There's a lot to be said for being able to buy the latest and greatest in supercar technology, but for many of us, that's little more than a dream.
If you're looking for a whole lot of speed for not much money, however, you'll be surprised just how much you can get. This list brings you 10 of the fastest, most engaging cars you can buy without breaking the bank, in no particular order, based on horsepower, 0-60 mph times, and manufacturer retail prices.
We're not cheaping out here, though. If it's not something we'd like to own, it won't make our list--no matter how little it costs.
On with the miles per hour:
2011 Subaru Impreza WRX
Subaru quotes magazine tests for its 2011 Impreza WRX at 4.7 seconds to 60 mph, and with 265 horsepower on tap in stock form, a new body style borrowed from the hotter STI version, and several other revisions for the new model year, the WRX's $25,495 starting price makes this one of the best performance-per-dollar deals available anywhere--and that's before you make a few relatively inexpensive aftermarket modifications to unleash its true potential.
2011 Nissan 370Z
The 2011 Nissan 370Z cuts a unique profile, with both retro elements that recall the original 240Z and more modern details that evoke the flavor of the much more expensive R35 GT-R. With 332 horsepower and 0-60 mph times of 5.1 seconds, the newest Z delivers the good for just $31,450 base.
2011 Chevrolet Corvette Coupe
Zero to 60 times of just four seconds flat and 436 horsepower put the 2011 Chevrolet Corvette Coupe at the front of this pack, but its $49,045 starting price is also at the high end of affordable. It's a fair trade-off, however, as it'll cost a lot more money to even approach the outright pace and capability of the Corvette just about anywhere else.
2011 BMW 335i
If you want to haul the kids and/or the groceries but also haul some tail, but with a more sophisticated look than the boy-racer wide-body 2011 WRX, the 2011 BMW 335i is hard to beat. A claimed 300 horsepower that feels a lot more like 330, 0-60 mph times of 5.4 seconds, and a starting price of $42,050 make the 335i sedan a very desirable mix of speed, luxury, and affordability.
2011 BMW 135i
When hauling the kids or the rest of the family is less of a priority, the 2011 BMW 135i, little brother to the 335i sedan but packing the same powertrain, is a great choice. Opt for the dual-clutch transmission for a dual-purpose comfy commuter and track-day star. Its 300-horsepower output is strong, 0-60 mph takes just 5.1 seconds, and it starts at $39,050. For another $7,000 you can get a limited-edition 1-Series M Coupe that offers near-M3 levels of performance including 335-horsepower, 369 pound-feet of torque in overboost, and 4.1-second 0-60 mph times, making it one of the top performers in our list, but also one of the priciest.
2011 Mazda Mazdaspeed 3
If you don't need all-wheel drive and don't feel a sporty car should be rear-wheel drive, the 2011 Mazdaspeed3 is a great choice. Just two horsepower behind the Subaru WRX at 263 horsepower, with 0-60 mph times just a beat slower at 6.1 seconds, the $23,700 price of entry is very attractive--and so is the car, if you can get over the smiley front end that came with the 2010 redesign.
2011 Volkswagen GTI
No list of wallet-friendly fun-to-drive cars would be complete without the Volkswagen GTI, and it ears a spot on ours for its 201-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder and 6.6-second 0-60 mph time. It's one of the slowest of this group, though, and at $23,695 to start, it's not the best bang-for-the-buck option either--but there's something about the GTI that makes it greater than the sum of its parts, despite being largely unchanged from the 2010 model pictured. If you're looking for a fun, quick hatch, consider the GTI.
2012 Mercedes-Benz C350
Mercedes-Benz's 2012 C350 sedan is not just a knockout in the looks department--its 268-horsepower V-6 engine and 6.1-second 0-60 mph times are respectable as well. Start at $39,990, it's among the more expensive on this list, but it offers an attractive combination image and performance you won't find elsewhere.
2011 Mazda MX-5 Miata
At the slower end of this hot-car totem pole sits the 2011 Mazda MX-5 Miata. It takes about seven seconds to hit 60 mph, and it only packs 167 horsepower, making it the weakest of this group, but it's also the lightest at about 2,400 pounds, depending on the trim. That equates to a whole lot of fun when the road turns twisty, and there's enough power to have a bit of fun even when it doesn't. At a starting price of just $23,110, it's not the most power for your dollar, but it might be the most fun.
2011 Hyundai Sonata 2.0T and 2011 Kia Optima Turbo
Finally, we have a name you might not expect to see on such a list--actually, two names: the 2011 Hyundai Sonata 2.0T and the 2011 Kia Optima Turbo. Offering a solid 274-horsepower from a 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo engine, fresh, stylish designs from either brand, and four comfortable seats for around $25,000 depending on which you choose, this Korean duo of turbo sedans makes a strong case. Zero to 60 mph times a bit off due to their size and weight, coming in at about 7.4 seconds, however, and there's no option for a manual transmission.
2011 Ford Mustang GT
Yep, we've already done 10, but we can't leave out the 2011 Ford Mustang, so we decided to give you a bonus car for number 11. With its new 5.0-liter, 412-horsepower V-8 engine, the 2011 Mustang GT is one of the best outright horsepower-per-dollar investments on the market. Add in the fact that Ford has figured out how to really make the Mustang's rather archaic suspension design work, an upgraded interior, and flashy retro-modern looks, the Mustang GT is a bargain at $30,495 and 0-60 times in the 4.4-second range. You could also save a few grand and go for the 305-horsepower Mustang V-6, which trims the price to just $22,695 to start, and adds a second to the 0-60 time at 5.4 seconds.