Top 10 Performance Cars Under $30,000

Craig Cole
by Craig Cole

As the old adage goes, speed costs money and your velocity is directly proportional to the size of your bank account. Going fast usually ain’t cheap.

But fret not if you’ve got a thing for speed and are of modest means. Automakers are providing more fleet yet affordable vehicles than ever before. And these modern performance machines are hardly one-trick ponies; many of them handle and look every bit as good as they accelerate.

SEE ALSO: Top 10 Most Reliable Cars of 2014

You don’t have to bury yourself chin-deep in debt just to enjoy some brisk acceleration. Here are 10 speedy cars that can be had for less than 30 grand.

Despite having lost quite a bit of the edge it used to have, Honda’s Civic Si is still a fun little car. It features a VTEC four-banger, a lovely gear shifter and imperturbable reliability.

The horsepower provided by its naturally aspirated 2.4-liter engine measures 205 while torque tops out at 174 lb-ft. Redline is a spirited 7,000 RPM. The only transmission available is a super slick six-speed manual that allows you to make the most of its modest power. Base price for a coupe version of this Civic is around $24,000.

The Hyundai Genesis Coupe is a Korean ponycar that targets the Ford Mustang and Chevy Camaro. It’s armed for battle with a 3.8-liter V6 engine that, thanks to direct injection and an 11.5-to-one compression ratio, delivers 348 hp and 295 lb-ft of twist.

In its most basic form this car stickers for around 28,000 bucks including freight. What’s that get you? Well, it comes standard with things like fog lights, a six-speed manual transmission, heated side-view mirrors, auxiliary input jacks for the audio system and much more. Of course it’s also rear-wheel drive and can reach 60 miles an hour from a stop in the low five-second range. Top speed is electronically limited to 149 MPH.

It may not be perfect, hampered with a somewhat bulky curb weight and gigantic blind spots, but the Camaro is still an affordable performance machine that’s quick on its feet. Oh, and it’s rear-wheel drive for tire-smoking, pavement-marring hoonage.

The 1LT model features a 3.6-liter V6 engine. With performance-enhancing features like direct injection it delivers 323 hp and 278 lb-ft of torque. Drivers even get a choice of manual or automatic transmission, though both have six forward speeds.

A Chevrolet Camaro 1LT, which isn’t even the most affordable version of this car, can be had for right around $27,000, including $995 for shipping and handling.

Ford’s 2015 Mustang is so new it’s still wet behind the ears. This foal may seem pretty docile but it actually kicks like a wild stallion. EcoBoost models feature a 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that cranks out 310 ponies and 320 lb-ft of torque. Thanks to impressive output figures this car should be able to scamper from a standstill to 60 miles an hour in the low five-second range.

But even better than that is the fuel economy. Combined it stickers at up to 25 MPG.

As for pricing a basic EcoBoosted fastback model with a six-speed manual gearbox can be yours for less than $26,000, including $825 for destination and delivery. Even the Premium variant, which comes with numerous extra features, squeaks in at less than $30,000, albeit by a solitary Abe Lincoln.

If you crave the extra traction and four-season confidence all-wheel drive provides you’d be wise to examine the Subaru WRX. This Japanese performance sedan offers turbocharged power and rally-proven grip.

An up-level premium model with a manual transmission can be had for a whisker more than 29 large. That gets you things like heated front seats, a moonroof, fog lights and rear spoiler. Under the hood WRXs feature a 2.0-liter turbocharged horizontally opposed engine that delivers 268 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. Those figures imbue this Scooby with serious performance; it’s fast on the track and street. In fact it was powerful enough to win’s Under $30,000 Performance Car Shootout.

Ford’s delinquent little Focus ST pulls like a freight train with tons of low- and mid-range torque. Its 2.0-liter EcoBoost engine practically feels like a diesel there’s such abundant twist. Output clocks in at 252 hp and an almost unbelievable 270 torques. All of this goodness is routed to the front wheels exclusively through a six-speed manual transmission.

Base price for an entry-level Focus ST is less than 25 grand, though it still comes with plenty of equipment. Items like fog lamps, SYNC, a six-speaker sound system and aluminum-trimmed pedals are standard fare.

The peeps at MINI have proven there’s actually a market for premium small cars. But their wares are hardly just gussied up with extra features, they’re solidly built and more fun to drive than should be possible given their front-wheel-drive bones.

The high-performance S variant of the Cooper Hardtop offers quite a lot for right around $25,000 out the door. It comes standard with things like fog lamps, rain-sensing windshield wipers, sport seats and a multi-function steering wheel.

As for mechanicals the car features a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that puts out 189 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque, strong numbers in a small car but still pretty lackluster compared to what Ford and Subaru extract from the same displacement.

The original hot-hatchback is as potent and alluring as ever. Volkswagen’s GTI offers motorists a super premium interior and many luxury-car touches, all at an affordable price. An entry-level two-door model can be yours for right around 25 big ones. At that price it rides on 18-inch wheels, comes with Bluetooth and features a standard touch-screen infotainment system.

The car’s 2.0-liter turbocharged engine delivers a claimed 210 horses but it seems more powerful than that. Compared to the Focus ST VW’s GTI seems much more mature and upscale. But don’t think all of this Teutonic civility has come at the price of performance. This car is still plenty quick … and functional, too!

OK, we’ll admit this one is a bit of a stretch. Base price for Nissan’s 370Z coupe is just 10 bucks less than our $30,000 price cap. When you tack $825 onto the total to cover destination and delivery the budget gets thrown into a tailspin. Still, it’s a worthy contender.

The car features a 3.7-liter V6 engine that puts out 332 hp and 270 lb-ft of torque. In its most basic form it’s paired to a six-speed manual transmission, though a seven-gear automatic is available for extra cash. Beyond these niceties motorists are also treated to HID bi-xenon headlamps, automatic climate control, Bluetooth and an eight-way power driver’s seat, among many other features.

OK, just like the aforementioned Nissan, Dodge’s Challenger R/T doesn’t quite conform to our $30,000 price cap, but rules were meant to be broken, right? And how can you argue with its eight-cylinder Hemi engine? Plus it’s not like this car is drastically more than 30 big ones, just a couple grand; you can probably dig that out of the couch cushions at your grandparents’ house. Did we mention rebates?

In any event the Challenger R/T is blessed with a 5.7-liter V8 that’s so American red, white and blue confetti shoots out of its tailpipes. This engine puts out 375 hp and 410 lb-ft of torque. It comes standard with a six-speed manual transmission, though an eight-speed autobox is also available. This car is waaaaaaaay faster than a Scion FR-S or the underpowered Civic Si listed previously, yet it’s still pretty affordable and makes great noises.

Craig Cole
Craig Cole

Born and raised in metro Detroit, Craig was steeped in mechanics from childhood. He feels as much at home with a wrench or welding gun in his hand as he does behind the wheel or in front of a camera. Putting his Bachelor's Degree in Journalism to good use, he's always pumping out videos, reviews, and features for When the workday is over, he can be found out driving his fully restored 1936 Ford V8 sedan. Craig has covered the automotive industry full time for more than 10 years and is a member of the Automotive Press Association (APA) and Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA).

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2 of 15 comments
  • Gabe Gabe on Dec 17, 2014

    If reliability were factored in, there wouldn't be a top ten!

  • MAtt MAtt on Feb 05, 2015

    so they broke the rules with 2 cars that technically aren't under 30k and leave out the Top Gear car of the year, with the lowest center of gravity and arguably the best handling of any of these options... if the genesis made this list, the FRS/BRZ should have been at least before that heavy heap... theres some biased isht going on here.