Affording a number of distinct advantages over traditional, front-engined offerings, mid-engine cars have long been synonymous with high levels of performance and an overall exotic nature. Because these mid-mounted models tend to offer the pinnacle of automotive performance, they unsurprisingly don’t come cheap, with modern mid-engined cars typically representing some of the most expensive options on the market — with MSRPs that routinely run well into six-figure territory.
Even if one of these exorbitant automobiles is currently out of your reach, there still exists a wide range of stellar mid-engined cars that can be snagged on the used market for just a fraction of the cost of a new mid-mounted machine. To demonstrate this point, we’ve scoured the secondhand market in order to generate a list of the best cheap mid-engine sports cars that can be had for less than the price of the average new car sold in America — just a tad below $50,000 ($48,043 to be exact). Alongside counting down our picks for the best affordable used mid-engined cars, we’ll also be delving into the benefits of the mid-mounted engine configuration.
The Performance Benefits Of A Mid-Mounted Engine Setup
Mid-engined cars have existed for about as long as production cars themselves, with some of the earliest mass-produced models being of the mid-engined variety — including Ford’s 1903 Model A (albeit the driver sat above the engine, not in front of it). However, in more recent automotive history, the mid-mounted layout has been used almost exclusively for high-performance models due to the major performance advantages this configuration offers. Sitting between the front and rear axles, mid-mounted engines afford cars markedly more balanced weight distribution. This in turn allows the vehicle’s suspension to do a much more efficient job of soaking up imperfections and bumps on the tarmac, thereby affording substantially better handling — and often better acceleration, especially on RWD cars.
The Downsides To A Mid-Mounted Setup
Mid-engine cars also boast an unmistakably exotic feel that’s seldom found on traditional front-engined cars. And while this setup’s performance benefits tend to outweigh any negatives brought on by this layout, mid-engined cars do also sport a number of downsides. With the engine being placed in the middle of the car rather than under the hood, they not only occupy space that would normally go to passenger or cargo storage but can also be much more difficult to work on compared to front-engined models. And, while this setup offers better handling, the balanced weight distribution can actually make it more difficult to recover from a loss of traction or control — a fact that stems from the lack of weight directly above the front or rear of the car that normally allows for better braking or acceleration to regain control in a spinout.
Initially starting out as a student project, the first-generation Ariel Atom is best described as a street-legal go-kart. While it might not be the most powerful machine, it’s incredibly lightweight and spartan nature enable it to make the most of its sub-two-liter engine in order to produce exhilarating lap times and an overall spirited experience behind the wheel. Though the Atom 2 was powered by Honda’s 300-hp K20A mill, the first-gen Atom packed a 1,800cc Rover K Series engine that made between 120 and 190hp and was mated to a manual five-speed transmission.
Engine: 1.8L Inline-Four
Power: 190HP & 107FT-LBs
Unequivocally one of the most unique and idiosyncratic cars of all time, the Autozam AZ-1 was a high-performance Kei car that was designed and manufactured by Suzuki though sold by Mazda under the Autozam brand. Looking look a pint-sized version of Ford’s legendary RS200, the AZ-1 packed gull wing-style doors and boasted a curb weight of less than 1,600lbs — allowing it to make the most of its turbocharged 657cc inline-three engine and the 63 buff horses it produced. The fact this model was also once marketed as “the ultimate handling machine,” should give a decent idea of how it performs in the corners too.
Engine: Turbocharged 657cc Inline-Three
Power: 63HP & 62.7FT-LBs
First introduced in 1959 and produced until 1969, Chevrolet’s Corvair was a popular compact commuter car that existed in two generations across a handful of model variants. Powering the Corvair was an air-cooled rear-mounted flat-six engine, and despite more than half a century having passed since the Corvair was in production, it remains the American-designed, mass-produced passenger car with a rear-mounted, air-cooled engine. The early Corvair concepts were also part of the Corvette family — more specifically a fastback version — though were much more watered down by the time they saw production.
Engine: Turbocharged 2.7L Flat-Six
Power: 110HP & 160FT-LBs
Factory Five 818
Taking its name from its 818-kilogram curb weight — which is 270kgs less than a Miata — the Factory Five Racing 818 is an ultra-affordable kit car that offers supercar levels of performance, with a sub-four-second 0-60mph time and a top speed of 145mph. The 818 kit itself starts at only $10,990, however, thanks to the fact the 818 utilizes a mid-mounted flat-four powertrain plucked from a Subaru Impreza or WRX allows the entire machine to be built for just $30,000 all told. These machines can be purchased as kits, though also routinely appear as completed builds on the used market. Factory Five also makes convertible and track-only R-spec versions of the 818.
Engine: Turbocharged 2.4L Flat-Four
Power: 270HP & 258FT-LBs
While $30,000 to $40,000 is admittedly a decent amount to spend on a used car, it’s something of a still for a Ferrari considering how exorbitant vintage models from the Prancing Horse can be. Penned by Carrozzeria Scaglietti for Pininfarina, the Mondial – also known as the “Type F108” — is a mid-engined grand-tourer that was powered by a V8 engine and offered in coupe and drop-top variants. The Mondial also makes for a stellar investment car, as it’s still fairly affordable and is only expected to continue climbing in value over the coming decades.
Engine: Liquid-Cooled 3.2L V8
Power: 270HP & 224FT-LBs
Aptly described as an affordable exotic, Fiat’s X1/9 is a two-seater Targa-style sports car that boasts many of the hallmarks of vintage supercars. Penned by legendary automotive designer Marcello Gandini for Bertone, the X1/9 featured a mid-mounted, rear-wheel drive configuration, a removable hardtop, retractable headlights, and an overall wedge-shaped design. With more than 140,000 units produced across its decade in production, clean X1/9 specimens can still be found on the used market for reasonable prices. Fiat also produced several more high-performance versions of the car such as the Superlight-spec.
Engine: 1.5L Inline-Four
Power: 75HP & 79.6FT-LBs
Perfectly encapsulating Colin Chapman’s concept of “simplifying and adding lightness,” the first-gen Lotus Elise — the S1 — is unquestionably one of the most legendary true driver’s cars of all time, with a minuscule, roughly 1,600-pound curb weight that allows for razor-sharp handling and amazing acceleration. In fact, this machine was designed with such a focus on weight savings, that the vehicle was offered with an optional AC delete to further minimize poundage. The Elise S1 was powered by a supercharged Toyota 2ZR-FE engine that was good for 188hp and 122ft-lbs of torque allowing for a roughly six-second 0-60mph time and a top speed of over 125mph.
Engine: Supercharged 1.8L Inline-Four
Power: 188HP & 122FT-LBs
First released in 1976 — just one year prior to its famous appearance in the James Bond flick The Spy Who Loved Me the following year — the Lotus Esprit was a high-performance wedge-shaped supercar with a two-seater setup, a fiberglass body, and a mid-mounted engine configuration. First unveiled in concept form as the M70, the Esprit was based on a modified Europa chassis and was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro of Italdesign. The first Esprit was initially kicked along by a Ford-supplied naturally-aspirated 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine — a mill that was later bored out to 2.2 liters and turbocharged before eventually being replaced with a 350-hp twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V8 by the end of the model’s production run.
Engine: 2.0L Inline-Four
Power: 160HP & 140FT-LBs
In the early 1980s, as more and more mid-engined exotics began coming out of Italy, the United States looked to prove that it too could produce a high-performance mid-mounted sports car, leading to the debut of America’s first-ever mass-produced mid-engine sports car with the Pontiac Fiero. Far more than just a cheap American-made imitation, the Fiero was actually an incredibly competent car upon its release, being capable of going toe-to-toe with many of its Italian-made competitors. Unfortunately, unsatisfactory sales lead to the plug being pulled on the Fiero after only five years in production — during which time more than 370,000 units were produced.
Engine: 2.8L V6
Power: 140HP & 169FT-LBs
Jointly developed by Porsche and Volkswagen as the former marque’s new entry-level sports car — as well as the successor to the 912 and the Karmann Ghia — the 914 was an incredibly unique model that took Porsche’s design language in a very new direction. Penned by Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, the 914 was powered by several different sized flat-four or flat-six engines and was produced exclusively as a Targa-topped two-seater roadster. With close to 120,000 specimens having been produced across the car’s eight years in production, used 914 specimens can still be found for a fair price, though like all vintage Porsches, these examples are only expected to climb in value over time.
Engine: 1.7L Flat-Four (or 2.0L Flat-Six)
Power: 80HP & 98FT-LBs (or 110HP & 116FT-LBs)
Porsche Boxster (986)
The predecessor to the modern 718 Boxster and 718 Cayman, Porsche’s 986-gen Boxster, while once largely looked down upon, is currently on its way to becoming another modern-day classic. Powered by a mid-mounted engine, this so-called “poor man’s 911” actually offers stellar performance with excellent handling and solid acceleration. Just before the turn of the millennium, Porsche began producing a more capable and high-performance S-spec Boxster that packed by a 3.2-liter engine that put down up to 260hp, along with four-pot monobloc brakes, 17” alloy wheels, a dual-central-exiting exhaust, and several other performance upgrades.
Engine: 3.2L Flat-Six
Power: 250HP & 225FT-LBs
Renault 5 Turbo
After Lancia achieved an enormous amount of success in high-level rally competition with its Stratos model, Renault’s vice-president of production had the idea of transforming one of the French firm’s existing models into a mid-engined Group B racer, resulting in the Renault 5 Alpine becoming the wide-bodied 5 Turbo (or “R5 Turbo”). First unveiled at the 1980 Brussels Motor Show, the R5 Turbo was designed by Marc Deschamps under the codename “Projet 822” and featured a turbocharged 1.4-liter four-banger that produced just shy of 160hp. The road-going version of this model also represents one of the most legendary cars of the briefly-lived yet thoroughly iconic Group B era.
Engine: Turbocharged 1.4L Inline-Four
Power: 158HP & 159.3FT-LBs
Though mid-engined sports cars were traditionally exorbitantly priced and largely reserved for the super-wealthy, a number of affordable mid-engined models began appearing in the 1980s — one of which was Toyota’s MR2. Japan’s first-ever rear mid-engined production car, the MR2 was produced across three generations — the two earliest of which also make for stellar investment car options, as these models have steadily been climbing in value. While the MR2 is somewhat long in the tooth by modern performance standards, the car still offers incredibly nimble handling and in general, is a pleasure to drive — factors that have no doubt contributed to the MR2’s cult status.
Engine: 2.2L Inline-Four
Power: 130HP & 145FT-LBs
Vauxhall VX220 Turbo / Opel Speedster
Though never sold on U.S. shores, this is another used high-performance mid-engined model that offers some serious thrills behind the wheel at an accessible price point. Powered by GM’s Z20LET turbo inline-four engine, this two-door roadster was sold as the Opel Speedster in Europe, the Vauxhall VX220 in the UK, and the Daewoo Speedster in some Asian markets — plus was used as the basis of the “front-mid-engined” Saturn Sky and Pontiac Solstice. First introduced in 2000, the Speedster featured an all-aluminum and composite frame that played a major role in the car’s sub-2,000-pound weight and the razor-sharp handling this svelte curb weight afforded.
Engine: Turbocharged 2.0L Inline-Four
Power: 197HP & 184FT-LBs
The 15 Best Classic Cars to Invest in Right Now
With the overall exotic nature of these models, mid-engined cars can make for stellar investment-grade vehicle options, though there are plenty of other excellent choices in this space — more than a dozen of which we’ve highlighted in our guide to the best classic cars to invest in right now.