Think you've got to spend big if you want a fast car? Think again.
Plenty of affordable cars will do zero to 60 mph in under six seconds; some are one-third the price of racers from Porsche or BMW.
The Ford Mustang GT, the Ford Mustang coupe and the rally-style Subaru Impreza WRX are just some of the thrifty speedsters that give luxury coupes a run for their money. Our list of the quickest under $30,000 has the others.
Behind the numbers
To compile this list we used zero-to-60 mph times for 2011 models tested by Edmunds' InsideLine.com. The 10 fastest that cost $30,000 or less made the cut.
It's no surprise that the cars with truly blistering zero-to-60 mph times, like the Aston Martin V12 Vantage and the Porsche 918 Spyder hybrid — 4.1 and 3.1 seconds, respectively — are much too expensive for this tally.
But one surprising and notable absence on our list is the much-adored Mazda Mx-5 Miata. While track nerds and weekend drivers love the little roadster, it just didn't have the pep to compete.
"The Miata is fun and handles well and will beat some of those cars on a racetrack, but it doesn't have the horsepower to accelerate from zero to 60 quickly, " says Dan Edmunds, the director of vehicle testing for Edmunds.com. "Handling and cornering speed are where the fun is for many, but acceleration is a different factor. "
Another note: Our list includes only cars. Had we included pickup trucks, the $26,410 Toyota Tundra (zero to 60 mph in 5.1 seconds) would have qualified.
Finding speed for nonluxury prices
The trick to finding a quick car is knowing where and how to look: Models like the Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart and Mazda Mazdaspeed3 go zero to 60 in 5.8 and 6.4 seconds, respectively, because they are short, lightweight and turbocharged. They don't need huge engines in order to speed up quickly because they don't weight a whole lot to begin with.
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If you want to hold the price down on a sporty car, it'll also help to forgo engine upgrades altogether. Take the Chevrolet Camaro, for instance, which fell just short of making our list: With a sprint time of 6.7 seconds, the V6 version wasn't fast enough; the $31,795 V8 SS variant, although fast, was a bit too pricey.
"Technologies like direct (fuel) injection and variable valve timing systems ... allow even the smallest engines to generate impressive horsepower while retaining reasonable levels of fuel efficiency," says Ed Hellwig, the editor of InsideLine.com.
The same attitude of thrift should apply to creature comforts like leather seats and technology packages — opting out of those means your car will be lighter, faster and less expensive. But that sacrifice of the finer things in life shouldn't be too much of a problem for most buyers in this range. Cars like the Subaru Impreza WRX and Mazda's hatchbacks are loved for their rough-and-tumble rally personalities, not for interior frippery or extra design cues.
That said, Ford has done a great job in the last few years of making small cars with high quality and decent interior design. (The two 'stangs on our list indicate that commitment.)
Hyundai and Kia have done the same, says Eric Lyman, the director of residual values for automotive analysis firm ALG. Indeed, the Hyundai Genesis 3.8 R-Spec Coupe, Hyundai Sonata SE and Kia Optima SX each qualified for our list because they are both quick and affordable.
"Hyundai has done remarkably well over the past couple of years, and we're expecting Kia will be on a similar trajectory that Hyundai has been," Lyman says.
A final thought on getting something fast and frugal: Luxury brands like BMW and Mercedes-Benz will always command a price premium that puts their wares just out of reach for someone looking to save money. The BMW 1-Series coupe would have made our list when it was first introduced, but recent price increases have bumped the base price of a 128i to $30,950. And buying one for even that price is unlikely, Edmunds says.
The cars come so loaded with upgrades and extras that paying even $35,000 would be a lucky deal.
© 2012 Forbes.com