10. Fiat 500 Abarth
The tiny Fiat’s 160 horsepower isn’t a lot by today’s standards, but it does more with those 160 ponies than some cars with twice as much. It’s small footprint and high degree of maneuverability make the 500 a great practical city car, but its Abarth upgrades include a performance-tuned suspension, bigger brakes, revised steering, and a heavy duty five-speed manual transmission, making it a true sports car. This adorable little bundle of rocket ship comes with an MSRP of $22,495, comfortably below the $25,000 ceiling, but the Cabrio model will send you over the mark.
9. Mini Cooper S
Like the Abarth, the Cooper S is a sensible city car that has bona-fide sporting credentials. With a 189 horsepower twin-turbocharged engine developed by parent company BMW, and a top speed of 146 (if you’ll ever need it), the Cooper S puts Mini’s famous go-kart-like handling to good use, sprinting from zero-to-60 in a respectable 6.4 seconds. At $24,100, it’s one of the most exciting cars under the $25K bar, and for a driver-oriented everyday car, you’d be hard pressed do better at any price.
8. Mazda MX-5 Miata
Don’t be fooled by the 155 horsepower Mazda Miata — when coupled with its 50-50 weight distribution and perfectly tuned suspension and chassis, the Miata is among the best drivers’ cars in the world at any price. At $24,915 for the Sport model, it squeaks in just under our budget, but honestly, we’d take this one over some cars that cost four times as much.
7. Ford Fiesta ST
With just 197 horsepower, the Fiesta ST joins the Miata as one of the best driver’s cars in the world at any price. And for $20,970, Ford is practically giving them away. Power comes from Ford’s turbocharged 1.6 liter EcoBoost inline-four, and routed exclusively through a six speed manual, as it should be. But its party piece is ST-unique sport suspension which makes the FiST a major-league corner-carver. It’s not everyday that a sub-$25,000 hatch can be mentioned in the same league as a Porsche or an Nissan GT-R, but it only goes to show that the Fiesta ST is truly something special.
6. Kia Forte Koup
It may not be a big seller, but the Kia Forte Koup is a good-looking entry-level coupe, and in SX trim, you get 1.6 liter turbocharged inline-four mated to an optional six-speed manual transmission. The car is full of surprises: first, you get a healthy 201 horsepower from the little engine. Second, at $20,590, you’ve got a lot of leftover cash to play with and make it the nicest (and fastest) little Kia 25 grand can buy.
5. Volkswagen Golf GTI
Fast over 40 years, the Volkswagen GTI has been leading the hot-hatch segment it helped create. And while many vehicles go up and down in terms of quality and performance, the GTI has gotten better with age. As both a sensible five-seat hatchback and a world-class performance car, the GTI is a no-brainer for performance junkies on a budget. Power — all 210 horses worth — comes from the familiar turbo-charged 2.0 liter inline-four. For the entry level 2.0T 2-Door, its MSRP sneaks just under the mark at $24,995, though with Volkswagen dealers desperate for a sale in the wake of Dieselgate, you might be able to get one for an I.O.U. and a firm handshake.
4. Hyundai Veloster Turbo
Proving that Hyundai can do performance too, the recently facelifted Veloster Turbo can fly down the road behind a 201-horsepower twin-scroll turbocharged engine, and go from zero-to-60 in under seven seconds. While the stylish compact will give you all you want on the performance side, the most shocking thing about it might be the sticker price. At $22,600, the Veloster Turbo is a legitimate road warrior at a very low price.
3. Honda Civic Si
A fan favorite for decades now, the Civic Si has been a sporty daily driver still manages to wow buyers year after year. The sportiest Civic offering (at least until the Type R comes around), the Si gets 205 horses from its VTEC inline-four cylinder engine, taking it from zero-to-60 in under seven seconds. This sporty coupe comes at a reasonable price of $22,890, making it a cost effective option for consumers trying to blend style with famously reliable engineering. On top of performance, the Civic Si is comes standard with technology like HondaLink, so you’re sure to stay connected no matter where you go.
2. Ford Focus ST
While the fly-weight Fiesta ST is all about out-handling its competitors, the bigger Focus ST uses its 252 horsepower turbocharged inline-four to leave other cars in its segment in the dust. This isn’t the sleepy Focus American buyers are used to; Ford has managed to take its compact economy car and turn it into a sleek and bold racer – all for a starting price of just $24,425. The Focus ST perfectly blends the performance of a street racer with practicality that rivals a compact crossover, thanks to five doors and plenty of cargo space. With the blue streak that is the Focus RS hitting show rooms this year, the ST is no longer top dog. But if you don’t have the $35k to spend on an RS, the ST is by no means a consolation prize.
1. Ford Mustang
It doesn’t get much more fun (or iconic) than the Ford Mustang, and the living legend is now available from Ford with a 3.7 liter V6 for just $24,145. Mated to a six-speed manual transmission, the entry-level ponycar puts out 300 horsepower, making it one of the best horsepower bargains on the market. Completely redesigned for 2015, the V6 has become the base model car – the 2.3 liter EcoBoost inline-four puts out an extra 10 horsepower and starts at just over the $25,000 mark. From the entry-level V6 to the upcoming track-ready GT350R, the new Mustang has rewritten the ponycar game. For looks and performance alone, it’s a bargain at any price.
While the base model Mustang is the most powerful car on the list, you really can’t go wrong with any of these cars. From hot hatchbacks to iconic muscle cars, these 10 models prove that world-class performance isn’t as expensive as you might think.
Additional Reporting By James Derek Sapienza.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.