When we think of cars that have the engine sitting right behind the driver, we naturally think of expensive stuff. Ferraris, Lambos, Ford GTs, that sort of thing. Most mid-engine cars are indeed very pricy. Over the years, however, certain mid-engine sports cars have gotten temptingly cheap, and some even started out that way. Here are five to choose from, all of which can be had in #2 (excellent) condition for $20K or less.
The “bread van” Lotus Europa was a quirky car from a quirky company, and it never gained the following of the more conventional and handsome front-engine Elan. But the Europa was one of the first ever road cars to embrace the mid-engine layout that Lotus had helped pioneer in racing. The Europa is unbelievably low to the ground and handles like a formula car. A Road & Track test in 1970 proclaimed, “the steering must be regarded as perfect.” These cars are also one of the more affordable ways to get into a Lotus.
The later Twin Cam-powered Europas are more desirable, given their horsepower advantage and refinement, but good examples stretch past our 20 grand budget. The earlier, Renault-powered cars may come with less than 100 horsepower on tap, but in a car that weighs less than 1,500 pounds and stands about 42 inches tall, that’s not the end of the world. The Renault-powered cars are also arguably better looking. They didn’t have the cut-down sail panels that left the later Europa Twin Cam looking like a mid-engine El Camino. As with most things Lotus, the Europa isn’t the easiest car to live with, parts for the Renault engine can be difficult to find, and if your feet are on the big side, good luck working the pedals.
It looks like a doorstop, but so did a lot of cars in the ’80s. Regardless, the Mister Two has always been an affordable mid-engine car without major fault. You could even get a supercharged version for the final two years of the first generation (W10). The supercharged MR2 made 145 hp, which was a lot of grunt in the 1980s, especially for a car that weighed less than 2,500 pounds. Car and Driver called it “deceptively quick.” Given the growing interest in ’80s cars—and Japanese performance cars, in particular—first-gen MR2 values have been on the rise over the past year and continue to grow, but they are still well within the realm of affordability for most enthusiasts. Normally aspirated models are even cheaper.
Yes, it’s a Boxster. But it’s fast, comfortable, well balanced, and has a Porsche badge. The Boxster S model, with its larger 3.2-liter engine, made over 30 hp more than the base car, but good examples can still be had for under 20 grand. While it’s among the last affordable Porsches in a group that includes 914s, 924s, 944s and 928s, the Boxster S is quicker than all of them and not a whole lot more expensive.
It has blocky and dated styling, the build quality is horrible, and it’s slow, but there’s something undeniably cool about the Lancia Scorpion. In the 1970s, Lancia wanted to sell its mid-engine Montecarlo model in the United States. In order to do that, Lancia had to fit a smaller engine to meet emissions requirements, fit different bumpers and headlights to meet safety requirements, and rename the car since Chevy already had dibs on the Monte Carlo name in the U.S. The result was the Scorpion, a compromised but charming mid-engine sports car with Pininfarina styling and a sinister name.
Not very many were sold here, and many of those have long since rusted away. Just about any Lancia of this vintage has needs, but even a perfect example costs a fraction of something with a Prancing Horse badge.
America’s only really significant mid-engine production car was the Fiero, and the whole model range got something of a bum rap, thanks to media reporting on engine fires and lackluster performance from the earlier four-cylinder models. The 1985 V-6 models, with better handling and a relatively powerful six-cylinder engine, weren’t enough to save the model’s overall reputation, so prices have remained low even for V-6 Fieros. Like the MR2, the Fiero looks like a smaller version of something a lot more exotic.