The facts are the facts: the amount of car you can buy on the cheap today is simply outstanding.
And it’s not just amount of power you can get for very little money, but it’s the caliber of car you can acquire for so little. The cars available on the used market for a fraction of their original price is unlike it ever has been before. Most of us are intimately familiar with this, but it’s still perpetually shocking to see high-power, high-performance cars plummeting to the bottom of their depreciation curve.
I’m not the first one to say this, but it very well may be true that we’re living in the Golden Age. Power and performance are at a premium and used prices are, thankfully, comfortably palatable. Jump with me as I explore some of the cars out there that strike gold in the value-for-dollar quotient.
If you’re like me, you spend more time than any semi-motivated human being should perusing the likes of forum classifieds, Craigslist, BRZO, and so on. But it’s not without purpose: getting a grasp on what’s available in one’s theoretical “maybe I’ll buy that next” price range is as fun and amusing as it is inducing of the phrase “holy shit, I can’t believe that car can be had for that little.” The caliber of performance available at such low prices is only going to benefit those of us who care, and will directly reward us when we’re shopping for our next hoon-mobile. So what are some of the highlights? I can talk up and down about how much car you can get for how little money, but that means nothing without some examples. Let’s explore, and for the sake of keeping things current we’ll limit it to modern (or at least modern-ish) cars, those reasonably safe and with relatively current tech. And for the sake of keeping our bank accounts in check, we’ll keep it under $40k.
Let’s establish my Top Value pick right off the bat: the Chevrolet Corvette. It is simply impossible to ignore it. In its last three generations the ‘Vette has become a serious sports car, one capable of fighting with the best the world has to offer at a lower price than all of its competitors. That’s only exaggerated on the used market, and starts with going back to the C5 generation. The LS1 engine is a smooth, strong powerplant with endless modification potential. Finding a clean car with low miles is easy under $20k, and higher-mileage examples (which should in no way scare a potential buyer) can be found even under the magic $10k number. Step up to the LS6-powered, “it’s a race car adapted to the street” C5 Z06 and we’re looking at a serious performance vehicle.
What the regular C5 lacks in sharpness, the Z more than picks up the slack. And with well cared-for examples easily being bought for $15k, that’s an absolute ton of car for the money, and the pinnacle of performance-meets-value. With 385-400 (depending on year) naturally aspirated horsepower and similar torque, all matched up with a car weighing just over 3100 pounds, the C5Z has the right specs, the right configuration (V8, RWD, manual-only), and the right race-car-backed mentality to be an enjoyable daily driver that’s even more capable on the track.
Stepping into a newer model, the C6 and C6 Z06 offer even higher performance and more modern amenities at similarly low prices. First-year C6’s can be had under $20k, and more desirable LS3-powered cars are easily found in the mid-$20k area. Then there’s the C6Z, a fire-breathing LS7-touting 500hp-monster, which has examples to choose from in the low-$30ks. Start talking about the occasional first-year C7 that turns up in the $39k range and we’re within breathing room of supercar performance figures. A shitton of car for the money, that certainly is. Whether we’re talking 0-60, ¼ mile, autocross, or road circuit, any of these Corvettes are bargains for how much performance and everyday compliance you get out of them.
Then there’s the other barrage of LS-powered GM vehicles. The first-gen CTS-V was plagued with wheel hop and a plasticky interior (among other issues), but its engine speaks for itself and $15k buys you a clean luxury cruiser that just so happens to be able to run supremely quick times in a straight line. Start looking at second-gen Vs in the $28-40k range and you have a massive amount of horsepower– 556 of them– at the price of a new four-cylinder ATS. When talking all-around performers, the V.2 is impossible to ignore. So are the G8 GT, G8 GXP, and GTO, the trio of Pontiacs also touting the venerable LS engines. Pick your poison: each has upsides and downsides. Any way you look at it, used GM cars bring so much performance-per-dollar to the table that they’re full-on “must consider” options should you be in the market for what they offer.
How about Ford? Later, 5.0-powered S197 Mustangs have dropped considerably since the introduction of the S550 chassis car, and with middle-mileage GTs dipping into the $15-18k range we’re looking at a legitimate 400-plus horsepower car for very little coin. And, as you undoubtedly know, the aftermarket for these cars is basically infinite. Then there’s the two varieties of S197 GT500, the lower of which has a paltry 500 factory-rated horsepower. The early 5.4L supercharged S197 cars might need a bit of attention in the chassis department, as do later post-refresh 550-hp cars, but the end-run 5.8L-based 662-hp cars came a long way towards being well-rounded and can certainly hold their own at the hands of the right driver. Prices on GT500s are all over the place based on year, mileage, questionable modifications, etc…but with any of them, you’ve got endless power and the platform on which you can modify to your heart’s content.
Looking newer, prices on Ford’s newest ‘Stang, the S550 GT, have dropped to the point of making them impossible to overlook. For $24-26k you can get a great-condition 2015 Mustang GT with your choice of transmission, and GT Premiums (with nav, heated/cooled seats, leather, sunroof, etc.) are easily found in the mid-to-high $20k range. Add a thousand-grand or so on for Performance Pack cars, but that’s money well spent if you have any interest in the slew of items like Brembros, gears, and wheels that would easily tally a much higher bill if added on your own. Any way you look at it, the S550 offers a massive amount of Mustang for not very much money. I absolutely loved the GT I drove, much more so than its Chevy counterpart, and couldn’t help but acknowledge how much of a jump it made over the S197 gen.
Sticking with the muscle car theme, Dodge Challengers have become quite affordable on the used market as well. Credit the 2015 model-year refresh for this, but you can now easily find an early 375-hp Hemi-powered R/T in the low $20k-range and 6.1L SRTs for relatively little more. Much more importantly though, 6.4L-powered Scat Packs can be had in the low $30k-area (and realistically even for mid-$30k range new), making 485 horsepower and menacing good looks attainable at a price it almost never has been before.
Exploring the options from overseas reveals that the never-ending spiral of fun-focused cars that are fast and budget-friendly. Whether you’re looking at the 350Z, any of the 135i/M235i/M3 BMWs, S3/S4, Lexus IS-F, or one of the powerhouse AMG Mercedes cars, foreign automakers have effectively flooded the market with viable high-performance vehicles that have depreciated rapidly. Or, be bold and pick up a dealership-new 370Z for under $25k and take advantage of a scenario working in your favor. (Well done, Cragon. Well freakin’ done.)
Rounding out the V8, rear-drive sector is the love-it-or-hate-it 4th-gen F-Body Camaro and Firebird, cars that were killed off in 2002 but for which the following is still extraordinarily strong. More GM goodness, the F-Body cars offer a lot of power for the money, with underrated-from-the-factory 325-hp / 350 lb-ft. power levels easily available in the sub-$10k range and even closer to $5k if you don’t care what it looks like. You’ll have to dump some money into a 4th-gen to make it corner, but it’s a surprisingly good platform to build on should you want to invest the time and money.
Muscle cars and rear-drive sports cars might be good fun, but we have to acknowledge the hot hatches as well. Ford’s “every journalist’s favorite front-drive toy” Fiesta ST can now be found a hair over $10k, making what is a viable Mini Cooper S competitor a serious performance bargain with a liftgate’s worth of practicality thrown in. Similarly, the FiST’s bigger brother, the Focus ST, can now be found in good used condition for $15k. 252 front-drive horsepower, space for all your stuff, and a chassis that loves to dance; the FoST is a great performer with a sizable following as well. Jumping away from Ford, other front-drive, semi-economical cars nailing the performance-per-dollar quotient are the Fiat 500 Abarth, Cobalt SS, and slew of Subarus/Saabarus/Evos if you dare put up with the maintenance. Finding a daily-driver capable car that also rings in high on the fun meter is no longer a daunting task, and these cars– all easily had under $20-25k– are prime examples of that. Start talking Cooper S, mazdaspeed3, SRT-4s, GTIs, R32s, and so on…the options are infinite.
Should you need to haul more people, more stuff, or both, the options for go-fast SUVs, CUVs, and trucks has begun to blossom as well. Take, for example, the SRT Grand Cherokee: whether we’re talking 420-hp first-gen WK1 or 475-hp second-gen WK2, the performance capabilities of the SRT GC rivals that of many sports cars while allowing you to carry kids and cargo alike. The WK1 can be found under $25k, the WK2 under $40k and some under $35k with higher miles. Similarly, but with higher consequences should things go awry, you can even find an early Porsche Cayenne Turbo for sub $40k (and even sub-$30k should you want to put your wallet on permanent bankruptcy standby). That the Porsche can even be mentioned in the same breath as the Jeep is ridiculous, but they’re both fast SUVs that fall nicely into the “one vehicle to do it all” category. As do the long-departed Trailblazer SS, 9-7X Aero, X5M, ML55, Audi SQ5, and so on. Every single one of these vehicles has a performance threshold higher than what we expected family-haulers to hit, and every one can be had on a relative budget. As they say, you can have your cake and eat it too…so long as you don’t mind paying for the gas.
To round things out, I’m obligated to mention the cars that place less emphasis on lap times and power figures and more on “pure driving enjoyment,” as their marketing teams surely would have mentioned. This field consists of the likes of MX-5, S2000, Z3, Z4 (and Z4M), Solstice GXP / Sky Red Line, and so on. These cars might not set your hair on fire, but they surely know how to dance. And with prices at all-time lows ($4k Z3s, $7k NC Miatas, and so on), now is the time to take advantage of the ultimate bargains in the smile-factor group.
Just by taking a quick look around it’s instantly clear that the used performance cars are quicker, faster, better handlers, and more well-rounded than ever. It’s truly astonishing what can be had for relatively little money, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Obviously there’s cars I’m missing. Hell, there’s trucks I’m missing. Go back further than I dared to and you’ll find dozens upon dozens of other vehicles that qualify as “fast” that can be had for pennies on the dollar. Take the HHR SS and the 996 Turbo, for example. We’re living in the Golden Age, one in which you can get an absolute shit-ton of power and performance for relatively little coin, all making the case for a used car that much stronger. People look back on the muscle car era as one that was the height of performance car badassery, but they’re wrong: this, and today, are the true glory days.