There is a saying: Champagne taste, lemonade money. From fashion to food, we all want to experience the best, but sometimes our pockets aren’t quite deep enough to stretch to the very top tier. Well, the same goes for cars.
Over the years many manufacturers have tried to fill this awkward void. Whether it’s through the addition of elements like bespoke suspension, composite materials, mid-engined arrangements, or limited production numbers, these quasi-exotic, micro supercars have long provided a luxury-grade thrill for a (relatively) reasonable price. What’s more, the result is often a machine that not only looks great but can — with a good driver, on the right day, with the wind in the right direction and the fates aligned — stay within a whisker of the big boys.
If that sounds like something you want to have parked in your driveway, here’s our list of 10 of the best cut-price exotics that don’t skimp on the tingles. Every car on this list comes in at under $85,000, a fraction of the price of most pedigree supercars:
Porsche Cayman GT4
Let’s be honest, any list of affordable mid-engined exotica could be filled purely by various incarnations of the Porsche Boxster and its hardhat-wearing sibling, the Cayman. Still, the one that should be at the top of your shopping list — in bold pen, with a highlight — is the GT4 that was launched last year.
The letters ‘GT’, followed by a digit, mean “business” in Porsche speak. The 911 GT3 is the ultimate stripped-down Porsche that you can hoon around a track and still park outside Providence in the evening. The Cayman GT4, however, is same, same but different — this time a 3.8-liter flat six from the Carrera S is shoehorned in sideways and in the middle, producing 385hp.
Quite simply, it has more downforce, more traction, more capacity, more thrust, and more power. You can even option the seats from a 918 for $4730. Really, the only problem with the GT4 is: do you actually need to buy a “proper” supercar anymore?
Alfa Romeo 4C
Spearheading the return of the biscione-badged manufacturer to Northe America is the 4C. Admittedly it’s a curious car to open with — the States might’ve been more receptive to a thumping SUV (although there is one on the way), or a Vee-engined coupe. The 4C is none of those things. Instead, it is a dainty slice of micro-exotica, with skinny seats, virtually no luggage compartment, carbon fibre construction and a fizzy turbocharged inline four with 240hp.
Still with more carbon than a high school chemistry lesson, it weighs less than 2,500lbs and can hit 60mph in 4.1 seconds, only running out of steam at 160mph.
Lotus Exige S1
With micro Le Mans racer looks, the Lotus Exige S1 could quite easily be a car that lost its way from the Mulsanne Straight. Even today, with its hungry roof scoop, Kamm tail and bulging arches, the Exige S1 could be mistaken for a quarter-of-a-million bucks homologation supercar even though, when brand new in 2000, it would have relieved you of just $45,000.
Admittedly, the 1.8-litre engine was the same as you would find in a Land Rover Freelander, but it was tuned to produce 179ps in standard form, and de-catted to squeeze out 195ps in track guise. With just 780kg to lug around it was (almost) as fast as it looked, accelerating to 60mph in 4.7 seconds. It was hardcore, thrashy and one of the all time greatest road racers.
Porsche Boxster Spyder
Few companies in the world can take the expensive bits off your car, then charge you more — even giving you the option of buying them back as extras. Yet, the boys in Stuttgart have turned it into an art form.
But, this being Porsche, you have to accept that they probably know what they are talking about with cars like the Boxster Spyder. Gone was the Boxster’s handy electric roof (replaced by an umbrella), out goes the stereo and AC, along with the door handles, which have been replaced by a piece of fabric that resembles someone sticking their tongue out at you… We’re, still not sure if that was an intentional joke.
In fact, such is the seriousness of this 176lb overall weight saving that you feel guilty wearing so much as a watch in this car. Anyone who has driven a standard Boxster will know it is already a great piece of kit, so these improvements just make it even better (and wetter if it rains).
Lotus Esprit GT3
Back in the mid-nineties the Esprit was seen as a made-man among the supercar wiseguys. The fourth generation had come from the pen of Peter Stevens, better known for the McLaren F1, and had the kind of rakish proportions that would make it a permanent fixture on teenager’s bedroom walls.
The GT3 was an attempt to create a cut-price version that, in today’s money, would set you back about the same as a Porsche Cayman GT4. It wasn’t destined for the US, so a lot of the diagnostics systems needed for emissions laws were apparently binned, along with sound deadening and four cylinders (most Esprits had V8s by this time). It was 30% cheaper than a V8, but more importantly 220lb lighter, which in some eyes made it better than its big brother.
Armed with a 243hp 2.0-litre, 16-valve turbo – the kind of thing you might see in a hot hatch these days – it would hit 60mph in 4.8seconds and have the kind of light-footed direction changes that Usher would kill for.
Vauxhall VX220 Turbo/ Opel Speedster
If you’re heading into a midlife crisis, taking up jet-skiing or buying a motorbike are both popular solutions, but both pale in comparison to this badboy. The Vauxhall VX220 Turbo was the equivalent of quitting your job, sinking fifteen shots of Sambuca and spending the next four days on a hedonistic rampage while you tried to leave your old life behind.
Designed as a halo model to give fuddy-duddy brands Vauxhall (and Opel) a bit of street cred, the VX220 was based on a slightly wider and elongated Lotus Elise platform and originally fitted with a grunty 147hp 2.2-litre – more than enough to propel it to 60mph in 5.6seconds. However, at some point some bright spark decided this wasn’t enough and ordered a turbo be screwed on, and things became unhinged very quickly… often quite literally.
The car could now rocket to 60mph in 4.7 seconds (this is 15 years ago) and on to 151mph, all with your arse practically scraping the floor. And, to make things worse, it had a Vauxhall badge on the front, so absolutely no one expected this level of insanity. On one launch a journalist reported that three cars were written off in one day. It’s that kind of machine.
Renault Sport Spider
The year is 1995: Oasis have just released What’s the Story (Morning Glory), the Spice Girls recently formed and Hugh Grant is arrested in LA. Over in France, Renault is also planning on getting a bit loco itself.
Buoyed by the success of the new Lotus Elise, the plan was to create a bespoke mid-engined sports car that would use the 2-litre, 152ps four-cylinder from the fantastic Clio Williams, and wrap it all up in an exotic body with added shiny bits. The rose-jointed double wishbones and Bilstein coilovers were a glistening case in point.
Still, while it looked as good as a girl in suspenders, it didn’t quite have the rock and roll to go with it. Beautiful, yes; exclusive, definitely; but with a 0-62mph of 6.5seconds it never quite had the legs to stay up there with the Lotus.
Lancia Monte Carlo / Scorpion
Designed by Pininfarina, the Scorpion had squat, handsome lines and a rorty 2-litre twin cam, transversely-mounted in the middle. What wasn’t to love about this micro supercar?
Well, quite a lot actually. By the time it had arrived in the US (rebadged as the “Scorpion” because Chevrolet already had a Monte Carlo), the car’s slightly puny wings had been seriously clipped. The engine had been shrunk by about the size of a short coffee in Starbucks, which ended up with 81ps from the original 120ps. Bigger fenders added weight, while taller springs messed with the car’s intended low-slung handling.
Yet, despite all this — not to mention the fact it was largely cobbled together from Lancia Beta and Fiat 128 parts — it was still an achingly attractive car to look at. If you have one today you can count yourself very lucky. Just don’t drive it too fast.
“I wanted to design a car young people could afford,” said Dr Ferry Porsche. You have to hand it to his company, despite being one of the most prestige brands on the planet, they have (at times) thought about the little guy.
The 912 and the 924 were good examples, but perhaps the best, or most ambitious, sat historically between them: the 914. Developed as a deal with VW, it would have a flat four-cylinder in the middle, 45% (front), 55% (rear) weight distribution, a five-speed all-synchro gearbox, a 2,000lb curb weight — all for $3,595 in 1970, which is $21,000 in today’s money.
The reality was a slow but extremely nimble and perfectly balanced Porker, which never really touched the hearts of the enthusiasts. The VW engine and parts bin construction probably didn’t help. A six cylinder engine spiced things up considerably, but put it closer to 911 territory. These days, many have been chopped and screwed, but condition originals are still sought after.
The Ultima is every inch a supercar, except for one thing: the price. According to Richard Marlow, the company’s director, you can build your own base spec Ultima Evolution using the factory supplied parts from $55,000 (a factory turnkey car is almost double that).
With the base 487hp LS3 V8 mated to the Porsche-sourced six speed manual transmission, you have a car that is capable of reaching 60mph in 3.1 seconds and 100mph in 6.4seconds. In other words, one of the fastest cars on the road. Incidentally, if you plump for the top of the range 1,034hp, 100mph comes in at 4.9 seconds, and it has a claimed top speed of 240mph. Truly terrifying.
Top Gear reportedly refused to run an Ultima around its track, so the company took matters into their own hands, hired out the track and beat the lap record set by a $1.6million track-day only Ferrari FXX piloted by Michael Schumacher. Which just goes to show a little bit of cash can go a very long way in the right hands.
If money isn’t an option and you want to plump for the “real deal,” check out our list of 30 Supercars Every Highsnobiety Reader Should Know.
- Words: Ollie Stallwood