Sportiest cars for less than £20,000

So you have £20,000 burning a hole in your pocket for a sporty machine but no idea which car to spend it on? Try these cars for size

James Wilson
Nov 30, 2020

Hunting for a sporty car with a budget of £20,000 opens a lot of doors. Not just boring small car doors either. These doors are sleek, fast and the envy of many passers-by. A number of them even come attached to cars that sound pretty special, too. So, whether you fancy a convertible, coupe or high-performance hatchback, having £20,000 to spend on a sporty car genuinely does bring a wealth of options.

These days a sporty car can mean a number of things. Some models are sporty because they offer mind-bending acceleration, some are sporty as they can fly around corners at an impressive rate of knots, while some are considered sporty thanks to how they look and sound. A number offer all of these traits.

All of the cars here are a maximum of five years old and available for less than £20,000. They also have to be a bonafide sporty car - you won’t find any duds hiding behind flashy paint jobs here. To help compare the different makes and models, we've highlighted the key performance figures for each car.

Sporty cars can come with increased running costs - higher insurance premiums and servicing costs, for example. To help keep running costs down and for other useful sporty car ownership tips, check out the guides below before picking which model to go for.

Sportiest cars under £20,000

1. Ford Fiesta ST

Our pick Ford Fiesta ST 1.5-litre EcoBoost ST-2
Used deals from £14,199
Monthly finance from £212

0-62mph 6.5 secondsTop speed 144mph
Power 200hpTorque 290Nm

 

The latest Ford Fiesta ST is, pound-for-pound, one of the best sporty cars available. It has been designed to maximise fun when driving - even at slow speeds - thanks to great handling, clever suspension and a punchy turbocharged 1.5-litre petrol engine.

There is zero choice when it comes to gearbox - all ST Fiestas are manual - but this is no hardship, since the standard gearbox is slick and easy to use, and allows you to get the most from the exciting sounding three-cylinder engine. One of the biggest improvements over the previous generation Fiesta ST is a slicker interior, which now features a touchscreen multimedia system.

There are three models in the Fiesta ST range - ST-2, ST-3 and Performance Edition. ST-2 versions come with all the equipment most motorists could need - sports seats, air-conditioning, cruise control and Android Auto/Apple CarPlay are standard. There is one optional extra that is worth looking out for, though, if you want the sharpest drive. It is called the ‘ST Performance Pack’ and brings some desirable go-faster features. The ST Performance Pack is standard on ST-3 and Performance editions.

FORD FIESTA ST BUYERS' GUIDE

2. Toyota GT86

Our pick Toyota GT86 2.0-litre D-4S
Used deals from £16,196
Monthly finance from £223

0-62mph 7.6 secondsTop speed 140mph
Power 200hpTorque 205Nm

 

The Toyota GT86 is a breath of fresh air in a market packed with cars that have enough computers and sensors to drive themselves. It is small, simple and sporty. When it comes to rivals, the GT86 doesn’t really have any. There are more refined alternatives (that are more expensive and offer less sense of involvement in the driving process), there are faster alternatives (that are bigger and more expensive to run) and there are a few two-seater alternatives (but these are less practical).

It is probably worth mentioning the Subaru BRZ, though, which is practically the same car just with a different badge. Also, due to BRZ models being rarer, they can be more expensive, so the GT86 can be the wiser choice.

Standard equipment on both is good; climate control, automatic lights, keyless entry and a touchscreen media system are all included with most models. Every GT86 and BRZ is rear-wheel drive, which makes these lightweight cars exciting to drive, but there is the choice between having a manual or automatic gearbox. For such a back-to-basics machine, the manual suits the car much better, offering a far greater sense of fun.

TOYOTA GT86 BUYERS' GUIDE

3. BMW M240i

Our pick BMW M240i
Used deals from £18,949
Monthly finance from £243

0-62mph 4.6 secondsTop speed 155mph
Power 340hpTorque 500Nm

 

BMW’s M240i brings big car performance to a small car body. This is largely thanks to a hefty turbocharged 3.0-litre six-cylinder engine being crammed under the bonnet. There are rivals out there with more power, but there are very few alternatives that are rear-wheel-drive - which is something many keen drivers prefer, due to the more precise steering and greater ability to slide the car compared with front-wheel drive alternatives.

M240i models are the top versions in the 2 Series range - barring the super high-performance M2 - so come with a good helping of standard equipment. For example, climate control, a digital radio and automatic headlights are all included.

Yes the rear seats in the M240i aren’t all that useful for transporting tall adults over any great distance due to the sleek sloping roofline, though it's still a practical car for a machine of this size. Happily, there is a more practical alternative - the closely related M140i, which offers similar performance but is based on the BMW 1 Series hatchback and hence is available with five doors for improved access to the rear seats and comes with a hatchback so you can load the boot more easily.

BMW 2 SERIES BUYERS' GUIDE

4. Volkswagen Golf R

Our pick Volkswagen Golf 2.0-litre TSI R DSG
Used deals from £16,395
Monthly finance from £265

0-62mph 4.9 secondsTop speed 155mph
Power 300hpTorque 380Nm

 

What the Volkswagen Golf R lacks in visual drama it makes up for in performance as every version comes with a potent turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engine that sends power to all four wheels. The extra grip four-wheel drive brings means that come rain or shine the R should be one of the fastest cars on the road. Despite its grown up looks, the R is a surprisingly exciting car to drive, too.

Why? Well, it is thanks to VW’s engineers having done an excellent job in ensuring the pumped-up Golf is a pleasure to drive, with a strong engine, good grip and impressive roadholding. Standard equipment is plentiful as well; parking sensors, a digital radio, cruise control and Bluetooth are all included from the get-go with newer models.

Manual gearboxes were available with older versions - and these provide a more engaging drive - but they were dropped by Volkswagen when the car was updated, so the majority of cars are automatics. Fear not, though, as the 'DSG' automatic gearbox available is slick and quick to change gear. Similarly, there are estate versions but they are less common.

VOLKSWAGEN GOLF R BUYERS' GUIDE

5. Abarth 124 Spider

Our pick Abarth 124 Spider 1.4-litre T MultiAir
Used deals from £16,995
Monthly finance from £271

0-62mph 6.8 secondsTop speed 144mph
Power 170hpTorque 250Nm

 

The Abarth 124 Spider is made using many of the same mechanical components as the all-time best selling sports car (the Mazda MX-5) which makes for a great start. What the Abarth Spider does differently to its rival is that it feels naughty. Starting the engines brings a deep burble from the exhaust which starts to lure a driver into its mischievous ways. Then there is the handling, which is so composed that the little Italian car eggs drivers on to let loose and have some fun.

All Abarth 124 Spiders are powered by a 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine sending power to the rear wheels. There is a choice of manual and automatic gearboxes, but for the sportiest driving experience, the former gets our vote. Abarth included a decent haul of standard equipment, such as cruise control, automatic air-conditioning, heated seats and Bluetooth among other kit.

ABARTH 124 SPIDER BUYERS' GUIDE

6. Seat Leon Cupra

Our pick Seat Leon 2.0-litre TSI Cupra 300 DSG
Used deals from £17,000
Monthly finance from £244

0-62mph 5.7 secondsTop speed 155mph
Power 300hpTorque 380Nm

 

Cupra may now have become a standalone brand, but previously the Cupra name was used to denote Seat’s most potent cars - one of which was the Leon Cupra. The Leon Cupra borrowed much of its go-faster gear from the VW Golf R (Volkswagen and Seat are part of the same company) and in short, it is an exceptionally sporty car.

As with the Golf R, there is a muscular turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engine under the bonnet producing around 300hp (the earliest models were available with 265hp and 280hp before this rose to 290hp and subsequently 300hp). Unlike the Golf R, though, the power only goes to the front wheels, which makes the Leon lighter but means it also offers less grip when accelerating. Unless driving particularly quickly, however, most drivers shouldn't really notice much difference and the Leon still offers impressive traction.

Compared to rivals, the Leon Cupra was something of a steal new - it came with fancy components such as a limited-slip differential - which helps to boost traction when accelerating - and adaptive suspension, which, allows you to change the suspension firmness on the move.

Equipment levels are decent, with Alcantara upholstery (Alcantara being a sporty suede-type material), a touchscreen sat-nav and adaptive cruise control all being included as standard on most versions.

SEAT LEON BUYERS' GUIDE

7. Mini John Cooper Works

Our pick Mini Hatchback 2.0-litre John Cooper Works
Used deals from £15,499
Monthly finance from £249

0-62mph 6.3 secondsTop speed 153mph
Power 231hpTorque 320Nm

 

When launched, the latest-generation Mini John Cooper Works was the British brand's sportiest ever hatchback. Even though it has since been outgunned by even more hardcore versions of the Mini, it is still a blisteringly fast car. While performance is available in abundance, it is the engaging handling around corners that helps John Cooper Works Minis really stand out. All versions are front-wheel drive but there is a choice of manual and automatic gearboxes. The former gets our vote as the one to have for maximum engagement with the driving process.

The inside of the John Cooper Works is typical Mini, in that it has nostalgic retro styling cues mixed with upmarket build quality. Disappointingly the Mini John Cooper Works isn’t all that well-equipped as standard, however. For example, sat-nav, climate control and automatic wipers are all optional extras. The moral of this is to check that any used model you're considering comes with the key equipment you're after.

MINI JOHN COOPER WORKS BUYERS' GUIDE

8. Audi TT

Our pick Audi TT 2.0T FSI Quattro S Line S Tronic
Used deals from £16,495
Monthly finance from £262

0-62mph 5.3 secondsTop speed 155mph
Power 230hpTorque 370Nm

 

The latest Audi TT is by far and away the best generation of TT to drive. Models that come with Quattro (Audi’s name for its four-wheel drive system) are better still, thanks to having oodles of grip when accelerating. Away from performance, the TT’s interior is a particular highlight thanks to its great build quality and striking style with its standard digital driver displays in the place of a traditional speedometer and rev counter.

Originally launched in 2014 and then refreshed in 2018, the Audi TT has been on sale for some time now and as a result, has been offered in a number of trims and engine and gearbox combinations. As a general rule, sporty S Line trim matched with a mid-range petrol engine (which produce between 230 and 250hp) and an automatic gearbox offers an excellent blend of sporty performance, running costs and everyday usability.

AUDI TT BUYERS' GUIDE

 

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