Fast sedans are a staple of American car culture. Indeed, there is an undeniable appeal in a car that is versatile, fast and stylish, all in the same package.
Americans aren’t the only ones that think so, though. I read this short feature from the Top Gear people this morning and it got me thinking. Most of the cars they mention are European-market models, not available in the U.S. Given America’s obsession with all things fast and big, it stood to reason that we must have some pretty decent examples of hot sedans as well.
In true Top Gear spirit, I decided to find out what options are out there for those of us looking to go fast and look good – on a budget.
The criteria for my search were simple: The car must have four doors, a manual transmission and be between $4999 and $9999 in asking price. Autotrader dutifully returned about 200 options fitting this description within 25 miles of my house. In sorting through all obligatory Hyundais, Civics, Corollas and Jettas, I found five gems. Each of them will get you where you’re going in a hurry, keep a smile on your face on twisting backroads and assure that whenever you arrive, you do so in style.
2004 Nissan Maxima — Nissan invented the term “4-door sports car” in the ’80s and applied it to the Maxima. Although it has grown larger and heavier with time, the Maxima is still a lot of fun, especially when the 3.5-liter V6 is paired with the 6-speed manual. Zero to 60 goes by in a brisk 6.3 seconds. The 2004 example I found had around 70,000 miles on the clock and the asking price was $9495.
2004 VW Passat W8 — Volkswagen’s W engine was a bit too odd and a bit too expensive for most American’s tastes. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t good, though. A 4.0-liter, 8-cylinder engine paired to a 6-speed manual gearbox is pretty much always a winning combination. In the Passat’s case it is also mated to VW’s 4-motion all-wheel-drive system, meaning that grip is never an issue. That combo was good for a zero to 60 time of 6.4 seconds. Given its rarity, I was surprised to see one of these in my price range. The example I found, though, sports 71,000 miles on the odometer and the seller is asking $9900.
2001 BMW 540i — Although not as insane as the much more expensive M5, the 540i still sports a meaty 4.4-liter V8 engine, slick 6-speed manual transmission and corner-friendly suspension package. Expect to see 60 miles per hour in around 5.5 seconds. This is the yardstick against which all RWD sports sedans of its era are measured, and with good reason. It is fast, it handles like… well, like a BMW, and I have always found this generation to be one of the best looking cars out there. Although there were many examples, the best I saw had around 105,000 miles and the owner was asking $9500.
2003 Volvo S60 T5 — Despite Volvo’s stodgy image, they have made some properly quick cars. This is one of them. The T5 5-cylinder motor is fed by a high-pressure turbo that results in 247 horsepower and 243 ft-lbs. of torque. While those numbers aren’t stratospheric, when the motor is paired to Volvo’s 5-speed manual gearbox, the car is surprisingly quick. Zero to 60 should go by in 6.8 seconds. The T5 trim level also came with a tighter suspension and bigger wheels and tires, making it enjoyable in spirited maneuvers as well. The S60 also marked a departure from Volvo’s previous boxy styling cues. Critics took note, frequently praising the car’s beautiful design. The example I found had 108,000 miles on the odometer and was priced at $9450.
2003 Infiniti G35 Sedan — When Infiniti debuted this car, it put the luxury sports sedan world on notice. Its cutting edge design was a leap forward and has been often imitated. But the G35 is not all looks. The throaty sound of Nissan’s VQ35 V6 engine is unmistakable and the performance numbers back it up. The motor makes 260 horsepower and the 6-speed variant can hit 60 in 6.1 seconds. The example I found had 134,000 miles on the clock and sported a $7990 asking price.
Of course, this is just a sample of what was nearby to me. The same search in another area might yield totally different results. I think it’s cool to know, though, that there are plenty of options out there. Even on a budget.
Note: We are talking about used cars, here. Always know what you are looking at and have a qualified person inspect the car before you buy. Buyers should also be aware that parts and labor to repair most European cars are often quite expensive so initial purchase price should not be the only consideration. Do your research and figure out the best car for you first. Then go shopping.