GRR

The fastest cars you can buy for £30,000

16th May 2024
Russell Campbell

Yes, it's time for another journey into the wonders of fast cars on a (relatively) modest budget as we explore exactly how fast we can go for £30,000, which – and we're shocked to say it – is basic BMW 1 Series money. The usual OEM rules apply; all the cars here produce their VMAX from the factory or as a dealer add-on, the aftermarket need not apply. So, keep reading as we look at some of the fastest saloons, coupés, hyper hatches, SUVs, sports cars, GTs – and a diesel estate – you can buy for 30K.  

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BMW Alpina D3 Bi-Turbo - 173mph

We could have chosen a different Alpina to kick off this list, but as a diesel the D3 offers something different from all the other cars here. I mean, what's not to like about a 173mph top speed and real-world fuel economy of 40mpg? Exactly.

The D3 was available as a saloon and a coupé, but it's in the do-anything shape of the F80 Touring that makes the most sense, adding load-lugging practicality to its long list of attributes. And it's a very long list. With creamy smooth power, impressive refinement, and serious punch, BMW's straight-six diesel was the first oil burner to excite enthusiasts. But it didn't pass muster with the perfectionists at Alpina, who promptly binned the stock turbos for a pair of variable geometry spinners, bringing 350PS (257kW) and a stonking 700Nm (516lb ft) of torque – up from the 335d's 313PS (230kW) and 630Nm (465lb ft). As expected of a car hailing from Buchloe, the D3 has body control comparable to an M3 but rides better than any other 3 Series despite its huge multi-spoke alloy wheels. Sounds perfect.

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Audi RS3 – 174mph

The 8V Audi RS3 gets on this list on a technicality because while it came from the factory with a 155mph limiter holding tight on its leash, the lovely people at your local dealer would happily remove the limiter, jacking the top speed up to an impressive 174mph. The only caveat? You'd have to pay them £1,600 for the pleasure.

The RS3 and Mercedes-AMG A45 created a new genre of car – the hyper hatch – so called because they had almost double the horsepower (and cost twice as much) as their hot hatch underlings. Admittedly, the RS3 was a little wooden to drive, nudging into understeer long before it felt like it should. But, driven how it wanted to be, slow-in-fast-out, it could be a devastating point-to-point car with a five-cylinder engine that you'd happily hack a couple of limbs off to hear. A minor compromise because, with an excellent interior, five doors and decent practicality, the RS3 was as easy to live with as the standard A3.

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BMW F80 M3 M Driver's Package - 174mph

Folklore has it that the F80 BMW M3, or at least early examples, were a bit of a miss, swapping the precise calibration and beautiful noise of the old V8 for a straight-six muffled by turbochargers that could dollop down skip loads of torque just when you didn't want it. Many YouTube videos explain why that's a bad idea.

But no one can argue that the F80 wasn't quick. Its thermonuclear mid-range made the old M3 feel like it was standing still in gear, and there was a reward in taming the rort-snorting performance. Acceleration wasn't the only area the F80 aced in; it could also be fast in a straight line if you specified the M Driver's Package, bringing the top speed up to 174mph by loosening the limiter. Of course, being based on the standard 3 Series means the M3 has a nice interior and is practical, although high-speed refinement is surprisingly grating.

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Jaguar XKR Dynamic Speed Pack - 174mph

Sadly, Jaguar's scheme to extract more cash from the XKR-buying public was no less cynical than its German rivals; you paid your money (a cheeky £3,500), and Coventry would wind out the limiter to 174mph. On the bright side, you're unlikely to pay a premium for this option as the XKR's 20th birthday nears.

It might be getting on a bit, but there's much to like about the XKR. It's still one of the prettiest coupés produced over the last couple of decades, but it also has the feel of a British muscle car thanks to its long nose, bonnet vents, and quad exhausts. That analogy also rings true when it comes to the drive. The XKR was lairy with a capital L – an abiding memory of mine being a colleague grabbing fistfuls of lock setting off at half pace from a T junction. On track, a 911 makes the Jag look like a tire-shredding mess, but the Jag had personality, and in the astute words of Samuel L. Jackson, personality goes a long way.

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Porsche Cayenne 4.8 Turbo S - 175mph

The second-generation 958 Porsche Cayenne makes a welcome departure from the irritating world of paid-for-limiter-loosening. It achieved its 175mph top speed by nothing less than pure brute force – not bad, when a period Supercharged Range Sport could barely scratch 140.

The E2 improved on the original Cayenne in many ways, but its nicer looks (the old one the result of a breeding programme between a pig and a 911) were by far the most welcome. The fact that the E2 lost the inaugural car's low-range gearbox passed under most metro-based punters' radar. Porsche witchery meant the Cayenne handled like a supersized Mitsubishi EVO – body control was exemplary, and you could explore the chassis, switching from four-wheel drifts to full-on power slides with surprising ease. RIP tyres. The Cayenne makes it to this list as our only offering to the SUV gods, a 558PS (410kW) twin-turbocharged Swiss Army knife that no family should be without.

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The fastest cars you can buy for £20,000

08th May

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Mercedes SL55 Performance Pack - 186mph;

The R230 Mercedes SL55's Performance Pack shows us exactly how factory delimiting should be done - Mercedes throwing everything into the project. It beefed up the brakes and suspension, added an oil cooler, an LSD, and - only then, relaxed the speed limiter to 186mph. That's more like it. The higher top speed the mere cherry on top because the rest of the mods developed the 55’s character no end.

Essentially, the 55 was a German hot rod with a supercharged V8 that sounded peachier than a peach tinned in peach juice and with 500PS, who could say no to the extra control of better brakes, suspension, and a limited-slip differential? While R230 prices have tumbled, Performance Pack-ed 55 values remain strong, suggesting this is one SL that could be worth hanging on to.

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Audi R8 - 187mph

It feels like a week doesn't go by without our hands sweating over the idea of MK1 Audi R8 ownership. It's testament to a package that performs very well under several criteria. Speed is what matters here, and the R8's not short of it – maxing out at an impressive 187mph and that's just for the V8 model, the only one to fall within our self-imposed £30,000 budget.

Where to begin? Let's start with the looks. Audi nailed its supercar first time, the R8 getting the wide body and low stance you'd expect of the breed with rare-for-the-time niceties like carbon fibre blades in the bodywork and a glass engine cover that put the V8 on display like it was in an Oxford Street shop window. Things looked pretty good from the inside, too, where sensible Audi kept things simple with an excellent driving position and a gated-manual shift. The R8's engine produced a symphony orchestra's worth of sounds, and the handling was stellar. It's outrageous that you can pick up decent examples for less than £30,000.

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Aston Martin Rapide - 188mph

When it went on sale in 2010, the Aston Martin Rapide made precisely no sense. It cost about double the price of competitors like the Porsche Panamera and Maserati Quattroporte, with no obvious advantage other than the fact that it was hand-made, which, ahem, isn't always a good thing.

Okay, so we're being harsh because the Rapide looks fabulous, and its interior has more leather than a Bridge of Weir stockroom. It also has a V12 engine that builds to a crescendo as it hits its 188mph top speed, although it lacks the outright muscle of a Panamera's twin-turbocharged V8. It's no Porsche in the handling department, either, sitting very much towards the lazier end of the four-door GT spectrum; this was a problem when Aston wanted plus 150,000 of your good British pounds. But on the second-hand market? Meh, no issue - miraculously, prices start from less than 30.

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Alpina B5 (E60) – 195mph

Yes, it's Alpina time again, and this one's pretty special, given that it can stroke its speedo needle to the far end of a very large dial – maxing out at a plain silly 195mph. The E60 B5 perhaps represents what Alpina does best better than any other, a comprehensive tuning job that makes it a far improved ownership proposition than the much-loved E60 M5. Sacrilegious.

Come now. For a kick-off, no ancient automated manual spoils the fun; the B5 prefers to stick with a tried-and-tested ZF six-speeder with more slush than an iced-beverage dispenser. The M5's famous V10’s fragility is also avoided because the Alpina uses BMW's 4.4-litre V8 only with forged Mahle cranks and pistons and a compact supercharger. The result? Well, 500PS (368kW) and 700Nm (516lb ft) of torque, which is only half the story because the Alpina produced more than the M5's 520Nm (383lb ft) peak at a mere 2,500rpm. What a car.

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Bentley Continental GT Speed - 205mph

A Bentley Continental GT topping our list of fastest cars is becoming something of a habit, but we'll make no excuses because this luxury GT is a performance bargain (which has the potential to drain even the wealthy of every last resource). But hey, who needs money?

Buying the Speed bought you a revised chassis with suspension lowered by 10mm, firmer springs, stiffer dampers, and uprated anti-roll bars that meant it felt a tad less barge-like than the regular model. Visually, base and Speed cars looked almost identical, and very imposing - the Speed's most distinctive feature being its dark-tinted grille. Inside, it’s still a class act, with usable back seats and a 358-litre boot that makes it surprisingly practical. With 625PS (460kW), 50PS (37kW) more than the standard GT, the Speed could pick up its skirt and launch itself towards a 205mph top speed, comfortably exceeding any other car on this list, with high-speed stability that makes others feel jigglier than the veterans on the London to Brighton run. Roll the dice, buy a good one, and how could you be disappointed?

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