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Sub-10k Supercars - Part One

Forget emptying your bank account for a new car! For just 10 grand - 'toy money' - you can get yourself into something that's still very good overall!

By Michael Knowing

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Ten grand is pretty insignificant when you're putting it towards a new performance car; it buys the front left corner of an XR6 Turbo, perhaps only the gearbox and a couple of other parts out of a new STi and, well, maybe the wheels and tyres off a HSV GTS.

In the second-hand market, though, you can get yourself into a car that's nearly as sophisticated (more sophisticated than a couple of the examples above!) and that has very nearly the amount of all-round performance. Sure, the second-handies might show some normal battle damage and they won't give you that new car smell (more likely a wet dog smell!) but it really pays to step back and look at 'the big picture'.

Now - more than ever before - the second-hand market is loaded with some true supercars. In the first of this two-part series, we'll take a look at the turbocharged bargains and then we'll move on to look at the atmo rivals...

All-Wheel-Drive Multi-Valve Turbo Flyers

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The Mitsubishi Galant VR4 would have to be the car with the greatest all-round performance - not to mention tuning potential - in the sub-10k bracket. The unloved Mitsi was actually the motivation to put this article together - we nearly passed out when we saw the pittance people were asking for these machines. We've seen (locally-delivered) examples ranging from just $6500 to a little beyond our 10 grand barrier; at this price, we could excuse you for going out to get the milk and come home with three of 'em!

Let's look at what the 1990 released VR4 has to offer; sedan practicality, unassuming looks, AWD security, 4WS handling and a 148kW motor that'll pin the VR4's 1470kgs right behind the bumper of a WRX. And, unlike the Subie, the VR4 is much more tractable and grunty down low - peak torque (279Nm) is achieved at just 3000 rpm.

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Tuning potential is immense. Whack on an exhaust, a high-flow air intake, upgrade IC and up the boost and you've got a genuine mid-14-second car on your hands. There are no real durability issues at this level of modification but the turbine housing and exhaust manifold have been known to crack; just the excuse you need to go for a larger Garrett roller-bearing turbo and custom tubular manifold! You only need to look at the US-market Eclipse (with the same 4G63 motor) to understand the VR4's potential.

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The other 2.0-litre AWD Turbo that can be found for under $10,000 is the Toyota Celica GT4. Not quite in the same value-for-money league as the VR4 (people seem prepared to pay extra for a more attractive coupe) the GT4 offers almost the same level of performance. With its 3S-GTE DOHC turbo engine pumping out 153kW and 281Nm, the all-paw Sleekcar scrambles to 100 km/h in low 8s. Handling is said to be a little on the understeery side but safe and predictable nonetheless.

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Not quite as strong as the VR4 engine, the GT4's 3S-GTE also responds well to an exhaust, intake and boost up - but make sure you upgrade the standard top-mount air-to-air intercooler as well. It's quite possible you'll crack into the 14s with these mods. The car itself will cost anywhere from about $9000 up - not especially cheap when compared to the brilliant VR4.

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In the little league is Ford's KF-onward Laser TX3 4WD Turbo. Not built to the same standard or as well equipped as the VR4 or GT4, the TX3 is a great fun little package nonetheless; what it lacks in straight-line go (compared to the other two) it makes up for in chuckability. Its 1180 kilogram kerb mass allows it to swing through corner after corner with maximum composure and manoeuvrability.

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The 2-door TX3 Turbo sports the rugged BP 1.8-litre, DOHC, 16-valve turbo engine (as fitted to the Japanese import Mazda Familia) that cranks out a character-strong 117kW and 206Nm and rips to 100 clicks in low 8s. It's a great city car, offering a lot of response and instant punch but - for the more serious tuner - the engine can capably handle quite a bit more grunt. Add a larger exhaust, intercooler and turbo (just like the Familia GT-R not coincidentally) and you're talking WRX performance. The only limiting factor is the gearbox; big launches and big torque will guarantee stripped gears. Keep it mild and have some fun.

Prices for a 1.8-litre TX3 AWD Turbo start at about 9 grand.

Turbocharged Two-Wheel-Drivers

One of the quickest and most comfortable cars you can quite easily pick up for less than 10k is the Ford TX5 Turbo/Mazda 626 Turbo (or the two-door Mazda MX-6 Turbo derivative). For all the time you're sitting in traffic or toddling along at the speed limit (and, let's face it, we can't be on full boost all the time!) the TX5/626/MX-6 keeps you comfortable with its supportive seats, tasteful trim, electric glass and all the usuals. As far as we can determine, most came equipped with a power glass sunroof as well - all very pleasant stuff.

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And performance? Well, the 12-valve, SOHC, 2.2-litre turbo engine is set up as a bit of a stump puller - it comes on boost quite early and winds out to a relatively mild 108kW at just 4300 rpm. Note that output falls to just 100kW when running on normal ULP. Standard 0 - 100 km/h is in the low 8s in manual form when running PULP. Perhaps due to the early and rapid increase in boost - and therefore torque - the TX5/626 can wheelspin and torque steer, but it shouldn't overly surprise anyone that is currently driving a FWD day-to-day.

If you want a comfortable, quick daily driver the 2.2 TX5/626/MX-6 is hard to pass with prices starting at just $5000. Not many owners have bothered to up the power output, but there's no reason you can't get good gains from the usual turbocar mods - just make sure you put on a grippy set of tyres otherwise you'll get nowhere fast!

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We can't really overlook this one - the Holden Commodore VL Turbo. The mighty VL-T is now getting pretty long in the tooth - they were sold only between 1986 and 1988 - but the number of people still chasing these cars is incredible. Potential is the keyword with a VL-T.

Aside from its engine, the VL-Turbo is a pretty forgettable machine - it's not a car whose chassis design was very advanced even at the time of release. That RB30ET engine, though, is a powerhouse - even in standard form you're talking 150kW and 296Nm. And that's without an intercooler and just 0.5 Bar boost from a relatively small T03 turbo! Add a front-mount 'cooler, a 3-inch exhaust, high-flow intake and a slightly larger turbo - for a bit more boost - and you've got a 13-14-second car! They're reliable ol' buggers too, but they're not immune to the normal wear and tear that comes with over 15 years of use and abuse. Be prepared to spend money on the suspension, brakes, driveline, turbo etc.

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Prices start from around $3500 for a base SL Turbo that 'needs minor work' while, on the other hand, some people seem happy to pay $12,000 for an immaculate VL Calais Turbo. Go figure!

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The Saab 900 Aero Turbo is a bit of a fave of ours at the moment - for between $4000 and beyond our 10k limit (for later models) the Saab 900 Aero is a very trick bit of gear. Identified by its tri-spoke alloys, skirts, rear spoiler and unique colours, the Aero is powered by a relatively high boost 16-valve, DOHC, 2.0-litre turbo generating 129kW. In standard form, the Aero can slide to 100 clicks in low-to-mid 8-seconds; less, of course, with those normal exhaust, intake, intercooler and boost mods. And it's got a comfortable cabin to its name as well - in addition to having electric windows and all that kind of guff, the Aero also comes with leather and heated front seats!

Prices start at about $4000 for a 1985 or 1986 model, while our 10 grand maximum will get you into an early '90s version. The 900 Aero really is the perfect car for someone chasing performance and comfort together with a bit of individuality.

In the second half of this series we'll look at the performance atmo cars you can grab for below $10,000...

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