2010 Ford Mustang
There's an economic recovery happening somewhere, but this Great Recession has shown us the folly of spending frivolously and has soured our appetite for expensive autos. The slump reveals something else: In good times or bad, the need for speed endures. So now the automotive subcultures of hot hatchbacks, muscle cars and 4-cylinder rally racers are looking more appealing than ever before. These vehicles aren't constructed for moneyed car collectors who gather German and Italian supercars like baseball cards; they are street fighters, made to be driven hard by people who work for a living. And there's never been a better crop of them. Here are our choices for the 2010 model-year vehicles that offer the best fun-to-drive, fast-and-furious demeanor for the price.
2010 Mazda MAZDASPEED3
Mazda's hottest "hot hatchback" has been restyled for 2010, ditching the car's previously ho-hum looks in favor of a maniacally grinning front grille and a combination of smooth, sharp lines that suggest a gust of wind caught fire. The MAZDASPEED3 (starting at $23,945) carries over its predecessor's 263-horsepower 2.3-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine and front-wheel driveline — and you'll get no complaints from us about that, since the little powerplant scoots the car from zero to 60 mph in around six seconds. In addition to its new skin, the Speed3's suspension was also upgraded, so the car won't be the only one smiling during fast cornering.
2010 Volkswagen GTI
Volkswagen invented the idea of the hotted-up compact car back in the 1970s, and the GTI (starting at $23,489) remains true to the original idea, providing tight handling and enthusiast styling (you can opt for the Interlagos plaid seats to "Euro" your ride). It's a shame that the engine hasn't improved with the latest-generation GTI. The 200-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-banger has plenty of pep, but it seems positively wimpy next to some of the other cheap hot rods in this segment. Still, you don't necessarily miss the horses when you're behind the wheel. The GTI has exceptional road manners and two marvelous transmission options in the 6-speed manual and the paddle-shift, dual-clutch DSG sequential manual.
Honda Civic Si
2010 Honda Civic Si Coupe
The Civic has a long history with the 4-cylinder mini-hot-rod crowd; the cheap, easy-to-modify compact cars have been favorites of the fast-and-furious crowd for years. And for those who want a little hotness without swapping out parts, Honda offers the factory tuner Civic Si (the coupe starts at $22,055; the sedan starts at $200 more). With its 197-horsepower 2.0-liter engine, the Si isn't too fast off the line, but the engine starts delivering rewards in the high rpm range. Plus, the Si is an incredible bargain, and it holds onto corners like a champ, so pointing it at some twisties instead of an interstate will slap a smile on your frugal face.
2009 BMW 128i Convertible
Think of it as the weird little sibling to the more popular and well-known BMW 3-Series. The BMW 1-Series is essentially four vehicles (two coupes, two convertibles) running two versions of the same engine (a 3.0-liter inline 6-cylinder; one version is turbocharged, the other isn't). The only one that can be defined as "cheap" speed with a straight face is the nonturbocharged 230-horse 128i Coupe, which costs $29,000. Like all 1-Series cars, it is built with many of the same structural bits and pieces as the larger 3-Series, but it definitely has the look and feel of a smaller car, with steering and handling that are tight as a drum and an engine that is smooth and confident. The weirdness comes from the vehicle's oddball exterior — the last vestiges of the controversial styling of BMW's now-retired designer Christopher Bangle — with a bubble top and sheet-metal creases that have their own bizarre logic. The view from the outside is love-it-or-hate-it, but the feeling behind the wheel is likely to be unanimously positive.
Subaru Impreza WRX
2009 Subaru Impreza WRX
Subaru's rally-bred Impreza WRX has always been a noisy, undisciplined tin can of a car, but its raw athleticism has always turned what would be drawbacks in any other vehicle into virtues. The current iteration somehow seems a bit less visceral; the hood scoops and spoilers are still there, but are less egregiously in your face. The WRX's mechanics have not been tamed; this is still a tremendously powerful and capable car. The $25,995 base hatchback has a 265-horsepower 2.5-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine and Subaru's grippy, symmetrical all-wheel-drive[LINK to AWD article] system. A bump up to the $34,995 STI variant ups the output of the turbo 2.5 engine to 305 horses and throws in Brembo brakes and a driver-controlled center differential to distribute power between the front and rear wheels. Still, at 35 large, you start longing for a bit more refinement on the inside.
Consider this: A Porsche Cayman has a 265-horsepower 2.9-liter 6-cylinder engine, does zero to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds and costs $51,400. A Nissan 370Z has a 332-horsepower 3.7-liter V6, does zero to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds and starts at $29,930.
The Porsche's engine is obviously more efficient, but we're willing to rile the Stuttgart purists and say that the Z gives you Porsche-like performance at a 20 grand discount. Plus, the Z offers an optional SynchroRev Match manual tranny that blips the revs for smooth downshifts at speed and an angry-looking exterior that will scare the lederhosen off of most German yuppie speedsters.
2009 Dodge Challenger R/T
The arrival of the Chevy Camaro has tempered the buzz about the Dodge Challenger in recent months, but the Challenger is evidence that parent company Chrysler can still build one hell of a muscle car. The top-end SRT8, at $43,655 is a bit pricey to be included in this article, and the 250-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 base-trim SE ($23,460) is, believe it or not, a bit weak for a modern muscle car with its zero-to-60-mph time of around eight seconds. But the midrange R/T version is a reasonable $31,585 and comes with a heavy-duty 372-horsepower 5.7-liter Hemi V8, powerful enough to hit 60 mph in less than six seconds. When it comes to style, the Challenger is retro-cool on the outside, but bland as dry toast on the inside. Still, this may be the most exciting (if not the last) muscle car out of the Dodge brand for the foreseeable future, since Chrysler's new owner, Fiat, may not be as interested in big, heavy, V8 rumblers like this one.
Hyundai Genesis Coupe
2010 Hyundai Genesis Coupe
"Wait," you say, "a Hyundai sports coupe made your list? Seriously?" Yes, the Genesis Coupe is a serious performer, and a force to be reckoned with — although we have no idea why it shares a nameplate with the company's luxury sedan.
There are two engine options: a 2.0-liter turbo four cylinder (starting at $22,000) rated at 210 horsepower, and a 3.8-liter V6 (starting at $25,000) delivering 306 horses. The interior is perhaps a bit too Spartan to match the Infiniti G37, which it is obviously gunning for, but the Genesis Coupe has the performance chops to give Infiniti a run for its money. And speaking of money, it is priced more than 10 grand less than the G37. Cheap speed, indeed.
2010 Ford Mustang
You can't do an article on cheap speed without a tip of the hat to the Mustang, which practically invented the genre. The Mustang is such a franchise that — geez Louise! — there are 10 flavors to choose from. The Mustang's bottom-end, $20,995 V6 is a disappointing 210-horsepower 4.0-liter jobbie that shouldn't take as long as it does to get up and going. But the top end is a blisteringly fast, Shelby GT500 with a 540-pony 5.4-liter V8 that costs $46,325 ($51,325 for the convertible) and makes us want to cry over our empty wallets. Ever accommodating, Ford has provided a nice middle ground in the Mustang GT. At $27,995, the GT delivers a strong 315-horsepower 4.6-liter V8 that delivers impressive zero-to-60-mph times close to five seconds. The Mustang also delivers handling that is respectable, if not remarkable, and an interior that has lots of cloth and plastic unless you drop another three large for the GT Premium package. Normally, we're suckers for an upgrade, but given the context of this article, we'd say who needs leather — get yourself the cloth and a nice home theater system.
2010 Chevrolet Camaro
The latest of the reincarnated American muscle cars, the Chevy Camaro dispenses with the 1990s-era cheese-ball styling in favor of a muscular homage to the 1966 original. The Camaro has two engine options and five styles, ranging from the 306-horsepower 3.6-liter V6 LS ($22,680) to the top-of-the-line 426-horsepower 6.2-liter V8 2SS ($33,745).
Both engines are impressive, but the V8, which can be had for as little as $30,745 in the 1SS, is without a doubt the current champ of the horsepower-per-dollar competition. And unlike muscle cars of yore, the Camaro can actually hold itself together in the twists and turns, and has a sporty, high-tech interior that no longer screams, "Hey, Vinnie! Look-a-dis!"
By Sam Foley is a Connecticut-based automotive journalist who has written for GQ, Forbes, USAToday, theNewYork Post and various other publications.