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When Driving is about Lifestyle, Car Life Nation is the Answer

When Driving is about Lifestyle, Car Life Nation is the Answer

An orange 2019 Ford Fiesta St is shown parked on a corner of a city street.

Speed on a Budget: The Best Affordable Used Performance Cars

The used vehicle market draws in all sorts of buyers, from parents looking for a first car for their newly licensed teen to those looking to save a few bucks on their next daily driver. The used market might typically be all about value, but that doesn’t mean it has to be boring. Between classic models that allow drivers to relive their glory days, to sporty performance vehicles that would break the bank if bought new, the used vehicle market always has a few fun surprises in store. No one likes bouncing from dealership to dealership hunting for used cars for sale, but these diamonds in the rough can certainly make the process into less of a chore. Finding these vehicles for sale can be another matter altogether, but it’s always good to know what to keep an eye out for, which is why we’ve compiled a guide to some of the best affordable used performance cars. From famous names to some under-the-radar picks, read on to discover just how easy, and affordable, it can be to get behind the wheel of that performance model you’ve been dreaming of for years.

A red 2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata is shown driving on a highway after viewing used cars for sale.

Mazda MX-5 Miata

With stellar reviews, a low starting price, and the sort of low-slung, zippy ride that makes the segment so much fun, the Mazda Miata is a force to be reckoned with in the world of entry-level sports cars. As the best-selling roadster of all-time, Mazda has moved over one million Miatas since the model debuted in 1989. The Miata might not be the most powerful model in its class with between 116 and 180 horsepower, depending on the year, but horsepower isn’t the most important factor when you’re talking about a vehicle this light. Weighing in at just 2,400 pounds, the Miata offers a power-to-weight ratio that’s tough to beat, especially for the price.

A four-cylinder sports car might not sound too appealing, but when you consider the Miata’s lean chassis, superb balance, and excellent manual transmission, you’ve got a sports car that’s more than capable of giving you a few goosebumps. The Miata often gives you the sensation of going much faster than you actually are, which adds to the fun of driving it while saving money on speeding tickets. The Club trim, which includes upgraded tires, a stiffened suspension, and 17-inch rims, is a great way to boost the Miata’s performance, while the power retractable hardtop allows drivers to enjoy that wind-in-your-hair feeling that makes the sporty segment so appealing. The Miata also boasts some impressive fuel economy, 22 mpg city and 28 highway for the 2010 model, which is a nice perk in a segment full of thirsty coupes. Best of all, the Miata can be found for cheap on the used market, with an average price between $8,500 and $11,500. That’s good enough to land the Miata the number one spot in U.S. News and World Report’s rankings of the best used sports cars under $20,000 for 2023, adding another feather to the Mazda’s brimming cap.

Ford Mustang

It’s hard to undersell the impact of the Ford Mustang on the performance segment. Once upon a time, any driver who wanted to get a taste of true performance had to drop a pretty penny on a high-end sports car, but that all changed in 1964 when Ford released the Mustang. Compact, stylish, sporty, and most importantly affordable, the Mustang created an entirely new category upon its debut. The segment even takes its name from the model’s equine designation, with countless other “pony cars” seeking to imitate the original.

Times have changed since the Mustang was first introduced. The rise of SUVs have seen traditional cars lose significant ground in recent years, but the Mustang is still holding strong as Ford’s only remaining car in their North American lineup. With a unique combination of flashy styling, price, and reputation, the Mustang has remained an alluring option for almost 60 years, which means there are plenty of affordable models on the used market. While the massive V8-powered Mustangs might still command a high price, the Mustang’s EcoBoost turbocharged four-cylinder models are a real bargain, giving drivers over 300 horsepower (more than the classic Fox body’s 5.0 V8), a six-speed manual transmission, and limited-slip differential to play with. There’s also some value in the Mustang’s GT models, especially the 2011 to 2014 run, which give drivers the chance to upgrade to the Coyote 5.0L V8 with 412 horsepower and 390 lb-ft of torque. Models that come packed with optional equipment like Brembo brakes, overhauled suspensions, and revised rear end gearing ratios sweeten the pot even more, making the Mustang GT a hard choice to pass up.

The Mustang is also one of the roomier models in its class, with a sizable trunk that makes it a practical option as a daily driver. The original pony car has also logged some impressive safety scores, which is always an important consideration in a segment that’s all about going fast. These factors combine to make the Mustang one of our top picks for drivers seeking affordable used performance cars, and U.S. News and World Report agrees. The publication named the 2010 Mustang the second-best sports car under $20,000 for 2023, slotting in just below the Miata.

A blue 2022 Subaru BRZ is shown parked on a road near mountains.

Subaru BRZ

Subaru has developed a reputation as the go-to choice for the outdoorsy set, who value the brand’s lineup of comfortable, capable all-wheel drive vehicles. The brand also has a longstanding presence in the rally scene, with models like the Legacy, Impreza, WRX, and STI logging their fair of trophies on the racing circuit. But what about pure sports cars? Introduced in 2013, the Subaru BRZ is a smaller, sporty model developed in collaboration with Toyota, which sells its own version dubbed the Toyota 86. With a four-cylinder engine that puts out some 205 horsepower, a tight, responsive chassis, rear-wheel drive, and a curb weight of 2,700 pounds, the BRZ provides plenty of excitement and a zero-to-60-mph time under 7 seconds without costing an arm and a leg. If you’re seeking even more thrills, the BRZ’s Performance Package adds an overhauled suspension, improved brakes, and bigger tires. If the BRZ isn’t to your taste, the Toyota 86 offers a slightly different ride in a very similar package, as it’s built with just a little more oversteer on tap.

The BRZ only has two glaring disadvantages. It’s the only Subaru model without all-wheel drive, and the only Subaru where you’d struggle to fit a kayak on the roof. If those aren’t dealbreakers, the BRZ is worth a closer look, with used models carrying a surprisingly low price tag. The sports car has been on the U.S. market for a decade as of 2023, which means there is no shortage of used models out there just waiting to be discovered. Some higher-mileage models can even be found for less than $10,000, making the BRZ an enticing choice for drivers on any budget.

Audi TT

What do you get when you take a Volkswagen Golf and pack it with virtually every performance component from the VW warehouse? It’s the Audi TT, an intriguing sports car that manages to provide some legitimate thrills while still boasting the reliability that’s made the VW brand so popular throughout the years. The TT was a sensation right out of the gate, earning both a North American Car of the Year nomination and being named one of Car and Driver’s Ten Best models in both 2000 and 2001. With used models available for less than $20,000, the TT is still an investment, but it packs a lot of value for the price. Take the 2023 model, for example. Drivers can enjoy 228 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque from the TT’s 2.0L I-4 turbo engine. Those in the mood for a little more redline fun should seek out an older RS model, which ups the engine to a unique 2.5L I-5 turbo, reminiscent of the classic Audi Group B rally cars, with 394 horsepower.

No matter which model you choose, you’ll be able to enjoy all the benefits of Audi’s patented Quattro all-wheel drive system, which offers unsurpassed performance and consistent traction, no matter the road conditions. Designed with responsiveness in mind, the TT is a treat on any winding road, enabling drivers to carve through corners and inject a little excitement into their ride. The TT also looks every bit the sports car, with an iconic shape that sets the model apart from the crowd.

A red 2000 Audi TT is shown parked on a mountain road.

Ford Fiesta ST

The Mustang might be the Big Blue Oval’s last remaining car, but if you’re shopping on the used market there are plenty of performance-minded Ford models out there. The Ford Fiesta ST is a perfect example. Discontinued in early 2022, the hatchback is a sportier version of the Ford Fiesta, with the automaker throwing in a number of high-octane add-ons that make the model a favorite in the “hot hatch” segment.

Starting new at less than $30,000 new, the Fiesta ST encompasses everything there is to love about hot hatch: a low price, a zippy turbocharged engine, sporty styling, and a six-speed manual transmission. While manual gearboxes have largely gone the way of the dodo, the Fiesta ST was a bit of an iconoclast offering only a manual transmission, requiring drivers to choose their own gears and offering a level of control and driver/vehicle synergy that automatic transmissions can’t seem to match. It’s not the fastest performance model on the market with a top speed of 152 mph, but it more than makes up for it with it’s responsive handling and impressive acceleration, with the hatchback speeding from zero to 60 mph in just 5.9 seconds when fully kitted out. The Fiesta ST’s turbocharged 1.6L I-4 engine is good for 197 horsepower and 202 lb-ft of torque, which compliments the model’s light 2,700-pound curb weight quite nicely.

Ford also took pains to ensure the Fiesta ST looked just as sporty as it felt, imbuing the hatchback with heated Recaro seats, black 17-inch wheels with red brake calipers, and a full pallete of eye-catching color options like Orange Spice and White Platinum. The hatchback isn’t the roomiest model on the list, and the materials throughout the interior aren’t going to put any BMW or Mercedes drivers on notice, but that’s not to say it’s drab, by any means. Ford has crafted a well-balanced interior that manages to pack a few fun surprises, such as standard ambient lighting that can be customized in seven different colors.

When you know what you’re looking for, shopping on the used vehicle market can prove just as thrilling as buying new. Performance vehicles and sports cars are particularly well-suited to the used market for one simple reason. Drivers who buy these types of vehicles are always going to be looking for the latest and greatest models, which means their trade-ins tend to still be in fairly pristine condition by the time they hit pre-owned status. Sure, there are always going to be collectors who hold onto their models until they reach antique status, but by and large, there’s some great value to be had when browning this particular segment. From brawny muscle cars like the Ford Mustang, to sporty Subarus, audaciously styled Audis, the best-selling Miata, and head-turning hot hatches like the Ford Fiesta ST, a used performance car might be far more affordable than you would expect.

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