For many years, car enthusiasts looking for a high-performance ride had just a few options: modify an otherwise average daily driver, buy and existing SCCA race car or spend a fortune on something high-end like a Ferrari, Porsche, or even a Corvette and hope you have time to join the occasional club days. But within the last few years, more automakers have added less expensive sporty vehicles to their lineups, giving a larger number of buyers the opportunity to buy an exciting car straight from the factory. We've rounded up today's top eight "club racers" under $30,000, intent on giving some ideas to driving enthusiasts - whether they're interested in becoming an autocross star or just want a more exciting commute each day.
Although the Mustang has earned a love-it-or-hate-it reputation among car enthusiasts over the years, it's hard to deny that the sporty two-door offers tremendous performance for its $23,000 base price. While six-cylinder versions were once dogged by a reputation for lazy performance, today's Mustang V6 puts out a respectable 305 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque, leading to zero-to-60 times of less than six seconds. The Mustang also offers a purist-pleasing 6-speed manual transmission capable of achieving around 30 miles per gallon on the highway, and - for shoppers willing to step up to the $27,000 Premium model - a host of standard features including satellite radio, leather upholstery, Bluetooth and Ford's SYNC infotainment system. Forget what you've heard about past Mustangs - today's pony is a whole new beast.
Hyundai Genesis Coupe
With the addition of the sporty, rear-wheel drive Genesis Coupe to the Hyundai's lineup for 2010, the automaker proved it could take its recent product revolution to entirely new segments and challenge the status quo. Miles Johnson, Hyundai's senior manager for Midwest product relations, called the Genesis Coupe "an extremely disruptive force" in its segment and noted that it "provides a potent combination of performance, luxury and value." Indeed, the recently updated 2013 model now boasts a whopping 274 horsepower in base-level 2.0T form, or 348 horsepower from its "R-spec" V6 thanks to new direct-injection engine technology. Upscale options include a navigation system, leather upholstery and keyless access and starting, while handling matches vehicles with considerably higher price tags than the Genesis Coupe's base figure of just $25,100 including destination.
Car shoppers looking to team high-performance driving with day-to-day practicality will have a difficult time finding a better vehicle than the MazdaSpeed3. While its 263-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine and zero-to-60 times of less than six seconds may seem like the stuff of a sports car, the MazdaSpeed3 offers four doors, a roomy interior, and a sizable cargo area. Robert Davis, Mazda's senior vice president of US operations, explained that the MazdaSpeed3 "takes what we learn on the race track and translates it for the street, letting drivers feel like they're taking the checkered flag even when they're just running errands." Best of all, the hatchback starts under $25,000 including destination - another feather in its cap for driving enthusiasts on a budget.
Mazda MX-5 Miata
After singlehandedly reinventing the "club racer" segment when it debuted in 1990, today's MX-5 Miata carries the same DNA more than 20 years later. As the automaker points out, "on any given weekend, more Mazdas and Mazda-powered vehicles are road-raced than any other brand" - and today's MX-5 Miata includes all the necessary equipment to carry the torch. Substantially overhauled for 2006, the current MX-5 Miata retains its rear-wheel drive chassis, lightweight body and soft top, making the two-seat roadster a hoot to drive on the race track. But the MX-5 Miata has also grown up from its bare-bones predecessor for a more enjoyable driving experience on the street, teaming its 167-horsepower four-cylinder engine with available leather upholstery, heated seats and automatic climate control.
Mini Cooper S
Don't be fooled by its cutesy, retro-themed styling: the Mini Cooper S is a high-performance sports car trapped in a hatchback's body. While its standard 181-horsepower four-cylinder engine may not seem potent on paper, the motor's tremendous power delivery - combined with the Mini's low 2,700-pound curb weight - means the hatchback has all the necessary juice to zip around town. The Cooper S is also an excellent autocross competitor despite its front-wheel drive chassis thanks to firm sport suspension and a small, tossable body. Icing on the cake is the Mini's base price of just $23,800 including destination, which leaves lots of room for the automaker's myriad of accessories and personalization options. For enthusiasts willing to stretch their budget, the tuned Cooper S John Cooper Works offers larger brakes, improved suspension and a more powerful engine for just under $31,000 with shipping.
Although the 370Z requires a budget stretch due to its base price of around $32,000, the sporty coupe is one of the best buys among today's performance vehicles. In addition to exciting styling and a taut, rear-wheel drive chassis, the 370Z offers a muscular 3.7-liter V6 that produces 332 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque - more than nearly any rival. Available with 6-speed manual or optional 7-speed automatic transmissions, the 370Z can hit 60 miles per hour from a standing stop in a stunning five seconds, or achieve a respectable EPA-rated 26 miles per gallon on the highway. And despite its higher base price, the 370Z offers a generous list of standard equipment that includes keyless access and push-button starting, automatic headlights, and alloy wheels, making it a great car to spend time in whether on or off the track. If you want almost as much fun in a less attractive package, check out a used 350Z. Several listed on AutoTrader.com are as new as 2008 and are priced around $20,000.
Subaru Impreza WRX
It may have grown up since the release of its original "bug eye" predecessor in 2002, but the Impreza WRX still offers a winning formula of reliability, practicality and performance. Available as a sedan or a five-door hatchback, the WRX features a 265-horsepower 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine mated to a five-speed manual transmission, while a 305-horspower version of the same engine is offered on the high-performance WRX STI. The WRX also includes standard all-wheel drive in its base price of around $26,400, making it possible to enjoy year-round - even in the most difficult northern climates.
Volkswagen's popular GTI hatchback remains a perennial favorite among car shoppers looking for a high-performance ride from the factory. While the GTI's 200-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder may not seem like an explosive powerplant, the automaker's two available transmissions - a standard 6-speed manual and an optional 6-speed dual clutch automatic - help the engine come alive, wringing out zero-to-60 times in the mid-6 second range. Available in three- or five-door form, the GTI also features incredibly precise handling, which is frequently touted as the best available in a front-wheel drive car. The hatchback also impresses for its budget appeal thanks to a base price of around $24,500 including destination, and fuel economy figures that reach as high as 33 miles per gallon on the highway with the available dual-clutch automatic transmission.
What it means to you: Whether you're looking to go racing or just enjoy your commute, several automakers offer great performance cars at surprisingly low prices.