10 Fun Cars with 200 Horsepower or Less
Power, as they say, is nothing without control, and it is that control as well as the enjoyment derived from having it that is the criteria for this list. Having fun in a car with lots of horsepower is far easier than doing it with, say, no more than 200 ponies; engineers have their work cut out for them when making these cars fast since they don’t have the luxury of neck-snapping horsepower and acceleration as wow factor.
But such fun, low-horsepower cars do exist. The kind of cars which may not be super impressive in a straight line, but make up for that by being superbly rounded in the handling department. Where the drive from the wheels goes is also not important here, as the list posted after the jump contains cars whose power goes to the front, the rear, and to all four wheels as well.
These cars will put a smile on your face; they’ve got character, and they also allow you to drive them close to their limit and revel in the entire breadth of their performance. And, even if you exceed their limits and plant them in a ditch, the repair costs will also be noticeably lower than those associated with really serious performance machines.
North America is lucky to have been granted access by Ford to the second-gen Fiesta ST not only because it missed out on the naturally-aspirated, analog incarnation of the smallest ST but also because it’s missing out on the new and improved third-generation car.
The Fiesta ST (which is still on sale as this is being written and only available as a five-door in the US) has been described as one of the best and purest hot hatches ever made, blending decent shove from its 197-horsepower, 1.6-liter, turbocharged, four-pot with spritely handling around twisty roads. Power is plentiful for its low 2742-pound curb weight and between its super sharp steering, great gear shifting, and the noise it makes, you will probably find yourself grinning when driving with any kind of verve.
Maybe in 10 years’ time, the North American car scene will look back at the Fiesta ST as a benchmark for simple hot hatch fun, much in the same way Europeans get weak at the knees when the words Peugeot 205 GTI are uttered. This may prove all the more true since there won’t be a replacement in the U.S., and there aren’t really any local alternatives to it.
Read our full review on the 2018 Ford Fiesta ST.
Learning to control a typical rear-wheel drive car can be as easy or as difficult as the car you choose to do it in. If said car is either the Subaru BRZ or Toyota GT86, then it won’t be as demanding. Jeremy Clarkson illustrated this on Top Gear by reading a book while drifting one of these around a track. While that’s obvious exaggeration, it does make a point.
Some enthusiasts scoff at the BRZ/GT86 pointing to its meager 197 horsepower output from its 2.0-liter, flat-four engine, but since it rides on not very grippy tires and most models come with a limited-slip differential as standard, the rear end is rather lively. You need to be aware of this characteristic if you’re not used to the car, but once you gain the confidence to test its limits, you will be thoroughly rewarded.
Power can be upped quite easily with one of the many supercharger or turbocharger kits on the market, but these can drastically transform the BRZ/GT86’s character into something far more wayward, and it should preferably be accompanied by upgraded wheels, tires, brakes, and suspension.
Read our full review of the 2017 Subaru BRZ.
Read our full review of the 2017 Toyota 86.
When it comes to low-horsepower fun, the Mazda MX-5 Miata can’t not be on the list. It packs well under 200 horsepower (155, to be precise) from its 2.0-liter, naturally aspirated engine, but it offsets its lack of oomph through great handling combined with the limitless headroom it offers as a convertible.
Whichever style of MX-5 you go for (the regular roadster or the folding hardtop RF) you will be rewarded with one of the most enjoyable modern automotive experiences at any price. And, the latest Miata isn’t just fun to drive, but it also sports a surprisingly posh-feeling interior and actually has head-turning styling too.
It’s the kind of car which you simply must have with the manual gearbox as it features one of the most enjoyable stick shifters in the automotive world. As a package, it’s one of the most affordable and simple ways to paint a big smile on your face pretty much every time you drive it in good weather.
Read our full review of the 2016 Mazda MX-5.
Mazda also makes the Fiat 124 Spider in the same factory as the MX-5, but it does pack a surprisingly different flavor despite being mechanically very similar. It mainly differs in in terms of the engine under the hood. The Fiat has a 160 horsepower, turbocharged, 1.4-liter that grants it quite a different character.
Compared to the MX-5 it’s said to be more relaxed when going slowly and it’s also less obvious to bystanders thanks to its more subdued styling. Fiat designers have also managed to make it seem like it’s a car one size class bigger than the MX-5 by giving it larger overhangs in the front and rear.
Read our full review on the Fiat 124 Spider
Let’s not forget that front-wheel drive is fun too, and if you don’t like the Fiesta ST’s kind of low-rent interior and you want a more posh badge, then the MINI Cooper S (preferably one with a manual gearbox) has oodles of appeal for keen drivers.
No other car on the road requires such little steering input to turn and, while the comparison to a go-kart is an overused cliché (MINI itself used it as a description for the car’s sport mode but has ditched it as per the last facelift) it offers a pin-sharp driving experience.
Cooper S comes with a strong, 2.0-liter, turbocharged, four-cylinder with 189 horsepower and a top speed of 146 mph. The unit is more than powerful enough and is also quite raspy and characterful with a combination of intake whoosh under load and pops and bangs on the overrun.
Read our full review on the 2018 MINI Cooper S.
BMW will still sell you a 320i with a manual gearbox in North America, although it may not be retained for the next-generation model that’s just around the corner. In 320i guise, it’s powered by a detuned version of the turbocharged, 2.0-liter, four-pot that’s found in 30i BMWs, here putting out 180 horsepower.
But it’s no slouch, really, sprinting from a standstill to 60 mph in 7.1 seconds regardless of transmission choice. Being a 3-Series, it also has perfect 50/50 weight distribution, and it becomes lively enough if you drive it hard with the electronic nannies switched fully off.
Unlike many other cars on the list, the 320i also does practical car stuff very well and is able to carry three passengers and some luggage in a moderately comfortable and luxurious ambiance.
Read our full review on the 2018 BMW 3 Series.
Honda is really proud of the driving dynamics of its latest generation Civic that North Americans also get in rakish coupe form and sporty Si trim. The Civic Coupe Si is motivated by a 1.5-liter, turbo-four with 205 hp which may not be the most rewarding unit in the world to thrash (it doesn’t really sound that sporty) but it’s certainly very quick and provides a very pleasant six-speed to row through.
Sprint from naught to 60 mph is dispatched in under 7 seconds, with the quarter-mile coming up in under 15 seconds. But the Civic Coupe Si is also a handler, featuring one of the more accurate and direct steering racks on this list, and it’s coupled with good body control that makes exploring its limits on a winding road a blast.
Read our full review on the 2017 Honda Civic Coupe Si.
The Kia Forte 5 SX Turbo is the sportiest Forte you can buy and is a car we would have called a hot hatch just a few years ago. Now it’s just warm with its 201 horsepower, 1.6-liter, turbocharged engine. It does have improved suspension and braking over lesser models, though, so that’s a plus. Transmission options include a six-speed manual or a seven-speed dual-clutch, both of which are very good in their own right.
It’s not blisteringly fast by any means, but as a package, it blends sportiness with comfort and practicality very well. Understated looks make it ideal for those not looking to attract attention wherever they go, since aside from a few minor details, the bigger wheels and dual exhaust, it doesn’t really scream out “performance car.”
Read our full review on the 2018 Kia Forte 5.
If you want the same basic package you get in the Forte SX Turbo, but with different styling and a different interior, then the Hyundai Elantra GT Sport is your only option. It is even more understated than the already simple looking Kia, but its interior feels ever so slightly more upmarket and well thought out.
You won’t turn heads in the Elantra GT Sport, but it’s still quite a handsome hatchback whose design is clean and contemporary. It’s actually really good fun to throw around too, thanks to good steering and reassuring handling that gives the driver confidence to really push it.
This and the Forte are cars that you buy for yourself, and not so that others can see you driving them. Neither of them are a statement of any kind, but both are very valid choices within the constraints of this list.
Read our full review on the 2018 Hyundai Elantra GT Sport.
The final entrant on this list doesn’t even have four wheels, and it’s not even called a car - most U.S. states recognize it as an “autocycle." I’m talking about, of course, the Polaris Slingshot. This dramatic looking three-wheeler will certainly get you noticed, but you will be able to make a quick getaway thanks to the combination of a 2.4-liter, GM-built Ecotec with 173 horsepower. It’s not a lot of power, but the Slingshot has a light footprint.
Handling is remarkably good (for a three-wheeler), and even though all power is sent to the single rear wheel, there’s nothing sketchy about driving it quickly. According to reviews, it’s surefooted and rewarding to drive quickly, although it’s not as good as, say, an MX-5 Miata in this respect.
You buy the Slingshot to stand out and drive something really unique and head turning - the fact that it also drives quite well is a bonus in this context given that most buyers will be in it for the radical look.
Read our full review on the 2018 Polaris Slingshot.