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10 Best Used Performance Cars Under $20,000 for 2018

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author photo by Chris O'Neill May 2018

Performance cars make driving fun. Thanks to the popularity of hot hatchbacks, small sporty convertibles and depreciation, you don't have to spend a ton of money to take your daily commute from boring to exciting. Here, we've listed ten of our favorite performance vehicles (nine cars and one SUV), new and used, now available for $20,000 or less.

2015-Present Volkswagen GTI

The original hot hatch, the seventh generation of the Volkswagen GTI has been for sale now in the US since 2015, and nicely-equipped earlier examples can currently be had for well under $20,000, with around 500 currently listed on Autotrader. With fun-at-the-limit performance and Audi-like levels of interior quality, a used GTI is a great hatchback bargain. Buyers get a 2-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine making 220 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque; enough to make the GTI feel fast and fun even at low speeds.

Transmission options are either a smooth-shifting 6-speed manual or a 6-speed dual clutch automatic, which offers lighting-fast shifts, paddle shifters and launch control, a fun feature that optimizes power output to cut down on wheel spin during a launch, meant to give you the fastest possible 0-to-60 time. Additionally, the GTI offers near-perfectly weighted steering, hatchback efficiency and practicality, safety features like adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist and on 2016-and-newer models, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

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2013-Present Fiesta ST

The Fiesta ST is unique in that it's a great performance car available brand new for under $20,000. While base prices are quoted at around $21,000, Ford has announced that it will be discontinuing the Fiesta line in the United States after the current generation, and current incentives mean that a brand new Fiesta can be had for around $18,000. Available only as a 4-door hatchback in the U.S., the Fiesta ST features a 4-cylinder engine making 197 hp and 214 lb-ft of torque; figures that rival the output of larger performance cars like the Volkswagen GTI and Civic Si.

Touted for its overall great handling, efficiency and practicality, the Fiesta ST is currently the best bargain in the performance hatchback market. Right now, there are over 500 Fiesta STs on Autotrader for $20,000 or less, many of which are closer to $15,000.

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2016-Present Mazda Miata

The Miata has long been the embodiment of top-down roadster fun. This nimble, rear-wheel drive automotive icon is now in its fourth generation, and some earlier fourth-gen examples have begun to creep down into the $20,000 range. The fourth-generation Miata brought about aggressive, distinguished new styling and a new 2-liter 4-cylinder engine making 155 hp. But the Miata has always been less about power and more about handling. The fourth generation is 220 pounds lighter than its predecessor and receives a new electric power-assisted steering system. Buyers have their choice of a 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic with paddle shifters.

In the interests of further simplicity, all Miata convertibles come with a manually-operated fabric soft top that can be raised and lowered with one hand in a matter of seconds. There are currently almost 100 2016-and-newer Miatas on Autotrader for around $20,000. Buyers should also consider the mechanically similar Fiat 124 Spyder, which shares the majority of its components with the fourth-generation Miata. There are currently 85 124 Spyders listed on Autotrader for around $20,000. Expect the Fiat to depreciate faster than the Mazda, meaning that more and more will start to dip below the $20,000 mark as the months go by.

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2015-Present Subaru WRX

Thanks to its all-wheel-drive system and rallying pedigree, the WRX excels on any road surface -- asphalt, dirt and even snow and ice with the right tires. With the current-generation WRX having gone on sale for the 2015 model year, early examples can now be had for $20,000 or less, with over 150 currently listed on Autotrader. For its fourth generation, the WRX received a new 6-speed manual transmission mated to a new turbocharged 4-cylinder engine pumping out 268 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, good enough to hit 60 miles per hour in less than five seconds under the right conditions. Gone though is the hatchback model; the fourth-generation WRX has only even been sold as a 4-door sedan.

The WRX lacks the interior quality found in rivals like the Volkswagen GTI and Honda Civic Si. But if you're looking for a capable all-wheel drive performance car, it's hard to beat a WRX. There's also great aftermarket parts availability, from performance modifications to accessories for carrying bikes and skis. If you really want a hatchback, consider an older, third-generation WRX, over 400 of which are for sale on Autotrader for under $20k.

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2010-2015 Infiniti G37

The G37 may not carry the pedigree of its competitors from Mercedes-Benz, Audi and BMW, but it makes up for that with sheer, raw power. With a naturally aspirated 3.7-liter V6, the G37 makes 328 hp, good enough to get it from zero to 60 miles per hour in under five seconds -- quite fast for a basic sport sedan retailing new for between $35,000 and $50,000. Transmission options were either a 6-speed manual or 7-speed automatic with optional steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. The G37 was also sold in both sedan and coupe forms and with either rear- or all-wheel drive. Perhaps its best trait is its exhaust note, which rivals that of some supercars.

While the G37 was first sold new for the 2009 model year, we recommend an updated 2010 to 2015 model, over 1,800 of which are listed for sale on Autotrader.

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2012-Present Fiat 500 Abarth

The Fiat 500 Abarth is perhaps the least expensive modern performance car on the market, with examples currently listed for as little as $6,600 on Autotrader. While the Fiat 500 is known for low-rent levels of interior quality and fit-and-finish, the Abarth makes up for that with respectable performance characteristics, amplified by its downright tiny footprint, measuring under 13 feet in length. The Abarth employs a small 1.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine pumping out 160 hp -- a formidable figure for a tiny city car. This is good enough to get the Abarth from zero to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds.

The real fun of the Abarth comes from its nimble handling and an angry, grumbly exhaust note that will get people's attention from across the street. New Fiat 500 Abarths can be had for under $20,000, but we recommend a used model, as these tend to depreciate quickly. Right now there are over 200 new and used Fiat 500 Abarths listed on Autotrader for $20,000 or less.

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2012-Present Toyota 86/Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ

Toyota and Subaru's long-awaited, jointly-developed, rear-wheel-drive sports coupe has been sold under three different brand and model names since it first hit the market for the 2012 model year. Known first as either the Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ, the Scion-badged model was re-named the Toyota 86 when the Scion brand was discontinued after the 2016 model year. Which version you get is a matter of brand preference, though, as all three are pretty much the same vehicle. All models have been sold with either a 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic with paddle shifters, mated to a Subaru-designed naturally-aspirated boxer-style 4-cylinder engine making 200 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque.

While many have criticized the 86/BRZ twins for being underpowered, every bit of their 200 hp is usable; hammering the throttle in a BRZ won't get you into trouble like it could in a more powerful muscle car. Altogether, the 86/BRZ is all about offering a balanced, engaging driving experience, and it succeeds at doing so by most accounts. A combined search for the FR-S, BRZ and 86 on Autotrader yields over 550 offerings for $20,000 or less.

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2000-2009 Honda S2000

The Honda S2000 is one of a kind as far as modern vehicles go. With a naturally aspirated 2-liter 4-cylinder engine pumping out 240 hp, the S2000 had one of the most efficient powerplants in the world, getting more from two liters than any other vehicle not using a turbocharger. Early iterations of the S2000, known as the AP1 model, only made this power at high rpms, requiring the driver to constantly be manipulating the throttle, similar to a high-revving motorcycle engine, but a bit confounding to those used to sports cars that are fast off the line. Second-generation models, sold from 2004 to 2009 and referred to as the AP2 S2000, reigned this in a bit via a re-tuned engine that made more power at lower rpms.

Combined with its spry handling, conservative styling and retractable top, the S2000 will always be appealing to enthusiasts and is destined to someday be a classic, so picking one up today at a relative bargain isn't a bad idea. Right now, there are 200 listed on Autotrader for around $20,000.

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2012-2015 Honda Civic Si

Available in both coupe and sedan form, the Si performance trim-level of the ninth generation Civic offers style and performance along with Honda reliability. Offered only with a 6-speed manual transmission and employing a 2.4-liter inline 4-cylinder engine, the 2012-2015 Civic Si makes 201 hp, and should see combined fuel economy of around 25 miles per gallon.

With a base price of around $25,000 when new, it isn't difficult to find a ninth generation Civic Si for under $20,000. Right now, there are close to 700 listed on Autotrader. Wait a bit, and you'll be able to find numerous current-generation Civic Si's for under $20,000, with around 30 currently listed and more certain to come as the year progresses.

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2003-2011 Porsche Cayenne

That's right. You can get a Porsche Cayenne for well under $20,000 -- there are currently 400 listed on Autotrader. First-generation Cayenne sales started with the 2003 model year and lasted through 2010, with second generation sales taking over thereafter. The bulk of sub-$20,000 Cayenne listings are for the first-generation model, with many of these selling for closer to $10,000. That's not to say the second-gen Cayenne hasn't crept into the magic $20,000 range, as there are 20 higher-mileage 2011-and-newer Cayennes on Autotrader for around $20k, some of which are the mid-tier performance Cayenne S model. If nothing short of a Cayenne Turbo will do, then a first-generation model is your best bet, with 42 listed for $20,000 or less.

If you keep up with the maintenance, and are willing to spend a little more on parts and repairs, a used Cayenne is a great purchase that offers both performance and utility. Not to mention the fact that you get to drive around in a Porsche. The fact that it cost less than a new Honda Civic can be your secret.

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Used 2015 Volkswagen GTI Autobahn
Used 2015 Volkswagen GTI
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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
10 Best Used Performance Cars Under $20,000 for 2018 - Autotrader