For the past several decades, there have been two primary schools of thought when it comes to performance engineering. The first: many manufacturers felt bigger was better and relied on engine size and greater displacement to boost power and performance. The second: rather than relying on adding more, some chose to take away — less displacement, less weight, and a greater emphasis on handling. In short, there are cars that make up their times in the straights and those which make it up in the turns.
In the United States, larger engines and displacements have long been a hallmark of American automotive performance engineering, while elsewhere, smaller cars with half the power — but also considerably less weight — are generally favored over raw power and torque.
Though the lines separating these two schools of thought are blurring, there are most definitely still two camps, each of which offers its own unique driving experience. Here are 10 performance-oriented cars that fall into the small-engine, less weight category — and all offer perhaps the most fun you can have for south of $35,000. The following are not ranked by any specific measure.
1. Subaru WRX STI
The appeal of Subaru‘s WRX STI is fairly clear: horsepower in excess of 300, routed to all four wheels through a six-speed transmission courtesy of Subaru’s trademark boxer engine format, which keeps the center of gravity lower. Revered as a watered-down rally car for the road, the STI is available in four- or five-door formats, though the latter will be disappearing — much to the chagrin of WRX enthusiasts — for the 2015 model year.
2. Mini Cooper JCW
If you’ve ever seen the 2003 remake of The Italian Job, perhaps the most impressive part of the film is the intense racing of a trio of Mini Coopers through subway tunnels, drainage channels, and so on. Though the movie models were modified, the Mini Cooper JCW is likely the closest that one can buy stock from the factory. The John Cooper Works edition starts at about $30,000, which the buyer can fill in with all sorts of performance-minded goodies like sport suspension, drilled rotors, an aero kit, and so on.
3. Mazda Miata MX-5
The proud recipient of 178 awards over its multi-decade lifetime, the Mazda Miata is a benchmark for low-weight, high-fun two-seater cars. Though it boasts just 167 horsepower, the Miata offers a perfect 50-50 weight distribution, making it a thrill to throw into corners and whip around a track before heading home with the roof down. A six-speed manual helps the Miata rank as one of the best driver’s cars for pure fun, and with the top-spec’d variation coming in at just more than $27,000, it’s among the best picks for the fun-for-dollar value.
4. Ford Focus ST
The Volkswagen Golf GTI has long been the king of hot hatches, but Ford’s sizzling Focus is set to give it a run for its money. This is a far cry from the economy compact that is most commonly sold, as it packs 252 horsepower from a turbo-charged four-banger, which is also good for some pretty decent fuel economy. Tuned suspension, exhaust, and other sporty goodies come standard, but with a base MSRP of $23,625, there’s plenty of room to play with the options menu.
5. Subaru BRZ/Scion FR-S
These days, 200 horsepower on paper doesn’t sound too impressive, but when it’s channeled through a manual gearbox to the rear wheels in a car that doesn’t weigh a whole lot, 200 horses can certainly get the job done. Take the Subaru BRZ or Scion FR-S, for example, two cars built with small, four-cylinder boxer engines that created for taking winding roads. “Long story short — and to all doubters who have only numbers on paper or computer to go by — the Subaru BRZ is one hell of a real sports car and, on roads like these, will beat the tar out of all legitimate comers selling for anywhere near the Subie’s estimated $25,500? base price, Autoblog said in its review.
6. Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution
While it comes just under the wire at $34,995, any list with the Subaru WRX should also mention the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, a high-performance, turbocharged sedan that is among the best-handling rides in its class. While it looks remarkably similar to Mitsubishi’s economy sedan of the same name, the Lancer Evolution has been engineered from the ground up to be a driver’s car, with a 291 horsepower output and 300 pound-feet of torque sent to all four wheels. Brembo-brand brakes, tightened suspension, and Recaro-brand seats make the Lancer a top contender in its class.
7. Volkswagen Golf R
If you’re not satisfied with the Volkswagen Golf GTI, the company has another 256-horsepower ace up its sleeve: the Golf R, a hotter version of VW’s hot hatch. An acceleration time of 5.6 seconds makes the Golf R the fastest-accelerating VW sold in America, and sport suspension assures that there’s more than sheer brawn to this car. Additionally, the Golf R boasts VW’s 4Motion all-wheel drive, making a great handling car handle even better.
8. Mazda MazdaSpeed 3
Though it hasn’t caught up to the 2014 model year quite yet, the MazdaSpeed3 is still a solid and seemingly underrated choice for a hot hatchback. It will put out 263 horsepower from its turbocharged, intercooled 2.3-liter engine; it also can comfortably seat five people and offers track-tuned suspension for hitting some tight corners. As it is a four-door hatchback, the Speed3 also offers a commendable degree of versatility and utility, making it a solid pick for smaller families.
9. Hyundai Genesis Coupe R-Spec
Hyundai’s flagship performance coupe offers possibly one of the best deals for the money, with a price tag of less than $30,000 but horsepower of 348 from a 3.8 liter V6. That’s almost 100 more than the Golf R and is 140 more than the Mini. That’s in the $28,750 V6 format, though the $24,250 2-liter four isn’t a slouch either, with 274 horsepower and plenty of wiggle room to peruse the options list.
10. Fiat 500 Abarth
Ordinarily, 160 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque wouldn’t offer the kind of fun one would hope for in a performance car, but in the tiny Fiat (FIATY.PK) 500 Abarth, it certainly does. Though it still retains the sort of cutesy looks that have been the subject of great derision in some automotive circles, the Abarth is certainly a hotter version of Fiat’s subcompact. Added perks include twin intercoolers, a high-flow air filter, a redesigned air box, and a Powertrain Control Module that “provides specific engine calibrations to help maximize horsepower and torque in Sport mode.”