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Performance Economy Cars

From $4,000 - $40,000

by Julian Edgar

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Want a performance car? But don’t want horrendous fuel bills? Take a look at our secondhand suggestions.

Porsche Boxster 2.5

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It’s easy to forget that the Boxster was launched with a 2.5 litre engine. In Australia the first model appeared in January 1997, selling for $109,000. The 5-speed automatic transmission model cost substantially more at $116,000. Both cars used the 2.5-litre flat six developing 150kW.

A then all-new design, the dry-sumped engine uses a forged crankshaft, variable intake manifold and water cooling. Compression ratio is 11:1 and 98 octane fuel is the recommended minimum. Peak power arrives at 6000 rpm while 245Nm of torque is available at 4500 rpm – however the engine develops 200Nm at just 1750 rpm.

And it’s that superbly progressive torque development that allows the Boxster to be driven quite economically – if you want, you can lug up hills in third gear at 1200 rpm. But at the other end of the rev scale, you can run to 6500 rpm and get to 100 km/h in 6.9 seconds.

Steering, ride and handling are all Porsche-excellent. The car is also unexpectedly practical for two, with a relatively roomy cabin and boots front and back. However, the engine is just behind you so it’s a bit noisier than you’d expect given the cost of the car.

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In manual trans form the car weighs only 1325kg – light indeed for a convertible of this size.

Fuel economy, you ask? Porsche list it as 8.9 litres/100km in ‘mixed usage’, and as low as 6.3 litres/100 at a constant 90 km/h. In full urban use, this rises to 12.2 litres/100km. The Tiptronic 5-speed auto considerably worsens these figures.

Current Australian prices are around AUD$40,000.

Summary: Convertible with great looks, excellent handling, and a very good performance/economy mix.

Kei Class Japanese Imports

Except for the short-lived Daihatsu Copen, none of the high performance Japanese Kei class vehicles have been sold in Australia. This class of car is characterised by being very small and being powered by 660cc engines, that in the performance versions, are turbocharged or supercharged.

The cars might not have been officially imported, but grey market secondhand cars exist. But not, it must be mentioned, in great quantities!

From 1988 all Kei class vehicles have a Japanese market legal maximum power output of 47kW. In standard form these cars are not quick – even with their very light mass (typically 750kg). One hundred klicks comes up in about 9-10 seconds. However, being (most often) turbocharged and having been built to conform to a legal limit, it’s not at all hard to significantly increase power. Even simple and cheap mods like an exhaust, revised intake and a bit of boost makes these cars faster than almost anything of the same size on the road.

Suspension is generally not all that sophisticated, the cars usually having slightly uprated components over the commuters they’re based on. Brakes in hard-driven cars are also pretty marginal. But because of their tiny size, direct and light steering and sheer ‘chuckablility’, on a tight and winding road they’re ultra fast point to point.

Models include:

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The 1988 L200 Daihatsu Mira Turbo with the EF-JL 659cc three-cylinder with a SOHC, 12-valve head, EFI and a small top-mount air-to-air intercooler. The Mira was available in both 2 and 4-door hatchback forms and came with optional all-wheel drive and four wheel steering.

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The 1989 Suzuki Alto Works RS/R using a F5B 547cc, DOHC, EFI, air-to-air intercooled engine developing 47kW at 7500 and 77Nm at 4000 rpm. This model was all-wheel drive.

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The 1989 MMC Minica Dangan ZZ4 with a 3B83, DOHC, 15-valve, three-cylinder with an intercooled turbo and all-wheel drive.

These cars are now two decades old so look for problems with rust, tired turbos and suspension. More recent turbo’d Kei class cars also exist, but as they’ve put on weight and the power limit has remained the same, performance has declined.

Fuel economy? As you’d guess, it depends very much on how the cars are driven. However, normal fuel economy is in the Sixes (in litres/100km) and the more aerodynamically slippery cars can drop into the Fives on a trip. Even modified and driven hard, it’s near impossible to exceed 9 litres/100km.

Prices start at about AUD$4,000 for a car that’s locally complied and in decent condition. Much lower prices are around for cars that need work.

Summary: Great starting point for someone who wants to get their hands dirty working on a unique and rewarding machine that in modified form can deliver both excellent performance and economy.

Peugeot 206 GTi

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The Peugeot 206 GTi took the time-honoured approach of putting a relatively large engine (the 2 litre from the 406) into a small body, one that in this case weighs only 1050kg. This gives good performance, excellent throttle response – and decent fuel economy. The engine develops 102kW at 6000 rpm and 190 Nm at 4100 rpm. (Compare these figures with the non-GTi 206 that has only 67kW and 137Nm!)

Nought to 100 km/h comes up in 8.6 – 9.1 seconds and yet the official fuel economy figures are 8 litres/100km (city) and a miserly 5.6 litres/100km (country). When we tested the car, it achieved 8 litres/100 in a week that included plenty of hard driving.

Handling is excellent but the ergonomics have some Peugeot failings of the sort that have become more pronounced in their recent models. Interior space and practicality are good.

The car was released in 1999 – now expect to pay about AUD$10,000.

Summary: Practical, easy to drive fast, still looks great and able to deliver excellent fuel economy.


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If you think that the definition of a performance car must include scintillating straightline performance, read no further! However, the Toyota Prius is also unexpectedly spritely off-the-line, and in fact can wheelspin right across intersections if caned away from a standstill. (Well it would but the traction control system stops that happening.) Even the 0-100 km/h performance isn’t as slow as many suggest – it takes about 10 seconds.

But handling and steering are not wonderful.

So why list it here? Simply because as a starting point, it makes for such a good case. The suspension is entirely conventional FWD – MacPherson struts at the front and a torsion beam rear axle – so spring and damper upgrades are straightforward. Braking, while assisted by electrical regen, is also largely conventional and so can be easily upgraded with pad and discs changes. The electric steering can be modified for greater steering weight.

Fuel economy in city conditions is simply unbeatable in a car of this carrying capacity and internal space. On the open road the economy is still excellent, though much closer to that achievable by some diesel competitors.

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Three models are available in Australia – grey import NHW10, locally sold NHW11 (not many around) and the current NHW20 that was released in 2003. The NHW20 is by far the best pick – steer clear of the grey import NHW10 models as they’re now widely experiencing high voltage battery failures and they’re not supported by Toyota in Australia.

Fuel economy varies from a best of around 4 litres/100km to a worst of about 6 litres/100km.

Prices start from around AUD$23,000, with the better equipped i-Tech a few thousand dollars more.

Summary: Unbeatable urban fuel economy in a roomy four seater; with suspension, steering and brake tweaks, could be quick point to point.

Suzuki Ignis Sport

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The Suzuki Ignis Sport is a car that no-one has ever heard of. Sold in limited numbers from September 2003 until the Ignis was discontinued in 2005, the Sport uses a 1.5 litre, 83kW, variable valve timing, four cylinder. Peak torque is 143Nm at 4100 rpm and peak power is at 6400 rpm.

Gearing is short and the car’s build quality and interior NVH reflect its original low pricing. In fact, on paper, the Ignis isn’t very impressive, its non-independent 5-link beam rear suspension another downer.

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But on the road the car is brilliant, with superb chassis balance and plenty of throttle steering available. Brakes are four wheel discs with ABS but the steering is a bit slow around centre. The gearbox ratios are stacked close together and the throttle response is instant.

Performance includes a 0-100 km/h time in the low-mid Nines.

Fuel economy in the combined city/highway government test is 6.9 litres/100km and on a very hard-driven test, we saw 7.8 litres/100km.

Prices now start from about AUD$8000.

Summary: Practicality of a 2-door wagon-shaped hatch, raw-edged driving excitement and excellent fuel economy in all driving conditions.

Volkswagen Golf Tdi

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The turbo diesel Golf is the most conservative of the vehicles listed here. With its high waistline, staid dash and discreet badging, no one will know that you’re driving a super economical car that can also perform well.

The current shape model was released in 2004 with two diesel engines available – a 1.9 and a 2.0 litre.

Despite the modest difference in capacity, the 2-litre (103kW and 320Nm) has a lot more grunt than the 1.9 (77kW and 250Nm). Assessed in 6-speed manual mode, the 2-litre has an official combined fuel economy of 5.7 litres/100km. Nought to 100 km/h is listed as 9.3 seconds – and to that good figure needs to be added the low-down response that diesels (and hybrids) are known for.

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The Golf mixes tied-down suspension with a solid-on-road presence. It’s well built and – depending on the form – can be well specified. Interior space is greater than the exterior suggests.

Prices now start from about AUD$25,000.

Summary: Doesn’t make a statement but gets the job done with excellent fuel economy and surprisingly speedy performance.


From $4,000 to $40,000; sports cars, family cars and commuters; from raw to refined; petrol, diesel or hybrid – there’s plenty of choice in used cars that provide driving fun but don’t cost much in fuel.

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