So you want to get yourself a fast car. With that established, fast cars these days aren’t quite as cheap as they used to be. $18,000 used to buy you a brand new, V8 powered Mustang GT. £15,000 used to buy you the nastiest Cosworth Ford you could get your grubby little hands. Today, $18,000 will get you a Civic. Maybe. And £15,000 will get you a 1.8L Astra. Maybe.
Sure, wages have gone up. But the value of the dollar (or pound) haven’t. Speed costs money- well, how fast do you want to go? The secret is to realize that sometimes you don’t need a new car to get that “new car” feeling. Yesterday’s special models may still be special, but they’ve become today’s used car specials like they weren’t special. This is good news for you, the buyer. Sure, they might not have the carcinogenic new car smell – but you can live without it, and have a better time.
I’ve divided these choices up by rough categories, and by country (UK and USA.) This is hardly scientific; it’s just to get your mind going.
America: Volkswagen GTI VR6 (24v) 2002-2005
The GTI VR6 used to be the top of the heap for the US GTI lineup before the R32 came out in 2004. It was updated in 2002 with a new 4 valve per cylinder head on the old 2.8L 15° VR6 block. Power jumped from 172 to an even 200. The O2A 5-speed gearbox was changed for the much stouter O2x 6-speed manual, with a heavier Sachs 228mm clutch (rather than the 8v’s 210mm clutch.)
The VR6 was a bit more front-heavy than the 1.8T, and was only marginally more powerful stock – but for certain people, it had certain advantages. It’s larger displacement and natural aspiration gave the 24v VR6 cleaner, more linear throttle response than the 1.8 20v Turbo – and it also had more breathing room higher up in the rev range, giving an extra 500 rpm over the 1.8T. Also, the VR6 has a beautiful, unique exhaust note – a mix of air-cooled 911 and Cosworth 16v, with that distinctive metallic rasp that German cars tend to have.
The GTI VR6 was quick; 0-60 in the low sixes with a good launch, low 14-second quarter mile times, as well as nearly 30mpg on the highway thanks to the long-overdrive 6th gear. Aftermarket for the GTI VR6 is quite strong; the options are endless: coilover suspension, Porsche Cayenne brakes, solid motor mounts, T3/T4 turbo kits, cams, software, headers, a million exhaust systems – and from more different companies than you can shake a stick at.
Also, when you’re not wailing on it, the VR6 is quite a nice car. They were the full-lux version in the MKIV GTI lineup, and most came with leather heated seats, 6-disc changers, sunroofs, power everything, fantastic Monsoon Stereos, etc. etc.
The arrival of the R32 in 2004 drove the value of the VR6 GTI’s down significantly; they’re quite a bargain these days. 24- valve GTI's can be found for between $12,000 and $16,000 these days, which is quite a bargain for a high-quality, high-performance, classy hot hatch.
Maintenance issues are typical of Mk4 VW's. Window regulators have a tendency to fail and drop the window down into the door until you fix them, which is obnoxious. The VR6's stouter clutch means they don't eat through them with the same speed that 1.8T's do. Coilpacks (which replaced distributor-style ignition in 1994 on 12v VR6's) have a short life span, although again not as bad as the boosted 1.8 Turbo. The VR6 thankfully uses a timing chain, not a belt - as it is an interference style engine. The chains don't break, but if you're getting a high-mileage VR6, you should make sure those cam chain tensioners and guides are in good shape. More than one VR6 has met an untimely death when the chain, still fit and healthy, slipped off the worn-out tensioners and guides, which means you'll need a new head. Avoid this.
Also try: Ford’s SVT Focus (ST170 to you Europeans) was a great bargain when new (in the 17-20k range) and is an even better deal now, with well-cared for examples available for under 10 grand.
The SVT had a sweet, variable-cam 2.0L 16v with 170 horsepower, a limited-slip differential, a Getrag 6-speed manual, and taut, responsive suspension. It also had bigger wheels, and is still the only US-market Focus that’s ever had rear disc brakes. It got a surprisingly tasteful body kit on the outside, and heavily bolstered sports seats and an annoyingly bassy stereo inside. Still, the combination of the Focus’ basically good chassis foundation and SVT’s suspension tuning expertise, the SVT Focus is a riot to drive.
Or, If You’re A Weirdo: CarMax in Texas will sell you a new 2008 Dodge Caliber SRT-4, the one with 285 horsepower, for $18k. While this car is a complete joke at full retail (north of $24,000), a 285 horsepower small hatchback anything with a warranty is tempting at $18k.
I’ve personally reviewed a Caliber SRT-4 on my personal site a while ago, and you can read the review here (insert link). It torque steers hard enough to snap your wrists, the turbo lags like it’s 1986, the clutch is absurdly heavy, it’s made out of recycled trash bins, it’s uglier than Amy Winehouse’s mug shots, but whoa, it’s fast. It shares a chassis with the new Lancer, though you wouldn’t know it – the hefty 19” chrome wheels blunt responses, and it’s too tall and tippy to really fling around like the old one. But point it down a road at 45mph in 3rd gear, plant your foot to the carpet, hear that ridiculous turbo spool, feel the front wheels churn and slither from all the torque, and it’s fun.
Alfa Romeo 147 GTA: Up front, one thing has to be said about the 147 GTA: It's not a very "polished" vehicle. Not so much like the SRT-4 (it's a nice place to spend time, doesn't smell like McDonalds, etc) but more mechanically speaking.
The GTA is the hot version of the small 147 hatchback, but instead of the regular range of twin-spark four cylinders, the GTA's engine bay is crammed full of 3.2 Liters of twin-cam, 24-valve, Alfa Romeo V6 goodness. This sonorous motor cranked out 247 brake horsepower and 221 lb-ft of torque (an even 300nM.)
Early build GTA's used a regular six-speed manual transmission; later GTA's were fitted with the Magnetti-Marelli "Selespeed" sequential gearbox, which has received mixed reviews. With the standard 247bhp motor, the 147 GTA can move out: from a standstill, 100km/h comes up in 6.3 seconds, 100 mph in 15 seconds, and the quarter mile rushes by in 14.6 seconds with a 100mph trap speed. Flat out, the little GTA can reach 153 miles an hour - heady stuff indeed.
Prices on the 147 GTA have fallen like... well, like the value of any other Alfa Romeo. These cars retailed for £20,000+ new, but examples are now trading hands between £7000-£12,000 according to autotrader.co.uk.
Now, being a small, rare Italian hatchback, one would be lead to assume that aftermarket support for the 147 GTA would be nil. You'd be wrong. UK-based Alfa Romeo tuning company Autodelta has a whole barn full of parts for the 147 GTA, including this:
In case the script is too small to read, that's Autodelta's 3.7L stroker motor for the 147, which produces 328bhp in standard trim, or 422 horsepower when fitted with Autodelta's optional Rotrex-based Supercharged kit.
Thankfully, they see fit to offer other upgrades to bring the rest of the car up to the same insane level; including a variable limited-slip differential with 30% progressive locking capabilities to put down all that power (the stock GTA has an open differential), adjustable coilover suspension, upgraded braking components, and suchlike. While Autodelta's parts aren't what I'd call inexpensive (£1100 for Coilovers? £900 for an LDS? really?), they're well-engineered, track-proven stuff.
The GTA isn't perfect. That big 3.2L V6 is a lot heavier than most of it's competitors smaller turbocharged 4-cylinder engines, without offering a massive power advantage. Again, like the GTI VR6, the benefit is the smooth powerband, and the glorious, glorious noise. Oh, it's glorious.
Also Try: 2002-2005 Seat Leon Cupra R
Let me be honest here: if there's one car I wished that the Volkswagen Automotive Group imported to the states, it's the Seat Leon Cupra R. The Seat Leon is basically a slightly downmarket, more exciting version of the MKIV Volkswagen Golf. The top of the range model, the Cupra R, is fitted with a modified version of Volkswagen's corporate 1.8L 20-valve Turbo engine, putting out 210 horsepower (2002 models) and later 225 horsepower.
Comparing a regular 1.8T (which makes 180 horspeower) to the Cupra R's motor, the Seat motor has a few advantages. The Leon Cupra R motor is basically the same as that fitted to upper-leve Audi TT's of old; while based on the standard 1.8T, it uses lower-compression pistons (9.5:1 instead of 10.0:1) with stronger connecting rods and oil squirters, a twin side-mount intercooler setup for greater cooling capacity and less heat-soak related lag, and most importantly - a real turbo.
The regular 1.8T uses a Borg-Warner K03s, which is a quick-spooling turbo that's painfully inefficient at higher boost levels. The Cupra R uses the Borg-Warner K04-20, the same turbo used on the B5 RS4 as well as the RS6 and Porsche 911 Turbo. While retaining much of the lovable quick-spool characteristics of the K03, the K04-20 has much better compressor efficiency at higher boost levels... which means it's easier and more responsive to tuning.
The Cupra R also uses the 02x six-speed manual (in the GTI VR6) with a more substantial clutch than most 1.8T's, which is good. It's still only front-wheel drive and it uses an open differential, but the hot-rod Turbo Seat can rip to 100km/h in a scant 6.4 seconds, with a top speed of 150mph.
Since the Cupra R has the K04'd 1.8T, it's not difficult to get this car around 300whp with bolt-on modifications - and a stock turbo. Which would be stonkingly quick, regardless of the badge on the front.
Best thing about the Cupra R? It's a Seat, which means it doesn't hold it's value nearly as well as a Volkswagen or Audi, even though it's built like one. This means that 20vT Cupra R's can be bought in the £4000-£9000 range, depending on year and mileage.
Hopefully this will give you a few ideas in your search for the perfect car. These are all exciting, strong-performing cars that can be had these days for bargain-basement prices, and will still bring a huge grin to your face. And really, that's what it's all about, isn't it?