Secondhand Gems: $10K Turbo Dreams

By Christopher Smith

October 15, 2011

We've been on a bit of a V-8 kick here in the Secondhand Gems garage for a while, but that shouldn't suggest we're biased towards the disemboweling torque and baritone voice those engine are known for. The pressurized scream of a boosted four banger is just as satisfying for many petrol heads, its never ending power band wailing a type of soprano that will stand a cat's fur on end until the waste gate dumps the excess atmosphere, at which point the cat usually flat-out runs for its life. As far as we're concerned, any auto enthusiast who doesn't get at least a minor thrill from such a performance machine is missing some key component of motoring DNA.

We're overdue for some boosted fun, but let's make this a bit more interesting. A big part of turbo appeal is the relative ease of adding more horsepower without spending mucho dinero, so rather than go for the super-expensive machinery, we'll start with a modest $10,000 price tag. If you think that kind of coin will deliver thrashed out junk, think again-we've got three boosted machines that can meet our price point without being mercilessly beaten to death, and we even managed to find something for fans of every drivetrain configuration. These turbocharged rides are already fun in stock trim, but there's plenty of room for boost controllers, smokestack-sized exhaust kits, PCM tuners, and those cool waste gates that chirp and squeak when you lift off the throttle. Buy the car, hit eBay Motors for some modifications, and have at it. It's time to get fast and furious.

2005 Dodge Neon SRT4
Put the keyboards down, Mopar fans. We know that Dodge referred to this car simply as the SRT4 when the 2003 model was unleashed upon the world. The decision was obviously an attempt to distance this machine from the pedestrian Neon that was, for lack of a better word, crap. Maybe we're being a bit harsh here, because the Neon was actually somewhat athletic as far as entry-level econo-machines are concerned. The R/T and ACR models especially had some respectable handling characteristics, but if rusted subframes, blown head gaskets, or grenaded transmissions didn't completely sideline you, peeling paint would forever relegate you to driving in the shame lane.

But the thing is, Chrysler's corporate brass didn't need any marketing gimmick to separate this machine from its vanilla brethren. The SRT4's 2.4-liter boosted DOHC engine does that after just 14 seconds, in which time the car blasts through a standing quarter mile provided there's suitable traction at the front wheels. That's what happens when you drop 230 horsepower, a stout (if somewhat clunky) five-speed gearbox, and a factory limited-slip differential into a car weighing less than 3000 pounds, but the SRT4 isn't limited to just straight line acceleration runs. The limited-slip diff that helps with traction also pulls the SRT4 through corners with surprising grip and minimal understeer, tugging the front wheels towards the apex with just a kiss of throttle. The hardened suspension further enhances the stability, cornering with just a bit of roll but delivering a confidence that encourages such hooligan-like activity. Of course, being that it's front-wheel-drive, a mid-corner stab of the gas will still shoot you straighter than Wilt Chamberlain's libido, but as you careen into the grass you'll be amazed at the lack of torque steer from such a muscular front driver.

The SRT4 is even properly sporty inside with snazzy gauges, terrifically supportive seats, and a factory stock exhaust note that's loud enough to go with the SRT4's enhanced exterior treatment. That may or may not be a good thing, as the exhaust drone can become a bit overwhelming after 20 minutes, but then again this car wasn't built to be suave or subtle. It was built to go fast and have fun, and in following that basic pursuit of happiness, the engineers at Chrysler's Performance Vehicle Operations actually created one of the best front-wheel-drive performance cars of all time. All time? From a Neon? Yeah, you'll still want to keep an eye open for subframe rot and chalky paint, but everything else is pure SRT excitement and worthy of the extra diligence.

2004 Subaru Impreza WRX
A very strong argument can be made for the WRX as the car that reinvigorated the excitement of small-displacement turbocharged performance in the States, where drivers have traditionally flocked to larger, naturally aspirated mills. The bug-eyed 2002 Impreza WRX certainly wasn't the first turbo in the domestic market, but its practicality in four-door sedan or five-door wagon format made it far more sensible than the miniscule Mitsubishi Eclipse of the 1990s. It also offered brisk performance, a class-leading all-wheel drive system, and a Subaru reputation for reliability built from years of success in the World Rally Championship. Granted, the WRX's history in rallying wasn't something many American shoppers were familiar with, but it most decidedly helped to spur sales among niche buyers, and that excitement spilled over to mainstream shoppers. As a result, Subaru struggled to keep up with demand for that first year of domestic sales, despite the Subie's hate-it-or-merely-dislike-it bug-eyed styling.

That controversial styling was toned down a bit with the mild 2004 redesign that was almost universally praised, even though the rounded headlights from 2002 and 2003 have grown on many enthusiasts (including us) over the years. Nevertheless, we're happy to find the first year of the square-ish headlights in our budget, but if you need to pinch a few extra pennies, there's not much difference from the earlier models. In case you've been living underground for the past decade, that means 227 boosted horsepower from Subaru's 2.0-liter boxer four-cylinder, mated to a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearbox. Trust us when we say you don't want the automatic in this car; aside from the weenie factor of having a bodacious turbocharged rally racer with an automatic, the four-speed slushbox doesn't make nearly as good a use of the WRX's powerband.

Only with the stick (and a fearless clutch drop) will you get a sub six-second blast to 60, belching that delightful horizontally opposed burble all the way. The five-speed is a reassuring box that accepts inputs without protest, and what else can be said about Subaru's all-wheel drive system that doesn't start or finish with "best in the business"? It's the reason why these cars are fun to drive in the dry, but even more entertaining in conditions not involving clear pavement. For the tuners among us, the WRX has an automotive aftermarket that is truly global and biblical in scale, and by biblical we mean everything from basic bolt-ons to creating full-blown rally cars. Or, keep it stock and enjoy it as a daily driver with a comfortable ride, reasonable space, and decent fuel economy. That's the neat thing with the WRX-it's a turbocharged bundle of awesome that can fit any lifestyle in any location.

2004 Mazdaspeed Miata
How do you make one of the best two-seat, drop-top, rear-wheel-drive sports cars better? Your most desirable Hollywood celebrity sitting in the passenger seat not withstanding, generally speaking you add more horsepower. This formula doesn't always work-sometimes the essence of the machine can become lost among the added punch, but this isn't the case with the turbocharged Miata. Perhaps that's because the Mazdaspeed variant receives a very modest 36-horsepower bump to 178 ponies, which doesn't sound like much, but when the car only weighs 2400 pounds it doesn't need much. It's not the asphalt burner that the SRT4 is; 0-60 usually falls in the mid six-second range, but that's a considerable improvement over the standard Miata. And it's more than enough power to deliver a tantalizing rush, especially with the top down on a sunny afternoon.

The power upgrade alone would make the Miata a fun turbocharged ride, but the Mazdaspeed team also saw fit to upgrade the wheels, the suspension, and added an extra cog to the slick-shifting manual gearbox, delivering six forward gears to make the most of the turboed Miata's powerband. The result of all this tuning is a Miata that graduates from the fun category and takes a few steps into the realm of exhilarating.

The lithe roadster retains its neutral balance and lightweight feel, but it holds on in the corners with heroic grip that can be modulated with your right foot, delivering a slice of oversteer when you want it. There is a touch of turbo lag that can be a little tricky to handle if the revs fall outside the power curve in mid-corner; be prepared for a quick jolt of delayed acceleration should you open the taps during exit, but it's nothing terribly dramatic. It's also nothing that cannot be handled with some aftermarket tinkering, and though the Miata's available performance goodies aren't quite as commonplace as they are for the WRX, there's still plenty to make this fun roadster the monster Miata of your dreams.

The bigger wheels and tighter underpinnings do take their toll on ride quality, which could diminish over-the-road touring comfort that many Miata owners appreciate. The changes are certainly noticeable but not terrifically significant, and if we're honest, such a complaint at this price point amounts to splitting hairs.

Just as Chrysler captured front-wheel-drive magic in a bottle with the SRT4, Mazda crafted an outstanding elemental sports car that competes with machines costing twice as much. There are two-seaters that are bigger and have more power, but they aren't any more rewarding to drive, and most are, at the very least, a bit more costly in the maintenance department. If you can manage to find one of the approximately 5500 Mazdaspeed Miatas built between 2004 and 2005, you'd be hard-pressed to find a rear-wheel-drive two-seater for ten grand that's any better.

When it comes to performance, peaky powerbands and fighter jet whistles under hard acceleration can be just as alluring as instant torque and raspy growls of big-displacement, naturally aspirated horsepower. Whether you prefer front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, or all-wheel drive, take comfort (and no small about of joy) in knowing there's a budget-minded turbo machine ready to feed your addiction.