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Source: Autocar

Top 10 best affordable sports cars 2023

March 17th, 2023

Alpine A110 The demise of the affordable sports car has been heralded too early. Here are our top ten routes to fun on a budget.

Dependable sources of real driver entertainment, that can be procured on a real-world budget, aren't quite as easy to find as once they were. But, even allowing for the reordered priorities of the modern car industry, affordable sports cars do still exist in 2023. They may not be as numerous as before; thanks to our inflationary times, many don't seem as affordable. But they exist: and, right now, they're cars that demand to be seized and cherished.

These are Autocar's top ten affordable sports cars. Among them are mid-engined two-seaters, front-engined roadsters, big-engined muscle cars and lightweight specials. The one thing they share is an affordable asking price (50,000 or below in most cases; and quite a long way below in some) - and the capacity to light up your motoring as often as the mood takes.

Some of these cars could easily serve as daily transport; for others, that'd be the case only for the genuinely (some might say, hopelessly) enthusiastic. But every one of them delivers large for a relatively small outlay, and every one merits your attention if you love little more than an empty road and the time to simply enjoy it.

1. Alpine A110

Every significant constituent part of the Alpine A110 driving experience - from the rasping turbocharged torque of its engine to the immersive poise and panache of its handling - is all about the F word: fun. It brings to life journeys and roads that rivals wouldn't, and possesses dynamics for which your affection can only grow as you explore them more closely.

Anatomise the car and you'll find an all-aluminium body, a mid-mounted engine, and double wishbones for the suspension at each end. All are generally the preserve of supercars, and lay the foundations for the four-cylinder Alpine to feel much more than the sum of its parts.

The standard A110 arrived in 2017, to a rapturous welcome from critics and owners alike. The later arrival of the Alpine A110 S saw power rise from 248bhp to 288bhp (and it has subsequently climbed to 296bhp), with firmer suspension and bigger brakes fitted; but it's the basic A110 that remains the sweeter, more involving machine for road driving in our estimation. Various special editions, including the plush Legende GT, have also come and gone - not to mention the range-topping, extra-specialised Alpine A110 R; but none has supplanted the entry-level car in our affections, which has such an enticing and delicate kind of poise, grip and body control.

Rarely does a car come along so devoted to driver involvement, and so singularly effective at it, even among affordable sports cars. The last time was probably the Toyota GT86 in 2012: a car to which we also gave a five-star recommendation for its supreme fitness to the purpose of sucking the marrow out of every mile. The A110 is quicker, more agile, more effusive and ultimately even more fun. It deserves no less of an ovation.

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2. Porsche 718 Boxster and Cayman

Even with its downsized four-cylinder turbo petrol engine, and even as we near its replacement by an all-electric Boxster and Caymanin 2025, the Porsche 718 remains by some distance the most complete mid-engined sports car on sale. Misgivings about the way the car's crank is now turned have been voiced from plenty of quarters since 2016, and have now been persuasive enough that Porsche has returned a flat-six engine to this car for range-topping Cayman and Boxster GTS versions. But whether fitted with a four- or a six-cylinder motor, be in no doubt: the Boxster and Cayman have always been, and remain, excellent sports cars.

The four-cylinder 2.0-litre and 2.5-litre turbo flat fours that were pressed into service in the car in 2016 attracted particular criticism for sounding toneless; for lacking smoothness, crispness of response, linearity and operating range; and also coming up short on the purist driver appeal typically associated with Porsche. Later, Porsche retuned the car's 2.0-litre engine for WLTP emissions compliance and released the Boxster T and Cayman T - whose unresponsiveness made a controversial situation worse.

However, in one of the most unexpected industry U-turns in recent memory, in 2019 Porsche reintroduced a naturally aspirated flat-six engine in upper-level GTS, GT4 and Boxster Spyder models. It's a superb engine by any standards - based on the 3.0-litre unit in the '992' 911, only enlarged to 4.0 litres and shorn of the turbos. The long-geared manual 'box it's partnered with doesn't flatter it nearly as well as it should - but you can avoid it if you plump for a two-pedal PDK; or if you've got the budget to progress all the way up to the super-short-geared, PDK-only, savage but brilliant Cayman GT4 RS.

At the other end of the model spectrum, both Boxster and Cayman remain practical, ever-engaging to drive, and plenty fast even in four-cylinder form. The 718 still has it all - and it takes a car of once-in-a-generation dynamic brilliance to beat it.

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3. Ariel Atom 4

Anyone with a 50,000 budget to spend on something in which they just want to enjoy themselves would be remiss in the extreme to overlook one of the most direct and glaringly obvious solutions to their brief: the utterly brilliant Ariel Atom 4.

This lightweight two-seater is part motorbike, part car, part tubular curio. Clearly, it's not a car with any real practical use whatsoever. But, while demanding plenty of commitment from its driver, it's superbly involving and characterful. Our favourite lightweight sports car, the Atom keeps it focus squarely on the essentials. A windscreen is an optional extra - and if you don't go for one, a helmet is an absolute must.

But huge pace and almost unrivalled excitement are this car's crowning glories. The former comes from the car's turbocharged Honda four-cylinder engine, which can be turned up as far as 350bhp in a car weighing little more than 600kg. But the latter isn't just about superbike-baiting acceleration. The Atom 4's chassis is singularly adjustable, and can be made so easily to work every bit as well on a bumpy, flowing B-road as on a track day; something you can rarely say about cars of the Atom's rampant outright circuit pace and visceral physicality.

Getting on top of an Atom 4 on the track, and getting every scrap of performance from it, is a challenge like few sports cars can offer in 2023. Answering it, and then loosening your belts, dialling down your dampers, and gently bobbing your way back home makes you feel alive like little else on four wheels can.

4. Toyota GR86

How do you improve on perfection? If you're Toyota and you need to replace the already excellent GT86, then you add a bit more power and grip, give the looks and interior a much-needed refresh, and you really needn't do much else.

Okay, so there's rather more to the Toyota GR86 than that, but not much. For starters, the newcomer is built on a strengthened version of the old car's chassis and shell, while under the bonnet there's now a more muscular flat-floor motor that's been stretched to 2.5-litres and 232bhp. The suspension and steering have been subtly revised, while the GT86's Michelin Primacy tyres are swapped for gummier Pilot Sport 4s (for the UK market, at least, where Toyota's sportier rolling chassis specification is the only one offered).

The GR86 is a slightly firmer, grippier car than the one it replaces, but for the most part it handles in much the same way: with beautifully balanced rear-wheel-drive attitude that can be exploited at any speed on track - but a little less accessibly on the road than in the GT86. Yes, the engorged engine delivers more pace, but not much more.

Elsewhere, the GR86 looks smarter than before, while the interior is classier without sacrificing its predecessor's surprising practicality. Oh, and with prices starting at 29,995, it's cracking value too.There is, however, a snag - and a big one at that. Changes to European-market safety laws mean the GR86 will only remain available in the UK until early 2024; and, with all of the cars that Toyota expects to import already sold, the car is effectively already off sale. A handful of examples may pop up as cancelled orders - but expect them to be sold at a premium.

5. Mazda MX-5

There isn't a single area in which this fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 fails to surpass its predecessor. It's shorter, lighter, more spacious and better laid out. It's sharper looking but still disarming, and not at all ostentatious. It's also faster, more frugal and even more vibrant and engaging to drive.

In 2018, Mazda facelifted its iconic roadster, with the headline change being a 23bhp power hike for its feisty 2.0-litre engine. A steering column that also now adjusts for reach was also introduced, addressing one of the Mazda's only ergonomic drawbacks.

More minor tweaks have been executed since, the latest being for the 2023 model year. As part of it, Mazda UK changed the standard soft-top car's model name convention from 'MX-5 Convertible' to 'MX-5 Roadster'; renamed its derivative trim levels (in place of SE-L, Sport and GT, now Prime, Exclusive and Homura); and added a Zircon Sand paint option.

Mechanically, no changes were made; and so 1.5-litre MX-5s still develop 130bhp, while 2.0-litre models make 181bhp but also get a front strut brace, limited-slip differential and uprated Bilstein dampers as standard.

Whichever you choose, rear-driven chassis poise and lots of driver involvement is guaranteed. That's because the MX-5 is still every inch the same zesty and inimitable car that it always was. Its character hasn't really changed at all in three decades, and nothing on this list offers a better pounds-per-smile rating.

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6. Morgan Super 3

The first Morgan 3 Wheeler (as in the 2012 reinvention, rather than the 1909 original) proved to be a surprise hit for the Malvern maker. Around 2500 left the factory over a 10-year production run, which for the nichiest of niche manufacturers is as close to mass production as you get.

With its all-new car, the Morgan Super 3,the brand can expect even greater success as it oozes the same spirit and charm of its predecessor, yet comes in a far more versatile and modern package. The unique three-wheel layout remains the same, as do the upturned bathtub looks; but under the skin there's a stronger monocoque construction, more sophisticated suspension, and a turbocharged three-cylinder Ford Fiesta engine in place of the throbbing Harley-Davidson V-Twin.

Tipping the scales at just 635kg, the 118bhp Morgan is brisk, its performance aided by a snickety five-speed manual sourced from the Mazda MX-5. Yet it's the way the skinny-tyred machine tackles corners that delivers the real delight, the modest grip levels and well-balanced handling making it huge fun at any speed - but especially, accessibly so on the road.

Yes, the lack of weather protection means you need to be committed (and weather-protected) on longer journeys, while a price the wrong side of 40,000 stretches the definition of 'affordable' a little. Most lightweight specials offer greater outright pace and better circuit suitability than this; and the last 3 Wheeler had a natch more character.

But when all you want to do is drive on the sort of roads that most of us use every day, and grab every moment of joy you can while doing so, then few cars will have your heart singing more loudly.

7. Caterham Seven

For over 70 years, the Caterham Seven in all its forms (Lotus and Caterham) has been setting a defining standard for pure driver thrills. If you don't care about refinement, disregard modern crash safety tests, and wonder instead what kind of sports car will entertain you most widely and vividly wherever you happen to be, then this diminutive British sports car is hard to beat.

The most affordable way into a new Seven is the Caterham Seven 170, which starts at 28,990 if you're willing to wield the spanners and build it yourself. With its 84bhp turbocharged 660cc Suzuki engine, the Caterham looks a little weedy on paper; but a kerb weight of as little as 440kg means 0-60mph can be done and dusted in under seven seconds, the gargling three-pot engine encouraging you all the way.

Above the Seven 170, Caterham now offers the retro-themed Super Seven 600 and Super Seven 2000. Extended front cycle wings and plenty of body chrome trim give these cars classic Seven looks: but they can still be bought and built in kit form, the latter offering 180bhp of Ford Duratec power.

Move up again and you're into proper performance Caterham territory, where proper motorsport-ready Sevens can be found with as much as 310bhp, sequential gearboxes, full roll cages, track-ready slick tyres and fully adjustable suspension systems. Here, even the madcap Caterham Seven 620R could be yours, fully factory built and ready to go, for a lot less than the price of a Porsche 718 Cayman GT4.

Cheaper Sevens get a live rear axle and lack the ride sophistication of the pricier De Dion-equipped cars; but with their skinny tyres and wrist-flick steering, they can still dance this way and that through corners, entertaining like only lightweight cars could. The most innocent and exhilarating fun on four wheels? Quite possibly.

8. Toyota GR Supra

Was the Toyota Supra the most hotly anticipated new car of 2019? Quite possibly. After an absence lasting some two decades, Toyota's iconic sports car finally returned to the UK. But were it not for a collaboration with BMW - out of which the new BMW Z4 was also spawned - it's likely this icon would never have been reborn. As such, beneath the Supra's striking exterior, you'll find an engine, platform, transmission, slippy diff, electrics and plenty of switchgear all distinctly Bavarian in origin.

And yet when it comes to driving, the Supra succeeds in carving out its own distinct dynamic identity. The suspension, steering and diff calibration are all unique to the Supra; so much so that Toyota sees the Porsche 718 Cayman - rather than the Z4 - as its key rival.

Toyota certainly isn't pulling its punches, then. And in many ways, it's the Supra that makes for the superior sports car. It might not be able to quite match the handling purity and balance of a 4-cyl Porsche 718 Cayman or Boxster, but - for a relatively heavy front-engined prospect - it isn't far off. Its ride is impressively supple, its engine is smooth and far more characterful, and it'd be easier to live with on a daily basis.

For those for whom the six-cylinder model's price tag is a little too rich, meanwhile, Toyota has lately released the Toyota GR Supra 2.0, a slightly cheaper, four-cylinder 2.0-litre version of the car whose handling might even benefit from the relative lightness of the smaller engine. The hairy-chested straight six, meanwhile, can now be had with a manual gearbox, making it one of the most compelling old-school sportsters out there.

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9.Ford Mustang GT

The sensible thing to do would be to buy an Audi TT or a BMW 2-Series Coupe wouldn't it? Well, this is the sports car market, where sensible plays second fiddle. And, even in 2023, a Ford Mustang GT with a 444bhp V8 engine can still be yours for less than 50k.

The current sixth-generation 'Stang came along in 2016 - and was the first to come to the UK in factory-built, right-hand-drive form. A bit of a landmark, then. Even so, the Mustang ownership experience has a few drawbacks in the UK. The car's sheer size means you have to think twice about where you're going to park it in town, and what kinds of country lanes you might seek out with it.

With its dipsomaniac 5.0-litre V8, meanwhile, you'll need to factor in a greater number of visits to fuel pump than your peers in their German sports cars will need to make. Ford of Europe used to offer a four-cylinder engine in the car to soften the blow on this front, but has since discontinued it.

This is a throwback of a sports car, needless to say; and yet, even in 2023, few direct rivals have such obvious likability. The Mustang's powertrain brings with it an appeal that engines with fewer cylinders simply don't muster, and its rear-drive chassis balance is pretty peachy, too.

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10. Morgan Plus Four

We're stretching the bounds of qualification by including this car at the foot of our Top 10 best affordable sports cars roster; but with justifiable mitigation.Worcestershire's Morgan currently sells its cheapest four-wheeled sports car, the Morgan Plus Four, from a whisker under 63,000. But, because it's become a modern sports car brand with all avenues catered to - and because Morgan sports cars have an almost unrivalled ability to hold their value - the company can offer surprisingly affordable finance deals on its models. Price up a Plus Four, therefore, and you might just find that it works out every bit as affordable on a monthly basis as any number of the other runners and riders on this list.

Which isn't to say that a Morgan Plus Four would be anything like a Porsche 718 Boxster or Toyota GR Supra to own. Old-world charm is what this car exists to engender. Its design is about as inimitably retro as that of any car on the road. But under its aluminium bodywork now sits a turbocharged BMW four-cylinder engine and an all-aluminium monocoque chassis, making this the first four-cylinder Morgan in the thick end of a century not to use a 'traditional' ladder-frame construction.

With 255bhp on tap, the Plus Four isn't backwards coming forwards; but it remains a sports car for a particular, slightly laid back stride. It's a car from which to take in a perfect English summer's afternoon - with a bit of gusto, but nothing like as much as you might be tempted to with some sports cars. Narrow and zippy, it makes short work of country lanes; but its cloth hood and half doors make for noisy motorway cruising - and neither its ride nor its limit handling are quite as well-resolved as you might expect for your 60,000 sports car budget.

Even with a modern chassis and a modern turbocharged BMW engine, the Morgan Plus Four remains evocative to a fault; but it's still wonderful in its leafy, unhurried element.

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