AutoGuide Under $30,000 Performance Car Shootout

Mike Schlee
by Mike Schlee

Sporty cars are not dead. Rumors of their demise are premature. Thrill-packed machinery litters the automotive landscape, available to suit nearly every budget.

When it comes to motoring fun, one of the most intriguing segments is the under $30,000 price bracket, where several enticing choices can be found in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Want a traditional rear-wheel drive coupe or convertible? There is iconic Mazda MX-5 and the Scion FR-S. Looking for a sport compact coupe? Honda will gladly sell you the freshly updated Civic Si. What about a hot hatch? Well, there is an all-new 2015 Volkswagen GTI and a pair of recently introduced Fords, the Focus ST and the Fiesta ST. Or maybe an all-wheel drive street legal rally sedan is more your flavor? Good news, 2015 sees the introduction of a brand-new Subaru WRX. Or how about something completely different, like the Nissan Juke NISMO RS?

But Which One is More Fun?

All of these cars offer a different take on the old ‘fun-to-drive’ adage. But which one is the best? To find out, we assembled all eight cars to perform an epic track and street shootout. Emphasis would be put on how fun they are to drive, how engaging the driving experience is and how quick they are at the track. Superfluous things like audio systems, interior materials and gee-whiz technology wouldn’t factor into the scoring at all, but a small concession would be made to price, fuel economy, comfort and practicality. Most people shopping in this price range are budget conscious and most likely; this will be their only/daily car.

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There are a few notable vehicles missing from the test, so we feel we should take a moment to explain their absence. The all-new MINI Cooper S is not in attendance as we could not gain approval to track test it. The Hyundai Genesis Coupe 3.8 would not fit under the $30K price bracket after destination charges and the 2.0T is being phased out. The Veloster Turbo may be decently quick in a straight line, and it’s affordable, but it’s not that fun to drive and handling is not its forte.

With our group assembled, we headed out to the test track to time these eight vehicles. But first, we found a twisting set of country roads to put these cars through their paces and see which one is a back-road blast.

Eighth Place – 2014 Honda Civic Si Coupe

Oh how the mighty have fallen. An iconic compact coupe that came to define affordable fun in the 1990s and early 2000s now languishes in last place. What happened?

Many point to the engine. 205 HP from a naturally aspirated four-cylinder was very impressive ten years ago, but nowadays, in the land of the turbocharger, 205 HP doesn’t cut it. Even with VTEC and the largest in-test displacement of 2.4-liters, the four cylinder’s 174 lb-ft of torque is nearly 100 lb-ft off of the Focus ST’s number.

Eager to rev, the engine is capable of propelling the Si faster down the quarter mile than either the MX-5 or the FR-S. The problem is, the Civic never feels all that fast. And, with the largest engine of the group, during our relaxed driving loops it returned an unimpressive 26.4 MPG average – easily the worst in the test.

Soft and Lacking Space

But power has never been the Civic’s forte; handling has. Sadly, the Civic has lost that magic feeling. Unanimously voted as the softest car of the bunch, the Si is least willing to change directions and when it does so, there is pronounced body roll as the car leans from side to side. Steering feel too, a long time Honda hallmark, has gotten soft and no longer rivals the best racks in this shootout.

SEE ALSO: 2014 Honda Civic Si Coupe Review

With two strikes against it, the final third strike pitch is delivered inside. The Si may be the largest coupe of the group, but is still lacks the practicality of the four-door cars. Worst though is front seat space. Anyone near six-feet tall will find a distinct lack of headroom. Our taller testers had to drive the car with the heads slightly tilted. Driving this car with a helmet on the track? Forget about it.

Once a pillar of the sport compact revolution, the Civic Si has now fallen behind against some incredibly fun new competition.

Fast Facts

Engine: 2.4-liter four-cylinder, 205 HP, 174 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Drivetrain: Front-wheel drive, Torsen (gear-type) LSD
Fuel Economy Ratings: 22 MPG City, 31 MPG Highway
Fuel Economy Observed: 26.4 MPG
Price: $23,580 after destination charges


  • More power than expected
  • Easy to drive fast


  • Handling
  • Interior space
  • Poor fuel economy
  • Not that fun to drive

Seventh Place – 2014 Mazda MX-5 Club PRHT

What is the MX-5 doing in 7th-place? How can this universally praised “car of fun” be relegated to such a shameful placing? Well, simply put, the MX-5 is a toy whereas every other vehicle on this list is a car, except for the pseudo crossover Juke thing.

Even after nearly a decade on the market, the third generation MX-5 is still a blast to drive. Some testers scored it #1 in the fun to drive section while others dropped it a few points due to a lack of power and soft suspension. With only 167 HP and 140 lb-ft of torque, the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine in the MX-5 is easily the weakest in the test. But, at only 2,593 lbs., the little Mazda is the lightest car as well. The MX-5 feels twice as fast as it really is on the road thanks to its small size, short gearing and quick revving engine.

Handling and Comfort

Handling is spot on despite the MX-5 being one of the softest sprung vehicles in the shootout. Many don’t realise how compliant the suspension of the MX-5 is over rough roads. It’s easily one of the most comfortable vehicles to drive, yet still has razor sharp reflexes.

SEE ALSO: 2014 Mazda MX-5 Review

So why so far back in the standings? Price and practicality are the MX-5’s Achilles heels. To acquire a six-speed manual, LSD, sport suspension and convertible hard top roof, the MX-5 becomes the most expensive vehicle in the test. It’s the only two-seater here as well and the trunk is not going to carry much more than a week’s worth of groceries for a bachelor.

As fun as the MX-5 is, it comes with a lot of drawbacks. For some, they’re easily tolerable for one of the most fun cars to drive under $30,000. For many others, the MX-5 remains too compromised to be their primary car, no matter how many smiles per mile it produces.

Fast Facts

Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder, 167 HP, 140 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Drivetrain: Rear-wheel drive, torque-sensing (gear-type) LSD
Fuel Economy Ratings: 21 MPG City, 28 MPG highway
Fuel Economy Observed: 31.4 MPG
Price: $29,460 after destination charges


  • Fun to drive
  • Eager to rev
  • Great transmission


  • Impractical
  • A bit slow
  • Expensive

Sixth Place –2014 Nissan Juke NISMO RS FWD

Attention Internet: Commence Outrage! A loathsome crossover just beat a Civic Si and a MX-5 in a fun to drive comparison! How can this be? What are the editors at smoking these days?

Honestly, we’re still scratching our heads as well. Going into the shootout, no one had much hope of the Juke doing anything but floundering in a hot mess of sloppy vehicular dynamics. But the more we drove the NISMO RS, the more it won us over.

The key to the NISMO RS lies under the hood. The 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine is boosted to an inch of its life, now producing 215 HP and 210 lb-ft of torque. Not only are these figures impressive, but on the road the Juke feels like they might actually be underrated. Comments on how no subcompact crossover or 1.6-liter engine should be this powerful could be overheard repeatedly during test days. Stab the gas, let the turbo boost and hold on as the Juke torque steers its way down the road.

Serious Seats

Inside, Nissan has done a good job trying to give the illusion that the Juke NISMO RS is sporty. Aside from faux-suede inserts on the steering wheel, a set of real, no compromises Recaro bucket seats have been installed. Supportive to no end when flogging the Juke, the Recaros did get a bit uncomfortable for some of our staff during longer drives behind the wheel.

SEE ALSO: 2014 Nissan Juke NISMO RS Review

Steering is hair-trigger responsive and makes the NISMO RS feel like it handles better than it actually does. But, this is a high riding crossover after all and no amount of sport suspension, large wheels and grippy tires can overcome the laws of physics. Toss the Juke hard enough into the corner and it will quickly remind the driver that it is no FR-S.

Practical, surprisingly efficient and affordable, the Juke NISMO RS is a rather shocking alternative to the usual sporty compact crowd that we never saw coming.

Fast Facts

Engine: 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, 215 HP, 210 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Drivetrain: Front-wheel drive, helical (gear-type) LSD
Fuel Economy Ratings: 25 MPG City, 35 MPG highway
Fuel Economy Observed: 34.6 MPG
Price: $26,930 after destination charges


  • Unique looks
  • Tons of power
  • Recaro seats


  • Handling
  • Unique looks
  • Recaro seats

Fifth Place – 2014 Ford Focus ST

The Focus ST is a torque monster. With 270 lb-ft on tap from the 2.0-liter turbocharged engine, there is always power on hand to thrust the Focus forward and/or rip the steering wheel out of the driver’s hand. Like many other vehicles in this shootout, the Focus utilizes a sound tube that amplifies engine noise into the cabin, making it arguably the second best sounding vehicle in the shootout after the GTI.

All of the brake vectoring trickery the Focus ST utilizes on the racetrack is present on the street as well, but less noticeable. This doesn’t mean the ST can’t negotiate a corner, because it can. Thanks to quick steering and grippy tires, the Focus tackles bends in the road at alarming speeds. The problem is the car is almost too composed. It lacks the raw, visceral sensation behind the wheel that the Fiesta ST and FR-S provide. It feels like the car is more in charge of the Focus ST’s cornering prowess than the driver.

Comfortable and Practical

On the upside, the car’s refinement does come with some positives. Ride comfort is much better in the Focus than its little brother, the Fiesta ST. As well, being a compact hatchback, practicality is near the top in this comparison. Even the Recaro seats fitted into the Focus were found to be more comfortable than the ones in the Juke NISMO RS or Fiesta ST.

SEE ALSO: 2013 Ford Focus ST vs 2013 Mazdaspeed3

Refined and fast, the Focus ST does not come cheap. Nearly as expensive as the MX-5 once the optional Recaro seats are added, the Focus ST only beat the surprisingly inefficient Civic Si during our fuel economy testing. This was enough to keep the Focus out of the top half of street portion of the shootout, but with all that power and capable handling ability, maybe it’ll move up once we hit the track.

Fast Facts

Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, 252 HP, 270 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Drivetrain: Front-wheel drive, eTVC differential
Fuel Economy Ratings: 23 MPG City, 32 MPG Highway
Fuel Economy Observed: 27.1 MPG
Price: $29,000 after destination charges


  • Engine power
  • Handling ability
  • Comfort


  • Expensive
  • A bit too refined

Fourth Place – 2014 Scion FR-S

Yet another surprise, the Scion FR-S finishes outside of the top three. A perennial favorite around the offices, many expected the rear-wheel drive coupe would clean up during the street portion of the shootout. With power being sent to the “fun” wheels, precise steering and the willingness to rotate quicker than a kid on a playground roundabout, what’s not to like?

For starters there’s the drivetrain. With 200 HP coming from a 2.0-liter engine, the FR-S suffers from the same issue the Civic Si does; not enough grunt to keep up with the turbos. Worse yet, with only 151 lb-ft of torque, the Scion barely has more twist than the diminutive MX-5. But it’s not just the engine that makes the car feel lethargic. The transmission carries just as much blame. With tall gearing, the FR-S is noticeably slower in a straight line than all other vehicles in this comparison. During quarter mile testing, the FR-S finished dead last, even behind the Civic Si and the quick shifting MX-5 Club.

When the Road Bends, the Fun Begins

The FR-S corners much flatter and with greater urgency than the MX-5 though. On a nice smooth piece of asphalt, the FR-S is an absolute joy to drive and the power inadequacies begin to be forgotten. The driving position is arguably the best in the test and the driver’s seat is a perfect balance of comfort and support.

SEE ALSO: 2015 Scion FR-S Review

The downside to this handling ability is a rough suspension that gets upset on broken roads. As well, the FR-S is the second least practical vehicle in this test, equipped with a rear seat best used for storage and not humans.

Second through fourth place are separated by a mere point and on any given day the order could easily be reversed. The FR-S is still a favorite around our office and with a bump in power or better gearing, it could go from a very good car to a great one.

Fast Facts

Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder, 200 HP, 151 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Drivetrain: Rear-wheel drive, Torsen (gear-type) LSD
Fuel Economy Ratings: 22 MPG City, 30 MPG Highway
Fuel Economy Observed: 35.6 MPG
Price: $25,470 after destination charges


  • Handling
  • Steering
  • Driver position


  • Lack of power
  • Ride comfort

Third Place – 2015 Subaru WRX

Barley missing out on a second place finish is the only car in this shootout to arrive as a sedan and, more importantly, equipped with all-wheel drive. Spending the better part of the last twenty years perfecting the street legal, affordable rally car, Subaru has released an all-new WRX for 2015. Sticking to the successful formula of all-wheel drive, quick responses and a turbocharged engine, the 2015 model sees the introduction of an all-new 2.0-liter four-cylinder that delivers 268 HP and 258 lb-ft of torque.

Packing the most power in this shootout, we expected the WRX to be fast; but not this fast. It utterly destroys all the other cars in a straight line with a power band that begins low and never falters until redline is reached. Everyone who took a spin in the WRX couldn’t believe how much thrust is available in the WRX and we began to question if the 2.0-liter turbo may be underrated as to not step on the toes of its bigger brother, the STI.

All-Weather Smile Machine

But power is only part of a car’s fun-to-drive equation. Thankfully, Subaru spent a lot of time improving the WRX’s driving dynamics for 2015. The steering now has much greater feel and is more precise than before. The suspension is also more balanced than in the previous model as the WRX is more willing to rotate through a corner, fully taking advantage of the all-wheel drive system. Although it is still susceptible to lose front end grip when pushed too hard, it is a more willing dance partner than last year’s model.

SEE ALSO: 2015 Subaru WRX Review

Inside the WRX is spacious and comfortable, offering nearly the same level of practicality of the larger hatchbacks. The front seats are not overly supportive, but are very comfortable and the WRX’s suspension set-up is quite livable.

Always an entertaining car to drive, the WRX has upped its game for 2015. It may not be the most engaging car here, but it always feels the fastest and when roads conditions deteriorate, the all-wheel drive Subie only gets better.

Fast Facts

Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, 268 HP, 258 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Drivetrain: All-wheel drive, viscous-coupling locking center differential, electronic front differential
Fuel Economy Ratings: 21 MPG City, 28 MPG Highway
Fuel Economy Observed: 31.0 MPG
Price: $27,090 after destination charges


  • Engine power
  • All-wheel drive grip
  • Comfort
  • Improved handling


  • Downmarket interior
  • Handling could be sharper

Second Place – 2015 Volkswagen GTI

Many credit the Volkswagen GTI with starting the hot hatchback movement nearly forty years ago, so it’s placement near the top of this shootout shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Yet it did to us. If we were trying to find the best overall car, chances are the GTI would walk away with the whole contest. But, when it comes to the “fun-to-drive” category, the GTI scored near the back of the pack.

So how did it wind up second overall? Simply put, the GTI is the most complete car here. The few “fun” points it gave up to cars like the WRX, Focus ST and Scion FR-S it gained back in price, comfort, practicality and fuel efficiency.

Best All-Around Car

Under hood is a familiar 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder making 210 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. Like GTIs of the past, we are confident this engine is once again underrated. It doesn’t quite have the pull of the Focus ST or WRX, but feels much closer in power than the 42-58 HP deficit it’s facing. The one area it does beat all cars in this test is engine noise, thanks to a hearty rumble being fed into the cabin via an intake sound tube.

That, combined with the feel of the turbo, had our editors pouring on the throttle at low rpm, waiting for the turbo to spool and then letting off in repeated bursts of acceleration and noise.

SEE ALSO: 2015 Volkswagen GTI Review

Handling is still a strong point for the GTI, as it dispatches corners with surprising precision for how comfortable and refined the car is. Like the Focus ST though, the GTI goes about its business almost too well and the raw engaging feel found in cars like the MX-5, FR-S and Fiesta ST is lacking.

The Volkswagen GTI continues to be a slick compact hatchback. The little bit it lacks in pure driving joy in makes up in spades with everyday livability.

Fast Facts

Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, 210 HP, 258 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Drivetrain: Front-wheel drive, XDS brake-activated electronic-differential
Fuel Economy Ratings: 25 MPG City, 34 MPG Highway
Fuel Economy Observed: 31.4 MPG
Price: $25,815 after destination charges


  • Engine sound
  • Comfort
  • Practicality
  • Handling ability


  • A bit numb
  • Engine could use more power

First Place – 2014 Ford Fiesta ST

When Ford announced the company was bringing over an ST version of the Fiesta, we figured one of two things would happen. Either the Fiesta ST would be a mild upgrade comprised mostly of body add-ons and stickers, or Ford would finally bring to North America a true, red-blooded subcompact hot hatch.

Thankfully the latter happened. Ford has thrown everything it knows about sporty front-wheel drive cars at the Fiesta and created the rawest, most rambunctious car we have seen in some time. Everything the car does involves a driver’s inputs from torque steering acceleration runs to darting around under heavy braking. Don’t think this car is unruly to drive, because it’s not; it’s just a wholly engaging, grin-inducing back road rocket.

A True Pocket Rocket

Under hood is a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine making 197 HP and 202 lb-ft of torque. Although that is less power than the 1.6-liter under the hood of the Juke NISMO RS, the Fiesta is lighter and faster in a straight line during our acceleration testing. In fact, only the Focus ST, GTI and WRX beat it in quarter mile runs and unlike the NISMO RS, the Fiesta’s engine sounds great under hard acceleration.

SEE ALSO: 2014 Ford Fiesta ST vs. Subaru BRZ

The little ST corners flat and is surprisingly balanced for a front-wheel driver with economy car roots. Powering out of corners with ample torque, the ST begs to be ripped hard up to the next turn. The downside to this cornering prowess is ride comfort. The Fiesta ST is arguably the stiffest sprung car in this shootout and rougher roads can become quite unpleasant.

All the fun the Fiesta ST provides can be had for the small sum of $24,220 after destination charges or skip the supportive Recaro seats and the price drops further. Add-in best in test observed fuel economy and the Fiesta ST delivers more thrills for the dollar than any other car in this shootout, securing it first place in the street driving portion.

Click HERE for part two of the Under $30,000 Performance Car Shootout.

Fast Facts

Engine: 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, 197 HP, 202 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Drivetrain: Front-wheel drive, eTVC differential
Fuel Economy Ratings: 26 MPG City, 35 MPG Highway
Fuel Economy Observed: 36.8 MPG
Price: $24,220 after destination charges


  • Engine power
  • Rawness to drive
  • Price
  • Handling ability


  • Ride comfort
  • Space
Mike Schlee
Mike Schlee

A 20+ year industry veteran, Mike rejoins the AutoGuide team as the Managing Editor. He started his career at a young age working at dealerships, car rentals, and used car advertisers. He then found his true passion, automotive writing. After contributing to multiple websites for several years, he spent the next six years working at the head office of an automotive OEM, before returning back to the field he loves. He is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC), and Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA). He's the recipient of a feature writing of the year award and multiple video of the year awards.

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3 of 124 comments
  • Cody Beisel Cody Beisel on Aug 22, 2015

    I think your civic si must have been sick. My 2015 si with a heavy foot and lots of v tec I return 7.9ltr/100 km to the highest iv seen 8.3. That averages much more then 26.5....

    • Cody Beisel Cody Beisel on Aug 23, 2015

      I'm also over 6 foot and haven't had an issue with cabin space... Hmmmm I think you guys need a review called the most underrated cars. Throw the 2015 si vs the 2015 Ford mustang v6 with larger rear gear ratio. Both cars are more reliable then these turbo cars, come nicely equipped and are cheaper to boot. Honestly both have an amazing value offer a cheap thrill without the expense of discomfort on the daily commute. These are the bench warmers that really hit a home run where it counts. Also for the money saved I know a ton of Honda guys who drop their cars on springs and throw on the Kraft works supercharger and eat up sti and evo all day, at the price of a lightly equipped wrx... Even the v6 stangs have turbo kits and Iv seen one of them pull some awesome runs. Not sure if I buy into any of these other cars, St seems to have to many recalls, gti is rediculously overpriced when optioned out, frs is a one trick pony, Can't drive the mx5 in the winter, the wrx gets way to expensive with even the smallest amount of options and looks horrendous. Need I say more? Test drove all of them minus the juke. These cars are fun might make a great toy for weekend track but the payoff isn't worth the price. If I wanna hit the track or have a toy il import an s2000(got one on order) looks nice beside my si ;)

  • Iamcurious Iamcurious on Aug 25, 2015

    I was a Mustang/Cougar fan for 40+ years. I just couldn't get excited about the retro Mustang because they were everywhere. IMO, the best looking car ever built, the 1970 Dodge Challenger, was reincarnated and I couldn't resist. I have a 2013 White R/T with the 5.7L Hemi, 6 speed manual transmission and 3.73 limited slip rearend. It can do 0-60 in 5.4 seconds and cruise the Interstate's at 27 mpg. It's not the fastest car on the road but it is fun to drive and a very civilized car, and there is such a thing as "fast enough". I got it out the door, for $28,600. I chose white because I loved the car that Kowalski drove in the movie, "Vanishing Point".