Porsche. Maserati. Lamborghini. It’s easy to feel like royalty in a $250,000 sportster. But in a modest sedan? Not so much.
That’s why many automakers are refitting their bargain-priced cars with high-end upgrades and tuner-like performance. So, like Cinderella, these rides have had dramatic makeovers.
Ford Focus ST
Mpg: 23 city/32 highway
0-to-60 mph: 6.2 seconds
Who would have thought a five-door hatchback — basically a glorified station wagon — could be the belle of the ball? The base-model Focus isn’t shabby to begin with, but the high-performance ST model really wows the crowd. There’s the flashy front end (borrowed from Aston Martin), the tapered side panels (just like on the baby Lexus) and a sassy flip-curl spoiler on the rear. It’s feisty, too, thanks to a fast-shifting six-speed manual transmission and fierce 252-hp turbo. Toss in those 18-inch alloys and sport-tuned brakes, and the ST has you at hello. This may not be a luxury car, but that’s easy to forget with so many standard features: keyless ignition, one-touch power windows, turn-signal side mirrors and audio/cruise controls on the steering wheel. But this hatch never forgets its utilitarian roots: just fold the rear seats, and there’s acres of cargo space.
Mpg: 28 city/40 highway
0-to-60 mph: 8.5 seconds
Looks, like engines, can be deceiving. While the Mazda3 offers three engine choices, beware the pokey 2.0-liter and the much pricier 2.5-liter powerplants. Instead, opt for the Skyactiv engine, which is almost as zesty as the high-end 2.5-liter but boasts 40 mpg on the highway (about as good as it gets for a non-hybrid). Tooling around town is fun and easy, especially when fitting into tight parking spots. And seating is very comfortable for a compact. But there are some downsides: a rather dated dash (though the ambient lighting is pretty cool) and noisy cabin. Still, few econoboxes offer so many high-tech features, such as Pandora audio streaming, audio text messaging and a blind-spot warning system.
Subaru Legacy Limited
Mpg: 24 city/32 highway
0-to-60 mph: 9 seconds
How to be pampered like a princess? Try driving a Legacy Limited, especially on a grueling day-trip up and down the Jersey Turnpike. All-wheel drive (standard on all Subarus) is perfect for dodging speed demons and semis. Ditto the optional safety package (often found only in luxury cars), which includes collision warning, pre-collision braking, lane-departure warning, sway warning, rearview camera and adaptive cruise control. Subaru really upped its styling a few years ago, so the Legacy remains fresh and appealing. But there’s minimal trunk space and meager fuel economy — so, yes, even automakers kiss a few frogs along the way.
Mpg: 21 city/30 highway
0-to-60 mph: 6.8 seconds
In the past, Volvos weren’t on everyone’s dance card. But now there are sexier designs, souped-up engines and a slew of high-tech add-ons. Even the safety features are cool, with basically the same gear as the Subaru Legacy Limited above but also a nifty pedestrian-detection system. Three trim levels: T5, T6 and T6 R-Design, all with zesty turbos. The R-Design is especially sweet, with 325 hp, better brakes and sportier steering. And Volvos cost thousands less than the competition. Volvos still have their quirks — such as the utilitarian vs. luxe-like vibe in the cabin — but now they, too, can help turn automotive fairy tales into reality.