The top 10 underrated performance car underdogs

Ten contemporary overlooked driving gems you've been sleeping on

Top 10 underrated underdogs

A booming secondhand car market and a new car industry on the precipice of arguably the largest shift since the advent of the internal-combustion motorcar, has seen an unprecedented demand for many of the more engaging, pure and less-tech filled vehicles of yesteryear.

In no particular order, here are ten underrated modern driver's vehicles that have been flying under the radar.

Alfa Romeo Giulietta QV

Produced: 2010-2020
Engine: 1742cc, I4, turbo
Output: 177kW/340Nm

The simplistic pitch for Alfa Romeo’s Giulietta QV is its exotic 1.7-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine, which is lifted from the Alfa 4C and put in a practical five-door hatchback. It’s a characterful unit with a riotous soundtrack, and a distinctive turbo kick as it comes on boost at 5000rpm.

The 320mm four-piston Brembos provide welcome stopping power for the deceptively rapid hot hatch. The QV may not be as complete a package as the equivalent Golf GTI, but what it may lack in overall polish, it will make up for in Italian flair.

Motor Features Alfa Romeo Giulietta Quadrifoglio Verde 84

Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ

Produced: 2012-present
Engine: 1998cc, boxer-4, N/A
Output: 152kW/212Nm

The original Toyota 86 (and Subaru’s BRZ) may seem like an obvious choice, but the contemporary cultural zeitgeist often sees them unfairly derided as underpowered 'hair-dresser's cars. In actuality, the charming coupe has one of the most capable chassis’ you can purchase second hand.

If you’re after a Sunday morning corner-carver, or a weekend track-day hack, one of the Toyobaru twins would be the perfect starting platform with early examples asking $17k and up. There’s huge aftermarket support and they’re easily serviceable for the burgeoning at-home mechanic.

Motor Features Toyota 86 Gts 63

Mazda MX-5 ND

Produced: 2016-Present
Engine: 1998cc, I4, N/A
Output: 135kW/205Nm

The effervescent NA MX-5 remains a shining beacon for lightweight sports cars, but soaring classic values make the ND-generation offspring a more appealing prospect. And it captures much of the same magic, too: with near-identical external dimensions, weight, and more power.

The smaller-engined 1.5-litre car draws just 95kW, while the ‘big-block’ 2.0-litre yields 135kW. If you want to cover a B-road fastest, this isn’t the car for you; but the modern MX-5 makes sense as a contemporary equivalent to a glorious old British MG or Austin-Healey, just with less oil leaks and fire risks.

Motor Features Mazda Mx 5 133

BMW 135i E82

Produced: 2007-2013
Engine: 2979cc, I6, TT
Output: 225kW/400Nm

The first shortlist of this feature originally comprised of an E92 335i, but we reckon most driving enthusiasts will find the E82 1 Series to be just ‘the right size’.

It uses the same 3.0-litre twin-turbo N54, or single twin-scroll turbocharged N55 post-update, as the larger 3 Series sedan, yet differs in its ‘big engine, small car’ experience. The twin-turbo N54 is slightly more tuner-friendly, but both configurations boast huge aftermarket support if you want it.

In factory configuration, the 135i will clock 100km/h in less than five seconds and, if you can find a manual, will be a car that we only grow fonder of in the future.

Motor Features Bmw 135 I Coupe 89

Hyundai i30 SR

Produced: 2016-Present
Engine: 1591cc, I4, Turbo
Output: 150kW/265Nm

For a moment in time, Hyundai’s third-generation i30 was simply the default answer for almost any prospective hatchback purchase. The sporty 150kW SR was generously equipped and was regarded as the particular sweet-spot in the range.

Though the i30 has since been updated, it remains a tremendously astute purchase for anyone after a modern daily driver with some real driving credence to boot. Both 2017 and 2018-plated cars can be had for less than $25k on the second-hand market and will still pack a number of years in residual warranty – an added bonus.

Motor Features Hyundai I 30 Sr 49

Holden Astra VXR

Produced: 2012-2015
Engine: 1998cc, I4, turbo
Output: 206kW/400Nm

When the Astra VXR appeared in 2015, it bore an unmistakable resemblance to the Opel-badged Astra OPC. For good reason, as it was much the same package that the struggling brand offered in 2013 before it retreated from Oz.

When the Holden-badged VXR reappeared in 2015, it boasted 206kW/400Nm and was backed up by a full suite of go-fast bits including mechanical LSD, Brembos and Sachs electronically adjusted dampers. A Megane RS 265 Cup may be a sharper scalpel, but the Astra VXR offers something unique.

Motor Features Vauxhall Astra Vxr 89

Ford Focus XR5 Turbo

Produced: 2006-2011
Engine: 2521cc, I5, turbo
Output: 166kW/320Nm

Australia’s Ford Focus XR5 Turbo was a bit of a globetrotter; developed by the UK-based RS division, built in Germany, and arriving down under with a Volvo-sourced turbocharged five-pot under the bonnet.

It may sound like a bit of a bits-er but, as a package, it was anything but. Much of the XR5 is characterised by the Swedish five-pot which gave 166kW and 320Nm. Recaro seats and body kit provide a lot of road presence for $12k plus.

Motor Features Ford Focus Xr 5 5

Nissan 350Z

Produced: 2003-2008
Engine: 3498cc, V6, N/A
Output: 214kW/371Nm

To the new-age JDM enthusiasts who lament the loss of affordable S15 Silvias and 200SXs, worry not for the 350Z is here.  Why pay what was once genuine GT-R money for an old four-pot coupe from the 90s? A Z33 350Z is half the price and affords you a more modern package, a durable VQ35 engine and a versatile chassis supported by the same expansive aftermarket network that made the old Silvia a cult classic.

If you want a modern RWD coupe platform, that’s not an 86, to start a grassroots motorsports build with, this is our recommendation.

Motor Features Nissan 350 Z 35th Anniversary 1

Mercedes-Benz CLS55 AMG

Produced: 2004-2010
Engine: 5439cc, V8, supercharger
Output: 350kW/700Nm

A thundering supercharged V8 AMG may not seem like a bargain proposition but, despite costing almost $250K new, you can pick up a CLS55 today for $30K. That’s a tremendous amount of car for the money, almost two-tonnes in fact.

But despite its portly kerb weight, and elongated luxurious dimensions, the CLS55 was a decent athlete and could reach triple digits in 4.8 seconds. The basis of the 5.4-litre V8 was also utilised in the SLR McLaren. If you’re after a car that feels more expensive than it is, you can’t do much better than this.

Motor Features Mercedes Benz Cls 55 Amg Au Spec 1

Audi S3

Produced: 2013-Present
Engine: 1984cc, I4, turbo
Outputs: 221kW/380Nm

The third-generation (8V) Audi S3 starkly puts the CLS55’s deprecation into perspective, also readily available on the used market for about $30K. Costing more than $65K when new, many struggled to justify the S3 over the Golf R, but perhaps it makes more sense second hand.

As a cohesive package, the S3 still works to great effect today even among younger rivals. Like its VW-badged sibling, the expansive aftermarket offers near limitless tuning potential, and would likely be one of the top picks of this list as a day-to-day, do-it-all driver.

Motor Features Audi S 3 Sedan 17


How are you finding our new site design? Tell us in the comments below or send us your thoughts at


Subscribe to Motor magazine

Subscribe to MOTOR and save up to 49%
The world's most thrilling performance car magazine. Delivered to your door each month.



We recommend


Brabus 900 Rocket Edition

Brabus launches Rocket Edition G63

If you've ever thought a G63 was too subtle, Brabus has a solution for you

10 hours ago
Jordan Mulach
Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.