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Owning a sports car need not break the bank. Here's our choice of the top 10 affordable sports cars
Autocar
News
9 mins read
27 September 2021

Never has the choice of sports cars at the affordable end of the spectrum been greater, each offering thrills to match and in some cases exceed those of more expensive peers.

It's not all about brake horsepower at this end of the market: most of the cars in our top 10 list put driver entertainment ahead of raw, straight-line performance. But we guarantee each will put a huge smile on your face on way or another. 

1. Alpine A110

Every significant consituent part of the Alpine A110 driving experience – from the rasping turbocharged torque of its engine to the immersive poise and panache of its handling – is all about the F word: fun. It brings to life journeys and roads that rivals wouldn’t, and possesses dynamics for which your affection can only grow as you explore them more closely.

Anatomise the car and you'll find an all-aluminium body and double-wishbones for the suspension at each end. Both are generally the preserve of supercars, and lay the foundations for the four-cylinder Alpine to feel much more than the sum of its partsThe later arrival of the A110 S saw power rise from 252 to 288bhp and firmer suspension and bigger brakes fitted, but it's the basic A110 which remains the sweeter, more involving machine for road driving. Various special editions, including the plush Legende GT, have also arrived of late, but again, it's the basic A110 that most enchants us.

Rarely does a car come along so devoted to driver involvement, and so singularly effective at it, even among affordable sports cars; the last time was probably the Toyota GT86 in 2012, a car to which we also gave a five-star recommendation for its supreme fitness to the purpose of sucking the marrow out of every mile. The A110 is quicker, more agile, more effusive and ultimately even more fun. It deserves no less of an ovation.

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2. Porsche 718 Boxster & Cayman

Even with its downsized four-cylinder turbo petrol engine, the 718 is by some distance the most complete mid-engined sports car on sale. Misgivings about the way the car's crank is now turned have been voiced from plenty of quarters since 2016, and have now been persuasive enough that Porsche has returned a flat six engine to this car for range-topping GTS versions. But whether fitted with a four- or a six-cylinder motor, be in no doubt: the Boxster and Cayman have always been, and remain, excellent sports cars.

The four-cylinder 2.0-litre and 2.5-litre turbo flat fours that were pressed into service in the car in 2016 attracted particular criticism for sounding toneless; for lacking smoothness, crispness of response, linearity and operating range; and also coming up short on the purist driver appeal typically associated with Porsche. Later still, Porsche retuned the car's 2.0-litre engine for WLTP-emissions compliance and released the Boxster- and Cayman T -  whose unresponsiveness made a controversial situation worse.

However, in one of the most unexpected industry U-turns in recent memory, in 2019 Porsche reintroduced a naturally aspirated flat-six engine. It’s a superb engine by any standards – based on the 3.0-litre engine in the 992 911, only enlarged to 4.0-litre and shorn on the turbos – although the long-geared manual 'box it's partnered with doesn't flatter it as nearly as well as it should.

Practical, ever-engaging to drive, and plenty fast even in four-cylinder form, the 718 has it all - and it takes a car of once-in-a-generation dynamic brilliance to beat it.

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3. BMW M2 Competition

The BMW M2 Competition was the only M2 model you could buy here in Britain until the recent introduction of the extra-special M2 CS. Neither has long to run until BMW winds up M2 production later this year. When it does, what has latterly become one of the very best M cars of recent years will regrettably leave the stage.The previous model’s single-turbo straight-six was swapped out for a twin-turbocharged straight-six with proper M Division 'S'-prefixed engine code in 2018, when the M2 Competition was unveiled. Albeit in slightly detuned form relative to the larger M3 and M4 models that shared it, the engine provided sizable hikes in performance and responsiveness for the M2, while a handful of tweaks to the chassis and suspension mean it’s now even sharper and more controlled on battered UK roads than ever before. Weighty steering allows you to point the car’s nose into a corner with confidence, and handling is supremely adjustably on the throttle too.

When BMW M introduced the M2 CS in late 2019, it applied a hardcore makeover to its smallest model for the first time. The CS also became the first M2 with adaptive damping, the first with 'cup' tyres, and power shot up to an eyebrow-raising 444bhp. The car is a real bruiser brimming with muscle car attitude, and has supreme trackday handling smarts - but it's very expensive and, while compelling, isn't quite the fluent, versatile on-road performance car it would need to be in order to propel BMW to the very top of this chart. 

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4. Mazda MX-5

There isn’t a single area in which this fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 fails to surpass its predecessor. It’s shorter, lighter, more spacious and better laid-out. It’s sharper-looking but still disarming and not at all ostentatious. It’s also faster, more frugal and even more vibrant and engaging to drive.

In 2018, Mazda facelifted its iconic roadster, with the headline change being a 23bhp power hike for its fiesty 2.0-litre engine. A steering column that also now adjusts for reach was also introduced, addressing one of the Mazda's only ergonomic drawbacks.

All that and yet the MX-5 is still every inch the same zesty and inimitable car that it was. Its character hasn’t really changed at all in three decades, and nothing on this list offers a better pounds-per-smile rating.

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5. Lotus Elise Sport

The Lotus Elise is brilliant to drive – so long as you’re in the mood. It has one of the world’s best-handling chassis and exquisite unassisted steering, and if you want a roof, and some amenities, there is simply nothing comparable when it comes to immersing the driver in the mechanical process.

However, this Lotus is also now something of an old-timer, and has become expensive in its dotage. This year (2021) will be the car's last year on sale, and the Sport 240 Final Edition will see the Elise out after 25 years of production. The asking price is around £45,000, with production set to end before the winter arrives.

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Expensive? Yes. Compromised? Absolutely. But most of the Elise’s drawbacks can be overlooked when you’re wrapped up in the deliciously analogue, tactile act of driving it. At its core, the Elise is will always be magnificent. We now await the Emira with bated breath. 

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6. Toyota GR Supra

Was the Toyota Supra the most hotly anticipated new car of 2019? Quite likely. After an absence lasting some two decades, Toyota’s iconic sports car finally returned to the UK. But were it not for a collaboration with BMW - out of which the new Z4 was also spawned - it’s likely this icon would never have been reborn. As such, beneath the Supra’s striking exterior, you’ll find an engine, platform, transmission, slippy diff, electrics and plenty of switchgear all distinctly Bavarian in origin.

And yet, when it comes to driving, the Supra succeeds in carving out its own distinct dynamic identity. The suspension, steering and diff calibration are all unique to the Supra, so much so that Toyota sees the Porsche 718 Cayman - rather than the Z4 - as its key rival.

Toyota certainly isn’t pulling its punches, then. And in many ways, it’s the Supra that makes for the superior sports car. It might not be able to quite match the handling purity and balance of the Porsche, but it isn’t far off. Its ride is impressively supple, its engine is smooth and far more characterful and it’d be far easier to live with on a daily basis. 

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For those for whom a £50,000-plus pricetag is a little too rich, meanwhile, Toyota has lately released a slightly cheaper, four-cylinder, 2.0-litre version of the car whose handling might even benefit from the relative lightness of the smaller engine.

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7. Toyota GT86/Subaru BRZ

An all-new junior Toyota sports – dubbed GR 86 – is upon us, but the existing GT86 and its Subaru BRZ sister still ought to get your attention.

These are excellent sports cars, with manual gearboxes, superb chassis balance and, best of all, not too much grip, so you can play around with them at sensible speeds. They represent an authentic and refreshing alternative to the likes of the Mazda MX-5 for those seeking simple, affordable rear-drive fun.

Production of the first-generation GT86 ended in late 2019, but it's still possible to find delivery-miles examples. At the right price, it'd be hard to resist.

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8. BMW Z4 M40i

In a recent group test, the range-topping BMW Z4 M40i came out victorious against a lower-order Porsche 718 Boxster T. Although we concluded that it ultimately wasn’t as composed, incisive or keen-handling as the daintier Boxster, its refinement, powerful and responsive straight six engine and bruising straight-line pace won it a great deal of affection from our testers. That it also has a distinct sense of street-fighter character also weighs heavily in the BMW’s favour.

That said, the higher-order strains of the 718 still provide a purer, more enticing take on an affordable sports car. And while there’s undoubtedly plenty of scope for excitement on offer in the BMW, as a precision tool it’s still not quite as sharp as some of the lighter, smaller contenders in this class.

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9. Audi TT

The current Audi TT feels like the response of a company that’s defended a popular car for decades against claims that it has all the style and none of the substance to be taken seriously by really keen drivers. It feels that way because it has sharpened handling responses and a lightness on its feet that eluded its forebears, as well as a range of engines with plenty of punch.

Those who want usable amusement with a dose of premium design allure, delivered for a reasonable budget, should probably consider the 306bhp TT S first, which uses the same four-wheel drive powertrain as the excellent Mk7 VW Golf R hot hatchback (so doesn't use the same rear torque-splitter as the Mk8 Golf R) but is considerably lower and leaner. Handling is direct and nippy, and high speeds are easy to maintain - although they still don't come with as much outright driver involvement as you might like.

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10. Ford Mustang

The sensible thing to do would be to buy an Audi TT or a BMW 2 Series Coupé, wouldn’t it? 

Admittedly, the Mustang car has significant drawbacks in the UK. You have to think twice about where you’re going to park it in town, and factor in the greater number of visits to fuel pump than your peers in their German sports cars will need to make (unless you go for a used version with the 2.3-litre EcoBoost engine), but no other car at this price has such an obvious and likeable sense of character. 

The Mustang's powertrain brings with it an appeal that engines with fewer cylinders simply simply don't muster, and its inherent chassis balance is pretty peachy, too. Sensible be damned.

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