What’s the best drivers’ car for under £10k? What we’ve pulled together for you is a list of those great drivers’ cars that will make every journey special, whether you’re off to the shops or hammering the Nürburgring…
Cars, it goes without saying, are for driving. Sure, there’s a lot to be said for the low-and-lazy cruise through town to let everyone see the effort you’ve put into your pride and joy, and of course we’re very much on board with the show scene, allowing everyone to get up close and personal with those intricate details that your beloved build is filled with, but for the sheer visceral thrill of human being and internal combustion in perfect harmony, all you need is one good road and a little time to enjoy it.
Of course, it doesn’t really matter what car you drive – if you set your alarm for 5am and head out onto to your favourite roads while no-one’s around, dominating every apex as the sun comes up in your mirrors, you’re going to have fun in any car. But it really amps up the experience if you’ve got the right car, doesn’t it?
There have been countless automobiles over the years that can be considered to be good drivers’ cars, but surprisingly few great ones. What we’ve pulled together for you here is a list of the cream of the crop: the cars that will make every journey special, whether you’re off to the shops or hammering the Nürburgring. And if you own one of these, you won’t mind that 5am alarm one bit…
And here they are:
Honda Integra Type R (DC2)
This Championship White superstar was the first Type R officially offered in the UK. Contemporary sales literature proudly stated that ‘The ‘R’ stands for ‘Racing’’, and this was evident throughout the car. They took the B18C1 engine from the regular Integra GS-R and threw in molybdenum-coated aluminium pistons, a bigger throttle body, stronger conrods, reshaped intake valves and a bigger exhaust. These were handbuilt engines that revved to the moon; peak power – 187bhp – arrives at 8,000rpm, with your safety-redline set at a quite silly 9k! The entire bodyshell was strengthened with thicker steel along any potential stress points; suspension was lowered, bushes and anti-roll bars thickened up, aluminium strut braces arrived at either end and – the pièce de résistance – a helical LSD was bolted in. This car is just manic, like a terrier on acid, and it seems obscene that you can buy one for just £7,000. (Or £5,000 for a JDM import.) So much car for the money, every journey is an adventure – you’ll feel like The Stig even if you’ve just popped out for a pint of milk.
Top 3 mods: Toyo R888s, Tein coilovers, StopTech BBK
Peugeot 205 GTI
Okay. Sorry about this. We know that there’s a certain inevitability to seeing the 205 GTI in a list of best drivers’ cars, but we couldn’t help it. Seriously, have you driven one? They’re insane! People talk about it being the archetypal hot hatch (well, people who don’t think the Golf GTI is, anyway), and it really does wrap everything up in a neat little package – the Peugeot 205 was a basic, affordable little runabout in the early 1980s, offering no-frills practicality to rural French families. The idea of shoving a 1.6-litre motor in there – and then a 1.9! – was frankly a bit bonkers, but the really surprising thing was the chassis. Peugeot, before the GTI, were best known for making sturdy, unbreakable, diesel-powered estate cars that could happily devour 200,000+ miles across African sand dunes. How the hell did they develop, out of nowhere, a chassis for a hot hatch that was playful, balletic, precise, and rewarded your hooligan inputs by cocking a rear wheel on power oversteer? The 205 GTI is nuts, and so are the massive prices that original ones are selling for these days. Thankfully there are still a few affordable ones out there – pick up a £4,000 GTI now, as they’ll probably never be this accessible again.
Top 3 mods: 306 GTI-6 brakes, throttle bodies, Mi16 conversion
Mazda MX-5 (NA)
The MX-5 has become such an integral part of the landscape in the automotive world, it’s easy to forget how brilliant it is. The model’s now in its fourth generation and has been a global smash since 1989, and if you want those open-top thrills raw you’ve got to go back to that first generation, the NA, produced from ’89-’97 – available now from just £1,500. There are two key reasons why this is the model you need to go for. Number one: the gearbox. If Leonardo da Vinci had designed gearboxes, this is what he would have made, it’s a masterpiece. And number two? Pop-up lights. No cars have them these days – which is fair enough, they do have a habit of skewering pedestrians in accident situations – but they’re just so cool. The NA MX-5 is a truly magnificent thing to drive, too – proper steer-with-your-bum feel like a go-kart, you sit nice and low (and you can fit in it even if you’re over six-foot and on the wrong side of the pie counter, trust us), and the handling is outstanding. Tight and firm, but with just enough body roll to make it entertaining, a playful tail that wags on demand – Mazda designed this to behave like a 1970s British roadster, and they got it bang on. And as a bonus, it won’t break down all the time.
Top 3 mods: K&N induction, Racing Beat exhaust, head skimming to raise compression ratio
Renaultsport Mégane R26
Renaultsport really know their way around a chassis. There were various Clios we considered for this list, but in the end they were all pipped by its bigger brother, the Mégane – because, essentially, the R26 is a hot hatch superhero. Its full name is a bit of a mouthful – Renaultsport Mégane 230 F1 Team R26 – and with big name comes big spec. Built to commemorate Renault’s success in the Formula 1 World Championship with the 2005 Constructors’ and Drivers’ Championship titles, it had a 227bhp 2.0-litre turbo motor and the Cup chassis package, which gave it 18” anthracite wheels with 235/40 Michelin Pilot Sport 2s, massive Brembos, and a tighter steering rack. It also had fabulous Recaros, a shouty exhaust, and – hooray! – an LSD. The upshot of all this is that it accelerates like Usain Bolt, the canny geometry keeps that centre line on the steering wheel firmly on the dead-ahead, and you can take any corner at basically any speed because the diff is glorious. This thing will not understeer, it grips like an angry bus driver’s knuckles. They did also do a more hardcore version, the R26.R, which is basically a 911 GT3 with Renault badges: plastic windows, rollcage, stripped interior, carbon bonnet, carbon bucket seats, titanium exhaust, the works. But those are selling for £30k+ now – whereas a regular R26 is more like £4,500. 80% of the thrills, 15% of the price.
Top 3 mods: Stage 1 remap, K-TEC FMIC, ITG panel filter
Subaru Impreza RB5
Trying to pick your way through all of the many, many special editions of the Impreza is a total minefield. There have been so many over the years, some of which were comprehensive re-engineering projects, others were homologation specials, still more were simply badge-engineering… there’s a world of difference between a £100k hen’s-teeth 22B and a stripped-back clubman rally Spec C RA. The one we’ve pinpointed for this list is the RB5 – firstly because it’s just an astonishing drivers’ car, and secondly because we can’t work out why these are still so cheap these days. The RB5 is a reworked special edition of the WRX, of which Subaru built just 444 examples back in 1999 for the UK market, to celebrate Richard Burns returning to the works team. The turbocharged 2.0-litre boxer gives you 237bhp, and the car only weighs 1200kg so it’ll hit 0-62mph in five seconds dead. Acceleration is immediate, and handling is hugely involving, encouraging you into lingering four-wheel drifts like a proper WRC pro. Okay, the interior was pretty horrible, but you won’t notice because you’ll be staring wide-eyed and slightly scared at the rapidly advancing horizon. A mad car. And one you can buy for around £6,000.
Top 3 mods: Twin-scroll VF37 turbo, AlcaTek ECU with anti-lag, decat downpipe
Porsche Boxster S (986)
There are some people who feel that the Porsche brand begins and ends with the 911. They reckon that if it doesn’t have six cylinders hanging way back behind the rear axle, it’s not pukka. They scoff at Cayennes, they’ve got no time for water-cooled, front-engined four-pots; the 924, 944 and 968 are none of their business. The 928? Just a 944 with a V8 in it. And the Boxster/Cayman? Not a proper Porsche, the engine’s in the middle. These people don’t know what they’re missing. There really aren’t any bad Porsches, and the original 986-generation Boxster is one of the best cars the company ever built. The early 2.5 is pretty good, the revised 2.7 is a peach, but the one you want to go for is the 3.2-litre Boxster S – this one has 250bhp, and caused a few worried glances to be cast around the boardroom at Porsche, because it was as quick as a 911 Cabriolet and handled better, while being markedly cheaper. And the Boxster’s handling really is supernaturally good – it pulls off the improbable trick of being precise without being overly firm; it’s frantically eager but comfortable too. Very weird. And you can buy your way into this kind of weirdness from about £6,000 – which, for one of the best Porsches ever made, is a stupefying bargain.
Top 3 mods: Bilstein B16s, 911 Turbo brakes, lightened flywheel
VW Golf GTI (Mk5)
The Mk5 Golf GTI had to be good. It needed to. The lightweight Mk1 has gone down in history as being a champion of the hot hatch genre, something so unbelievably tactile and willing that it plasters a smile across your face on every drive. The Mk2 has achieved similar legend status; while bolting the Mk1 GTI’s mechanicals into the heavier Mk2 body didn’t really set hearts aflame, the evolution from so-so 8v to stellar 16v was a masterstroke. …and then it kinda went downhill. While the Mk3 GTI does have its fans, it was roundly criticised for being heavy, slow, and annoyingly dull. And the Mk4 GTI? That was a disaster at launch. 115bhp from a 2.0-litre? Rubbish. Sure, VW redeemed themselves by easing in the 1.8T and steadily increasing power to make the Mk4 into a good car, but the reputational damage had been done. Thankfully, when the Mk5 GTI arrived in 2005, it was a bloody superb effort. A true return to form. The turbocharged 2.0-litre TFSI offered nigh-on 200bhp, the styling was crisp, the seats were huggy, and the chassis was fantastic. It may be bigger and more complex than the Mk1 (that’s just progress), but this £5,000 everyday hero is every bit as fun. Forget the DSG and go for a manual, point it toward some country lanes, and remind yourself what hair-raising driving is all about.
Top 3 mods: Ramair induction, Forge FMIC, Milltek exhaust
BMW M3 (E46)
M3 fans are funny people. There have been numerous generations of this fabled and iconic model, and each one has its champions who think theirs is the best. The wide-hipped E30 is, of course, the original, and values are understandably skyrocketing. E36 fans reckon theirs is the one to have – ‘the last properly over-engineered BMW’, they say. The later E90 is beloved for its muscle car aggression, thanks to its sodding great V8, although that engine makes a lot of BMW fans gripe that ‘it’s not a proper M3 with a V8, it should have a straight-six’ (neatly forgetting that the E30 was a four-cylinder…). The E46? We reckon that’s the pony to bet on right now. This brawny, aggressive coupé came with the 3.2-litre S54 straight-six, one of the all-time great engines, with six individual throttle bodies and an 8,000rpm redline. The body is exactly how a muscle-coupé is supposed to look, and the handling is wild. It has an incredible ability to morph to your driving style – keep things tight and precise and there are few cars that can cover ground quicker point-to-point; however, if you get lairy and hang the tail out, you can drift like a touge hero and detonate your tyres in minutes. This car is whatever you want it to be. It’s also still under £10k, just, although that won’t be the case for long…
Top 3 mods: BC coilovers, Injen intake, Dinan exhaust
Ford Fiesta ST
The Mk7 Fiesta ST won pretty much every award that it was eligible to be considered for. From 2013 right up to 2017 it was hooking silverware with plaques saying ‘Best Hot Hatch’, ‘Car of the Year’, you name it. And deservedly so, as Ford managed to deftly pull off the 205 GTI trick: take a mundane hatchback, shove in a hot engine, and do incredibly surprising things to the chassis. No wonder everyone loves the ST, it’s so universally lovable. The intelligent little 1.6-litre EcoBoost motor delivers 180bhp and, while it’s as quiet as a church mouse around town, it roars like a lion when you’re approaching the red line. The nimble little chassis dances to your own tune, almost as if you’re willing it into position rather than twiddling that roundy thing in front of you, and there’s an overboost feature on full throttle which’ll give you 197bhp for up to fifteen seconds. And be honest, how often are you on full throttle for more than fifteen seconds…? An absolute honey of a car, this is guaranteed to go down in history as one of the greats. In twenty-five years’ time, these’ll be going through auctions for the crazy money we’re seeing 205 GTIs selling for now… and today? You can get an early 2013 ST for £8,000!
Top 3 mods: Eibach Pro-Kit springs, Cobb AccessPort, Mountune FMIC
Literally any rental car at all
Apart from white vans, the fastest thing on the road is a rental car. Everyone knows that. Whether it’s the pop-popping twin-cylinder Fiat you get given on your mates’ holiday to Magaluf, or the slightly smelly Vectra you’re lumped with when your pride and joy ends up in pieces at the garage, there’s a certain lack of fear or personal responsibility that comes with trundling about in someone else’s motor. We’re not advocating irresponsible driving of course, but rental cars flick a switch in your brain: they’re owned by faceless corporations, they will have been thrashed by everyone who’s ever driven them, they’ll be scrapped by the time they’re five years old because they’ll have lost the will to live. So these are the cars that, in the real world, you can push hardest. Brake later. Corner more heroically. Be aggressive with the clutch. Scrape those door handles on the tarmac. Hey, you’re paying through the nose for this – get your money’s worth! Sometimes you win the rental car lottery too: we recently had to lower ourselves to running a rented Insignia for the weekend, and when we went to collect they gave us a brand new BMW 520d instead. Ching-ching! A diesel executive has never been ragged so hard…
Top 3 mods: Collision damage waiver, heavy right foot, apologetic smile when you hand the keys back