Never has the choice of sports cars at the affordable end of the spectrum been greater, each offering thrills to match, and in some cases exceed, more expensive peers.
It’s not all about brake horsepower at this end of the market: most of the cars in our top 10 list put driving bliss ahead of raw, straight-out performance. But we guarantee each will put a huge smile on your face.
1. Alpine A110
Every significant component part of the Alpine A110 driving experience – from the rasping turbocharged torque of its engine to the hilariously 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 has handling for which your affection can only grow as you explore it more closely.
Anatomise the car and you won’t find too many mechanical ingredients or areas you could genuinely call exceptional; but put them all together and you can’t help but conclude that the A110 is a much greater car – and achievement – than the sum of its parts would suggest.
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 Cayman
Even with its new downsized four-cylinder turbo petrol engine, the 718 Cayman is by some distance the most complete sports coupé on sale – and easily talented enough in the handling department to overcome slight misgivings about the way the crank is now turned.
In the long-term, memory of its past power source will eventually fade. The manifest and numerous qualities of the 718 will not.
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3. BMW M2 Competition
The new BMW M2 Competition is now the only M2 model you can buy here in Britain, and that’s certainly no bad thing. The previous model’s single-turbo six-cylinder unit has been swapped out for the twin-turbocharged straight-six (albeit in slightly detuned form) from the larger M3 and M4 models, while a handful of tweaks to the chassis and suspension mean it’s now even sharper and more controlled on battered UK roads than ever before. Weighty steering allows you to point the car’s nose into a corner with confidence, and it’s supremely adjustably on the throttle, too.The new M2 Competition is so good, in fact, that we think it’s one of the best driver’s cars BMW currently makes. You won’t be disappointed.
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4. Mazda MX-5
There isn’t a single area in which this new 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 distinctive. It’s 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 fiesty 2.0-litre engine. A steering column that also now adjusts for reach was also introduced.
All that and yet the MX-5 is still every inch the same zesty and inimitable car that it was. Its character hasn’t altered at all. Nothing on this list offers a better pounds-per-smile rating.
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5. Toyota GT86/Subaru BRZ
It is necessary not only to accept a few compromises with the co-developed Toyota GT86 and Subaru BRZ but, as with a Caterham Seven, positively embrace them. They make the car what it is.
They’re visible, audible, tangible characteristics that serve to remind you that you’re driving the keenest, sharpest, most enjoyable and loveable small sports car for a generation.
Importantly, it’s an accessible sports car – one which won’t break the bank to run either – and it’s a refreshing alternative to the likes of the Mazda MX-5 for those seeking lightweight rear-drive fun.
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6. BMW Z4 M40i
We’re yet to drive the new Z4 on UK roads, but our first taste of it in Portugal suggested that the Z4 is still more of a fast, open-top cruiser than an out-an-out sports car.
That said, there’s still a reasonably exciting driver’s car on offer here. The 3.0-litre six-cylinder motor lends the drop-top BMW some serious pace – it’ll hit 60mph from a standstill in less than five seconds – and its body control and rear-drive balance are equally as appealing.
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7. Lotus Elise Sport
The Lotus Elise is utterly brilliant to drive if you’re in the mood. It has one of the world’s best-handling chassis and exquisite steering. But this Lotus is old and could be seen as expensive if you like to judge your cars objectively.
Yet many of the Elise’s drawbacks can be overlooked when you’re in the middle of a red-mist moment. At its core, the Elise is still magnificent, and it gets better the sportier the Elise is.
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8. Audi TT RS
This second-generation TT RS feels like the response of a company that’s defended a popular car for decades against claims that the TT has all the style and none of the substance to be taken seriously by really keen drivers.
It feels that way because you simply have to take any sports car with an engine this strong, capable of genuine supercar-baiting pace, very seriously indeed.
Ultimately, the TT RS doesn’t set the vivid excitement of its powertrain off against enough handling balance or driver involvement to make it feel fully formed as a sports car, which is why it lags behind rivals.
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9. Ford Mustang
The sensible thing to do would be to buy an Audi TT or a BMW 2 Series Coupé, wouldn’t it? And if you did, that would be a huge shame.
Yes, this car does have significant drawbacks in the UK. Yes, you have to think twice about where you’re going to park it in town, plus factor in the far greater number of visits to fuel pumps than your peers, but no other car at this price – or several price points higher – can do what the Mustang does.
Its powertrain brings with it an appeal that engines with fewer cylinders simply cannot, and its inherent chassis balance is absolutely peachy. Sensible be damned.
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10. Abarth 124 Spider
The Abarth 124 Spider is what you might call ‘a bit of a giggle’. Most Mazda MX-5 owners would have a lot of fun in one for an afternoon, we suspect, but then would probably be quite happy to swap their car keys back. Compared with the Japanese sporting icon from which it is sprung, it is a little noisy, harsh, gauche and trying.
But the Abarth 124 Spider is far from a failure. Abarth’s mission with this car must rightly have been to claim territory that the Mazda has never managed to secure: to convince petrolheads that a cloth-topped two-seater could feel as focused and hardcore as a really specialised £30,000 hot hatchback. In that mission, the Abarth does remarkably well.
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