Here it is: The final 5 Top sports cars in the price range of $40-50k for 2010. Part 1 (click here if you missed it) was a diverse mix of metals from the desert-romping Raptor, to a Caterham that can almost fit in a truck bed. They all provide great fun, or great convenience, and I wouldn’t kick any of them out of my garage. For the Top 5, no concessions were made. There’s no pickup trucks, hybrids, or bone-shattering go-karts here. Just the best performance cars you can get…
#5 Ford Mustang GT500
Simply put, this is arguably the best Mustang Ford has ever produced. I will explain while you grab your notes about solid axles and click the “angry comment cliche” button. Last year’s Mustang GT500 was a nose-heavy behemoth capable of burning tires in a straight line, and little else. It was bi-polar and no one liked it. It was too stiff, but had lots of body roll. It had low profile tires, yet terrible steering feel. Turns were only successful if you could simultaneously scream and pray. It was basically a very pretty noise-maker.
That’s all changed. Ford looked to the superior (and more expensive) Shelby GT500KR for pointers. Then they kidnapped it, took the “KR” badge off, and called it the 2010 GT500. It’s not often I support kidnapping, but I am here. The supercharged 5.4 liter V8 gets a new intake, exhaust and ECU, good for 540 horsepower (an increase of 40) and 510 lb-ft. Launch it just right and 0-60 is over in 4.3 seconds, half a second faster then the 2009 model. The biggest improvement is in the way it handles, because last year it just didn’t. Stiffer springs fore and aft solved the body roll handicap so turn-in is crisp and cornering flat. It’s still a muscle-car, but no longer a scary mess. It weighs the same, but feels lighter. Some journalists are calling it the best-handling Mustang ever.
The interior gets real leather, dual climate zones and trick Shelby accents. 2009 Mustang owners take note: time for a trade-in. The GT500KR sold for $80,000, but the 2010 GT500 starts at just $48,175. Essentially you are getting a GT500KR with $30,000 cash-back. For that money you get a car that has classic good looks, a great soundtrack, 540 horsepower, eats up ¼ miles and spits out corners. There is nothing that does all that for under $50,000.
#4 Mitsubishi EVO MR Touring
My first thought was, “An Evo costs more than $40,000? What happened to performance bargain?” The Evos of the past were (still are) amazing cars. Nothing else with 4 doors is so fast and nimble, for so little money. But they were seriously lacking in the refinement and comfort categories. Interiors in previous Evos reminded me of Kia rental cars, and the big wing will get you carded for an R-rated movie, even if you’re 50. That said, Mitsubishi has now finally upped the ante and introduced the Evo MR Touring, which is basically an Evo for grownups. Gone is the ping-pong table wing, replaced by a slim lip spoiler. Inside the Recaros get wrapped in soft leather, and the center console is upgraded with better materials and high-tech screens. This is an area the Evo has needed help with since it landed in the U.S., and the interior is now befitting of a car that possesses such power.
When Subaru gave the STI the talk about being more mature, it softened it up, but luckily Mitsubishi didn’t make that mistake. You still get the same MIVEC engine with 291 horsepower, fitted to a great dual-clutch transmission, AWD and yaw control. The MSRP of $40,990 is a lot of money, but you won’t find a sedan that can handle both a time attack and a snow storm better. It’s still the same hyper-active Evo MR that can chase super-cars around the curves, but now it wears a suit to work.
#3 BMW 135i
Some called it the BMW 2002ti re-born. Whether you agree or not is irrelevant, because this car is fine standing on its own. Some of you may be wondering why I didn’t pick the 335i instead, but the simple answer is money. You can spend $42,200(MSRP) and get a bare-bones 335i, or you can get a 135i (MSRP $35,850) with the M Pack, Sport Pack, and all the available technology options, for $47,700. What you end up with is a car that has the same amazing 300hp engine and all the creature comforts and gizmos from the 335i, in a car that weighs 200lbs less. That translates to acceleration close to the 400hp, V8-powered M3(click for video). This car, like many in this list, is an incredible bargain. Power, handling, comfort and technology, all passed down from its bigger brother and put into a slick little coupe body.
There’s another reason I put this car so high on the list, and that’s because of its potential. There are so many tuners out there right now working on big-name projects. This was the year of Porsches, R35s, and exotics. So much so the market seems to have forgotten where the tuning world came from, normal people. Without people tuning compacts, imported sedans and other so-called “lesser cars”, there would be no Lamborghini bodykits or GTR AccessPorts. I think this car is a great platform from which something amazing can be built. Just watch the videos of lightly modified 135is shaming M3s, STIs and Porsches. Getting 400hp from this car is no harder than dropping a rock. Watch out for this one…
#2 2010 Audi TTS
When words like “agile”, “balanced”, “grip” and “properly sporty” started showing up in articles about Audi’s re-worked coupe, my thought was, “Finally.” The first time I saw a TT I was in the backseat of my parent’s Jeep, and the TT was going the opposite way. I turned around, following it out of view, and seeing it was totally worth the lecture on proper seat-belt safety I got from Mom. It has always been a stunner to look at, but sadly its performance hardly did it justice. The V6 was way too heavy, and the old turbo-4 only came with FWD.
Audi solved both those problems with the new TTS. It gets a lightweight, 265hp 2.0 liter FSI turbo engine, so it’s svelte yet powerful. 258lb ft. of torque are available at 2,500 RPM, keeping it almost even with a Cayman S in the ¼ mile (13.5 seconds). The Audi Quattro system means the TTS can use that thrust willingly. It’s 10mm lower and has driver-selectable damper settings, making quick work of any corner. It has so much grip one journalist said he had more fun driving a 135i because he actually had to try harder to go as fast as the TTS.
The interior is typical Audi; so good you’d move in. Outside shape is simply a modernized version of the original. The smooth, shell-like shape is accented with sharp, aggressive-looking head and tail lights. No matter what angle, color, or lighting the car looks plain good. This is what the TT should have been since day one. The MSRP is $46,325, but if you can ignore the optional shiny bells and leather whistles, you can have one of the smartest-looking coupes, backed by a brilliant drive-train, on the road today.
#1 Nissan 370z Nismo Edition
Here you are, the winner for Best Sports Car of 2010 for $40-50,000 is the Nissan 370 Nismo. Honestly, once I found out how much this car cost, it didn’t take me that long to put it at the top. This has so much going for it I couldn’t believe my eyes. First, with all the options it barely crosses the $40,000 line, so it’s cheaper than anything on this list. The 3.7 liter V6 makes 350hp (up 18 from the stock Z), takes the car to 60mph in 4.5 seconds, yet also gets 18/26mpg city/highway. Power goes through a 6 speed manual, equipped with Nissan’s new “SynchroRev Match”, meaning you’ll never botch a down-shift. If you prefer pure heal-and-toeing, you can turn it off. It also comes with upgraded brakes, springs, shocks, sway bars and an LDS, a must have for an true driver’s car. The upgrades mean the car will just as easily apex the corner as it will drift it. You set the dial for what type of fun you want, and it delivers.
The interior is accented with colored stitching and well-placed Nismo badges, yet overall it’s driver-focused and uncluttered. The high-backed seats hold you in place, and the fit and finish is great. It’s classy without being boring, exactly what you want in a performance car. Outside is a classic coupe: long hood, short deck, curvy hips and shoulders led by a cunning face. It is a true sports car. It has all required genes and just does the right things. But most importantly you feel connected to it. You don’t want a car that can happily drive to the store, you want one the makes you feel more awake the moment you grab the shifter. It has the “it factor.” It is more than that sum of its parts.
When we made this list we graded the sports cars on their strengths, and how those attributes might influence us as buyers. For example, the Evo MR Touring is one of the best performing and multi-functional 4-doors out there, regardless of price, but a true driver’s car has only 2 doors. The 135i has great potential, but out of the box it’s a little soft and frankly, needs a makeover. And the TTS is AWD, giving it a slightly clinical feel, and that means it’s just not quite as much fun. The 370Z is what a performance car is meant to be. It’s a little rough in a parking lot, and your mom might say it’s too bumpy, but it will suck up the bumps and stick like tar. When you are ripping out downshifts and linking turns, getting only as much over-steer as you ask for, you will know you spent $50,000 in the best way possible.