What defines a supercar? To the purists it’s about something more than sheer speed and horsepower; it’s about exclusivity, outrageous design, possibly price tag and definitely desirability.
But the lines are blurring all the time, with a hot hatch – and even hot estates – now faster and more powerful than some Ferraris and Lamborghinis of the past.
The latest Audi RS6 powers its 2.1-tonne hulk through 60mph in just 3.7 seconds – unbelievably, quicker than the mega-Porsche 911GT2.
So is the Audi a supercar? Would it draw the gawping crowd of the Ferrari LaFerrari? Obviously not, and yet…
What we’re building up to here is this: many of you will not agree with this list of the top 10 affordable supercars (well, affordable is all relative).
You’ll say “this is a GT”, “that’s a muscle car” and other assorted put-downs, and you’ll have a fair point.
But we’re using the broader definition of a super car here – you’ll find mid-engined jaw-droppers, super-fast GTs, and even a Mercedes – all available, if you look hard enough, for under £40,000.
Mercedes have been producing SLs for a long time, and by now the basic shape will be familiar with almost everyone – petrolhead or not. In other words, it won’t leave any jaws dropped among passers-by.
But the SL55 AMG was different to every other of the breed – when it was launched in 2002 it was the fastest road car ever to come out of Stuttgart.
Costing £89,040 new, the SL55 pumped out 476bhp from its 5.4-litre supercharged V8, covering 0-62mph in 4.7 seconds – definitely contemporary supercar territory.
Without the limiter that restricts all such cars to a top speed of 155mph, it was reported that the car could hit 202mph – rapid indeed.
With plenty earlier cars on the used market for around £15,000, it’s a spectacular car for the money.
The Lotus Esprit always had supercar looks and superb handling, but the early cars lacked the power to propel the car into Ferrari territory.
That all changed with the introduction of the Turbo married to a new, sleek set of clothes in 1987, designed by Peter Stevens of McLaren F1 fame.
The slippery new shape pushed the car to 60mph in a shade over five seconds – comparable at the time to a Ferrari 328 and Porsche 911.
Even faster Esprits were to follow, culminating in the outlandish Sport 350, which provided staggering in-gear performance, according to Autocar “on level terms with all but the fastest superbikes and, therefore, comfortably ahead of most four-wheeled rivals. By any standards it is a ferociously, addictively fast car.”
An Esprit Turbo can be yours for around £25,000.
Is there a more luxurious way of whooshing to 60mph in under 5 seconds than in a Bentley Continental GT?
There may be, but probably not for under £20,000 for a 2004 model, which is what you’ll pay to get behind the wheel of one of these sumptuous sports cruisers.
The 6.0-litre, twin turbo W12 produces 479lb ft of torque at just 1,600rpm to effortlessly waft you along at breakneck speed, your ride comforted by the air suspension and traction aided by four wheel drive.
Granted, you’ll be lucky to get the claimed 17mpg and if anything does go wrong with the engine you may need to remortgage to repair it but, if you’re prepared to take the risk, there are few cars around that combine glamour, luxury and speed as well as the Bentley.
Jaguar has a proud history of producing super-fast sports cars, ever since the XK120 became the world’s fastest production car in 1948, and the E-Type followed suit two decades later.
It’s fair to say the company floundered for a while after the demise of the E-Type; the XJ-S could never hit 60mph quicker than 7.1 seconds – and that was in 1994 at the peak of its development.
The XK8 came next, boasting E-Type looks but lacking a spark until the supercharged XKR version was introduced in 2000.
These early cars are currently going for a song, with good examples available for as little as £8,000, but for the real performance you need to look to the second iteration of the XKR made from 2006 to 2014.
About as good looking a GT as you’re likely to see on the roads, a 5.0-litre, supercharged XKR packing 503bhp and hitting 60mph in just 4.8 seconds can be yours for under £40,000 for a 2012 model, and a lot less than that for slightly earlier cars with a little less power.
All with a boot big enough for a weekend away and a set of golf clubs.
The V8 Vantage remains one of the most strikingly beautiful cars on the planet – for the money.
It was billed as a competitor to the Porsche 911, a rapid-but-civilised sports car that was equally at home driving to work and back as on the track.
More muscular than the DB9 on which it is based, the Vantage is squatter and shorter, and the positioning of the compact, 4.3-litre V8 – deep back in the engine bay – is great news for handling.
The 380bhp lump can propel the car to 60mph in 5 seconds, with top speed at 175mph, but it achieves all this with the minimum of fuss, until you hit 4000rpm, when, as Motortrend magazine noted, the “Aston turns to Astonishing” and the exhausts begin to growl.
You can get a 2006 car for comfortably under £30,000 which, if 16mpg doesn’t concern you, is a lot of car for the cash.
Until the Audi R8 came along in 2006, Honda’s first generation NSX was considered “the” useable, easy-to-drive supercar.
Launched in 1990 with a 3.0-litre V6 engine positioned amidships, the NSX chassis was perfected with the help of Ayrton Senna, resulting in incredibly agile handling characteristics.
Not rapid by today’s standards, partly thanks to the gentlemen’s agreement among Japanese manufacturers in the 1990s that limited power to 270bhp, the original NSX could hit 60mph in 5.6 seconds.
Later cars had an upgraded, 3.2-litre unit producing 290bhp, and the car lost its distinctive pop-up headlights.
Prices are now rising, fuelled no doubt by the buzz around the new hybrid model and relative rarity.
Described as a supercar for the PlayStation generation, the Nissan GT-R competes head-on with modern mid-engined supercars for pure point-to-point pace, and would beat many of them through the corners.
The car is a technological masterclass that uses electronically-controlled four wheel drive to deliver incredible levels of grip, allowing the power from the twin-turbo, 3.8-litre V6 to be unleashed in devastating fashion.
The Nissan achieves a 0-60mph time of just 3.5 seconds despite its bulky frame and hefty kerb weight of 1,725kg, and the car isn’t the easiest to live with thanks to its hard ride and slightly tacky interior compared to European rivals.
But it’s built for speed, grip and pure fun – and for about £40,000 for a 2010 model, there isn’t another car on our list that beats it in pound-for-pound performance.
Some will say that the Porsche 911 is way too common and “everyday” to be a supercar, but when it comes to the Turbo, they’re surely wrong – at least, if performance and fun factor are any measure at all.
The eternally under-rated 996, unfairly derided by Porsche purists for its fried-egg headlights and water-cooled engine, is a highly useable performance beast, in Turbo form producing 414bhp from its 3.6-litre engine.
Top speed is a blistering 190mph, hitting 60mph along the aqy in just 4.2 seconds – not bad for a car that left production a decade ago, to be replaced by the slightly more refined 997…
A 996 Turbo can be yours for as low as £30,000.
Want a lightweight, stripped back sports car with outrageous performance and handling? Then, ever since Colin Chapman started building cars for the racetrack, all eyes have been on the Lotus factory in Norfolk.
The Exige S delivers everything you’d expect from a Lotus – blistering pace from a supercharged 3.5-litre V6 engine lifted from the larger Evora propelling the car to 60mph in just 3.8 seconds, and the visceral, low-to-floor thrill of a car that darts left and right with incredible precision.
The most hard-core offering from Lotus, the Exige is a very special thing to drive, and if you look really hard you might find one for £40,000.
The Audi R8 caused a sensation when it was launched in 2006 – a genuine everyday supercar that’s as easy to drive as an A3 but will turn more heads than any Porsche or BMW.
The early cars can now be bought for around the £40,000 mark (it was £77,000 new in 2006), and for that you’ll get a mid-engined 4.2-litre, normally aspirated V8 capable of hitting 60mph in 4.6 seconds on its way to 187mph.
At the time, it was ranked as superior to Audi’s Italian thoroughbred, the Lamborghini Gallardo, for £30,000 less, and the car has aged so well that only relatively minor cosmetic changes have been made to the design since.
The new, 5.2-litre V10 model puts the old car’s performance in the shade, with 602bhp compared to the original car’s 412bhp helping push the 0-60 time down to 3.2 seconds – but at £130,000+ it doesn’t make it into the “affordable” category just yet.