AUSTRALIA has produced some of the greatest performance-car bargains of all time. Local heroes such as the Holden Commodore SS and Falcon XR8 packed horsepower and handling that would cost six figures wearing a German badge.
After Holden's factories shut down in October, we will never again see a big V8-powered sedan priced below $50,000. As buyers rush to put their name on one before the axe falls, V8s now account for 39 per cent of total Commodore sales.
Australians are keen on performance cars of all persuasions. Mercedes-Benz's AMG beasts account for 21 per cent of the brand's sales here, a higher ratio than in Germany. We've gone mental for the Ford Mustang GT - which, two years after its launch, is our top-selling performance car. The Volkswagen Golf GTI, Subaru's WRX and BMW's M cars are other long-time favourites.
But you don't have to shell out big bucks to land a fun-to-drive performance car.
There are plenty of cheap and, if you find the right car, very cheerful seats, starting at $20,000. Sure, performance costs money but not as much as you might think ...
POWER TO THE PEOPLE
There's no such thing as a new performance car for $20K but you can get into some pretty handy used machinery.
In Falcodore territory, you're looking at a 2012 Commodore VE Series II SS sedan, with a 260kW 6.0-litre V8 matched to a six-speed auto that uses automatic cylinder shutdown on light throttle to turn the V8 into a V4 and save fuel.
The manual doesn't have this tech, so it's good for 270kW, plus 530Nm of torque compared with the auto's 517Nm.
If you're lucky you might find an SSV, with the Redline option made standard in 2012 and including Brembo front brakes, forged 19-inch alloys and upgraded suspension.
The VE ute, in the same specification, pulls bigger dollars than the sedan, so you have to go to 2011 or 2010 to find a good one for less than $20,000. You have to go much further back to find an HSV Clubsport, to the 2007 E Series R8, with the 307kW 6.0-litre V8.
Ford didn't have an XR8 Falcon during this period (mid 2010-15) but you'll be able to get into a 2012 FG MkII XR6 Turbo with a 270kW turbocharged 4.0-litre straight six/six-speed auto. It's a faster car than the Commodore, able to hit 100km/h in just 5.4 seconds (Commodore SS takes 6.0 seconds) and arguably of greater collectable value too, given that its mighty donk is 100 per cent Australian made. The Commodore's V8 comes from Mexico.
Similar money will buy a 2007-08 FPV F6 Typhoon, based on the BF MkII Falcon. It runs the same engine as the 2012 XR6 Turbo.
If big bangers don't do it for you, how about a 2013 Ford Focus ST hatch, engineered in Germany and still a current model (priced at $38,990) with a grunty 184kW 2.0-litre turbo/six-speed manual? Nice.
LIFE BEGINS AT 30
A new performance car for $30,000? Sure, but you have to broaden the definition of performance to encompass great handling as well as a bit of stick under the bonnet. Say hello to the Ford Fiesta ST, another beautifully sorted little car from Ford of Europe. Runs a 134kW 1.6-litre turbo/six-speed manual and costs $27,490.
VW's Polo GTI is a similar big fun in a small box package, with a 141kW 1.8-litre turbo/six-speed manual, priced at $27,690.
The Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ twins start at $30,790 for the 86 GT, with a lethargic 152kW 2.0-litre naturally aspirated boxer engine. One of the great handlers, though.
Serious hot-hatch horsepower can be had with the 2013 D95 Renault Megane RS265 Cup or Trophy, the pick of the breed at that time, with a 195kW 2.0-litre turbo/six-speed manual and 0-100km/h in 6.0 seconds.
Nissan's 370Z, still available new from $56,930, is a mean thing with a 245kW 3.7-litre naturally aspirated V6 and sharp buying at less than $30,000 for a 2012 model.
In Commodores, look at a 2014 VF SS sedan with the same drivetrain as the 2012 VEII; it's a similar story with the Falcon XR6 Turbo.
In new cars the Subaru WRX is still impossible to go past if you're after maximum performance for minimum dollars, and 23 years after the first model it's still a joy to drive. The base 197kW 2.0-litre turbo/six-speed manual is $39,240.
A new VW Golf GTI starts at $41,430 for the 162kW 2.0-litre turbo/six-speed manual, but if you look around you'll find one with only a few kilometres on it for less. A new model - and a new performance derivative - are due later this month.
The final Commodore SS sedan, the VFII with the 304kW 6.2-litre LS3 V8, was launched in September 2015 and you should be able to find one of these for about $40,000. Good, low-kilometre ones will only appreciate in the future, for obvious reasons. You won't get into a decent 2015 Falcon XR8 for less than $40,000.
In HSV territory, a 2012 Series 3 R8 with the LS3 tuned for 317kW, is doable.
You might just scrape into what many people regard as the best performance car Ford Australia ever produced, the 2012 FPV F6, based on the Falcon FG MkII with 310kW 4.0-litre turbo six.
Forty thousand dollars can also take you on some interesting adventures in Europe but there's a catch. It is essential to get any used car checked out by somebody who knows what to look for - because owning a dud European performance car is a truly awful experience.
So, how about an early (2006-07) Porsche Cayman coupe, the best handling car in the world at the time (and arguably still) with a 180kW 2.7-litre flat six/six-speed manual?
The Boxster convertible, which shares drivetrains and running gear, doesn't hold its value quite as well so you can get into a 2008 model or, better still, a 2006 Boxster S, with a 206kW 3.2-litre engine and a 0-100km/h time of 5.5 seconds.
The last E46 series BMW M3 from 2006 with the sublime 252kW 3.2-litre straight six would be a beautiful thing if you can find a good one; later models with the berserk 4.0-litre V8 are out of reach for a few years yet.
Audi's TT from 2011 is an underrated car and a great buy, particularly the S coupe with a 200kW 2.0-litre turbo four/six-speed manual and all-wheel drive.
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