Budget Sports Car Comparison: The Best Bang for your Buck
We tend to keep our focus on cars that run in excess of $100K and fly to 60 mph in sub-3-second times. What about those that can’t pull off a $2,000-per-month car payment and don’t need to get to 60 mph in 2.5 seconds? Well, this one’s for you.
We are going to take a look at the top budget sports cars in the automotive realm today and tear them apart to find out what’s good about them and what’s not so hot about them. After that, we’ll input all of that data into the "patented" TopSpeed top-pick machine and spew out which of these cars offers the best bang for its customer’s buck. Keep in mind that we are looking at driving factors only, option and equipment have no bearing on making a budget sports car more fun in this competition.
We’re only looking at new cars here, so that eliminates my personal favorite, the Mazdaspeed Miata. The Miata will, of course be in the competition, but its facing cars that are equally, if not more, powerful and that rival it in handling performance. So, who takes home the title?
Click past the jump to find out.
Mazda MX-5 Miata
The Mazda MX-5 Miata is one of those cars that always gets a nod when comparing budget-friendly sports cars. It has never been a speed demon, but it has always boasted a high power-to-weight ratio and precision handling. The 2012 model bases out at $23,470 and ranges to up to $31,225. All models boast the same 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine that pumps out a decent 167 horsepower at 7,000 rpm (158 horsepower in the automatic transmission) and 140 pound-feet of torque at 5,000 rpm. One complaint is that the base model only comes with a 5-speed manual. To get a 6-speed, you have to bump up to the Touring or Grand Touring model.
The 2012 Miata gets to 60 mph in a respectable 6.9 seconds, but critics rave about its handling, as usual. The gas mileage is very nice, for a sports car, as it gets 22 mpg city and 28 mpg highway with the 5-speed manual, whereas the 6-speed manual and automatic options drop it by 1 mpg. The interior is often praised as being tight, yet comfortable, and the gauges are all well placed.
The biggest downfall to the MX-5 Miata is the fact that it only gives you 5.3 cubic-feet of trunk space. Then again, why are you hauling luggage and cargo in a Miata? All that does is throw off you weight distribution.
|Handles like a go-cart||A little light in the power|
|Surprisingly comfortable||Looks are very dated|
|Feel safe in the cabin||Base 5-speed manual|
|Moderately priced||Bring back the turbocharger|
|Good fuel economy||Over 6-feet tall? Forget about comfort|
|Plenty of trim levels to choose from||Can only haul a few small items|
Audi has been kind enough to grace us with information on the 2013 TT already. As we all know, the Audi TT comes in both a coupe and convertible model. It is a little bit on the high end of the “Budget” spectrum, but it still foots the bill. The TT coupe starts out at a reasonable $38,650 and the convertible is set at $41,650. Both models include a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine that pumps out 211 horsepower at 4,300 rpm and 258 pound-feet of torque at 1,600 rpm and pumps this power to all four wheel via a 6-speed automated manual transmission. Even with a huge power increase over the Miata, the TT gets to 60 mph just 0.6 seconds faster than the Miata, at 6.3 seconds. The TT shines in miles per gallon, though, as it gets 23 mpg city and an impressive 31 mpg highway.
The TT has a stunning exterior, as its teardrop shape is one that many automakers haven’t tried recently. Just by looking at it, you know it’s fast. The only complaint we hear, with the exception of its less-than-expected performance numbers, is that its rear seats are useless, except for little kids. Another huge upside to the TT is its adaptive suspension that eases up its stiffness when precise handling isn’t necessary, giving you a better ride without sacrificing performance.
|Loads of horsepower and torque||Accelerates slower than expected|
|Feels like a luxury car||Very expensive for this contest|
|Adaptive suspension||No manual transmission option|
|Dual-clutch transmission is a great addition||Useless back seats|
|Awesome fuel economy||Handling is not as precise as a sports car should be|
|13 to 25 cubic-feet of trunk space||AWD adds a ton of weight|
Hyundai has truly stepped up its game recently, building cars that rival just about any of the top brands. Even the Equus, as oddly as it is named, still gives BMW and Mercedes nightmares. The Hyundai entrant into this competition is the Genesis, which bases out with the $24,250 2.0T trim level and caps out with its $33,000 3.8 Track. The 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-banger pumps out a stout 274 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 275 pound-feet of torque at 2,000 rpm and the 3.8-liter engine pumps output up to 348 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 295 horsepower at 5,300 rpm. This power transfers to the rear wheels via a standard 6-speed manual transmission of an optional 8-speed automatic with paddle shifters.
This power translates out to a respectable 5.7-second sprint to 60 mph for the 2.0T and a 5.3-second sprint to 60 mph for the 3.8 Track. For all of its performance, the Genesis still gets good gas mileage at 21 mph city and 30 mpg highway for the 2.0T. The 3.8 Track gets 18 mpg city and 27 mpg highway. Experts have constantly raved about the Genesis’ handling abilities at all levels, but the 3.8 Track does get some complaints about its stiff ride. Add in the fact that the Genesis is downright stunning and you have a good pick here.
|High-power 4- and 6-cylinder engines||Rough riding 3.8 Track model|
|sub-6-second times to 60 mph||top-end pricing is a little high|
|Precision handling||Needs a turbocharge 6-cylinder option soon|
|6-speed manual or 8-seed auto transmissions||Nearly useless back seats|
|Decent fuel economy||Still shaking that Hyundai reputation of being cheap|
|Hyundai’s notorious 100,000-mile warranty||Could really benefit from an AWD option|
Infiniti G Coupe
Like the Audi TT, the Infiniti G Coupe is right at the cusp of our $40,000 mark for the “budget” classification, as you can get its base model and the Journey trim level for $37,800 and $39.250, respectively. The 2012 G Coupe comes with a 3.7-liter V-6 engine that pumps out a fierce 330 horsepower at 7,000 rpm and a respectable 270 pound-feet of torque at 5,200 rpm. The only transmission available in these two trim levels is a 7-speed shiftable automatic. The 6-speed manual is reserved to the G37X and G37 Sport, both of which fall outside of our $40,000 limit. The G Coupe is a stylish car, but it’s definitely not something that we have to stare and drool at every time we see it, so it’s lacking a little bit there.
All of its power translates into such nice performance, as it zips to 60 mph in just 5.7 seconds. It also gets an equally impressive 19 mpg city and 27 mpg highway. The Infiniti also handles extremely well, while retaining the ride expected of a premium luxury sports coupe. The biggest complaints on the G Coupe is the fact that the rear seats are useless, which is an ongoing trend in this class, and to achieve peak horsepower, you have to get the engine up pretty high, which is both noisy and uncomfortable.
|Plenty of power||Tiny rear seats|
|5.7-second time to 60 mph||Very expensive for this competition|
|Precision handling without sacrificing ride quality||Loud engine at high rpm|
|Quick and precise shifting automatic transmission||Stylish, but not up to par with the competition|
|Great braking system||Small trunk|
|Looks and feels like a luxury car||Very dated body|
Though they are getting tougher to come by, as they are being phased out, the Eclipse has to have a spot on this list. Starting off as low as $19,499 and capping off at about $29,000, the Eclipse fits the “Budget sports car” term nicely. The Eclipse has certainly packed on some pounds over its years, but it is still a serviceable budget sports car and its latest body style returned it to somewhat of its former sexy self. It comes standard with a lackluster 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine that pumps out only 162 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque. The top end GT trim level is much more respected, as its 3.8-liter V-6 pushes out 265 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque. Regardless, all of those performance numbers are seriously low for the engine size, as a 4-cylinder of that size should crest the 180-horsepower mark and that 3.8-liter powerplant needs at least 300 horsepower. The 4-cylinder model is available with a 5-speed manual transmission and the GT comes only with a 5-speed shiftable automatic.
The 4-cylinder-equipped Eclipse gets 20 mpg city and 28 mpg highway and the V-6 models get a relatively low 17 mpg city and 25 mpg highway. The GT model can muscle to 60 mph in about 6.5 seconds, though there are some tests that show sub-6-second times. We can’t dig up any 0 to 60 times on the 2.4-liter model, so we’ll just say that it’s “slow.” We are figuring it to time out at about 9 seconds, at best, we may just have to dig one up somewhere and test drive it to see.
|GT model has a little pop to it||162 horsepower from a 2.4-liter, c’mon|
|Mitsubishi brought sexy back to the Eclipse||Still a flabby mess when compared to older Eclipses|
|SE Final Model is hitting dealerships as a collector’s item||We’d rather see a turbocharged 4-cylinder than that huge V-6|
|Comfortable interior||4-cylinder models are horribly slow|
|Good cargo hull for its class||Low fuel economy from the V-6 model|
|Legendary name in import performance||Tried too hard to copy the 3rd gen success|
Ah, the 370Z is a force to be reckoned with and its lowest two trim levels fall right in line with our budget. Unfortunately, the Nismo model fell just outside of the $40K limit. The base level 370Z comes in at $32,280 and the Touring trim comes in at $36,980, leaving wiggle room to even include taxes within our budget range.
Both trim levels use a 332 horsepower 3.7-liter V-6, which also churns out 270 pound-feet of torque. Much like the Infiniti G Coupe, which the 370Z shares its engine with, this 3.7-liter is very loud under full throttle, which knocks it down a notch or two. It makes up for that with a respectable 5.1-second sprint to 60 mph. To boot, it also gets 18 to 19 mpg in the city and 25 to 26 mpg on the highway. It stops well too, getting from 60 mph to 0 in only 101 feet, and it handles like a sports car should.
The body is stunning and looks reminiscent of Z-cars from yesteryear, while maintaining a modern edge. It’ll be hard for any car to beat out the 370Z, but we’re sure there are plenty that are up to the task.
|High-powered V-6 engine||Rear seats... What rear seats?|
|Awesome looks||Loud engine at high rpm|
|Precision handling||So much road noise, it’s hard to hold a conversation|
|Acceptable fuel economy||Please, Nissan, we want boost!!|
|High-quality workmanship on the inside||Rearward visibility is nearly non-existent|
|Lots of bang for the buck||The Nismo package is too expensive for what you get from it|
Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ
Sciburu twins were all of the rage just months ago and now they’re old news. Still, they are a nice-performing, budget-friendly sports car. They have the identical 2.0-liter boxer-style 4-cylinder engine that pumps out 200 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque. They both comes standard with a 6-speed manual transmission, but they do have a 6-speed automatic with a shifting option. The test on these two models are a little up and down, as they range in acceleration times. However, believe it or not, the Scion FR-S repeatedly comes out roughly one second faster than the BR-Z.
The best times we have seen for both are 6.6 seconds for the FR-S and 7.3 seconds on the BRZ. That’s not screaming fast, but both models are extremely fun to drive and easy to handle. It is truly a driver’s car, not a drag racer. They both get very respectable gas mileage, at 25 mpg city and 34 mpg highway. Unfortunately, the twins really disappointed us all with their final performance numbers, but is that enough to drop it from the list?
|nice looking rides||Rear seating, again|
|Peppy 4-cylinder engines||The BRZ is disappointingly sluggish|
|Very tunable for the mechanically inclined||Turbo, please!|
|Great fuel economy||Why the awkward mid-powerband torque cutoff?|
|Wonderful on the twisties||They look way too much alike|
|Manageable pricing||Needs a track package of some sort|
There are always a few cars that border on the sports car line, but ultimately do not qualify. The two big names that we had to bypass were the Ford Mustang and Chevy Camaro. Technically, most people would qualify them as sports cars and their performance definitely meets the criteria. However, auto buffs know that there is a special niche cut out for these cars, and its called the “Pony Car” class. Keep your eyes peeled for our upcoming Pony Car comparison to see where they stand.
While the decision was close, we had to ultimately pick one of the bunch and declare it the winner. As odd as it sounds, we have to give the overall No. 1 slot to the Hyundai Genesis. It’s 3.8-liter variant comes in line with the 370Z in pricing, while it performs nearly as well. What really helped secure the victory for the Hyundai is the 2.0T model that bases out at $24,250 and pulls sub-6-second 60 mph sprints.
Add in the fact that Hyundai backs its drivetrain for 100,000 miles, and it looks good in the process, and you have an all out great budget sports car.
The 370Z had a close battle with the Genesis, but ultimately lost out in the pricing game. The 370Z, unfortunately, offers nothing for the $500-per-week-income buyer that lives paycheck to paycheck, but the Genesis did, in its 2.0T variant. This is definitely not a slight at the 370Z, as it is an impressive hunk of machinery, it just missed the mark slightly.
Gather the posse and get the pitch forks, as we picked the MX-5 Miata as the 3rd place finisher here. MX-5 owners and haters alike will convene in front of the TopSpeed offices to voice their displeasure. For those that love the MX5 – myself included – it just doesn’t match up in pure speed to the other two. It barely gets in under 7 seconds, which is a bummer.
For those that hate it and think we overrated it, keep in mind that we are talking about one of the most fun cars in the world to drive. Nothing under $60,000 handles like it and all of that linked up with a drop-top, just makes it a can’t miss kind of car.
Most Disappointing Car
We would love to put the Sciburu twins here, but there is one car that disappoints us even more than the twins. That disappointment is the Eclipse... Once a feared budget-friendly import, Mitsubishi went to great lengths to completely destroy it. It all began with it fattening and uglifying in the 4th generation and ended with an even pudgier version in the facelift.
Short of a decent acceleration time in the GT model, the Eclipse offers us nothing as a sports car. We are almost as glad to see this one go away as we were the RX-8. Hopefully, Mitsubishi looks back at late-1990s GSX and GS-T models of the Eclipse and sees what people really want in an Eclipse.
Shoot us some comments and let us know what you think or what your top budget sports car would be.