Best cars for performance

Not all performance cars are born equal – here are eight of the best speed machines for any weather

James Wilson Andrew Goodwin
Nov 8, 2021

Performance cars seem more popular than ever, with even some affordable models getting racy makeovers, wings and aggressive styling. But what are the best performance models that offer more than just sporty looks, with plenty of grip to make the most of British roads? This round-up is for cars that not only serve up lots of power, but also inspire confidence in the driver.

As power levels have crept up over the years, some modern-day sports models feel unable to use even a fraction of their performance on greasy, wet or pothole-strewn tarmac.

Fortunately, there's a particular breed of performance car that's perfectly suited to drivers who enjoy some excitement at times, but a more assured and measured approach for their more ordinary trips. These versatile performance cars normally have an automatic gearbox, so you don't have to worry about changing gear on the commute. Meanwhile, four-wheel drive means there's little chance of spinning the wheels, while clever electronics provide a safety net to help keep the car on the road and pointing in the right direction. This also means they're perfectly usable for a trip to the shops, or for the school run.

These characteristics don’t detract from the driving experience, they add to it. Or at least that’s the case with the models listed below, all of which can be scooped up for less than the cost of most new SUVs. Whether you're after a coupe, hatchback or estate - or want petrol, diesel or plug-in hybrid power - there should be an option to suit you.

Best cars for performance

1. Audi S4

Our pick Audi S4 Quattro
Used deals from £27,000
Monthly finance from £0*

0-62mph 4.7 secondsTop speed 155mph
Power 354hpTorque 500Nm

 

Merely stating that the Audi S4 is fast is doing it a disservice - it's a rocketship on the road, while also being very practical. For the ultimate fast and practical S4, there are estate versions (badged as Avants). Audi was one of the first car manufacturers to realise many drivers want performance all year round. To provide this, it started fitting four-wheel drive, which it calls ‘Quattro’, to its high-performance models, tapping into its rally heritage. When the going gets wet and slippery, its cars are still super quick.

One thing worth noting is that Audi refreshed the S4 in 2019 and swapped out the petrol engine for a diesel, which offers a slightly different driving experience - with more low engine speed muscle, but a less exotic soundtrack. Sadly the latter isn’t readily available for under £35,000 but if your budget can be stretched, a diesel S4 will mean better fuel economy.

There is only one automatic gearbox option, which actually suits the S4’s character well, as it helps to deliver effortless performance. Moving away from speed, the S4 is very well made and decently equipped; keyless start, heated sports seats and sat-nav are all standard. Even so, the optional 19-inch wheels look very smart even if they sacrifice a smidge of comfort and Audi’s optional virtual cockpit (a system that replaces traditional dials with a multifunction screen) is rather slick to look at.

AUDI A4 BUYERS' GUIDE

2. Mercedes-AMG A45

Our pick Mercedes-AMG A45 4Matic
Used deals from £17,495
Monthly finance from £447*

0-62mph 4.2 secondsTop speed 155mph
Power 360hpTorque 475Nm

 

When new, the Mercedes-AMG A45 was eye-wateringly expensive. Still, many were happy to pay the lofty prices in return for such incredible performance. Focusing on models that were made from 2016 to 2018 (Mercedes updated the A45 in the latter parts of 2015 and replaced the range completely in 2018) there is 360hp on tap and a rapid 0-62mph time of 4.2 seconds. To drive, the steering isn’t as engaging as some rivals such as the Honda Civic Type R, but its immense amount of grip and sheer acceleration will leave most dedicated performance cars struggling to keep up.

There's only one engine on offer, a mighty turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engine, which sends power through an automatic gearbox and to all four wheels. Inside the cabin, everything feels well put together and the standard equipment levels are good. For those wanting a car that looks as fast as it goes, you'll want to find a model with the AMG-branded body kit, not least for the addition of a big rear spoiler. Cars without this body kit are just as fast but look less aggressive, which some buyers may prefer if they want to fly under the radar.

MERCEDES A-CLASS BUYERS' GUIDE

3. Mini Clubman John Cooper Works

Our pick Mini Clubman John Cooper Works ALL4
Used deals Limited stock

0-62mph 4.9 secondsTop speed 155mph
Power 306hpTorque 450Nm

 

Mini by name but mighty by nature, the latest Mini Clubman John Cooper Works is one heck of a performance car. Its styling might be an acquired taste, but thanks to four-wheel drive and an automatic gearbox as standard, the rate at which this British estate accelerates should appeal to even the most seasoned speed freak.

Being that BMW owns Mini, it isn’t surprising that some of the parts used to make the fastest Clubman are borrowed from rapid BMWs - take the 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine as an example, which is taken from the latest BMW M135i.

Equipment levels are strong. On the convenience side of things you get cruise control, air-conditioning and heated seats as standard. As for performance, there's sports seats, sports exhaust and a locking differential - the latter providing greater traction when accelerating.

Many Mini models are known for being more fun than their rivals and that holds true here. While a VW Golf R is an equally rapid machine, the Mini will put a bigger grin on your face. It is worth highlighting that we're referring to 2019-onwards Clubmans here - earlier models were not nearly as much fun.

MINI CLUBMAN BUYERS' GUIDE

4. Volkswagen Golf R

Volkswagen Golf R front three quarters view

Our pick Volkswagen Golf R DSG
Used deals from £14,721
Monthly finance from £0*

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

 

The Volkswagen Golf R is arguably one of the most understated everyday performance cars, despite also being one of the fastest hatchbacks on the market. We say understated, but if anyone took the time to look at the rear bumper they would see four oval exhaust tips poking out, which is a dead giveaway to its performance potential. Conveniently, the R has been available for a good few years now so it is quite affordable, too.

Over its lifetime (VW recently launched a new Golf so this generation of R is no longer in production) there have been a few different variants. Early cars were available with a manual or automatic gearbox (both are great options), while an estate version was sold for a while, too.

Regardless, all models come with four-wheel drive and a punchy turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engine. Standard equipment levels are good, with one performance highlight being a launch control system that helps the car rocket away from a standstill, enabling drivers to get close to the official sub-five-second 0 to 62mph time.

VOLKSWAGEN GOLF R REVIEW

5. Audi S1

Our pick Audi S1 TFSI Quattro
Used deals Limited stock

0-62mph 5.8 secondsTop speed 155mph
Power 231hpTorque 370Nm

 

Normally, performance superminis (i.e. cars roughly the size of the Ford Fiesta) are front-wheel drive, have around 200hp and are relatively affordable. Audi’s S1 was none of these. For starters, it is four-wheel drive, like all the others on this. It also has around 230hp as standard, meaning it has a power output that is nipping at the heels of much bigger fast cars, such as the Volkswagen Golf GTI. New, S1 models cost dangerously close to £30,000 - a lot for a car of this size - though thankfully used versions cost much less.

Audi did more than just throw a powerful engine under the bonnet to help justify such a price tag. Beneath the bodywork, there's a sporty chassis and the cabin design is well ahead of contemporary rivals from Ford and Mini for quality.

Standard equipment levels are good, too, with climate control, cruise control and sports seats all included. While all S1s have a manual gearbox you can choose from three- and five-door versions. Last but not least, thanks to the model falling in value over recent years, second-hand S1s can be scooped up for a fraction of their original value, making them much more appealing.

AUDI A1 BUYERS' GUIDE

6. BMW 435d Coupe

Our pick BMW 435d xDrive M Sport
Used deals from £18,590
Monthly finance from £0*

0-62mph 4.7 secondsTop speed 155mph
Power 313hpTorque 630Nm

 

Not all diesels are sluggish and focused on economy over performance. In fact, diesel power is one of the reasons why the BMW 435d xDrive is amongst the best real-world performance cars available. Much of the 435d’s appeal is thanks to its ability to do lots of things rather well. For example, the 3.0-litre diesel engine is very powerful but is relatively economical - offering claimed fuel economy of over 40mpg.

Meanwhile, having xDrive (BMW-speak for four-wheel-drive) means its power can be enjoyed all year round - this is particularly useful as the diesel engine offers a huge amount of muscle at low engine speeds, something that would typically spin the wheels in a two-wheel-drive car. Most 4 Series models are rear-wheel drive, so the addition of four-wheel drive here is particularly valuable.

435d models are available in two forms; Luxury and M Sport. Both are well equipped, including climate control, parking sensors, Bluetooth and electric front seats. That said, it's worth hunting down models with BMW’s adaptive M Sport suspension, which allows drivers to easily adjust how firm the suspension is at the press of a button.

If the sleek design of the 4 Series looks great to you, but you need a car with rear doors, the BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe is well worth a look as it's a stretched version of the 4 Series Coupe, and even includes a practical hatchback.

BMW 4 SERIES BUYERS' GUIDE

7. Porsche Macan S

Our pick Porsche Macan S Diesel PDK
Used deals from £30,000
Monthly finance from £0*

0-62mph 6.3 secondsTop speed 142 mph
Power 258hpTorque 580Nm

 

Being a diesel SUV, the Porsche Macan S Diesel is not many people’s first thought when thinking about a performance car. It only takes a few miles behind the wheel, though, before it's clear Porsche really knows its stuff. All Macan S models are powered by the same 3.0-litre V6 diesel engine, which produces well over 250hp, and even though it doesn’t sound quite as good as the petrol, it has bags of performance. Perhaps most surprisingly, the Macan handles better around corners than many sports cars despite lugging around its more practical SUV body.

The Macan comes with a 500-litre boot (which is slightly behind the largest in other cars of this type) and space for five adults. Furthermore, the interior feels very well made, even if the centre console is stuffed with countless buttons.

Diesel S Macans all get an automatic gearbox, which is excellent, and this isn’t going to change anytime soon as Porsche no longer makes diesel-powered cars. Things are all good in the standard equipment department, too, with climate control, electric front seats, parking sensors and cruise control all being included.

PORSCHE MACAN BUYERS' GUIDE

8. Volvo S60 T8

Our pick Volvo S60 T8 Hybrid R Design Plus
Used deals Limited stock

0-62mph 4.6 secondsTop speed 155mph
Power 390hpTorque 400Nm

 

Modern-day Volvos are typically comfy, upmarket and packed with tech, including sophisticated safety equipment. The S60 T8 plug-in hybrid is a little different as it forgoes some comfort in the name of performance. Happily, though, speed does not come at the expense of emissions and fuel economy thanks to the onboard electric motor assisting the petrol engine (provided you remember to charge the batteries regularly). Fail to plug in at night though, and economy and emission figures will be much worse than the official figures.

Inside, the Volvo is a classy affair, with plenty of high-quality materials and a general impression of minimalism. Outside, R Design trim brings sporty styling but the S60 is still anything but brash. Equipment is on par with rivals from BMW and Mercedes, with parking sensors, cruise control and heated seats included as standard. What isn’t on par is cost (when new, at least) as Volvo asks for significantly more than its rivals do for this plug-in model. Fortunately, things are much closer when considering second-hand vehicles.

VOLVO S60 BUYERS' GUIDE

*Representative PCP finance - Ford Fiesta:

48 monthly payments of £192
Deposit: £0
Mileage limit: 8,000 per year
Optional final payment to buy car: £2,923
Total amount payable to buy car: £11,926
Total cost of credit: £2,426
Amount borrowed: £9,500
APR: 9.9%

Buyacar is a credit broker, not a lender. Our rates start from 6.9% APR. The rate you are offered will depend on your individual circumstances.

 

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