The finest used fast car bargains
If you’re looking for a used performance car, you don’t have to spend much money to have a lot of fun.....
As manufacturers raise the bar ever further, with cars that go faster and handle better, we get to enjoy the fruits of their labours for amazingly little money.
That’s especially true when buying used, because as we prove here you’ve got so much mouthwatering machinery within reach, even if your budget is meagre.
We’ve not necessarily focused on the fastest or most powerful cars – nor even the sharpest handling. What all of these cars have in common is that they’ll bring a smile to your face whenever you drive them, whether it’s because of the grunt or handling, the soundtrack, or simply the fact that they’re such an absolute steal.
We list them in ascending price order:
Editors' note: Prices are estimates based on current examples found for sale online
We’d be the first to admit that buying an RX-8 can be a lottery because the rotary engines can be fragile, and even when in good health they don’t half get through fuel and oil.
But with fabulous handling, a brilliant design and that rev-happy engine in the nose there are less sensible things to spend your money on – speaking of which, while RX-8s can be bought for only £800, budget to spend closer to £1500 to buy something that won’t expire imminently.
It's the car that kick-started the affordable roadster market at the end of the eighties, and since then the MX-5 has endured where rivals have not.
You've got three generations to choose from but good Mk1s are becoming costly, too many Mk2s have significant rust problems which leaves the Mk3 as the one to go for, thanks to its improved build quality and low purchase prices.
Toyota MR2 Mk3
You could pick any of the three generations of MR2 and have a blast, but the Mk1 is now collectible and cheap cars tend to be rusty. The Mk2 isn't much better so you're likely to fare better if you buy a Mk3.
Watch out for engine failure on cars built up to 2002 as the pre-cat could break up then find its way into the cylinders. Practicality is rubbish but thrills come no cheaper than here, thanks to the mid-mounted engine and a weight of just a tonne.
Ford Fiesta ST
Ford has offered a Fiesta ST since 2005. In those days a 148bhp 2.0-litre engine was installed but by the time the seventh-generation Fiesta was launched in ST form there was a 178bhp turbocharged 1.6-litre engine fitted. While you can buy one of the earlier cars for £1000 you'll need at least £10k to secure one of the newer models.
If you've got very little cash to spend, a TT Mk1 is a pretty good bet thanks to decent build quality, a strong engine (with 148bhp, 178bhp or 222bhp, most with standard quattro), and excellent usability whether you opt for a coupé or a roadster. If your pockets are deeper a Mk2 TT offers much sharper handling from £3000.
Mini Cooper S
Time is a great leveller. Once these Minis seemed to defy the rules of depreciation, but they’re now old and prices are at rock bottom. Abused cars are common, but so are cherished examples – although you’ll need to spend more like £3000 to get something really tidy.
Skoda Fabia vRS
The idea of a diesel-engined hot hatch seemed a bit weird when the Fabia vRS arrived in 2003, but it was a formula that worked brilliantly thanks to the immensely torquey 1.9 TDI engine, a relatively light bodyshell and decent agility thrown into the mix - diesel power also ensured excellent economy into the bargain.
Seat Ibiza 1.9 TDI FR
Can’t find a Fabia vRS? Then try to track down a Seat Ibiza 1.9 TDI FR which arrived a year after its VW group stablemate. Huge fun, the FR has 228lb ft of torque at just 1900rpm in a car that weighs just 1190kg.
Ford Mondeo ST220
If you’ve got to cart a family around or you simply prefer big cars but you also want something that’s fun to drive and quick, the 224bhp Mondeo ST200 might just fit the bill. The running costs are out of proportion to the purchase costs because of fuel and road tax bills.
On that note, make sure you buy a car registered before 23 March 2006 (that’s most of them) so your annual bill is £315 instead of £540.
There have been so many heated-up Clios over the years that whatever your budget there's something within reach. The fun starts with the Clio 172 but the 182 is a better bet because it’s newer and that bit more zesty. While the former starts at just £1800 you need at least £2500 to secure one of the later cars – or for just £3000 you can have a Clio 197.
Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk5
The Mk3 Golf GTI was unbelievably disappointing after the brilliant Mk1 and Mk2. The Mk4 was no better in 2.0-litre form although the 1.8T was a bit more deserving of the GTi tag.
So when the Golf GTI Mk5 arrived in 2005 it was great to see that VW had rediscovered its mojo with a car that was fun to drive, fast and frugal but as practical as ever.
Volvo S60 T5
We'd be lying if we were to say that the S60 is the greatest driver's car ever made, but the S60 shows that you can have a dose of serious performance with economy and safety in a family-friendly spacious body.
Early cars got a 247bhp 2.3-litre five-cylinder but from 2004 a 256bhp 2.4-litre unit was fitted to give 0-62mph in just 6.5 seconds. The steering is pretty lifeless but find a car with the Four-C adaptive chassis and you can have some fun for peanuts.
When Nissan developed the 350Z it focused on the stuff that matters, like a 276bhp V6, rear-wheel drive and a limited-slip diff for improved traction. It didn’t stress about the refinement levels or quality of the interior plastics too much, so your money is going where it matters – on something that’s an absolute blast to drive.
Coupés and roadsters are much the same money but if you want driving thrills rather than a mobile posing pouch, stick with the former.
Subaru Impreza Turbo
Any cherished Impreza Turbo is worth a punt, whether it's the original car or the bug-eyed version that arrived in 2000. Seemingly capable of defying the laws of physics, the Impreza has to be driven to be believed, but most early cars are baggy, badly modified or pricey because they’re a new-age classic.
That’s why the bug-eyed car is such a good bet; they’re still the cars that offer the most bang for your buck – but be wary of over-modified examples.
Porsche Boxster S
When you drive a really good early Boxster S it seems ludicrous that values are so low. But such are market forces; even the Mk2 Boxster S is now decently affordable with prices starting at under £10k. If money is tight though, don’t buy a ropey Boxster S – find a decent 2.5- or 2.7-litre car instead; prices start at less than £5000.
BMW M3 (E46)
The original M3, the E30, is now big money for anything good. The E36 that followed is stronger value but it's the E46 that we'd steer you towards because it's much more potent than its forebear and it's top value, even if rock bottom happened a little while ago.
With a 343bhp straight-six up front, rear-wheel drive and the most magnificent soundtrack, if you don’t buy one of these soon, in a few years’ time you’ll regret it, once prices have gone silly.
Honda Integra Type R
One of the best front-wheel drive cars ever made, the Integra Type R's brilliance is no secret which is why values have already started to climb.
But don't let that put you off; any decent example will prove a sound investment and once you've driven one of these cars the way they were designed to be driven you'll soon see that £20k is a bargain, never mind the less-than £10k that a really superb example commands.
Just like the Impreza and the 350Z, the Honda S2000 offers stupid amounts of driving fun in return for tiny amounts of cash, without any inherent unreliability issues as long as the servicing schedules are adhered to.
Values of good S2000s are already on the rise thanks to restricted supply and steady demand – the latter because of the Honda’s revtastic VTEC engine, rear-wheel drive and fabulous handling.
Peugeot 205 GTi
One of the greatest hot hatches of all time is still eminently affordable if you don't care about owning something that's less than mint. Crashed 205s are all too common though, so watch out for rubbish repairs.
Focus on condition rather than spec; a tidy 1.6 will be far better to drive and own than a tatty 1.9, while the open-topped 205 CTi can provide a budget option if you’re not fussed about ultimate handling.
The original Jaguar XKR (from £4000) is now a bona fide classic and values of good ones are starting to firm up. But the second-generation car, with its aluminium body, is a far better car; much more enjoyable to drive, more agile, better packaged and better built.
And with a 420bhp supercharged 4.2-litre V8 (later cars got a 503bhp 5.0-litre unit) it’s scorchingly rapid too.
There aren't many Monaros to go round and values are already on the rise, but when you consider that you can still buy one of these V8 coupés for under £10,000 you can see why it's worth seeking one out.
Even the weediest Monaro has 329bhp but quite a few have closer to 400bhp - the most potent pack a 493bhp punch but you'll need to spend at least £12,000 to secure one of these. Which is still a bargain.
Mercedes SLK32 AMG
OK, we admit that it's not the sharpest drive out there, but with its supercharged 3.2-litre V6 putting out 354bhp you can still have a lot of fun with one of these pint-sized sportsters. You get coupé-cabrio practicality and decent build quality.
There's nothing like the sound of a barely silenced V8 to get the adrenalin flowing, and TVR used to be the master of it. When you consider that the Chimaera is essentially a Griffith with added usability and at around half the price, if the Chimaera isn't a bargain we don't know what is.
Even the entry-level 4.0-litre models are a blast; find a top-notch 4.5- or 5.0-litre example and you can pay closer to £20k for it. And it’ll never be worth less than that. Just don’t expect faultless reliability.
The Z3M coupé and roadster are now getting very collectible and while Z4Ms aren’t available for give-away prices, they're unlikely to ever be this cheap again. For your money you get a 343bhp 3.2-litre straight-six linked to a six-speed gearbox and pushing those horses to the rear wheels.
Build quality and equipment levels are excellent and the driving experience is superb; the Z4M coupé is even better, but prices for those start at £18,000.
Lotus Elise S1
Few cars offer the driving purity of the original Lotus Elise. It's a car that's surprisingly rare; production lasted just four years before the series 2 arrived in 2000.
Values are already climbing for S1s but don't let that put you off; if you can afford a good one you'll love every minute of driving it and when you come to sell it's bound to be worth more than you paid for it. What's not to like?
Lexus IS F
If the IS F was as brilliant as Lexus likes to think it is you wouldn't be able to pick one up for around £15,000. But the gearbox should be better and the suspension would benefit from some recalibration.
More precisely the 417bhp V8 gets the IS to 62mph in under five seconds, it sounds fabulous, the equipment levels are ludicrously generous and reliability is superb. So it's not hard to forgive the Lexus for being less than perfect dynamically.
The GranTurismo is everything you’d expect of a Maserati; fast, beautiful, aggressive and luxurious – and not devoid of character (ie, it’s flawed). But when you can buy a 454bhp 4.7-litre V8-powered coupé that looks as gorgeous as this (although most cars for this money are 389bhp 4.2-litre examples), you don’t mind the odd ergonomic glitch.
Check the service history, be forensic with your test drive and have a contingency fund – then get out there and enjoy it.
Aston Martin Vantage V8
Finally, we've included the Vantage here because it looks so sensational, is fabulously quick and is brilliant to drive. But it can be a nightmare to own because of reliability issues, so be very careful before handing over your folding; prices have dipped to within a whisker of £25k at the bottom of the market but aim to spend at least £30k on an early car that's been cherished.