Best cars for performance

Not all performance cars are born equal – here are eight of the best with relentless speed that is easy to handle whatever the weather

James Wilson
Dec 9, 2020

It seems like there is a ‘performance’ car on every corner these days - with even entry-level models gaining more and more sporty styling cues - but what if you want a car that truly offers speed as well as looks? We've rounded up a number of models that not only offer tonnes of power, but also have the grip to make the most of it.

The number of options isn’t the biggest problem with modern-day performance cars, though - the main issue is just how overpowered they can be. Some everyday vehicles produce more power than supercars from just a few years back, but aren't able to harness that power on real roads - which are often bumpy, wet and covered in leaves - making driving fast a stressful experience.

Fortunately, there is a particular breed of performance car that is perfectly suited to those who want rapid pace but with the smarts to assist in using that pace safely on the road. These types of cars normally have an automatic gearbox, so you don't have to worry about changing gear, they come with four-wheel drive, so you don't have to worry about spinning the wheels, and they include clever electronics to manage the power output from the engine to avoid you sliding off the road completely.

Don’t worry, when integrated properly these features 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 £35,000. Whether you're after an SUV, 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 £15,995
Monthly finance from £354*

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

 

Merely stating that the Audi S4 is fast is doing it a disservice - it is a rocketship on the road and a practical one at that. For the ultimate fast and practical S4, there are estate versions (badged as Avants). Audi was one of the first car manufacturers to realise that 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, so that when the going gets wet and slippy, 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 less punch at high engine speeds. 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 gearbox option, an automatic, 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 which 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 £20,300
Monthly finance from £305*

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

 

When new, the Mercedes A-Class A45 AMG 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 to 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 the immense amount of grip and sheer acceleration will leave most dedicated performance cars struggling to keep up.

There is only one engine on offer, a mighty turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol, 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 which 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 that do not feature this body kit will drive just as fast but look less aggressive.

MERCEDES A-CLASS BUYERS' GUIDE

3. Mini Clubman John Cooper Works

Our pick Mini Clubman John Cooper Works ALL4
Used deals from £28,690
Monthly finance from £413*

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 grip 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

Our pick Volkswagen Golf R DSG
Used deals from £15,999
Monthly finance from £265*

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 massive exhaust tips poking out, which is a dead giveaway to the 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 BUYERS' GUIDE

5. Audi S1

Our pick Audi S1 TFSI Quattro
Used deals from £15,999
Monthly finance from £252*

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 throwing a powerful engine under the bonnet to help justify such a price tag, though. Beneath the bodywork, there is a sporty suspension system 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 4 Series 435d

Our pick BMW 435d xDrive M Sport
Used deals from £16,959
Monthly finance from £201*

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

 

Not all diesels are slow and focused on economy over performance. In fact, in the case of the BMW 435d xDrive diesel power is one of the reasons why it is amongst the best real-world performance cars available. Much of the 435d’s appeal is thanks to its ability to do a lot 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 that the power is easy to use all year around - 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 two-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 is 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 the car doesn't work for you due to its lack of rear doors, the BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe is well worth a look as it is basically a four-door 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 £28,995
Monthly finance from £412*

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 is 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 brilliant 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 Plug-in Hybrid

Our pick Volvo S60 T8 Hybrid R Design Plus
Used deals from £28,500
Monthly finance from £426*

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 (PHEV) 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 electronics assisting the petrol engine (provided you remember to charge the batteries regularly). Fail to plug in regularly, 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.

 

Latest best cars & vans

  1. Unusual cars

  2. Narrowest cars

  3. Good estate cars