1. E36 BMW M3
There’s a reason why BMW has such a rabid performance fanbase – the cars deliver, and the E36 M3 played a large part in proving to the world that BMW made world-class performers.
Here in the US we received a detuned versions of 3.0 and 3.2-liter inline 6 cylinder engines, both producing 240hp, which still managed to clock six-second 0-60 times and find its way into 14 second quarter mile times.
But what really sets the M3 apart is attribute which has always been a BMW strength – balance. With precise steering, responsive braking and handling that is totally composed and drama-free, which in turn inspires more confidence in the driver to push the car harder.
However, that confidence is tempered when you find out that replacing an alternator is a 4 hour job and can cost upwards of 500 bucks. Despite the BMW’s noticeable cost premiums for parts and service, these cars are simply built to a far higher standard of performance than anything else on this list, and they’re finally starting to trickle into sub-$10k price ranges. Just be prepared to turn some wrenches, or you’re going to get to know the local BMW mechanic very intimately.
Hey, you’re gonna have to pay off those wheel bearings somehow.