10 of the Most Powerful New Cars Available Under $20,000

Sharply drawn lines and angular aerodynamics help make the nose of the Chevrolet Cruze appear aggressive
Sharp lines and angular motifs help make the nose of the Chevrolet Cruze look more aggressive | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Who says speed needs to be expensive? If you have $20,000 in your pocket, you can have a powerful cheap car. Unfortunately, this price point eliminates performance powerhouses like the wildly entertaining Dodge Challenger, the nimble Ford Focus RS, or virtually any vehicle with more than 200 horsepower. But muscle cars and hot hatchbacks aside, there are still plenty of engaging options out there if inexpensive fun is your goal.

They may not be torque monsters, but by offering enough jump on city streets, certain vehicles can provide just enough performance to keep commutes interesting. You know the “slow car that’s fun to drive fast” mantra? That’s what we’re talking about.

After perusing a slew of inexpensive automobiles currently on the market, we came to a unified conclusion. While they may not be insanely powerful, horsepower can still be found for under $20,000. Keep in mind that the cars we found, though available in a variety of trims, are priced in their base specifications, and before destination, fees, and taxes are taken into account.

So while power numbers may not be mind-blowing to some, each of the following vehicles has its own merits in regard to driver enjoyment and inexpensive performance. Here are our 10 top picks for when you need a little horsepower to go with that $20,000 price tag.

1. Volkswagen Golf

A blue 2015 Volkswagen Golf sits parked in New York, New York
2015 Volkswagen Golf | Volkswagen

Starting things off on the right foot is the base version of the Volkswagen Golf. With its 1.8-liter turbocharged engine generating 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, it is undoubtedly the most powerful car you can buy in America today for under $20,000. It may not be as stout as a Volkswagen Golf GTI or as ferocious as a Volkswagen Golf R, but with these numbers it’s no slouch either.

2. Jeep Renegade

Jeep's affordable four-wheel drive retro machine: The Renegade
Jeep’s affordable four-wheel drive retro machine: The Renegade | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

The turbocharged 1.4-liter Fiat motor in the Jeep Renegade produces 160 horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque. But that’s not everything that makes this vehicle truly an easy sell. In base Sport trim, it comes in at well under $20,000. Add in the various drive modes and a plucky six-speed manual gearbox, and you’ll find that affordability and off-road fun never looked so adorable.

3. Ford Focus

2017 Ford Focus sedan
2017 Ford Focus sedan | Ford

Coming in at under $17,000 in S trim, the Ford Focus sedan offers up 160 horsepower and 146 pound-feet of torque via its 2.0-liter engine. With its direct injection fuel system and naturally aspirated nature offering direct throttle response, this vehicle is a solid bet if Golf’s pricing and Renegade’s looks aren’t your thing.

4. Honda Civic

The 2016 Honda Civic 1.5T Touring Coupe has a zero to 60 time of 6.9 seconds
The 2016 Honda Civic comes standard with a zippy 2.0-liter motor | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

With its naturally aspirated 2.0-liter four-cylinder on tap, the 10th generation Honda Civic kicks into gear with a respectable 158 horsepower and 138 pound-feet of torque. While base coupe and sedan models come in at under $20,000, a modest $2,000 extra grants you access to the Honda Civic Sport. It may not be the fastest hatchback out there, but it is by far one of the best bang-for-the-buck cars on the market today.

5. Mazda3

The 2016 Mazda3 hatchback has a very capable Skyactiv engine
The 2016 Mazda3 hatchback has a very capable Skyactiv engine | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

While the 155 horsepower found in the Mazda3 may not be mind-blowing, having almost equal amounts of torque to overlap it makes for a very engaging drive. Mazda has worked very hard on making its Skyactiv powertrains as performance-oriented and enjoyable as possible. So grab one of these little guys in manual trim, or pop an auto version into Sport mode, and enjoy the fifth-fastest economy car on the market today.

6. Chevrolet Cruze

The 2017 Chevrolet Cruze strikes a pose somewhere between being sporty and a sensible daily commuter car
The 2017 Chevrolet Cruze strikes a pose somewhere between being sporty and a sensible daily commuter car | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

We were pleasantly surprised by the 153 horsepower and 1.4-liter turbo found in this hatchback. Generating a solid 177 pound-feet of twist, the Chevrolet Cruze is plenty engaging in manual shift mode. Practical and potent enough for most commuters, the fastest Cruze manufactured today is a winner on many levels.

7. Subaru Impreza

New Subaru design language
Subaru’s new design language speaks volumes about the engineering going into this global platform | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

The 152 horsepower boxer engine in the all-new Subaru Impreza may not knock your socks off like the Subaru WRX can, but it’s by no means super slow either. The 145 pound-feet of grunt to all four wheels helps make the new global standard for the brand all the more engaging.

8. Volkswagen Jetta

A 2016 Volkswagen Jetta makes the cut thanks to its surprisingly strong engine
A 2016 Volkswagen Jetta makes the cut thanks to its surprisingly strong engine | Volkswagen

A modest 150 horsepower trails the Volkswagen Golf, but the 184 pound-feet of torque earns it a nod of approval as one of the most powerful. That 1.4-liter turbocharged motor under the bonnet has proven itself to be ample for most, and lands the Volkswagen Jetta at number eight.

9. Hyundai Elantra

2017 Hyundai Elantra in Galactic Gray
2017 Hyundai Elantra in Galactic Gray | Hyundai

Even though its torque numbers trail at 132, the Hyundai Elantra does create 147 horsepower when it needs to. This isn’t too bad, considering how small it is. A more potent model can house 201 horsepower and almost the same amount of low-end twist, but this base model scores points due to its remarkably low starting price of $17,150.

10. Honda HR-V

Honda HR-V
Honda HR-V | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Today’s second crossover utility vehicle comes with 141 horsepower and 127 pound-feet of torque, just enough to land it on the list of the most powerful and inexpensive automobiles. While you may have to go with an entry-level LX model in order to keep it under $20,000, there is no denying the practicality and peppiness that Honda’s smallest SUV offers.