It’s always exciting and refreshing to buy a brand new car. You know what you’re getting. There are new technologies and features. A factory warranty and potential extended warranty options provide peace of mind. However, there’s a major drawback if you’re on a budget. You can’t buy a whole lot of performance with a brand new car in the sub $20,000 price range.
Thank goodness for depreciation, right? Tons of epic, fast cars can be had for less than $20k if you’re willing to sacrifice some things. In this guide, we examine some of the fastest cars under 20k along with reliability, longevity, maintenance, and other potential concerns. We cover cars that you can buy for less and upgrade with the remaining budget, and ones that come with big power straight from the factory.
1) BMW 335i
Category: Tuners car
Years: 2007 to 2015
Price range: $5,000 – 20,000
HP / TQ: 300hp / 300 lb-ft
It’s impossible to write this guide without mentioning one of our personal favorites – the BMW 335i. With 300 horsepower and 300 torque from the factory it’s not going to ‘WOW’ anyone by 2023 standards. That’s not why the 335i makes the list of the fastest cars under 20k, though.
2007-2010 models are available with the N54 twin turbo 3.0L inline-6 engine. Newer 2011-2015 335i models feature the N55 single turbo 3.0L inline-6. Both offer the same 300hp and 300tq from the factory. Our main focus is on the older models with the twin turbo N54 engine. The newer N55 is also a great choice for a tuners car, but it doesn’t quite have the legendary reputation like the N54.
For its era the BMW N54 engine was truly incredible. To this day it still competes with some of the fastest cars, all for less than 20k. How does 500 horsepower on stock turbos sound? What if you could make 500hp for less than $1,500 in mods? It’s very possible with the BMW 335i, and 500 horsepower isn’t even stressing the engine.
Mix in turbo and fueling upgrades and the N54 engine can handle a solid 600-700whp for the long-term. It’s dependent on having a good setup with proper supporting mods, fueling, and tuning. However, given the N54 335i starts around $5,000-8,000 it can all be done for less than 20k. With a built engine the N54 can make 900-1,000+whp, but that will likely be a big budget breaker.
Well, the 335i N54 doesn’t have a legendary reputation for just one reason. It’s also well-known for being highly unreliable. The N54 engine itself is very very good. It’s not uncommon to see them eclipse 200,000 miles even running 500-600+whp on original, un-opened engines. BMW’s N54 engine can handle some serious abuse.
Fortunately, BMW N54 engines are older and have a huge aftermarket presence. There are long-term solutions to many of the problems, but it can get costly if you want to address everything to make the 335i reliable.
2) Cadillac CTS-V
Years: 2004 to 2007
Price range: $13,000 – 20,000+
HP / TQ: 400hp / 395 lb-ft
You know what else is impossible? To write a guide like this without featuring at least one LS powered car. The 2004 and 2005 Cadillac CTS-V are available with the 5.7L LS6 engine. For 2006-2007 the CTS-V got the newer LS2 motor. Both were rated at 400 horsepower and 395 lb-ft from the factory.
It can be tough to find a clean example under $20,000 in your local area. They do pop up under that price they’re just not always easy to find. You may have to travel or be patient for the right Cadillac CTS-V to show up. However, if you do find the right one, it can absolutely be one of the fastest cars for less than 20k.
CTS-V Performance Potential
Depending on the specific year, condition, and mileage there might not be much budget leftover. However, with 400hp the CTS-V is still good for a 0-60 time of about 4.6-4.8 seconds. It also clocks about 13 seconds @ 110mph in the 1/4 mile. It’s not groundbreaking performance by today’s standards. However, the CTS-V earns a spot on the list of fastest cars under $20k for good reason.
The Chevy LS motors have so much potential and aftermarket support. If you want more power then let the budget rebuild a little and the options are endless. LS engines are known to be cheap and easy to modify, so a little money can go a long way with the right mods.
LS engines do deliver good overall reliability. They’re strong engines that can handle quite a bit more power than they’re rated for from the factory. However, we are talking about the CTS-V being a 15+ year old car. Under 20k you’ll likely be looking at about 80,000 to 120,000+ miles. As such, these cars and engines are going to require some standard TLC for a car that age.
Things like suspension could do with a refresh. Gaskets, hoses, and other parts may need the occasional repairs. We don’t think a CTS-V will turn into a horror story despite its age. However, with these being close to the top-end of the budget then a few issues may exceed it quickly.
3) Mercedes E55 AMG
Category: Stock/Factory or Tuners
Years: 2003 to 2006
Price range: $8,000 – 17,000
HP / TQ: 469hp / 516 lb-ft
The Mercedes E55 AMG is a car with a good blend of massive stock power output alongside the potential for plenty more within budget. At the time of its debut the E55 AMG was the fastest production car in the world. It delivers 469 horsepower and 516 lb-ft with its 5.4L supercharged V8. That’s still impressive by modern times, so imagine what that meant back in 2003.
Depending on condition and mileage you can find the E55 AMG starting around $8,000. Clean examples with lower mileage can run about double that. Either way, there’s some money leftover for maintenance, repairs, and maybe even some tuning and mods.
E55 AMG Performance Potential
In 2003, the E55 AMG was an absolute rocket and it still is to this day. 0-60 takes just 4.5 seconds while the 1/4 mile goes by in 12.7 seconds @ 117mph. Looking at stock cars that puts it among the fastest cars under 20k. There might even be a bit of budget leftover for more fun. Supercharged engines have massive potential with bolt-on performance mods.
Some basic mods can easily push the E55 AMG to 450-500+whp. There’s even more potential if you want to keep pushing things further. You might want to hold off on too many mods in the early stages, though. A few reliability concerns hold the E55 AMG back a bit.
Dig through the forums for the W211 E55 AMG. You’ll notice many recommend having at least $3,000 set aside for random, unexpected issues. It’s also a good idea to anticipate spending another few thousand on maintenance items that may not be done yet. If the E55 is on original suspension you’ll want to consider replacing or upgrading.
The list could go on and on for an ultimate high-performance car from the early to mid 2000’s. Mercedes E55 AMG models aren’t cheap to own or maintain. Although, you get one seriously badass car at the end of the day.
4) Ford Mustang GT
Years: 2011 to ~2016
Price range: $15,000 – 20,000+
HP / TQ: 412-435hp / 390-400 lb-ft
Fair warning – we’re skipping over cars like the Camaro SS and Charger/Challenger SRT8. They’re also a good bargain since you can find 2010 and newer models under $20,000. They all offer more than 400 horsepower, and pretty similar performance.
The Ford Mustang is the sports car of our choice for good reason, though. We really love the 5.0 Coyote engine in the 2011+ Mustang GT. There were a few good updates to the engine over the years with the 2nd gen engine arriving in 2015 and the 3rd gen 5.0 Coyote in 2018. The 3rd gen engines are amazing, but it takes about $25-30k to get into a clean 2018+ GT. The earlier 5.0 Coyote engines are still awesome, and present a great value at less than $20,000.
2011+ Mustang GT Performance
The 5.0 Coyote is capable of solid power and performance with a few mods. Later gen engines are more capable, but even early engines can hit around 400whp with a few bolt-on mods. You might be able to find a clean Mustang GT around $15,000, which leaves a little spending money. If you’re looking to get into a 2014+ you’ll likely wipe the whole 20k budget unless you go with a lower condition, higher mileage example.
If you’re sticking strictly to a $20,000 budget the Mustang GT certainly isn’t the fastest car on this list. However, let the budget recoup and the 5.0 Coyote is a very capable engine. It’s not hard to hit 550-600+whp with supercharger kits, and it’s generally within the safe limits for the engine.
In stock form or basic bolt-on mods there aren’t really any major reliability concerns with the 5.0 Coyote 2011+ Mustang GT. We’re also talking about a relatively new car compared to many others on the list. No car or engine is perfect, though. For these 2011-2015 models there are some transmission issues, but it’s not a very common issue. Otherwise, some standard engine problems may pop up on occasion like oil leaks, water pump failures, etc.
Nonetheless, the Mustang GT is one of few exceptions on the list. It delivers good performance with solid reliability all for less than $20k. With a stock Mustang GT you’re not getting one of the fastest cars on this list. However, 400+ horsepower is still plenty for most and this car delivers good overall balance.
5) Mitsubishi Lancer EVO X
Category: Tuners Car
Years: 2008 to ~2011
Price range: $18,000+
HP / TQ: 291hp / 300 lb-ft
We covered a couple German cars and American muscle cars. There are almost too many JDM cars to list, but at least one had to make the list of the fastest cars under 20k. It was a tossup between the Lancer Evo and Subaru WRX. However, the Lancer Evo made the list thanks to its massive aftermarket potential.
Remember when we said it’s hard to combine fast, cheap, and reliable? The Mitsubishi Lancer Evo is yet another perfect example. The older Evo VIII and IX are much more desirable than the Evo X. Those 4G63 2.0L turbo engines can handle 450+whp on stock motors with just head studs. They’re also reliable engines. You guessed it; older Evo models are also well over our $20,000 price point.
Even the Evo X is a budget stretch as they start right around the 20k ballpark. Its mod and tuner friendly turbo engine makes it a solid choice if you’re willing to stretch the budget to the top. Or opt for the older Evo 8 or Evo 9 if you’re willing to break the budget.
Lancer Evo X Performance Potential
The Evo X isn’t as desirable as the previous models with the 4G63 engine. However, it still uses a similar 2.0L turbo engine – the 4B11T. From the factory it’s good for 291 horsepower and 300 lb-ft. Respectable numbers but not quite enough to compete with some of the true fastest cars on this list.
Add a tune and basic bolt-ons and you can take the Evo X beyond 300whp. With turbo upgrades 450+whp on the stock engine is possible, but they don’t seem to hold up as well as the older engines. Torque is a big factor, so be cautious with going much over ~360-380 lb-ft. Nonetheless, the small 2.0L engine can put down some impressive results.
Mitsubishi is no longer building the Lancer Evo. It’s good and bad for a couple reasons. One good thing is that they’re desirable cars and values should hold pretty well. Even early 2000’s Evo 8 models are $30,000+ for a clean example. However, it also means support and part availability may become more and more limited as the years pass.
Otherwise, these are pretty reliable cars and engines in stock form. Start modding and tuning them and you take on some extra risk and potential costs. You don’t want to stretch the budget to buy and mod an Evo X only to end up blowing the motor trying to push too much power.
That goes to show there are tons of great fast, high-performance cars under $20,000. We wanted to stick with a select few and dive deeper into the details. However, there are too many others that we simply can’t leave out.
As such, below are a handful of some other fast cars under 20k with less analysis. This is still far from exhaustive. Worry not, though. If readers find this content helpful or fun we’ll have plenty more coming in the future. Leave a comment and let us know what you’d like to see! Anyway, onto some honorable mentions for now.
6) BMW E60 M5
Price: $15,000 – 25,000+
HP / TQ: 500hp / 384 lb-ft
We don’t love the looks of the E60 M5, and it can be very expensive to own and maintain. However, the S85 5.0L V10 engine screams to over 8,200 RPM’s. With tuning and software you can even safely rev them to about 8,500 RPM. With 500 horsepower and a top speed of 200mph it has plenty to offer even in stock form. The engine is a true gem. They just don’t build high-revving NA V10 engines like this anymore. Just listen to that flyby at about 0:26 to 0:30.
7) Mazda Miata
Price: $6,000 – 15,000+
HP/ TQ: 116-167hp / 100-140 lb-ft
What the heck is a car with 116 to 167 horsepower doing on this list? Fair question. Those familiar with the MX5 Miata certainly understand the choice to add it on the list. They’re popular cars thanks to their low price point and ease of modding. There’s support for all sorts of different builds. Track use and LS swaps are two big areas the Mazda Miata excels. Given you can get into a Miata around $6,000 to $10,000 there’s plenty of money left. You can turn it into one of the fastest straight-line cars, track builds, and so much more.
8) Nissan 350/370Z
Price: $6,000 – 15,000+
HP / TQ: 287-350hp / 274-276 lb-ft
370Z models were produced through 2020, but 2015 is about the cutoff to get in under $20,000. Go with the older 350Z models and prices start right around $7,000. Expect to pay closer than $10,000 if you want later 2000’s and lower mileage.
The 370Z is likely the better bet thanks to the fact its newer and the awesome VQ37VHR engine. Both the 350Z and 370Z are great choices, though. They’re great drivers cars and offer an excellent all-around balance. You can get into one with enough money for tuning, engine mods, suspension upgrades, etc. The options are limitless.
9) Chevy C6 Corvette
Price: $15,000 – 20,000+
HP / TQ: 400-430hp / 400-424 lb-ft
The Chevy LS2 motor already made an appearance on this list in the Cadillac CTS-V. Here it is again in the base model Chevrolet Corvette C6. It makes 400 horsepower and 400 lb-ft in the Vette. If you can get into a 2008+ Corvette then it has the larger 6.2L LS3 motor with 430hp and 424 lb-ft. That’s plenty of power to make it onto the list of fastest cars under $20k, especially in stock form.
C6 Corvettes start around $15,000 and there are a decent number for sale in the US under 20k. You can also save some money going with an older C5 Vette. Or if you’re willing to break the budget the C6 Z06 starts around $30,000 and the 7.0L V8 offers insane performance potential.
$20k is Plenty Budget to Go Fast
There isn’t any perfect answer to the best, fastest cars under $20,000. There are just too many great performance cars to cover everything. It’s also hard to say which is truly the fastest when you consider budget builds, modding, etc.
Nonetheless, the above list is a great starting point for some of the quickest cars under 20k. You can find everything from lower-end, newer cars to ultimate German performance sedans from the early 2000’s. Then there’s all of the JDM tuner friendly cars, more American muscle cars, and everything in between.
If you’re looking for a fast, cheap car then reliability is one major concern. Ensure you’re leaving enough money aside for maintenance, potential issues, and mods if you want more power. Ultimately, the options are nearly endless and choose the car that speaks to you.