Yesterday, I shared pictures of my new WRX. So now a recap of what it was like looking for a $30,000 performance car.

I did my homework, and drove nearly every performance car for $30,000 or less. Here’s were my impressions:

MINI Cooper

Yes, the 3-cylinder base Cooper. The MINI Cooper is not an economy car. It is a premium car that happens to be small. A Cooper S with my choice of options would sail past my $30,000 limit. Nevertheless, the 3-cylinder turbo was quite an endearing engine. It sounded like a V6, which makes sense, since a V6 is just two inline-3’s glued together. As for power delivery, it was like my 95’ Miata, but with enough torque to maintain speed without downshifting. It also felt very premium, but not too exciting to drive. A great commuter car, but not a thrilling enthusiast’s car.

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Subaru BRZ

I thought I would love the BRZ since my first car was a 95’ Miata, and I therefore subscribe to the “slow car fast” theory. But I found it to be a disappointing driving experience at best. The clutch biting point was SUPER high up. Rowing through the gears felt like climbing a flight of stairs. Besides the clutch, the shifter felt plasticy, and the engine made a dull droning buzz. Both the salesman and my roommate were along for the test drive, which probably made it feel slower than it really is. Perhaps the BRZ would have shined if I had driven it hard on a twisty backroad, but it failed to impress on suburban Pittsburgh roads.

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Ford Mustang Ecoboost

Like the BRZ, the EcoStang was designed as a RWD coupe from the start. Unfortunately, it just didn’t feel anything like a real performance car. Turn the key, and you’re greeted with the same dreary 4-banger exhaust note found on any Camry. Siting inside, I couldn’t get over how freaking HUGE it felt, and how claustrophobic the interior felt. It’s almost like every interior surface had an extra layer of padding. And while the engine was certainly powerful, it wasn’t particularly memorable like the 1.6T and the 2.0T in the FiST and FoST respectively. Overall, it was a quick and hopelessly boring rental car. And did I mention that it felt HUGE?

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Ford Focus ST

The FoST genuinely shocked me. I test drove it just after the EcoStang, and expected it to be just as unremarkable. Boy was I wrong. The 2.0L Ecoboost is a gem of an engine. It pushes you back in your seat when you accelerate, and has gobs of torque from stupidly low RPMs. It’s a joy to toss around thanks to the super quick steering. My only real complaint is that it felt too “grown up.” It could be a hooligan if you revved it out, but it was just as happy to be a comfortable and quiet daily driver.

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Ford Fiesta ST

The FiST is not a comfortable or quiet daily driver. It is an unashamed hooligan. Compared to the FoST, it was buzzier, louder, and more on-edge. And I loved the higher pitched exhaust note from its smaller 1.6L Ecoboost engine. Its steering felt even quicker thanks to its shorter wheelbase, and it’s subcompact roots meant you heard and felt more of the road. It’s flawed for sure, but it is the more fun to drive of the two ST twins.

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Fiat 500 Abarth

Honestly, I didn’t take the Abarth seriously and only drove it out of respect for its glorious exhaust note. And I left the test drive counting my pennies because I had to have one immediately. The FiST/FoST felt like sporty hatchbacks. The Abarth felt like an exotic trapped in a hatchback body. The mad stripes, scorpion badges, white wheels/mirrors, stylish interior, and intoxicating exhaust note made it by far the most fun test drive I’ve ever been on (WRX included). And unlike the ST twins, the Abarth’s pedals were perfectly placed for heel-toe. And the car’s silly narrow/tall shape gives the driver the most unobstructed outward view I’ve ever encountered in an automobile. In fact, I was seriously considering flying to Arizona to purchase the only Abarth in the country with red paint, white stripes/wheels, and a red leather interior. And then drive it 2500 miles home to CT. That’s how much I loved this car.

Why didn’t I buy it, then? Well, see the next section to find out:

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Subaru WRX

My uncle convinced me to get the WRX over the Abarth. For the past decade, he has participated in track events with NASA and the Porsche Club, and I was intending on tracking my new car alongside him and my cousin (who also drives a 15’ WRX). In these events, you give the pass signal to faster drivers. It can therefore be dangerous if you drive a slow car, since you spend all your time staring in the rear view mirror waving people by.

The WRX hits the performance sweet spot: it’s hugely confidence-inspiring for track day newbies, yet is fast enough to hold its own against the Caymans and 911’s in the upper run groups.

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Once I agreed to a credit check and settled on a price, my local dealership finally let me test drive the car. Right off the bat, it felt like a true performance car. The heavy clutch, heavy steering, short-throw shifter, red instrument dials, and whoosh of the turbocharger remind you that you’re driving something special. Unlike the FoST’s torquey engine, the WRX’s turbo doesn’t kick in until about 2800 RPM, at which point it surges forward and makes you want to rev it out more. It’s also the easiest car I’ve ever driven to double clutch and heel-toe.

And unlike the Abarth, it’s plenty big enough to carry 4 extra tires, a toolkit, jacks, and any other track-day essentials. It’s the perfect $30,000 performance car...unless you want a hatch!