Fun Stuff

High Output, Low Price: 7 Powerful Cars Under $50K

Four hundred is an awful lot of horsepower – yes, even in a modern era of high-output family haulers.

Of course, application is everything when it comes to the matter of motors, so while an SUV usually uses its horsepower and torque to move people and stuff, you can count on a car like the new Nissan Z to earmark it for something a little more sinister. That also happens to be the car that triggered the idea for this list in the first place. Feeling the rush of all its affordable output got me thinking: what other high-powered cars can be had for less then $50,000?

But before we get to the list, a couple important notes. First, this is a list of cars specifically – no trucks or SUVs allowed. The main reason why is that we can’t have a bunch of half-tons on here, even if some of them use the same engines as others on the list. Again, application is everything. Finally, the $50,000 price plateau has to include destination, delivery, freight, or whatever other term automakers use to describe the process of getting the car from where it’s built to your local dealer and peeling all the protective stuff off. That charge should be included in the MSRP anyway.

1. Nissan Z

As the car that sparked the idea behind this list in the first place, it’s only fair that we start with the new Nissan Z. The industry at large is charging hard towards electrification (see what I did there?), so the very fact this internal-combustion offering arrived in the first place is worth celebrating.

It also happens to be well executed, feeling a bit like the Subaru BRZ everyone wants but no one wants to pay for, with the base version sneaking in just below $50,000 before tax with the choice of either manual or automatic transmission. What you’re getting for the money is an agile and accurate sports car that looks great and happens to be packing a 400-hp V6 under its hood.

It’s the same twin-turbocharged 3.0L that motivates the more expensive Infiniti Q50 Red Sport, and it officially makes 400 hp to go with 350 lb-ft of torque. It also uses recirculation valve technology to keep boost pressure high between shifts, so it always feels like that output’s waiting in the wings.

2. Ford Mustang GT

When it comes to muscle cars, the Ford Mustang GT is violent and visceral right from the factory – and it’s affordable, too. A starting price of $46,610 ($48,360 with its available automatic transmission) grants access to 450 hp and 410 lb-ft of torque, all of which is directed to the rear wheels just like it is in the Nissan Z.

Unlike that coupe, this one uses a 5.0L naturally-aspirated V8 to spin up its output, and that makes for more of an old-school, immersive experience. Better still, there’s enough left in the budget with either the six-speed manual or 10-speed automatic transmissions to add the performance exhaust system ($1,495) that transforms the Mustang from a menace of the senses to something far more subdued. Trust me: your neighbours will thank you.

3. Chevrolet Camaro LT1/SS

Continuing with modern muscle cars, the Chevrolet Camaro isn’t too different from its rival from Ford in terms of execution. There’s a sense that this Chevy is more of a sports car than before, much like the Mustang, but it still has the heart of a pony car.

It also happens to have two flavours of potent V8 power that fit under our proverbial price cap, with the LT1 and 1SS trims ringing in at less than $50,000 before tax. The former starts at $43,198 with the standard six-speed manual transmission, while the 10-speed automatic bumps that asking price to $45,033. Then there’s the sportier 1SS that starts at $46,698 or $48,533, depending on transmission choice.

Either way, getting this muscle car moving is a 6.2L V8 that generates 455 hp and 455 lb-ft of torque. That makes the eight-cylinder Camaro the most powerful car you can buy in Canada for less than $50,000. But more than just big output, this is a fast and fun performer through and through.

4. Dodge Challenger R/T

We’re still caught up in muscle cars in the middle of this list, although the Dodge Challenger is anything but modern. The R/T trim is the only one in the lineup to use a 5.7L V8, and it generates 372 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque – not as much as its rivals above, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less menacing when prodded.

If you’re fine with the eight-speed automatic transmission that’s standard, you’re looking at about a $45,000 price of entry; opting for the manual adds $1,000. That leaves enough room to add some factory performance goodies like a line lock that will put all the engine’s output to good use by applying the front brakes for smokey burnouts.

Don’t expect the Challenger to handle as nicely as, well, any other car on this list and it’ll be rewarding in its own old-school way. And if you need something with a little more space inside, the auto-only Dodge Charger R/T uses the same engine to make 370 hp and 395 lb-ft of torque – all for about $49,000 before tax.

5. Volkswagen Golf R

Volkswagen’s fiery and focused Golf R already made my tally of five affordable cars that are distinct for their quickness, for it also earns its way onto this list for packing the punch it needs to get there. At a shade less than $48,000 before tax with its standard six-speed manual or a little more than $49,000 with its seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, this hot hatch barely makes it under the price cap, but there’s plenty of reward for the money.

For starters, the turbocharged 2.0L four-cylinder makes 315 hp – a far cry from what the coupes above generate, but still plenty. Keep in mind, when it comes to the trio of muscle cars here, the Golf R has half as many cylinders to work with, which makes that number even more impressive.

In a break from tradition, North America is the only market where this Volkswagen is offered with a manual transmission; the rest of the world only gets the automatic. That’s also how to unlock the four-cylinder’s full 295 lb-ft of torque, with the manual version detuned to 280 lb-ft – the maximum the transmission can handle. Either way, all-wheel drive, adaptive suspension, and a whole whack of other goodies makes this a worthy buy for those up against the one-car conundrum.

6. Cadillac CT4-V

Of the fistful of entry-level small sport sedans on the premium market – the Audi S3 that’s powered by the same engine as the Golf R, for example, or the Mercedes-AMG A 35 – it’s somewhat surprising that the Cadillac CT4-V has the distinction of being the most powerful of the bunch. Churning out 325 hp to go with 380 lb-ft of torque, the 2.7L four-cylinder under the hood is a hearty one, with a unique dual volute turbocharger that relies on twin chambers to feed exhaust gasses through.

At $49,998, it barely squeezes its way under our pre-tax price cap, but that money buys a rewarding little sedan that’s capable of plenty of fun. That it’s rear-wheel drive, too, means it’s possible to hang out the back end with a heavy foot. (All-wheel drive is offered, too, but it pushes the CT4-V just past $50,000.) For those less concerned with matters of the wallet, the CT4-V Blackwing uses a twin-turbocharged 3.6L V6 to spin up 472 hp and 445 lb-ft of torque – and it can be paired with a six-speed manual transmission. Yes, please.

7. Toyota Camry XSE V6 TRD

This one’s good for a laugh – not because the V6-powered Toyota Camry doesn’t deserve its place on this list, but because there’s a 300-hp Camry on the market in the first place. It’s not nearly as potent as anything else on the list, mostly because it’s not the same purpose-built performer as the rest of the pack. Instead, it feels like a passion project that defies expectations – and that’s exactly what makes it so awesome in the first place.

Expect to spend a little more than $43,000 before tax to park one in the driveway. That asking price unlocks a sport-tuned suspension, brake-based torque vectoring, a TRD cat-back exhaust system, and, yes, a 3.5L V6 engine that makes 301 hp and 267 lb-ft of torque. In a Camry.

Everything else about this car makes it equal parts fun and functional, with a slightly exaggerated styling kit inside and out, and all the space and peace of mind the Camry is known for. Sure, it’s bigger than a Subaru WRX; and it’s front-wheel drive. It’s also not the same kind of focused sport sedan. But that’s what makes this Camry so cool.

Honourable Mentions

Hyundai Sonata N Line ($40,524; 290 hp, 311 lb-ft)

Hyundai Elantra N ($40,779-$42,404; 276 hp, 289 lb-ft)

Subaru WRX ($32,720-$43,620; 271 hp, 258 lb-ft)

Now that’s an interesting ensemble. Some were probably predictable (the Mustang, Camaro, and Challenger), while others were likely a little surprising (I’m thinking the Camry caught more than a few readers off guard). But each one of them proves there’s still plenty of traditional power left out there. Here’s to hoping the upcoming Honda Civic Type R and Toyota GR Corolla stay under the $50,000 threshold so we can add a couple more to the list.