Power, performance, and the used market

Source: AutoEvolution

The facts are the facts: the amount of car you can buy on the cheap today is simply outstanding.
And it’s not just amount of power you can get for very little money, but it’s the caliber of car you can acquire for so little. The cars available on the used market for a fraction of their original price is unlike it ever has been before. Most of us are intimately familiar with this, but it’s still perpetually shocking to see high-power, high-performance cars plummeting to the bottom of their depreciation curve.
I’m not the first one to say this, but it very well may be true that we’re living in the Golden Age. Power and performance are at a premium and used prices are, thankfully, comfortably palatable. Jump with me as I explore some of the cars out there that strike gold in the value-for-dollar quotient.

If you’re like me, you spend more time than any semi-motivated human being should perusing the likes of forum classifieds, Craigslist, BRZO, and so on. But it’s not without purpose: getting a grasp on what’s available in one’s theoretical “maybe I’ll buy that next” price range is as fun and amusing as it is inducing of the phrase “holy shit, I can’t believe that car can be had for that little.” The caliber of performance available at such low prices is only going to benefit those of us who care, and will directly reward us when we’re shopping for our next hoon-mobile. So what are some of the highlights? I can talk up and down about how much car you can get for how little money, but that means nothing without some examples. Let’s explore, and for the sake of keeping things current we’ll limit it to modern (or at least modern-ish) cars, those reasonably safe and with relatively current tech. And for the sake of keeping our bank accounts in check, we’ll keep it under $40k.
Source: Jalopnik

Let’s establish my Top Value pick right off the bat: the Chevrolet Corvette. It is simply impossible to ignore it. In its last three generations the ‘Vette has become a serious sports car, one capable of fighting with the best the world has to offer at a lower price than all of its competitors. That’s only exaggerated on the used market, and starts with going back to the C5 generation. The LS1 engine is a smooth, strong powerplant with endless modification potential. Finding a clean car with low miles is easy under $20k, and higher-mileage examples (which should in no way scare a potential buyer) can be found even under the magic $10k number. Step up to the LS6-powered, “it’s a race car adapted to the street” C5 Z06 and we’re looking at a serious performance vehicle.
What the regular C5 lacks in sharpness, the Z more than picks up the slack. And with well cared-for examples easily being bought for $15k, that’s an absolute ton of car for the money, and the pinnacle of performance-meets-value. With 385-400 (depending on year) naturally aspirated horsepower and similar torque, all matched up with a car weighing just over 3100 pounds, the C5Z has the right specs, the right configuration (V8, RWD, manual-only), and the right race-car-backed mentality to be an enjoyable daily driver that’s even more capable on the track.
Stepping into a newer model, the C6 and C6 Z06 offer even higher performance and more modern amenities at similarly low prices. First-year C6’s can be had under $20k, and more desirable LS3-powered cars are easily found in the mid-$20k area. Then there’s the C6Z, a fire-breathing LS7-touting 500hp-monster, which has examples to choose from in the low-$30ks. Start talking about the occasional first-year C7 that turns up in the $39k range and we’re within breathing room of supercar performance figures. A shitton of car for the money, that certainly is. Whether we’re talking 0-60, ¼ mile, autocross, or road circuit, any of these Corvettes are bargains for how much performance and everyday compliance you get out of them.
Source: CadillacFAQ

Then there’s the other barrage of LS-powered GM vehicles. The first-gen CTS-V was plagued with wheel hop and a plasticky interior (among other issues), but its engine speaks for itself and $15k buys you a clean luxury cruiser that just so happens to be able to run supremely quick times in a straight line. Start looking at second-gen Vs in the $28-40k range and you have a massive amount of horsepower– 556 of them– at the price of a new four-cylinder ATS. When talking all-around performers, the V.2 is impossible to ignore. So are the G8 GT, G8 GXP, and GTO, the trio of Pontiacs also touting the venerable LS engines. Pick your poison: each has upsides and downsides. Any way you look at it, used GM cars bring so much performance-per-dollar to the table that they’re full-on “must consider” options should you be in the market for what they offer.
Source: MotorTrend

How about Ford? Later, 5.0-powered S197 Mustangs have dropped considerably since the introduction of the S550 chassis car, and with middle-mileage GTs dipping into the $15-18k range we’re looking at a legitimate 400-plus horsepower car for very little coin. And, as you undoubtedly know, the aftermarket for these cars is basically infinite. Then there’s the two varieties of S197 GT500, the lower of which has a paltry 500 factory-rated horsepower. The early 5.4L supercharged S197 cars might need a bit of attention in the chassis department, as do later post-refresh 550-hp cars, but the end-run 5.8L-based 662-hp cars came a long way towards being well-rounded and can certainly hold their own at the hands of the right driver. Prices on GT500s are all over the place based on year, mileage, questionable modifications, etc…but with any of them, you’ve got endless power and the platform on which you can modify to your heart’s content.
Source: Automobile Magazine

Looking newer, prices on Ford’s newest ‘Stang, the S550 GT, have dropped to the point of making them impossible to overlook. For $24-26k you can get a great-condition 2015 Mustang GT with your choice of transmission, and GT Premiums (with nav, heated/cooled seats, leather, sunroof, etc.) are easily found in the mid-to-high $20k range. Add a thousand-grand or so on for Performance Pack cars, but that’s money well spent if you have any interest in the slew of items like Brembros, gears, and wheels that would easily tally a much higher bill if added on your own. Any way you look at it, the S550 offers a massive amount of Mustang for not very much money. I absolutely loved the GT I drove, much more so than its Chevy counterpart, and couldn’t help but acknowledge how much of a jump it made over the S197 gen.
Sticking with the muscle car theme, Dodge Challengers have become quite affordable on the used market as well. Credit the 2015 model-year refresh for this, but you can now easily find an early 375-hp Hemi-powered R/T in the low $20k-range and 6.1L SRTs for relatively little more. Much more importantly though, 6.4L-powered Scat Packs can be had in the low $30k-area (and realistically even for mid-$30k range new), making 485 horsepower and menacing good looks attainable at a price it almost never has been before.
Exploring the options from overseas reveals that the never-ending spiral of fun-focused cars that are fast and budget-friendly. Whether you’re looking at the 350Z, any of the 135i/M235i/M3 BMWs, S3/S4, Lexus IS-F, or one of the powerhouse AMG Mercedes cars, foreign automakers have effectively flooded the market with viable high-performance vehicles that have depreciated rapidly. Or, be bold and pick up a dealership-new 370Z for under $25k and take advantage of a scenario working in your favor. (Well done, Cragon. Well freakin’ done.)
Source: Nissan

Rounding out the V8, rear-drive sector is the love-it-or-hate-it 4th-gen F-Body Camaro and Firebird, cars that were killed off in 2002 but for which the following is still extraordinarily strong. More GM goodness, the F-Body cars offer a lot of power for the money, with underrated-from-the-factory 325-hp / 350 lb-ft. power levels easily available in the sub-$10k range and even closer to $5k if you don’t care what it looks like. You’ll have to dump some money into a 4th-gen to make it corner, but it’s a surprisingly good platform to build on should you want to invest the time and money.
Muscle cars and rear-drive sports cars might be good fun, but we have to acknowledge the hot hatches as well. Ford’s “every journalist’s favorite front-drive toy” Fiesta ST can now be found a hair over $10k, making what is a viable Mini Cooper S competitor a serious performance bargain with a liftgate’s worth of practicality thrown in. Similarly, the FiST’s bigger brother, the Focus ST, can now be found in good used condition for $15k. 252 front-drive horsepower, space for all your stuff, and a chassis that loves to dance; the FoST is a great performer with a sizable following as well. Jumping away from Ford, other front-drive, semi-economical cars nailing the performance-per-dollar quotient are the Fiat 500 Abarth, Cobalt SS, and slew of Subarus/Saabarus/Evos if you dare put up with the maintenance. Finding a daily-driver capable car that also rings in high on the fun meter is no longer a daunting task, and these cars– all easily had under $20-25k– are prime examples of that. Start talking Cooper S, mazdaspeed3, SRT-4s, GTIs, R32s, and so on…the options are infinite.
Source: Automobile Magazine

Should you need to haul more people, more stuff, or both, the options for go-fast SUVs, CUVs, and trucks has begun to blossom as well. Take, for example, the SRT Grand Cherokee: whether we’re talking 420-hp first-gen WK1 or 475-hp second-gen WK2, the performance capabilities of the SRT GC rivals that of many sports cars while allowing you to carry kids and cargo alike. The WK1 can be found under $25k, the WK2 under $40k and some under $35k with higher miles. Similarly, but with higher consequences should things go awry, you can even find an early Porsche Cayenne Turbo for sub $40k (and even sub-$30k should you want to put your wallet on permanent bankruptcy standby). That the Porsche can even be mentioned in the same breath as the Jeep is ridiculous, but they’re both fast SUVs that fall nicely into the “one vehicle to do it all” category. As do the long-departed Trailblazer SS, 9-7X Aero, X5M, ML55, Audi SQ5, and so on. Every single one of these vehicles has a performance threshold higher than what we expected family-haulers to hit, and every one can be had on a relative budget. As they say, you can have your cake and eat it too…so long as you don’t mind paying for the gas.
Source: Honda

To round things out, I’m obligated to mention the cars that place less emphasis on lap times and power figures and more on “pure driving enjoyment,” as their marketing teams surely would have mentioned. This field consists of the likes of MX-5, S2000, Z3, Z4 (and Z4M), Solstice GXP / Sky Red Line, and so on. These cars might not set your hair on fire, but they surely know how to dance. And with prices at all-time lows ($4k Z3s, $7k NC Miatas, and so on), now is the time to take advantage of the ultimate bargains in the smile-factor group.
Just by taking a quick look around it’s instantly clear that the used performance cars are quicker, faster, better handlers, and more well-rounded than ever. It’s truly astonishing what can be had for relatively little money, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Obviously there’s cars I’m missing. Hell, there’s trucks I’m missing. Go back further than I dared to and you’ll find dozens upon dozens of other vehicles that qualify as “fast” that can be had for pennies on the dollar. Take the HHR SS and the 996 Turbo, for example. We’re living in the Golden Age, one in which you can get an absolute shit-ton of power and performance for relatively little coin, all making the case for a used car that much stronger. People look back on the muscle car era as one that was the height of performance car badassery, but they’re wrong: this, and today, are the true glory days.

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29 responses to “Power, performance, and the used market”

  1. P161911 Avatar

    In practical terms there needs to be a <$40k, <$20k, <$10k, <$5k, and <$2k answers here.
    Corvette owns the $40k-$20k bracket.
    Even though I'm a GM guy, SN95 Mustangs seem to be much better cars than 4th gen F-Bodies (former 1996 Z-28 convertible owner, only car I've gotten rid of that I don't want back) Here is a nice example in the ,$10k bracket, a Saleen (or maybe just a bunch of Saleen parts)
    Under $5k gets a little trickier. Something a little different, a 303HP FWD Pontiac, here is a 2008 Pontiac Grand Prix GXP for $4500
    And in the category that I might be considering in the next year or so, the sub $2k beater performance car.
    A 2004 Saab 9-3 with a stick shift for $1650!
    Also saw a 2005 9-3 Aero with an automatic for $2000.

    1. Harry Callahan Avatar
      Harry Callahan

      The V8 Pontiacs suffer from being under-transaxled. The transaxle might be fine for the V6, but V8 torque shreds them rapidly. I would avoid that car unless you like rebuilding transmissions annually.

      1. caltemus Avatar

        I wonder if a manual exists that would fit that transverse v8, would be an interesting if nose heavy beast

      2. Luxury Lexus Land-yacht Avatar
        Luxury Lexus Land-yacht

        However, none of the above mentioned Pontiacs have transaxles…they’re all conventional transmission/torque tube/pumpkin designs.
        The Grand Prix GXP had the 5.3L engine in it, but that’s not the same class of car as the others.

        1. Zentropy Avatar

          Thank you. I thought I was missing something. I didn’t recall transaxles in any rear-drive Pontiacs.

        2. outback_ute Avatar

          Transaxle is a common term for a fwd gearbox/differential combination also.

          1. Luxury Lexus Land-yacht Avatar
            Luxury Lexus Land-yacht

            Quite true, but all the ones referenced…and all Pontiac V8s save for the GP GXP, are RWD.

    2. nanoop Avatar

      I couldn’t justify a 10kUSD car as a toy, but if I sold the 944 and got something else that would be presumably less expensive in running maintenance costs, I would be good to go. We’re talking about 6kUSD.

  2. Maymar Avatar

    I can’t speak to US prices, but it looks like 5th gen Camaro SS’s have dropped below $20k CDN (about the same threshold as 5.0 Mustangs). They’re flawed, but still hella quick, and I assume a combination of the aftermarket and being related to the heralded Aussie Hoonmobiles should mean there are ways to mitigate the problems.
    Although, the version I find strangely tempting is the stripper V6 Camaros (especially with the factory 80’s steel wheels). They’ve dropped into the stripper new car price range (sub-$15k CDN), and from what I remember, I found the 6 more appealing than the 8 when I test drove them back to back (at least in the sort of urban environments I spend most of my time in, where the 8 can’t be properly unwound).

    1. P161911 Avatar

      A V-6 6-speed seems very appealing. The base V-6 had 312HP. My 1994 C4 Corvette only had 300 HP. The Vette had a little more torque. but they seem to have held their value pretty well, You could get one for low 20s new.

  3. JayP Avatar

    Hard to beat S197 Mustangs.
    Last weekend I met a kid who had blown up his 4.0 V6 with a supercharger. Replaced with a 3v 4.6 for less than $3k. Looked nuts with all the V6 bumpers and trim but with the V8.
    Back a generation with the New Edge, you can get the IRS but the HP isn’t there. Both Cobras, NA and Terminator, are still commanding $$$. S197 is the easiest way to get 300hp without a Ranger-ish interior the NE has.

    1. Zentropy Avatar

      Agreed. I think the S197 is probably the best bang-for-buck deal out there. The trouble is finding one that hasn’t been undesirably modified.

  4. salguod Avatar

    “And for the sake of keeping our bank accounts in check, we’ll keep it under $40k.”
    Lop a zero off of that is where I’m looking. That 318ti cost me $500 to buy plus another $1500 in parts. The RSX Type S cost me $1200 to buy and I’ve got another $800-$1000 in it. Both put a big smile on my face.
    So, under $4K, take a look at this:
    2003 Acura CL Type S with 260 HP and a 6 speed. That VTEC kick at 5K is intoxicating. Should be a lot of smiles for $3K.

    1. Zentropy Avatar

      I love the idea of a sub-$2k 318ti (I’m working on a sub-$2k E28), but the article was about power and performance. The 318ti is a hoot to drive, but isn’t exactly powerful. The RSX has what, 210hp? Not shabby at all, but not what I think of as a powerful performer, either. Both are without argument fun cars, though.

      1. salguod Avatar

        I was more focused on overall performance or really just fun to drive, but I see your point. The ti actually isn’t really a performance machine, but it’s a lot of fun.
        I’ll take issue a bit with the RSX. It’s only 200 HP, but it hits 60 about 6 seconds flat and does the quarter mile in the mid 14s. Not blistering, but not really slow. Based on a quick Google search it seems on par with a Mustang GT of the era.

        1. Zentropy Avatar

          Honestly, “fun factor” is what I base my opinions on anyway. When I was young, I wanted to cram more power into anything I drove, but as I grew more experienced I recognized I preferred balance. The 180-ish hp in my old BMW suits me perfectly, given the great chassis.
          As for the RSX, it was quick if not powerful, but honestly near the reasonable limits of its capability. Until recently, 225 or so hp was about all you could put the the front without torque steer rearing its ugly head. In contrast, the Mustang you mention can be made MUCH faster for very little money. Regardless, I’d drive a slow rear-driver before a fast FWD any day, just for the driving characteristics. To each his/her own.

          1. salguod Avatar

            Fair points all. I haven’t yet owned a true performance RWD car. Everything RWD I’ve owned (1976 Camaro 6 cyl. auto, 1980 Monza 4 cyl 4 speed, 1996 318ti 5 speed, 1960 Thunderbird 352 auto), though fun in their own ways, haven’t really been performance cars. The most aggressive handlers I’ve owned have been FWD (1988 Pulsar NX SE, 2005 Mazda3 S and the RSX Type S). I’m looking forward to getting a good performing RWD car sometime.
            I’m on a mission now to drive and own as many different fun cars as I can before I have to surrender my keys someday. So I’m buyin’ ’em cheap, fixing and enjoying them and moving on.

          2. Zentropy Avatar

            “I’m buyin’ ’em cheap, fixing and enjoying them and moving on”.
            That’s completely the way to go!

      2. salguod Avatar

        I love the idea of a sub-$2k 318ti
        Wanna buy mine? 😀

        1. Zentropy Avatar

          Had you caught me before I bought my E28, maybe! Fun car in a great color.

  5. outback_ute Avatar

    Most of the cars mentioned aren’t available in Australia (well there are private import Corvettes etc but they are $$$), but early Ecoboost S550 Mustangs are advertised at AUD$40k, Fiesta ST from $14k.
    But for the best bang for buck I’d be looking at a Falcon XR6 Turbo, get a decent car for well under $10k and with injectors/valve springs/exhaust/tune, nothing major, you are looking at 400 rwhp – I bet it could be done for $10k these days.

    1. Luxury Lexus Land-yacht Avatar
      Luxury Lexus Land-yacht

      Unfortunately, we here in the States don’t get most of your cool vehicles from down there, either.
      The first time I saw a Holden Crewman, I had a new goal in life. Might have to move to ‘Stralia to achieve it, but I have some years left.

      1. outback_ute Avatar

        You could try the left hand utes place in Colorado (from memory). Just don’t plan on using the rear seats for people very much, I sat in one at the motor show when they were launched and the back rest is so vertical it feels like you are leaning forward – would get uncomfortable very quickly. The reason would have been to try and shave a little length, as it was one of the longest vehicles on the market.

        1. Luxury Lexus Land-yacht Avatar
          Luxury Lexus Land-yacht

          I rarely have passengers, yet have owned not one, but two OEM LWB sedans. I just like my automobiles large.
          Plus, with a real rear seat, audio is easier to set up.
          Left-Hand Utes caught my eye, however, I want one which is still RHD.
          Oh, and long vehicles… The US knows how to do large private vehicles.
          My ’73 Coupe DeVille was 227″ long. A ’73 Imperial is 232″. Awwwww, yeah! Giant two-door “personal” luxury “coupes”.
          Today, we have the Dodge Ram Mega Cab…248″ long, or 6.3 metres.
          That’s impressive, and honestly, unwieldy in-town. I’ve seen short bed four-door pickups have to make multi-point turns where I, in my 203″ long LS460, easily manage said turn in one move.
          To be honest, I found the Coupe DeVille to be a problem in certain parking garages, but on the upside, either the nose or tail always stuck out far enough, I could always spot it. Helped that it was yellow…

          1. Rover 1 Avatar
            Rover 1

            Do you still own a W124 ?

          2. Luxury Lexus Land-yacht Avatar
            Luxury Lexus Land-yacht

            I haven’t since about 2011, IIRC. Gave it to a stepson, he had it for a few years then sold it.
            The fleet is down to an ’02 RX300 AWD, my ’08 LS 460 L, a ’98 Grand Cherokee 5.9L, and a 1999 Fleetwood Bounder Diesel 39Z motorcoach.

          3. Rover 1 Avatar
            Rover 1

            I probably own enough 124s to cover everyone, i might have to sell one.
            Currently 5x W124s, 2x C124s and 1x S124 and the Citroen CX & BX, Renault Espace S1, Rover 820i & 825 Sterling, Honda Civic Shuttle and Lancia Gamma Coupe. I can’t believe that I don’t currently own a Rover P6, so I’ll have to remedy that. And Renault Avantimes, ex JDM, are looking appealing now too. The next property I buy had better be another large shed, too.

          4. outback_ute Avatar

            I realise that Aussie vehicles are amateurish in terms of length, but the Crewman at 5.3m or 208.9″ is significantly larger than the sub-200″ long “99th-percentlile car” used to establish car park space requirements.
            A standard parallel parking space can be as small as 5.5m (216.5″) long, and I have experienced parallel-parking a Falcon wagon (5.05m, 199″) and overhanging the line at both ends of the bay.
            Vehicles that are large by US standards are going to have trouble parking in many areas in Australia, unless there are adjoining empty spaces many places will simply not be possible! The width is a consideration too- a standard space would not allow room for a fullsize pickup to open the door wide enough to get out, unless it was beside a very small car.

          5. Luxury Lexus Land-yacht Avatar
            Luxury Lexus Land-yacht

            So, effectively a five-metre car. Gotcha.
            For those unaware, the late-90s Chrysler 300M was chopped at the rear due to being acceptable as a five-metre car in Yurrup.
            Outback_ute, you’re correct in that anything remotely resembling large, here, is going to have trouble pretty much anywhere else.
            Funny you mention width, because of the few issues I had with that ’73 Coupe DeVille’s size…width, combined with the length of the doors, was the only problem which was moderately frequent (and quite annoying).