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
Engine: 1742cc, I4, turbo
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.
Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ
Engine: 1998cc, boxer-4, N/A
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.
Mazda MX-5 ND
Engine: 1998cc, I4, N/A
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.
BMW 135i E82
Engine: 2979cc, I6, TT
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.
Hyundai i30 SR
Engine: 1591cc, I4, Turbo
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.
Holden Astra VXR
Engine: 1998cc, I4, turbo
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.
Ford Focus XR5 Turbo
Engine: 2521cc, I5, turbo
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.
Engine: 3498cc, V6, N/A
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.
Mercedes-Benz CLS55 AMG
Engine: 5439cc, V8, supercharger
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.
Engine: 1984cc, I4, turbo
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.
How are you finding our new site design? Tell us in the comments below or send us your thoughts at email@example.com.
The world's most thrilling performance car magazine. Delivered to your door each month.
The top 10 greatest V12 engines
There are engines more popular, but none as exotic or mighty as the V12. Hail to the king
Top 10 coolest homologation specials
As these competition-inspired wonders prove, car makers have long exploited showrooms to build the ultimate in motorsport
The top 10 JDM gems that never escaped Japan
These are the forgotten performance heroes that were never officially sold outside Japan