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Best Performance Cars Under $25,000

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2011 Ford Mustang

author photo by Josh Sadlier

High-buck autobahn specialists seem to get all the press these days, but for most of us, $25,000 is about as far as we'll stretch for a new performance car. Sure, we could get a used M3 or something like it, but the maintenance costs are frightening; we'll take that new-car warranty, thanks. Cars have gotten more expensive, though, and it can be a challenge to find an engaging drive for less than 25 large. So here's a handful of respectable performance machines that deliver plenty of grins without breaking the bank.

Ford Mustang V6

Whoa! What a difference modern engine technology makes. Saddled until recently with a laughable 4.0-liter V6 sourced from the Ford Ranger pickup, the base Mustang has vaulted to relevance overnight with the introduction of its new 3.7-liter V6, a 305-horsepower powerhouse that likes to rev and delivers the kind of acceleration once reserved for Mustang V8s. You can also specify various handling upgrades, though even the entry-level Mustang knows its way around a corner. The best part? You can nab one for just over 22 grand with the slick six-speed manual shifter.

Hyundai Genesis Coupe 2.0T

Two noteworthy facts about the rear-wheel-drive Genesis Coupe: one, the Infiniti G37 was Hyundai's performance benchmark, and two, we can actually say that with a straight face. Dynamically, the Genesis Coupe comes remarkably close to the G37 - it corners with similar tenacity, and it rides with similar refinement. Of course, the 2.0T model's 210-horsepower turbocharged inline-4 can't hold a candle to Infiniti's stout V6, but there's plenty of aftermarket support for this engine, so you can use some of that money you saved to crank up the boost. We also like the exterior styling, which has moved decisively beyond the "secretary's car" appearance of previous Hyundai coupes.

Mazda Mazdaspeed3

If you prioritize straight-line speed over classic rear-drive dynamics, ditch the Hyundai and take a close look at Mazda's untamed Mazdaspeed3. This front-wheel-drive hatchback extracts 263 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque from its turbocharged 2.3-liter inline-4, which is more than enough to confuse the front wheels when you squeeze the throttle. Yes, we're talking about torque steer, which-depending on your perspective-may be part of the fun. Between the firm ride, ultra-responsive steering, and huge turbo boost, suffice it to say that there's never a dull moment behind this hot hatch's wheel.

Mini Cooper S

You may not be able to forgive the "MCS" for its sub-200 horsepower rating, but try to remember that this car is about more than just the numbers. Quite simply, if there's a more exuberant, fun-loving car at this price point than the boosted Mini, we haven't driven it. Thanks to its twin-scroll turbocharger, the MCS's 1.6-liter inline-4 makes a healthy 181 horsepower and 177 pound-feet, but the giddy noises it makes at full song are half the fun. Torque steer is part of the deal, yet there's something endearing about it, like an excitable dog straining at the leash. You know how great performance cars just beg to be driven hard? The MCS undoubtedly has that gene.

Volkswagen GTI

As always, Volkswagen's GTI hatchback serves as the antidote to all this testosterone. Think of it as the adult supervision in this segment. Oh, it's quick enough - VW's excellent 200-horsepower turbocharged four will do that for you - but the GTI is fundamentally about providing the whole package. Thanks to its refined ride and high-quality interior, the GTI manages to cultivate an upscale, Audi-like vibe that sets it apart from the boy-racer types vying for your 25 large. No, you can't defeat the stability control system, which means that the GTI is a nonstarter for track-day regulars. But if your performance ideal is above-average athleticism combined with daily-driver comfort, the VW is the pick of the litter.

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Best Performance Cars Under $25,000