Owning a sports car need not break the bank – here's our choice for the top ten affordable sports cars
25 May 2018

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, more expensive peers.

It's not all about brake horsepower at this end of the market, most of the cars in our top ten list put driving bliss ahead of raw, straight out performance. But we gurentee each will put a huge smile on your face. 

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

Anatomise the car and you won’t find too many mechanical ingredients or areas you could call genuinely exceptional; but put them all together and you can’t help but conclude that the A110 is much, much greater car – and achievement - than the sum of its parts would suggest.

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 with 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.

Our Verdict

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Even with its new downsized four-cylinder turbo petrol engine, the 718 Cayman is by some distance the most complete sports coupé on sale – and easily talented enough in the handling department to overcome slight misgivings about the way the crank is now turned.

In the long-term, memory of its past power source will eventually fade. The manifest and numerous qualities of the 718 will not

There isn’t a single area in which this new 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 distinctive. It’s faster, more frugal and even more vibrant and engaging to drive.

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

With the co-developed Toyota GT86 and Subaru BRZ, it is necessary not just to accept a few compromises but, as with a Caterham Seven, positively embrace them, for they make the car what it is.

They’re visible, audible, tangible characteristics that serve to remind you that you’re driving the keenest, sharpest, most enjoyable and loveable small sports car for a generation.

Importantly, it's an accessible sports car  - one which won't break the bank to run either - and it's a refreshing alternative to the likes of the Mazda MX-5 for those seeking lightweight rear-drive fun.

The BMW M2’s passively sprung, but provocatively capable chassis, is the antidote to that of its M3/M4 bigger brother’s preoccupation with adaptive modes that make them less engaging.

The M2 downscales M’s ambitions when it comes to creating a drive mode for every circumstance, but upscales its repressed talent for tuning a steel and aluminium suspension system to do it all unaided.

Fused with a turbocharged engine that feels shoehorned in rather than filling the void left by a V8, the car feels like the most satisfying option in the M-badged range.

The Lotus Elise is utterly brilliant to drive if you’re in the mood. It has one of the world’s best-handling chassis and exquisite steering. But this Lotus is old and could be seen as expensive if you like to judge your cars objectively. 

Yet many of the Elise’s drawbacks can be overlooked when you’re in the middle of a red-mist moment.  At its core, the Elise is still magnificent, and it gets better the sportier the Elise is.

This second-generation TT RS feels like the response of a company that’s defended a popular car for decades against claims that the TT has all the style and none of the substance to be taken seriously by really keen drivers.

It feels that way because you simply have to take any sports car with an engine this strong, capable of genuine supercar-baiting pace, very seriously indeed.

Ultimately, the TT RS doesn’t set the vivid excitement of its powertrain off against enough handling balance or driver involvement to make it feel fully formed as a sports car, which is why it lags behind rivals.

The sensible thing to do would be to buy an Audi TT or a BMW 2 Series Coupé, wouldn’t it? And if you did, that would be a huge shame.

Yes, this car does have significant drawbacks in the UK. Yes, you have to think twice about where you’re going to park it in town, besides next to a far greater number of fuel pumps than your peers, but no other car at this price – or several price points higher – can do what the Mustang does.

Its powertrain brings with it an appeal that engines with fewer cylinders simply cannot, and its inherent chassis balance is absolutely peachy. Sensibleness be damned.

The Abarth 124 Spider is what you might call ‘a bit of a giggle’. Most Mazda MX-5 owners would have a lot of fun in one for an afternoon, we suspect, but then would probably be quite happy to swap their car keys back. Compared with the Japanese sporting icon from which it is sprung, it is a little noisy, harsh, gauche and trying.

But the Abarth 124 Spider is far from a failure. Abarth’s mission with this car must rightly have been to claim territory that the Mazda has never managed to secure: to convince petrolheads that a cloth-topped two-seater could feel as focused and hardcore as a really specialised £30,000 hot hatchback. In that mission, the Abarth does remarkably well.

The Nissan 370Z is such an honest, old world kind of sports car that it’s almost impossible for us, as enthusiasts, not to be drawn to its many charms, however long in the tooth it may now seem. It is so obviously geared towards entertaining its driver that it’s easy to overlook its flaws.

The Zed also offers exceptionally good value for money, serving up a simple, straightforward blend of good looks and muscular performance, for a relatively modest amount of money. It’s as close to an old-school muscle car as you’re likely to get this side of a Ford Mustang.

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