How fast can you go for a grand? We’ve found ten likely candidates here, which we reckon provide the best combination of power, performance and style for under a grand – just don’t blame us if they go really fast once and then explode. You pay your money, you make your choice…
Saab 9-3 Aero
If you want brutal ponies on the cheap, you’ve got to tap up the Swedish horsepower mafia. There are few better ways to reach ludicrous speeds for under a grand than the 9-3 Aero – plus it’s a really cool car, cleverly designed, nicely put together… so why are they so cheap?
Well, part of it might be the fact that Saab as a company doesn’t exist any more, so people are nervous that they won’t be able to get it serviced or find parts when it breaks. (This isn’t the case, there’s oodles of specialists.)
Now, the one we really want to recommend to you is the 9-3 V6 Turbo Aero, which has a mighty 276bhp and makes awesome whooshing noises – but realistically, you’re unlikely to find one for under a grand. (If you do, grab it with both hands!)
However, the 2.0-litre turbo 9-3 Aero is a damn good car, readily available for peanuts, and gives you an eager 210bhp in stock form. A cheap-and-easy remap from someone like NoobTune will get you up to 250bhp, and then a downpipe and sport cat will get you to the same power level as the V6. Easy-peasy, job done. And it should be pretty reliable too!
Top 3 mods: remap, downpipe/sport cat, FMIC
The E46 generation of BMW’s 3 Series is a properly hot ticket right now. It hails from an era that predates electric power steering and inert handling; it’s analogue in an old-school way while also still being pretty modern. They’re built tough too – as long as you can find one that’s not rusting away in the arches or riddled with dash lights, you should be on to a winner.
We were tempted to put the 330i in this list as it’s such an excellent car, but to be honest if you buy a 330i for under a grand it’s going to be shite. But the 328i? That shows a lot of promise – it’s got close to 200bhp from its creamy-smooth straight-six, BMW sold oodles of them so you can pick and choose your spec depending on whether you want to be OAP-stealthy or pseudo-M3-flashy, and the grown-up interior will make you feel like a winner.
It’ll do 149mph, it’s got loads of toys, and if you’re lucky it shouldn’t break too extravagantly. Turn off the traction control and go and find some roundabouts!
Top 3 mods: BC Racing coilovers, Mishimoto intake, Borla exhaust
Yeah, we know what you’re thinking. Buying a cheap RX-8 is a one-way ticket to the poorhouse, right? But not necessarily. You see, people are scared of these cars because they’re suspicious of rotary engines, but rotaries are actually very simple – and if you look after them (i.e. keep obsessively checking there’s enough oil in there) they can run happily for just as long as a piston engine.
Obviously the sort of RX-8 you’re likely to find for under a grand is quite likely to have a screwed engine already, given how people tend to neglect them, but the important thing is that some won’t – they’ll just have been priced at market value. If it runs right, and you cross your fingers really hard (or better yet, give it an oil change and run a compression test), bob’s your uncle.
The higher-powered six-port motor gives you 231bhp right out of the box, and if you plug in a COBB Accessport – which is sort of like a remap without the remap – you’ll have an easy 10% power gain. Strip out the interior to improve that power-to-weight ratio, and you’ll have a properly quick car.
Top 3 mods: COBB Accessport, Eibach ARBs, Cusco strut brace
Fiat Coupé 20v Turbo
Here’s one to take with a pinch of salt. Why? Well, enthusiasts of the Coupe will tell you that it’s brilliantly reliable and cheap-ish to run; we know of a fella who’s put over 200,000 miles on his and regularly takes it hillclimbing. However, we’ve owned a couple of these ourselves and, with the best will in the world, they made better ornaments than they did modes of transport.
Still, if you buy a good one, you’re in for a hell of a ride. The 16v Turbo version is brilliant (yes, believe the hype, that is the same engine as the Lancia Delta Integrale), but the five-cylinder 20v Turbo is even better – it’s makes a lovely noise and puts out just shy of 220bhp. There’s an LSD as standard, a superb all-independent suspension setup with nice thick anti-roll bars that makes it handle like an absolute champ, and if you buy a post-1998 one you get a 6-speed gearbox.
The body is gorgeous, its scallops and slashes styled by Chris Bangle (the fella who did all the flame-surfacing BMWs), while the frankly magnificent interior was done by Pininfarina. If you buy a good Coupe, you’ll have a jolly nice time. Mint ones are £6k+, but slightly less good ones are often sub-£1k. Worth the risk, we reckon.
Top 3 mods: remap, Powerflow exhaust, K&N induction
Renaultsport Clio 172
The 172 is in an interesting position right now. Back when it was new in the late-1990s, it was roundly praised for being the best FWD car that money could buy, and the subsequent hot Clios – the 182, 197 and so on – have continued the trend. For this reason, there are a few speculators (or, y’know, chancers) who are advertising Renaultsport Clio 172s for silly money, on the grounds that it’s a collectible. They’ve seen the way 205 GTI values are skyrocketing and they’re eyeing this up as the next big thing. But the budget workaround for us here is the phrase ‘track car’.
Yep, the 172 flew off the forecourts and loads were sold – and not all of them were pampered and cherished. Plenty of them were stripped out, fitted with bucket seats and rollcages, and mercilessly punished on track. And these are the 172s that you often see popping up on your favourite online auction site for under £1,000.
Yes, they’re a bit rough around the edges, but you’re not looking for a concours show car at this price are you? The key facts are that there’s a beautifully revvy 2.0-litre 16v motor in there, a fabulously poised chassis, and the potential to go faster than you ever thought possible in a rattly little Clio.
Top 3 mods: 182 exhaust manifold, coilovers, Goodridge braided lines
Volvo C70 T5
Driving a hot Volvo is a bit like dating wayward twins in a low-budget 1990s sitcom: you spend half your time doing sensible, grown-up things, and the other half haring around in a directionless fashion with a figurative Exocet missile in your hind quarters.
The first-gen C70 was a saucy proposition when it launched in 1998, as Volvo were largely known for big boxy estates at the time – here was a slinky coupe and caddish convertible with big power and opulent appointments, styled curvaceously and out to impress. Now, we’re going to suggest you steer clear of the convertible, because if the pronounced scuttle shake doesn’t annoy you enough, the terrible visibility will.
No, go for the coupe, and make sure you get the T5. This was sold between 1998-2002 and had the 2.3-litre T5 motor putting out 237bhp, which really ain’t bad at all. The C70 was based on the 850 platform, so there’s a bit of BTCC DNA in there, and the chassis was developed by TWR, which makes it even racier. And being a Volvo, they’re pretty much bulletproof. All you need to see over 300bhp is a remap, 3” downpipe and uprated exhaust. Happy days.
Top 3 mods: remap, 3” downpipe, Jetex exhaust
SEAT Leon Cupra 20VT
This is a proper wolf in sheep’s clothing, particularly if you can find one in a grandad-spec burgundy or dark blue – the only clues to your performance potential will be the Cupra badges and multispoke wheels. Values of the more powerful Cupra R are steadily climbing, but the lesser 180bhp-spec Cupra 20VT still regularly pops up in MOTed and usable form for about £500, meaning that you’ve got plenty of budget left over for mods.
If you luck out and find a BAM engine from a TT in your local scrappie (and have the skills to swap it yourself), that’s 225bhp right there. Otherwise, tuning options for the K03S 1.8T are endless; a stage 1 remap takes you to 210bhp, and decent exhaust and induction bring things closer to 220bhp.
If you find a few extra pennies down the back of the sofa, you can go stage 2 with a decat and uprated intercooler, and then you’ll be somewhere around 250-260bhp. All in a car that looks like an OAP popping to the garden centre. Fun!
Top 3 mods: remap, RamAir induction, Milltek exhaust
You know what the Americans always say – ‘there’s no replacement for displacement’. Perhaps with the thousand pounds that’s burning a hole in your pocket, you just want to buy something with a sodding great engine? Sure thing, you’ll be wanting a Jaguar.
Used Jags have always suffered the same issue when it comes to residuals – they’re expensive to run, maintain and buy parts for, and the potential for big bills keeps sale prices low. Which is obviously good news if you’re just in this for a quick hit, because there’s plenty of perfectly good Jaguars out there selling for bargain-basement cash, ready and waiting to be abused. What we’ve got our eye on here is the XJ series – specifically, the X308 generation that was sold between 1997-2002.
There’s no point getting the 3.2-litre version if you’re aiming for big-displacement thrills, and you’re unlikely to find the top-of-the-range supercharged one for under a grand, which steers you directly toward the nat-asp 4.0-litre V8 variant. It kicks out a growly 290bhp, and carries its (not inconsiderable) weight with a certain urgency. You don’t get a manual gearbox or an LSD unfortunately, but you do get loads of wood and leather, which will be slightly tatty at this price point but who cares? Get your toe down and be disreputable.
Top 3 mods: sheepskin jacket, fat cigar, copy of Racing Post
Vauxhall Vectra 3.2
First of all, we have to apologise. We are sort of suggesting you should buy a Vectra. Sorry about that. But there is some logic behind this. You see, this was a massively unit-shifting model, built to be utilitarian and affordable, and it sold in huge numbers; whereas the Corsa was aimed at young drivers who were hooked in by the finance and insurance deals, so the Vectra was aiming squarely at the fleet market.
OK, the 3.2-litre version wasn’t as popular with fleet managers as the diesel variants, but there’s still loads of them on the market and they sell for next to nothing at all. Somewhere around £600 seems to be the going rate for a Vectra C 3.2 GSI, which gives you 208bhp straight away – a lot of bhp-per-pound.
And you’re right, 208bhp does sound like a strangely small number for such a large displacement, but there’s stuff you can do about that. Exhaust, induction and remap gets you up to about 230-240bhp; whack on some Yellow Stuff pads and Eibach springs, strip out that interior (it’s horrible anyway), and enjoy some cheap-as-chips horsepower.
Top 3 mods: K&N Apollo induction, Remus exhaust, remap
Mercedes CLK 320
The temptation with Mercs of this sort of vintage is to gravitate toward the Kompressor models, simply because superchargers are for winners. But the nat-asp CLK 320 is more powerful and, if you have a look through the classifieds, you’ll spot that these first-gen models are starting to dip below the £1,000 mark.
Sure, these cars aren’t without their problems – an enthusiasm for rust being one of them – but look at the positives: you get a well screwed-together and super-comfy interior, all the toys, that iconic badge on the nose and, most importantly, a deep-lunged 3.2-litre V6. Peak power in stock form is 221bhp (you get a lot more from the V8 models, but if you buy one of those for under a grand it’ll definitely explode immediately), and to be honest it’s not the most tuneable motor, but the 320 has a surprising trick up its sleeve: it’s an absolute lunatic!
No, we can’t fathom it either. 221bhp is a fairly decent number, but this isn’t the lightest car, and the slushbox is pretty ponderous – but despite all that, this thing accelerates like its backside’s on fire. That gearbox, in fact, is a very willing accomplice once it’s on the boil, wringing out the revs right up to the redline if you keep your foot planted. Makes a great noise too. So no mods required here – if you want a surprisingly quick car for under a grand that you can just jump into and be silly with, get a CLK 320. Just bear in mind that’ll be a bit thirsty.
Top 3 mods: more petrol, more petrol, more petrol
Words Dan Bevis