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Cheap speed really does exist and today we break down some of the best sports car options under $20,000.

Best Used Sports Cars on a Budget

It’s no secret that perhaps the largest slice of the automotive enthusiast community is almost always in hot pursuit of more speed. To achieve fast speeds, quicker lap times, and lower quarter-mile times, manufacturers have to push the envelope when it comes to technology and design. That’s just one reason that cars like the new Porsche 911 are priced starting at more than six figures. On the other side of the coin, the used car market is packed with athletic automobiles for less than $50,000. But can a truly exceptional sports car be had for less than $20,000? We think so. Today, we dive into ten cars that are the most budget-friendly way to go fast. We think some of them might even surprise you.

Nissan 370Z

2010 Nissan 370Z - usa.nissannews.com
2010 Nissan 370Z - usa.nissannews.com

We recently compared the 370Z against an American rival, the Ford Mustang. Frankly, it was a great reminder of just how fun and fast this Nissan really is. Under the hood is a reliable VQ V6 that makes more than 330 horsepower sent to the rear wheels only via a six-speed manual or an automatic. These can be found well below our $20,000 budget and they’re incredibly sharp.

They also have a huge aftermarket for improvements as components wear out and it has pretty timeless styling. We’d suggest focusing your search on earlier models, as later ones don’t have much more in the way of power or technology. Look for worn-out rear-end components like bushings, shocks, and bearings that might indicate a harder life led than other examples. Nice used Nissan 370Z models should be around the bottom of their depreciation curve too with the 400Z not far off.

MINI Cooper S (R53)

R53 Mini Cooper S - JayEmm on Cars on YouTube.com
R53 Mini Cooper S - JayEmm on Cars on YouTube.com

As the only front-wheel-drive car on this list, the R53 Mini Cooper S has some seriously heavy lifting to do. Thankfully, despite its small size, it proves quite mighty at moving even the most entrenched FWD haters around. It’s quick with some 160 horsepower under the hood and, unlike later versions of the Cooper S, it uses a supercharger as opposed to a turbocharger.

Aside from having zero turbo lag, it also produces one of the most exceptionally pleasing aural experiences possible. The supercharger whine is crystal clear in the cabin any time you’re over about 35% throttle and can be coupled to a seriously raspy exhaust should you feel the need. Combine the after-fire bangs and pops as you come off the throttle with the whine and intake sounds at the front and this little car proves to be very hard to beat for quick trips or driving around a city. They’re also far beneath our budget, so repairs and maintenance will be a breeze with the cash left over.

Mazda Miata

2011 Mazda MX-5 Miata - netcarshow.com
2011 Mazda MX-5 Miata - netcarshow.com

No budget sports car discussion can be had without the Mazda Miata becoming involved. It’s kind of like the guy in high school who’s popular for being everything except a jock. The difference here is that the Miata is incredibly athletic as well as smartly designed, efficient, robust, and even practical in some ways.

For $20,000 multiple generations are available and all of them are considered outstanding drivers cars. The original NA is an icon that basically changed the trajectory of the small affordable sports convertible. The NB improved on that and provided more creature comforts. The NC is by far the most powerful of the lot and, despite some questionable looks, it’s as engaging as any of them.

There’s also the benefit of having a massive worldwide community of Miata owners that are deeply knowledgeable about the platform. Combine that with bulletproof reliability and an aftermarket bigger than the ocean itself and it makes for a clear winner in most contests.

Cadillac CTS-V

2011 Cadillac CTS-V - netcarshow.com
2011 Cadillac CTS-V - netcarshow.com

This is the only car here with four doors, but it’s earned its spot because of just how good it is. While it’s unlikely buyers will find a second-generation Cadillac CTS-V for less than our $20,000 budget, the first generation might be the one to have. Consider this. Not only was it the birth of a whole new range of sports cars from Cadillac, but it also signified something that’s about to go away for good. All first-gen CTS-V’s were sold with a big 5.7-liter V8 making 400 horsepower and a six-speed manual transmission. That combination was already non-existent in a Cadillac by 2014 when the manual was no longer offered, but now the V8 in the CT5-V Blackwing is likely the last to go into a V-Series car for Cadillac. Now let’s not forget about performance. The Original CTS-V hits 60 mph in just 4.6-seconds and then goes on to a top speed of 163 mph. That’s special, sporty, and speed-centric in one package.

Subaru BRZ

2018 Subaru BRZ - media.subaru.com
2018 Subaru BRZ - media.subaru.com

For those that want a pure front-engine rear-wheel-drive platformed sports car, it’s very hard to beat the Subaru BRZ or the Toyota 86. These twins are among the most loved in the community today because of how rewarding they are from behind the wheel. Considering everything else on our list, the BRZ might be the newest of the bunch at our budget and that means it combines fun driving with modern conveniences.

The Subaru-built flat-4 engine is known for good reliability and is also pretty easy to maintain. There is a noticeable torque-dip through the middle of the power band, but aftermarket solutions are available. Both the six-speed manual and the automatic transmission are good, but we prefer three pedals. Be sure to check for modifications both under the car and under the hood. Depending on your personal taste for modifications, you might score a better deal than you might expect. These cars routinely go for less than $15,000 in the used car market, further solidifying its spot on this best used sports car list.

Porsche Boxster

2008 Porsche Boxter - carsforsale.com
2008 Porsche Boxter - carsforsale.com

As the only conventionally mid-engine car on our list, you might wonder where all the others are. Quite simply, no mid-engine car is as reliable while providing the type of enthusiastic performance as the Porsche Boxster. For those that go to autocross or track days often, the Boxster is a step up from the balance and performance of a car like the BRZ or the Miata. The power is similar, but thanks to a more balanced weight distribution, the Boxster is more engaging and faster at the limit.

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It’s also special just for the badge right? There’s no question that Porsche is a well-loved and respected brand in almost all social circles. The Boxster also has another trick up its sleeve. Appreciation. These small revolutionary sports cars might be at the very bottom of their depreciation curve. Recently we’ve seen spikes happen for older siblings like the 914, 944, and 928. The Boxster did more for Porsche than any of those so values might be on the rise. We’d suggest looking for a Boxster S if your budget allows for it. Not only are they more powerful, but they’re going to hold value better too.

Ford Mustang GT (2011+)

2011 Ford Mustang GT - media.ford.com
2011 Ford Mustang GT - media.ford.com

When Ford introduced the Coyote Motor in 2011, it signified a serious change for the brand and for Mustang itself. Since then we’ve seen it grow into a 700+ horsepower pony that’s capable of going toe-to-toe with sports car giants. That makes the 2011 model and later ones just that much more special. Even the V6 model makes more than 300 horsepower and the GT with the V8 pushes 412 hp.

Then there’s the interior which is outstanding compared to any previous Ford Mustang, and it’s still modern a decade later. Want a convertible? Those are available. How about 31 mpg? Also possible (your mileage may vary). Finally, just look at this car. It’s everything a muscle car should be. It’s bold, it’s brash, and it doesn’t care about anything but going fast. It’s truly deserves a spot on this best used sports cars list.

Honda S2000

2009 Honda S2000 - hondanews.com
2009 Honda S2000 - hondanews.com

The Honda S2000 is going to sit near the top of our $20,000 budget, but that’s ok for a couple of reasons. First, being a Honda, it won’t break if cared for properly. Despite being a historically efficient and powerful engine, the F20C under the hood of the S2000 is well known for its long-term reliability.

The second reason is that it’s one of the most accessible high-end sports car experiences available. Perhaps the biggest strength is how fast it spins up. Power is available almost immediately and it continues until nearly 9,000 RPM. Pair that with its incredibly small weight penalty and a nearly perfect weight balance and it’s a real recipe for driving joy. Look for an example that’s nearly free from modification as they tend to be the most reliable.

BMW M3

2011 BMW M3 - carsforsale.com
2011 BMW M3 - carsforsale.com

Below our $20,000 budget, more than one generation of M3 is available, and that’s important. As BMW grows into a tech-focused car company, we think these older analog sports cars will prove more desirable. Both the E36 and E46 are notable examples of how much fun a naturally aspirated 6-cylinder sports car can be when built right.

For those that find an E90 M3, it’s the only M3 to ever have a V8, so it’s clearly special. These cars aren’t always going to be the easiest to maintain though so we highly recommend sticking with a car that’s around $15,000 and then using the remaining cash to make sure it’s in absolutely tip-top condition.

Chevrolet Corvette

2008 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 - media.chevrolet.com
2008 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 - media.chevrolet.com

Quite simply, not a single car on this best used sport car list can provide the outright track performance of the Corvette. It is, in two words, a giant killer. For the money, we’ve found numerous examples as new as 2008 that are in good condition. Those cars feature a 430 horsepower V8 and an incredibly dynamic suspension that is the basis for what some say was a 7:24 second lap time at the Nurburgring in a ZR-1.

It’s a toss-up as to which Corvette is the one to go with too. The C6 is great and with the Z51 package it’s hard to beat, but the C5 Z06 can also be had at this price point and is a bit more extreme. At the end of the day, both these cars are an outstanding value for money. They’re fast, they’re reliable, they look amazing, and they also have a huge aftermarket and owner community to help with modifications and repairs. Cheap speed, it really does exist.

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Stephen Rivers

Stephen Rivers is a car enthusiast who loves all things built with passion, extending to nearly all car cultures. After obtaining an occupational studies degree in sports medicine, Stephen turned his attention to sports cars. He was employed as an auto shop manager, spent time in auto sales, and worked as a software developer for a racing company, but Stephen began writing about cars over 10 years ago. When he's not in front of a computer screen, he's racing his own Bugeye Subaru WRX in as many autocross and rallycross competitions as he can.

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