Almost regardless of where you live, there is a constant in the car market: AWD vehicle sales are growing quickly. No need to tell Subaru. They’ve turned a somewhat niche Japanese brand into a true giant, even outselling VW before dieselgate. So it’s probably not a coincidence that you see WRXs and even STI’s on a pretty regular basis. It is a tempting recipe: strong engines, phenomenal AWD systems, finely tuned suspensions, etc. But what if you fancy something a little different?
Turns out, you’re actually a bit spoiled for choice. In fact, there are so many high-performance AWD options around, we had to set some parameters. To make the cut, the below cars all met the following criteria:
- Under $50,000
- True sedans (with one exception made)
- A focus on performance above all else
- Sophisticated AWD systems
- Currently in production (sorry, Evo)
To help further differentiate the pack, we kept the analysis straightforward: what we love about each, what we like a bit less, and our overall conclusion. Without further ado, here are the contenders:
Volkswagen Golf R
Specs: 292 hp turbo I4, 0-60 in 5.2 seconds, 1/4-mile in 13.7 seconds, $35,650 base price
We Love: The sheer number of boxes the Golf R ticks. In terms of being an affordable all-rounder, this is probably the best on the list. The fastest Golf brings a handsome exterior, competitive performance, endless practicality and a phenomenal interior. Genuinely not kidding about the last one, you’ll think you’re sitting in an Audi. There are plastics present, but they’re either beautifully disguised or given a high-quality finish. Everything else is either soft touch material, leather, or metal.
It’s a striking looker both inside and out and its performance matches that “extremely refined hot hatch” approach. Certainly quick, but never in a way that jolts you around or compromises comfort. It’s a remarkably well executed package that in no small way redefines its own category. Hot hatch performance without hot hatch crudeness.
We Like Less: To call it boring would be ridiculous, but the Golf R never really stirs your soul the way the others on this list do. Performance is decent, yet no longer at the top of its class. The exhaust note is harmonious, but it won’t make you giggle. By miles the Golf R is the classiest car here, which isn’t a bad thing. It just takes being dignified a little too seriously for our taste. A turbo hot hatch should make you want to thrash it down a backroad every time you’re behind the wheel, and the Golf R doesn’t always have that effect. Which is a fairly big issue, when the base price is awfully close to $40k. Pretty big money for a Golf.
Our Conclusion: If you’re looking for a gorgeous, comfortable, remarkably well designed and quick AWD daily commuter , the Golf R is pretty much perfect. If your focus is a little more squarely on performance above all else, you probably should keep reading.
Specs: 305 hp turbo I4, 0-60 in 4.4 seconds, 1/4-mile in 12.9 seconds, $42,500 base price
We Love: Nearly everything. If what you’re looking for is a Golf R that knows how to behave badly, the Audi S3 was made for you. Take everything that’s good about the R and dial it up five or six notches. That’s how truly great the S3 comes across. Exterior: beautiful. Interior: It’s an Audi. So yeah, perfect. We particularly love the configurable gauge/infotainment cluster. Performance: Evo, who? Price: Hey, I might be able to afford one.
We Like Less: Some of the options are a little silly. You shouldn’t have to spec rear side airbags in 2016, let alone pay $350 for the privilege. Would you like it in any other color than black? No problem, but that’ll be $575. It’s a brilliant car, but for $42,500, the nickel and dime-ing is a bit much.
Our Conclusion: As far as low-$40k cars go, this is about as good as they get. Beautiful inside and out with sharp performance and Audi’s brilliant AWD tech. Be very careful when checking options, but otherwise this is a hugely compelling sedan.
BMW M235i xDrive
Specs: 320 hp turbo I6, 0-60 in 4.5 seconds, 1/4-mile in 13.2 seconds, $46,150 base price
We Love: Anyone who has driven an E92 M3 will make an argument for it as one of the greatest performance cars yet designed. So when we say the M235i is very nearly as good as the outgoing M3, that’s considerably high praise. Though some recent BMWs have started to trend towards being soft cruisers, the M235i is everything we love about old school BMW. Astonishingly good straight six, superb chassis balance (even with AWD i.e. xDrive), perfectly weighted steering and strong straight-line performance.
Plus, you have a typically lovely BMW interior and, to our eye at least, one of the best looking BMWs currently on sale. Its more fun than the Audi and doesn’t seem to take itself quite as seriously. Which we tally as a good thing.
We Like Less: If the S3 is getting up there in price, the M235i is really pushing it. The $46k base price doesn’t include items like: leather upholstery, navigation, heated seats, any paint other than white, or floor mats. It can be a struggle to keep it under $50k.
Our Conclusion: In our humble opinion, this is probably the purest, most dedicated driver’s car on this list. Unfortunately, there’s a literal price to pay for driving nirvana. Is the M235i worth it? Think about it this way: you’re getting nearly all the performance and magic of the last M3 for a huge discount (and AWD). So, weirdly, at $46k it might be a relative bargain.
Ford Focus RS
Specs: 350(!) hp turbo I4, 0-60 in 4.6 seconds, 1/4-mile in 13.4 seconds, $36,605 base price
We Love: If there’s one car that gives the M235i a legitimate run for its money, it’s the Focus RS. No matter how you look at it, the RS is a bonafide sports car killer. Ballistic performance figures, a wonderfully playful yet planted chassis, snap-crackle-pop exhaust note, joyfully engaging transmission…the list goes on and on. In every measurable way, the RS soundly takes it to its natural rival (read: WRX STi) and continues punching way above its weight class.
We Like Less: Why, why can’t we have the Recaro seats from the Euro version? Honestly, we don’t even care about the side airbags, please just let us have them. Especially since we’re not crazy about the ones U.S. cars get. They’re the same buckets out of the Focus ST, which means you’ll have legitimate backache after about an hour sitting in them. It remains odd to us that such a perfect driver’s car would have such surprisingly uncomfortable chairs.The same can be said for the rest of the interior. Remove the RS badges, replace them with ST ones, and we’d be hard pressed to tell the difference.
Our Conclusion: So the interior is low rent. Honestly that’s not that big of a surprise given the astonishing performance the RS offers for so little money. If you can tolerate somewhat sub-par seating, then you’re in for one of the greatest, if not the greatest, hot hatch driving experiences of all time. Simply put, its one of the best performance cars on sale today at any price, and a spectacular, nearly unbelievable steal at $36k.
Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG
Specs: 355 hp turbo I4, 0-60 in 4.2 seconds, 1/4-mile in 12.8 seconds, $49,500 base price
We Love: Holy everything is the CLA45 AMG an adrenaline rush. By many, many country miles this is the most exciting factory turbo four. It’s stupid fast and sounds absolutely evil. Forget the STi, RS, Evo…those are PG13 engines. The bomb underneath the hood of this AMG earns a very solid R rating, making noises most of society would deem uncivilized. It’s beyond brilliant and, although the chassis is far from the most engaging here, you won’t care. This is a full bodied German muscle car that someone forget to tell shouldn’t be this much fun.
We Like Less: We can’t be kind about this. That price is pretty insane. Even for a list that includes the option-happy BMW M235i and Audi S3, the Merc takes things to an entirely new level. It starts at $49k and with even a few minor options you’ll be painfully close to $60k. That’s huge money, practically on the doorstep of the much faster BMW M3. Plus, while we’re huge fans of the interior layout and design, the back seats aren’t exactly what you’d call spacious.
Our Conclusion: If, above all else, you simply want a brutally fast, vicious sounding and uncompromised AWD muscle car, it’s time to ring up your local Mercedes-AMG dealership. If you care more about things like financial sensibility, chassis balance, interior space…this AMG might not be for you.
Taking all of that in, which is the best option here? That really depends on your criteria. If money is, to an extent, no object and you want a sheer adrenaline rush, the CLA45 AMG is right on. If instead you want the best mix of performance and price, the Focus RS is practically unmatched. Or if you’re looking for a solid mix of price, performance and luxury, the S3 and M235i make seriously compelling arguments. No matter which you choose, one thing is for certain: you absolutely won’t be disappointed.
And, of course, if you absolutely, positively cannot get away from the sound of boxer rumble and rally car fantasies, there’s always the WRX STi.