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The best cheap fast cars 2018 - tested

  • Eight entertaining cars for the fraction of the cost of a supercar
  • Our expert reviewers take to road and race circuit to find a winner
  • Watch below and see which performance hero is our Parkers Pick
  • Eight entertaining cars for the fraction of the cost of a supercar
  • Our expert reviewers take to road and race circuit to find a winner
  • Watch below and see which performance hero is our Parkers Pick

In this age of austerity there are still many drivers out there who want to have fun driving their cars. There are thousands of you looking for cheap thrills, which explains the popularity of hot hatches and entry-level performance cars.

But there's more to a great cheap fast car than speed alone. And that's why we're taking eight of your favourites to Rockingham International Raceway, near Corby, to find out which is the best cheap fast car of 2017-2018. 

Tap: Find cheap fast cars for sale in the UK

They’re compared below, split into three sections: front-wheel drive, four-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive. Each section gets a winner, which we've outlined at the end of each.

Then it’s on to our outright Parkers Pick.

The contenders for best cheap fast car are 

Parkers' recommended four-wheel drive challengers

Best cheap fast cars 2017

If you’re looking for the best overall grip on the tarmac, it stands to reason you’ll want to send the engine’s output to all four wheels rather than just two, maximising traction in all situations.

That means four-wheel drive (4WD) vehicles are also far better on slippery surfaces, adding an extra element of safety into the equation, but the main advantage is in performance. On most cars with four powered wheels it’s almost impossible to spin the wheels, meaning you’re able to take off from the traffic lights like a rocket.

The main drawback is running costs – you’ll suffer both in terms of the extra weight of the parts required to send power to each corner of the car, and the energy losses associated with the extra machinery on board. Some 4WD cars can also feel a little uninvolving to drive, but not all, as you’ll read below…

Ford Focus RS Mountune
from £32,265 (standard RS)

Ford Focus RS Mountune - best cheap fast cars 2017

To win this test you could simply put the trophy into the boot of the Ford Focus RS and drive away – none of the other cars here could catch you.

Trouble is, a fast car has to be much more than a two-dimensional drag-racer, because our roads are as much corners as they are straights.

On top of that, there are the various sensations such as exhaust noise and steering feel that we group together in the mystical, unquantifiable concept of ‘character’ to consider too.

READ: We ran a Ford Focus RS long termer - see how we got on with this seriously hot hatch

It takes only 10 minutes in the Focus to realise it’s the best car here regardless of criteria. Well, perhaps 11 minutes, because for the first 10 you’ll be preoccupied by the annoyingly high driver’s seat.

You also need to forgive the abrupt clutch pedal and woeful turning circle. The best way to do this is to listen to the 2.3-litre turbocharged engine - the cacophony of bangs from the exhaust will make you grin like an idiot.

Ford Focus RS Mountune - best cheap fast cars 2017

Better yet, time a full-throttle upshift as close to the redline as you can, prompting a hilarious parp of approval from the exhaust. This car reminds you why you wanted to learn to drive in the first place.

Is the Mountune upgrade worth buying? Well, it shaves two-tenths from the 0-62mph time and makes the Focus RS sound even angrier, so we reckon so. Most importantly, if you really must modify your fast Ford (and many do), at least this way you can keep your warranty.

If the Ford Focus RS were an advert for cheap speed it would be a massive billboard with the word ‘no-brainer’ written on it. The Mountune kit would be the neon lights.

Fancy something more hardcore? In September 2017 Ford turned up the wick a little further with the introduction of the Focus RS Edition, which included a Quaife limited-slip differential on the front axle along with the Nitrous Blue paintwork supplemented by a matte black roof, rear spoiler and mirror caps.

Ford Focus RS Red Edition

Fancy something more red? In December 2017 Ford ushered in the - you've guessed it - Red Edition Focus RS pictured above. This featured red paintwork along with the same bits as the RS Edition mentioned above, but only 300 build slots for production in March or April 2018. That makes this the rarest, and so most desirable, version of this brilliant hot hatchback. 

By Adam Binnie - New Cars Editor 

Click here for the full Ford Focus review

SEAT Leon ST Cupra 300
from £31,450

SEAT Ibiza ST Cupra - best cheap fast cars 2017

You might be wondering what an estate car is doing in our cheap fast cars group test – but bear with us. This is a SEAT Leon ST Cupra, the final part of the name indicating that this is far more than a flat-pack furniture-hauling family wagon.

Yes, its 1,470-litre boot could do a fine job down at your favourite Swedish home-furnishings store, but it’s the dual nature of the Cupra’s personality that really impresses us. For starters, there’s 300hp on tap – a figure that only the Focus RS Mountune can beat – and means 0-62mph flashes by in 4.9 seconds.

There’s a powerful set of Brembo performance brakes too, and don’t forget the four-wheel drive system, which shuffles power between whichever wheels have the most traction.

SEAT Ibiza ST Cupra - best cheap fast cars 2017

Admittedly, it’s not as sharp, agile or communicative as some of the hatchbacks or sports cars on test, but none of them – save from the Skoda Octavia – can claim to be as practical.

If you want a truly everyday performance car, the SEAT Leon ST Cupra has to be near the top of your list.

However, if that's a little soft for you, in January 2018 deliveries start of the new Cupra R (pictured below) - a 310hp Leon with a bespoke steering system, Brembo brakes and a 0-62mph time of 5.8 seconds. You won't see many on the roads, though, because just 24 Rs will be allocated for UK sale. 

SEAT Leon Cupra R

Read what our man thought of the SEAT Leon Cupra R in his first drive review on CAR online

By James Dennison - Video Reviewer 

Click here for the full SEAT Leon ST review

Subaru WRX STI
from £31,995

Subaru WRX - best cheap fast cars 2017

The Subaru WRX STI, previously known as the Impreza, has been on the market as a cheap fast car for decades – long before the original Ford Focus even existed. Despite the absence of gold wheels here, it’s still one of the most recognisable four-wheel drive, rally-bred cars to attack a B-road with, whatever the weather.

Surprisingly, despite the motorsport heritage, the WRX STI doesn’t feel completely old fashioned either. The long-travel suspension means it rides well and it’s refined enough not to deafen your ears on a long journey. Those sports seats are far more supportive than they look too.

With a 300hp 2.5-litre engine, 0-62mph takes 5.2 seconds. The flat-four ‘boxer’ engine layout helps handling as it keeps the car’s centre of gravity low, and you’re always accompanied by the unique-sounding burble associated with these Subarus – something you can’t really say about the mundane-sounding SEAT Leon Cupra.

Subaru WRX - best cheap fast cars 2017

The power delivery might be where the WRX STI starts showing its age, however, requiring more than 3,500rpm for the turbo to really come on song. If you’re caught off guard, you’ll be left floundering without much performance - but isn’t being kept on your toes what makes these cars so enjoyable?

Where the Focus begins to beat the Subaru is the steering. Being heavy at low speeds and lightening up the faster you go, the WRX STI is almost the opposite of what we’d like. That said, with so much faith in the level of grip from its clever four-wheel drive system, you always have confidence in making it out the other side of a corner.

Launching this car off the line cleanly will require a few attempts to get right too: while the SEAT Leon with its DSG gearbox will effectively do the work for you, the Focus RS is far easier to get right (4,000rpm will do it).

So, a fast, unpretentious, practical car that’s comfortable, makes a nice noise and looks dramatic: what’s not to like?

In November of 2017 Subaru announced the final run of 150 WRX STIs would be sold as Final Edition models. These cars got an electronically controlled centre differential, larger 19-inch wheels to make room for bigger brakes, while some subtle styling tweaks and extra kit make up the biggest changes to the standard WRX. 

By Lawrence Cheung, Content Manager 

Click here for the full Subaru WRX STI review

Best cheap fast four-wheel drive car
Ford Focus RS Mountune

Ford Focus RS Mountune - best cheap fast cars 2017

The amount of grip these three cars offer is enormous. As a concept this is a problem, because the very limit of grip is where the process of driving is at its most involving – and really good cars give you a broad window of fun between in-control and out-of-control.

Unlike other 4WD cars, the Ford spookily feels like it always has just enough grip, rather than an excess. It makes you feel like you’ve judged the corner speed correctly, by artificially and cleverly shuffling torque between the front and rear wheels.

So when you hit the gas on the corner exit, the back steps out as it would do if you had balanced the car perfectly yourself, while the Leon and the WRX just cling on to the tarmac harder. It’s not a completely pure experience like the Toyota GT86 offers, but it’s as close as we’ve experienced in a four-wheel drive car.

Coupled with supercar acceleration and the compellingly affordable Mountune upgrade, and the Focus RS slots easily into the top spot for four-wheel drive cars.

Parkers' recommended front-wheel drive choices

Peugeot 308 vs VW Golf GTI vs Skoda Octavia - best cheap fast cars 2017

More and more fast cars are front-wheel drive. That's because they're based on more practical donor cars – which is all well and good when there's 100hp to play with. But maybe not so good, with 300 or more.

The obvious drawback is that you steer with the front wheels too, which means you’re asking an awful lot from just two tyres and inevitably handling is compromised. But carmakers have dialled-in fun to front-wheel drive cars for decades – it's how they combine it with power that counts. 

Let's see…

Peugeot 308 GTi 270
from £29,405

Peugeot 308 - best cheap fast cars 2017

The 308 GTi is probably the rank outsider in this group test, and yet we know that with the legacy of great hot hatches Peugeot’s carrying in its back pocket, there’s no reason why it won’t spring a surprise. Coming off the back of greatness, such as the 208 GTi and RCZ-R, it should be more than capable of bloodying the Volkswagen Golf GTI’s nose.

Even before we set off, it’s certainly doing all it needs to at the kerbside. The two-tone paint job is a genius touch, lifting a neat if undistinguished design into a bit of a yob. Even compared with the kitchen-sink Focus RS, this one can still turn heads.

Peugeot 308 - best cheap fast cars 2017

Under the skin is where it’s most clever. Its 270hp is delivered by a mere 1.6-litres for a claimed 0-62mph time of 6.0 seconds, and a maximum speed of 155mph. In this group test, that puts it in the middle of the pack – and absolutely monstered by the Ford Focus RS Mountune. But good cheap fast cars aren’t just about numbers – how they’re delivered is far more important.

We’ll start with its on-road performance. At first, it doesn’t set a great example. It feels stiff and uncompromising, and the handling trait it’s keenest on is following the camber of any given road. Bravo. The steering feels too responsive, probably because the wheel’s too small, while the gearchange is ponderous, and frankly disappointing. The brakes aren’t much to write home about, either.

But live with it, wear into its dynamic foibles, and you start to go with the flow. The ride is just about acceptable, and gets better the faster you go – and you learn that it goes wherever you point it without any drama at all.

On track, it’s magical. And all that comes from its enormous front-end grip and traction, aided by its fantastic mechanical torque-sensing limited-slip differential. Once you dial into the way it works - the amount of grip available is directly related to the amount of throttle you give it – you’ve nailed the 308 GTi.

You want to tighten your line in any given corner, allowing the car to pull you through? Simple – just give it more throttle, and cling on to the shirt-button steering wheel. And for that reason, and pretty much that reason alone, the 308 GTi has almost everything it needs to be the greatest cheap fast car money can buy.

In July 2017 Peugeot introduced a facelift for the 308 range that included the GTi. The big changes were the addition of driver-assistance technology and more infotainment kit, but buyers could now order their car in a black and blue contrasting Coupe Franche paintjob. 

By Keith Adams, Editor 

Click here for the full Peugeot 308 review

Skoda Octavia vRS 230
from £25,185

Skoda Octavia vRS - best cheap fast cars 2017

The Skoda Octavia vRS has long been used by the police, and if it can survive day after day at the hands of criminal-chasing coppers, it has to be pretty fast. It needs to be supremely comfortable, too.

Weigh in the low cash price and rock-bottom PCP monthly payments – which make it the cheapest to finance – and I’d wager that this is the best car per pound in our roundup.

Sharing its engine with the Golf GTI, the Octavia isn’t that powerful in this company, but offers plenty of muscle on the road, pulling quite hard from low engine speeds, while providing a satisfying hit of extra acceleration if you work the engine harder. With shorter gears than the Volkswagen, there’s little difference in speed between the two, but the Octavia does kick up more wind and road noise on the motorway.

Select Sport mode and the engine note hardens and the steering becomes heavier, offering sharp responses around bends. In Normal mode, the steering is a bit less precise, but it treads a good line between being satisfying to drive fast, while remaining comfy enough when you’re not in a hurry.

Skoda Octavia vRS - best cheap fast cars 2017

Pitch the Octavia into a bend and it grips strongly, with little bodyroll to throw you off course. Accelerate early in a corner and the front tyres can start to scrabble, but there’s a good balance between power and traction. Other pluses are the relatively smooth, comfortable ride and racy-looking seats that hold you tightly without being too contoured for long journeys.

Admittedly, the gearchange isn’t as slick as the Golf’s, but it’s miles better than the 308 GTi. The brakes, meanwhile, don’t offer quite the bite of the Golf, while the Peugeot’s large discs offer even more stopping strength. Frankly, though, if it’s good enough for cash-strapped speed-seeking police forces, it’s good enough for us.

However, those after the very best performance from their Octavia vRS will want to plump for the 245 version. As the name suggests, this gets a power upgrade to 245hp, along with a corresponding 0-62mph time improvement to 6.6 seconds and an electrically locking limited-slip differential. 

We had an early drive in this new model ahead of its June 2017 debut and found it a marked improvement as a performance car without any sacrifice past the higher price tag. 

By Chris Lloyd, Finance Editor 

Click here for the full Skoda Octavia review

Volkswagen Golf GTI
from £27,920

Volkswagen Golf GTI - best cheap fast cars 2017

I’ll be the first to concede the Golf isn’t the most hardcore, or indeed the most thrilling, hot hatchback on sale. But what does impress is its ability to perform well in such a vast number of situations.

On a tight and twisty autotest-style track, the Golf felt more agile and lively than its Octavia vRS stablemate, with a nimbler feel tucking into corners. It’s neat and tidy like the Skoda, but just feels that bit more responsive to delicate inputs from the driver, in a similar way the faster 308 GTi does.

However, the Peugeot feels even more entertaining at the limit – but it comes slightly undone out on the open road with a fidgety ride and overly sharp steering compared with the VW.

Volkswagen Golf GTI - best cheap fast cars 2017

The Golf offers strong performance from its 230hp 2.0-litre turbo engine and, on a regular road, it feels both sporty and well balanced, meaning you don’t have to be in the mood to drive it at ten-tenths all the time.

It’s civilised and grown-up, but if you want to have a bit of fun you can do, with a lovely linear power delivery and fast throttle response. In the corners there’s little bodyroll and there’s ample grip to keep you on track, while the steering feels nicely weighted – even in more sensible driving modes.

On a more subjective note, the Golf looks great in GTi spec. There’s enough of a difference over a regular Golf to attract attention on the road – namely down to the red trim, honeycomb grille and GTi-specific alloys.

Inside, there’s little to differentiate over a normal Golf aside from the standard-fit tartan seats (not on our test car), but that’s part of the charm. It’s a fast version of a great car that’s just as capable on a run to the tip as it is showing up to a posh hotel. The best part is you can still enjoy the trip in-between destinations. You can’t much more ‘everyday’ than that.

In May 2017 a new model was introduced to the Golf line-up for those looking for a more focused GTI. The Performance gets many of the same upgrades as the Octavia vRS 245 (extra 15hp, better brakes, limited-slip differential) and it transforms the Golf from middling to among the best of the bunch as an everyday performance car. 

By Tom Goodlad - Senior Reviewer

Click here for the full VW Golf review

Best cheap fast front-wheel drive car
Peugeot 308 GTi 270

Peugeot 308 - best cheap fast cars 2017

In the end our group of testers went for the two-tone option. While the Skoda and the Golf – both using the same platform and engine – were an impressive enough pair, they were both ultimately lacking in entertainment against the engaging 308 GTi.

This was probably down to the 308's impressive traction and front-end grip and the adjustable track-biased handling. It might have been a different result had we been testing in the Welsh mountains. 

But as it is, it's first blood to the French.

Parkers' recommended rear-wheel drive choices

Toyota GT86 and Mazda MX-5 RF - best cheap fast cars 2017

While relatively unusual at the lower-cost end of the fun car market, rear-wheel drive offers the purest configuration for the keen driver. Separating the driven wheels from the steering means uncorrupted handling. You’re able to use your right foot to adjust the car’s trajectory mid-bend, too.

When things are slippery you also have to be on the ball that little bit more than front- or four-wheel drive too, as that tail will want to swing wide when you steer.

Toyota GT86
from £26,855

Toyota GT86 - best cheap fast cars 2017

If it were merely about fun handling, the GT86 would have walked away with this test. It’s the most entertaining – especially on the race track, where its fabulous steering, uncorrupted rear-wheel drive chassis and honed suspension combine to show the rest how it's done.

You don’t need big speed to explore what this car’s talents are. It’s all readily available at far lower speeds.

Toyota GT86 - best cheap fast cars 2017

The GT86’s obvious disadvantage is its practicality. It has only two doors, and the rear seats are next to useless. Its boot isn’t just one of the smallest here in terms of overall volume, but also has an awkwardly shaped opening that makes loading larger items pretty difficult.

Another issue is its performance. While the 2.0-litre petrol engine provides a keen engine note and near-instantaneous throttle response, on paper its 0-62mph sprint of 7.7 seconds is absolutely destroyed by all but the Mazda.

Furthermore, you have to use a lot of revs to get any meaningful acceleration. This means you have to change gear more often. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing thanks to the rewardingly involving shift action, but there’s less flexibility there for motorway overtakes and such.

You have to work this car hard, but then that’s where it’s at its best.

In May 2017 a new Orange Edition was launched. This was based on a higher-spec 86 and got orange paint with contrasting black spoiler and mirrors. 

By Gareth Evans, Associate Editor  

Click here for the full Toyota GT86 review

Mazda MX-5 RF
from £22,295

Mazda MX-5 RF - best cheap fast cars 2017

Mazda has been building MX-5s for very nearly three decades – and this RF is the very latest. The initials stand for Retractable Fastback, and as you can see from the pictures, it moves the MX-5 slightly away from its typical back-to-basics rear-wheel drive sports car comfort zone.

Despite this cool roof arrangement, it's noticeably the cheapest car here. On the road it’s a treat. Supple suspension absorbs bumps with meditative calm, while the solidity of the raised roof increases structural integrity, which equals enhanced cornering precision.

The six-speed gearbox is snickety-sweet, while the 160hp 2.0-litre engine means this is the first generation of MX-5 that feels genuinely fast out of the box – though it is still far slower than all but the GT86 in this test.

Mazda MX-5 RF - best cheap fast cars 2017

However, drop the roof, and the wind noise generated by the buttresses behind you is enough to cause spontaneous insanity – and any potential MX-5 customer should be wary of just how cramped this generation is inside.

Worse still, that soft suspension can swiftly see the handling turn unruly when pressing on – something that’s exacerbated on our tight and twisty test track arrangement, as you can see in the accompanying video.

In the right hands, unruly can mean masses of fun, but the GT86 manages to deliver this kind of entertainment without feeling quite so out of control…

By CJ Hubbard, Editor, Parkers Vans

Click here for the full Mazda MX-5 RF review

Best cheap fast rear-wheel drive car
Toyota GT86

Toyota GT86 - best cheap fast cars 2017

In the battle of the rear-driven sports cars, there’s one clear winner. The GT86 is better to drive, more practical and comfier too. It's arguably the same car as the Subaru BRZ, so check out its Japanese sister car before committing to this future classic Toyota.

While the Toyota’s cabin is arguably less well-finished and the infotainment system isn’t quite as slick, we can’t mark it down too dramatically when the test is all about driving. But factor in the Mazda's bargain-basement price, and it's brilliant on-road dynamics, we'd happily recommmend.

That's not something we'd say about the Mazda's Italian sister, the Fiat 124 Spider.

The Parkers Verdict

And the best cheap fast car of 2017 is…

Having two variables in this test – fast and cheap – presents a bit of a problem; in relative terms we have a spectrum of cars that sit somewhere between cheap but slow at one end and fast but expensive at the other. So how to work out which is best?

A simple way to pick a winner would be to work out which gives you the most horsepower for the least money, and surprise-surprise, Ford sells the cheapest nags. Buy a standard RS and each of its 350 horses will cost you £92.19.

The most expensive stable? The Mazda with its fancy roof and relatively low output comes with a £162.47 price tag per pony. The Toyota is the next most expensive, followed by the VW, SEAT, Skoda, Peugeot and final the Subaru, which is good value but still adrift of the Ford at £106.6/hp.

Ford Focus RS Mountune - best cheap fast cars 2017

With its extra 25hp the Mountune car is even better value at £88.44/hp. That’s because the kit costs only £900 – half the price of the VW Golf’s leather seats.

Power isn’t everything of course – the Ford Focus RS is quite heavy, so perhaps a less powerful but lighter car could out-sprint it? No, with a 0-62mph time of 4.5 seconds, it’s also the fastest.

It even wins hands down on factors you can’t type into a formula – the smile it puts on your face, the noise it’ll extracts from your passengers, and the distinctly un-4WD nature of its pendulous rear axle.

Hopefully this is painting a picture of the remarkable value the Focus RS represents, but if you’re not convinced, there are couple of other mega-hatch options to consider. A Mercedes-AMG A 45 or Audi RS 3 Sportback offer similar power and 4WD, sure.

Just find another £10,000 for the former, and £15,000 for the latter.

That’s the reason the Ford Focus RS Mountune is our Parkers Pick of cheap fast cars.

Photography by Stuart Collins

Best cheap fast cars 2017

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