Top ten high performance cars under $40,000

02 Jun 2017

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If you're looking for something a bit more exciting than your average hatchback but don't want to break the bank you've got quite a few options to choose from. Whether you're after the best hot hatch or a precision rear-wheel drive coupe, here are ten philosophically different new cars that will make sure you stand out from the pack and bring true excitement into your daily commute.

Ford Fiesta ST

Despite a recent price rise, the Fiesta ST remains an absolute bargain, offering 134kW (147 on overboost) of front-wheel drive excitement. This is pure, unadulterated hot hatch with possibly the best chassis in its class. It has drawn unanimous praise from all corners for its grip and 'chuckability'. Available in manual only – as a hot hatch should be – upgrades are now available from the dealership courtesy of Mountune tuning packages, while a more powerful ST 200 version was announced at this year’s Geneva Motor Show. If any of those land here, they will be collectible. Big brother Focus ST is also worthy of consideration, scraping just under $40k, but is it as fun as the tiddler? Watch out late 2017 for an all-new three-cylinder version.

Citroen DS 3

Citroen's new premium DS brand focuses on bringing uniquely-French style to the market. The DS 3 competes with the MINI Cooper and Audi A1, with plenty of customisation options and a gutsy 121kW turbo engine that incorporates stop-start technology for extra efficiency. With its 'floating roof' design, and inimitable blend of style, fun-to-drive dynamics and luxurious interior, the DS 3 stands out in a league of its own.

Hyundai Veloster SR Turbo

Hyundai’s sporty, asymmetrical three-door certainly is one unique stand-out car. From some angles the Veloster is quite polarising, but you can’t deny its performance credentials and value. With 150kW and squeezing in at just under $30k for the manual, it has definite appeal. A seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox is also available. It is fun to drive and feels special thanks to matte paint options and the unique design, sporty interior treatment and local chassis tuning.

Renault Clio R.S.

Renault has upped the ante on its perennial sport hatch, with up to 162kW and 280Nm. Although Renault’s newfound fascination with turbos and dual-clutch gearboxes (no manual) means it might have a different feel from the old-school cars, the new one looks and feels focused and special, with performance numbers that can only be achieved with a dual-clutch gearbox. Expect 0-100km/h times of around 6.6 seconds.

Subaru WRX

The WRX enjoyed some glory in the 1990s on the back of rally glory and being a devastatingly quick point-to-point missile, before adding bloat and then only trading on reputation, sort of languishing in the wilderness for a while. The latest generation has reclaimed that lost glory, with a thunderous 197kW boxer four. Now a more mature and liveable proposition, it offers eye-melting grip, excellent steering, and superbly bolstered seats with a more premium interior. Choose from six-speed manual or CVT automatic with three driving modes and paddle shifts.

Toyota 86

Toyota boss Akio Toyoda’s revival of the affordable 1980s drifting legend has drawn universal praise the world over. While not particularly powerful, the Subaru-derived flat-four engine and sheer mechanical balance means the 86's cornering and drifting ability shames cars several times its price. Up there with the Fiesta ST and Renault Clio R.S. for fun factor, albeit in a different way, with rear-wheel drive. Starting just over $30k with 152kW, the 86, and its twin, the Subaru BRZ, benefited recently from powertrain, styling and infotainment upgrades.

Mazda MX-5

Most people think of a ‘sports car’ as an open-top roadster. With rear-wheel drive and a weight of just over a tonne, the latest MX-5 has the formula exactly right, whether in 1.5-litre or 2.0-litre guise. Starting at just over $30,000, each version offers superlative steering, response and an intimate sense of connection between the driveline and chassis. Add the open-top fun factor and for some, that might be enough to put it at the top. However, while eminently liveable and comfortable for a long trip, being a two-seater makes this an impractical proposition for some. If you can live with that, it’s well worth it. Its Italian twin, the Fiat 124 Spider Abarth is a fraction over $40k, with different styling and its own 1.4-litre turbo engine.

Volkswagen Polo GTI

The Polo GTI recently upgraded to a 1.8-litre turbo engine, of 141kW and 320Nm tune, resulting in performance that puts it at the pointy end of the segment. 0-100km/h in 6.2 seconds. Maybe it cedes some steering and chassis finesse to the Fiesta ST but is still exceptional, and counters that by having five doors and a far more refined interior, with evocative tartan seats. Well worthy of consideration before you sign that dotted line.

Mini Cooper

Now available in fun open-top guise, the latest MINI Cooper continues the fun and cutesy factor of the revived British icon. The engine is a very charming 1.5-litre triple that develops 100kW and 220Nm, with 5.3L/100km economy and a BMW-derived chassis, with style and flair the others here can’t equal. The bug-eyed little guy offers plenty of character inside and out too, but with plenty of options which can drive the price skyward. Definitely a way to stand out and have lots of fun doing so.

BMW 1 Series

The only hot hatch with rear-wheel drive is a big deal and possibly not one that will be around for much longer. The 1 Series is available with a slick and direct six-speed manual or ultra-high tech eight-speed automatic. With 100kW and 220Nm, it has enough power to exploit that rear-wheel drive package with exceptional balance and clean, unadulterated steering that can only come from a rear-driven car. What's more, Eco Pro mode can muster economy, with an official average of just 5.2L/100km.


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