Used Vehicle Guide: Best Year-Round Practical Performance Cars

2014 Audi S4 Technik

Spring is in the air, and the desire to get behind the wheel of a performance car, smash gears, rip corners, and redline a potent engine is burning strongly in the guts of car buffs across the country.

Thing is, when you’ve got a family, trying to sell the spouse on that flashy sports model you’ve been lusting after can be a charmingly hopeless proposition that’ll see your bubble burst faster than a dollar-store balloon. And don’t forget that the warm weather will only be here for a few short months, so plan ahead for a car that will keep on delivering your performance jollies all through the year. Thankfully, performance models come in more shapes and sizes than ever these days, and many of them scratch the same itch for power, speed, handling, and fantastic noises, while delivering the sort of sensibility and practicality that makes them an easy pitch to that apprehensive partner.

Mostly because we love you, and we want you to be happy, we’ve compiled a list of rides from the used-car marketplace that deliver driving thrills along with the practicality and year-round drivabillity that’ll make it easier to land one in your driveway. After all: you’re a performance buff, and you won’t settle for a ride that’s softer than a warmed focaccia loaf, or popular with the sort of folks who wear uncle-pants on Friday nights while researching flans on Pinterest.

May we present a list of our favourite performance vehicles from the used marketplace that are big on practicality, sensibility and attainability, as well as some tips to shop smart for the one that best tickles your tickly parts.

2007-2009 Volkswagen GTI

2007 Volkswagen GTI

The Gist

Look for three-door or five-door hatchback models, both of which you can tell the spouse are station wagons. What’s more sensible for a family than a station wagon? Nothing—that’s what. Look for plenty of turbocharged sauce, manually-stirred, if you opt for the six-speed stick that came standard with the 2.0T engine. You get 200 horsepower, robust torque, a pleasing growl from the engine, space to spare, and handling and steering that’s dialed in and bang-on. Folding seats add flexibility, and the GTI is easy on fuel, too, at least when you aren’t ripping through the gears like a pit bull through a rawhide. If needed, you can get a GTI with a DSG transmission, which is nifty because it works just like an automatic, but can fire-off driver-prompted gearshifts via the shift paddles at lightning speed.

The Test Drive

Inspect all electric and electronic features for proper operation, including the climate control, the stereo, navigation, motorized seat adjustments, steering-wheel mounted controls and Bluetooth.

A continual supply of fresh quality motor oil is vital to long turbocharger life, so be sure the model you’re considering hasn’t been neglected when it came to oil changes, and the turbocharger should pose no concern.

Have a technician scan the ECU for signs of a stored ‘misfire’ code, which could be evidence of a not-uncommon problem with built-up valve gunk.

2006-2015 Dodge Charger R/T AWD

2011 Dodge Charger R/T AWD

The Gist

This one’s about as manly as sedans get—and if you opt for the winter-ready AWD variant of Dodge’s big-ass hot-rod sedan, the wife will likely require ear-plugs to sleep through the sound of your rapidly-growing chest hair. Charger R/T AWD packs HEMI V8 power, a slick AWD system, and a scowling face that’ll see the passing lane vacate more quickly than the office bathroom the morning after you conquered the Big-Rig Burrito at the Lone Star Grill. Room galore, a massive trunk, and comfy seats in both front and rear can accommodate even your girthiest passengers, and feature content includes navigation, climate controlled seats, heated and chilled cupholders, and a mega-watt stereo system upgrade that’s all fancy.

From 2011, styling updates gussy up the Charger’s interior, and leave the exterior looking less rhinoceros-like.  It might be a bit of a firebreather that sounds pure Detroit while assaulting all four wheels with the better part of 360 hp, but the Charger R/T AWD is also accommodating, comfortable and family-ready. Toss on some winter tires, and she’ll make real pretty after-hours snow donuts around the shopping cart return at Sears.

The Test Drive

Check headlights and taillamps for internal condensation, which can cause problems and reduce light output. A full check of the battery and charging system is in order, especially if any onboard electronics aren’t working as expected. Double check for proper operation of all steering-wheel mounted controls, too.

Have a good listen to the rear differential as you drive at low to moderate speeds while steering, especially sharply. Some owners have reported noises from the differential that seem inconsequential, though using revised fluid viscosity in the differential may help. Early models with the 3.6L V6 should have their ECU scanned for a misfire code, which could evidence a rare but notable problem with cracked cylinder heads.

2008-2012 Honda Accord Coupe V6

2010 Honda Accord EX-L V6 Coupe

The Gist

It might have two doors, but the Accord V6 shares its underneathy-bits with a roomy family sedan, so expect adult-friendly rear seats that are easily entered and exited by grown-ups (or infants and their accompanying seating provisions), as well as a spacious trunk, good ride quality, and a ride height that won’t bottom out on a paint stripe. For size and space, the Accord Coupe sure is generously-proportioned. Plus, it’s a Honda, and nothing’s more sensible than that.

Get the V6 engine and six-speed stick for a bit of a sleeper coupe: you’ll get 271 VTEC-enhanced horsepower available from a silky and potent engine that adores being redlined, and a quick, slick shift action that never gets old. Plus, since it’s not excessively flashy or shouty in appearance, the spouse, and your local radar cop, never need to know it’s such a rocket.

The Test Drive

Owners commonly report premature brake wear, so assume the model you’re considering needs new pads and rotors until you confirm otherwise. Unwelcomed squealing sounds, as well as unwanted pulsations or a brake pedal that feels mushier than reheated lasagna, are key signs of worn brakes. Accord’s V6 uses a timing belt that requires periodic changing, be sure the timing belt in the model you’re considering is still within its service life. If the timing belt fails before it’s replaced, it’ll turn the Accord’s engine into soup. A whining noise while steering when stopped could mean a new power steering pump is in your future, and poor cabin heat is probably the result of a bad thermostat.

2010-2015 Audi S4

2014 Audi S4 Technik

The Gist

It might be thrilling, supercharged, and tuned to give your favourite winding backroad an atomic wedgie, but the Audi S4 is also roomy enough for a small family, confident to drive in all conditions, backed by a full set of advanced safety tech, and just a Thule-rack away from being as versatile as the (much less exciting) crossover sports utes your neighbors all drive. Know who smiles while driving a crossover? Nobody, that’s who. But when you’re power-sliding the entire fam-jam up the hill to the chalet, or enjoying the glorious tone of 333 supercharged ponies at full song, you’ll be showing your pearly whites to everyone nearby. The S4 comes with manual or with a DSG transmission, the latter packing seven gears, fully-automatic operation, and a manual paddle-shift mode that’s only slightly less entertaining than firing an automatic weapon at a wall of fine china.

The Test Drive

Have an Audi mechanic inspect the water pump and cooling system for signs of leakage, or indications of imminent water-pump failure. In early S4’s from this generation, the water pump was made of plastic, which was a bad idea, because it’s a water-pump. Replacement water pump units are made of aluminum, which is metal, and better suited to the application. A mechanic should check for an unlikely but possible fluid leak from the rear differential, too. If one is noted, a bad seal or seals may be the culprit. Confirm proper operation of the MMI system, and note that strange shifting behavior from the optional DSG transmission will likely require updated software in the computer that controls it. If the model you’re considering is still under warranty, be sure the warranty hasn’t been voided by the installation of non-factory parts or engine software. Most shoppers should avoid a modified S4.

2007-2013 Volvo C30

2009 Volvo C30 T5 R-Design

The Gist

It’s unique, turbocharged, and styled in a way that caters to your need to stand out, be different, and to not drive something you’ll see seven of when you stop at Superstore to pick up some ham. The Volvo C30 might look like the love-child of R2D2 and a Honda CRX, but under the skin, it’s a real gem. Four seats, a flexible cargo hold and reasonable fuel mileage keep you and yours cruising in comfortable efficiency on any voyage, and her spouseness will love the presence of virtually every safety feature known to mankind. Refined, relaxed, compact and flexible, the C30 T5 also packs a boosted five-cylinder engine with up to 227 horsepower, so daddy can go real fast once he’s dropped the kids off at daycare.

The Test Drive

Dampness or puddles in the front footwell areas, or water staining on the ceiling liner, could be the result of a plugged or leaky sunroof drain tube. Sporadic functionality of the door locks, alarm system or key fobs could be battery related, and the C30 seems a good candidate for hookup to a trickle charger when it’s not in use. Other issues are mainly minor, including broken trim pieces, broken floor-mat anchors, and annoying rattles, possibly from the rear wiper assembly.

2013-2015 BMW X1

2013 BMW X1 xDrive35i

The Gist

God bless you, BMW. God bless you for dropping a beastly little straight-six turbo engine into a compact and lightweight crossover that looks no more threatening than a raspberry frosted cupcake. The last-generation BMW X1 came in several variants when it launched in 2012, but the X1 xDrive 35i is the one to get for discreet speed. It launched in 2013 with 300 horsepower, AWD, paddle shifters, and turbocharged torque, all jammed into a compact luxury crossover that’ll will make the wife think she won her battle against you having a hot ride. Safety, luxury and convenience features abound, and potent xenon headlamps enhance after-dark confidence at the wheel.

The BMW X1 xDrive35i is sensible, flexible, and discreet—though it packs some serious under-hood heat. Hey! That rhymes! We like rhymes – but not as much as we like sporty little crossovers with great big firepower.

The Test Drive

On a test drive, listen for a rare but serious potential issue with the X1’s transfer case, possibly evidenced by a high-pitched whine and some vibration at cruising speeds, as well as some excessive grinding or scrubbing sounds while turning tightly at lower speeds.

The X1 should shift fast, seamlessly, and without any detectable lash through the driveline. Unwelcomed sounds and sensations while shifting up or down, or any difficulty switching through the X1’s gears, should be investigated. Issues may be caused by a leaky adapter sleeve, which is inside of the transmission and can be pricey to repair. Have the cooling system inspected with extra attention paid to the water pump, which may prematurely fail. Note that many issues with the iDrive system can be fixed with a hard reset—but be sure that’s the case if you detect any.

2008-2014 Subaru WRX

2013 Subaru WRX STI

The Gist

You knew we’d have a Subaru somewhere on this list, didn’t ya? Subaru’s rally-ready WRX has long been the go-to model for shoppers after the good stuff: manual transmissions, boosted engines, all-wheel drive, and heaps of aftermarket support to make it go even faster. Get the five-door model: it’s more flexible, you’ll love the extra space, and you can tell the significant other that it’s just a station wagon, not a sports car.

“Why does it have a hole in its hood? That’s not to make the car go fast, is it?!”

“No, honey—that’s a safety feature!”

You’re welcome.

Feature content included Bluetooth, heated sport bucket seats, a sunroof, leather-wrapped accents, automatic climate control, automatic lights, and more. Earlier models got 227 horsepower, and from 2010 and on, 265 ponies were standard.

The Test Drive

Coax slippage from a worn clutch by applying full throttle at very low revs. Have the vehicle’s seller take you for a ride first, noting their driving style, and how well they operate the gearbox and clutch. A clutch can last the life of the vehicle, though a brutal driver can destroy one in months. Check that the driver’s seat lumbar support lever still works, and hasn’t become detached within the seat. Have a Subaru dealer confirm that a recall on the turbocharger oil supply line has been carried out, or oil leaks and even engine fires can result.

Pay attention to the WRX’s idle, ensuring it’s smooth and steady at around 750 rpm. If that’s not the case, a bad sensor might be to blame. Note that most shoppers should avoid a used WRX modified with performance engine tuning software, which can negatively affect durability and longevity of all engaged components.

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Justin Pritchard
Justin Pritchard is a native of Windsor, Ontario – though he’s called Sudbury his home for the past 20 years. Justin is a full-time auto writer, consultant and presenter of EastLink TV’s AutoPilot. His work can be seen weekly in numerous outlets across the country. When not writing about the latest new models and industry trends, you’ll probably find him fixing his 1993 Toyota MR2 GTS.
Justin Pritchard

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