Let’s face it, with the way that the economy looks today, not too many folks find themselves with a whole lot of disposable income. Even though we would like to place our rides as a priority, they sometimes manage to slip down to the bottom of the list, where whatever extra few coins we have left jingling in our packet dictates our performance chariot of choice.
Today, we’re going to take a closer look at the electronically fuel-injected General Motors vehicles that reside under the $5000 mark, and provide a bit of guidance to those looking to hop into a new-to-them performance car on a strict budget. Is it possible to have a vehicle that you can truly be proud of for such a price? We think it’s definitely a reasonable proposition and the following list will tell you exactly why that is.
Now in order to conduct a fair combing of the market, we need to lay down some ground rules.
First, based on our experiences with buying used vehicles, we’ve found that some prices guides have a tendency of pricing vehicles in best-case scenarios, or their top market value. They don’t necessarily consider what somebody will actually pay for them.
Sure, these market guides can give you some firm footing for negotiation if you find that to be the most beneficial route, but when it comes to the used car market, nothing tells the consumer what they should pay better than looking at market. Therefore, the prices gathered will be an average of what is out there on popular sites such as Craigslist, eBay and Cars.com at the time this column is published.
Next up, we think it’s worth mentioning what we consider the most important criteria necessary to be a competitor for our list. We looked at the cars overall, not just in straight line performance or handling, but aftermarket support, build quality, reliability, parts availability and so on. Nobody wants to drive a rattle trap, and what’s the point of a budget performance car, if it’s always breaking down?
Last, but not least, before we get into the countdown, allow us to take the time to go through a few of the honorable mentions that didn’t quite make the cut for one or more reasons. The first on the list is Holden’s very own Pontiac GTO. While the GTO most certainly would be a top competitor overall, on this list, we thought that grabbing one for $5000 was a bit of a stretch. It could probably be done with an ’04 LS1 model, but even then we simply saw the car as a bit too pricy on average to compete. Also mentionable as it pertains to this list are the C4 Corvette and just about anything that falls on the G-Body platform.
Early C4s can be had all day for the price, but then you’ll more than likely have a high-mileage, well-worn example on your hands. The only G-bodies that can be had for $5000 that offer EFI from the factory, are the ’84-86 Buick Regal T-Types. Like the C4 Corvettes, will more than likely be filled with faults and reliability issues at that price, since they continue to climb in value.
All of these platforms are most definitely worth looking into, but all things considered, missed our list by a hair. While these contenders could certainly be argued onto the list, we feel as if we have a solid case for our favorites.
Without further ado, here goes nothing.
5. Third-Generation F-body
When you look at the general consensus, the third-generation of F-body performance tends to stray toward being the butt of the joke. Sure, it can be easy to make snide remarks about this car based on the era in which it came from, and trust us when we say we’ve heard them all, but when you get down to the nuts and bolts this is probably the most affordable way to go fast.
Judging by our research, it might look like the third-gen has recently hit a bit of an upwards curve in the market, yielding a little extra coin for your 1982-1992 Camaro or Firebird, although we found the selection in our price range to be plentiful. Our quick combing of Craigslist yielded a ton of Camaros under $5000 that need nothing but a driver. There was a heaping handful of the cars coming in under $3000 as well.
With the biggest and baddest of the third-gens featuring either a 305 ci. or 350 ci. TPI V8 (not counting the coveted Firehawk or TTA), you have yourself a nice starting point to make a little bit of power as parts for these cars are practically given away. If you really want to mix things up, the swap possibilities are also quite endless too.
4. 2004-2007 Cobalt SS/SC and Saturn Ion Redline
While most might choose to just take on the cubic inch advantage of the V8s that made the cut in this list, others will live and die by the hand of the forced induction four-cylinder. This pairing of cars is targeted at a very specific enthusiast.
Although the Chevrolet Cobalt SS and Saturn Ion Redline might not necessarily be the most conventional sub-compacts that we’re used to, that isn’t to say that they aren’t as fun. While the cars are “only” rated at 205hp by the means of a supercharged four-cylinder, it’s important to remember that it’s their lightness that lends them an advantage on the race track. They’re also widely rumored to being severely underrated, with some examples actually putting down as much as 230 hp to the tires in stock format back in the day.
Complimented by a decent interior, perhaps among the best on this list, it’s hard to deny that these cars at a price point under $5000. The LSJ-powered Delta platform is a great bang for your buck if you’re looking to hop into something fun and sporty that retains the feeling of a modern sports car.
This could also be the most economical car on the list as well – if you can managed to keep your foot out of it that is. So whether you’re looking for a serious Honda killer or just want a fun to drive, quick and economical way of getting back and forth to the daily grind, consider one of these two.
3. ’97-09 Supercharged V6 and LS4 V8 W-bodies
The third place candidate on our list might just surprise you a bit, as the W-body certainly has an uncomfortable spot in the GM EFI performance landscape. While many of the cars are, in fact, supercharged right out of the box and some are even graced with V8 power, they can’t seem find their way into any particular niche.
On one hand, the LS4 V8 powered models in this group are usually shunned by the traditional musclecar enthusiasts because of their front-wheel-drive layout. On the flip side, the supercharged V6 examples don’t really fit into the tuner scene due to their size, American branding and supercharged powerplant in place of the typical, turbocharged OHC engine.
While there are quite a few W-Bodies available on the market, we would say that the 3.8L supercharged V6 and the LS4 powered cars are most deserving of the third spot on this list. Nineties plastic-ey interiors aside, the build quality on these cars exceeds most of the other rides that you will see in this price range.
Looking to spec it up, some? Good, because there are plenty modifications out there for those looking to beef up their W-Body. However, we would recommend doing your research first, because as these cars fall into secondhand and thirdhand owners, there’s a continuos rediscovering of what makes these cars perform. Beware of false information.
Our verdict? If you can get your hands on a clean, low mileage W-Body for under $5000, take it and run with it. There aren’t too many cars that are this much fun and just so happen to be dead reliable as well.
2. ’99-07 Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra pickup
At this point, you’re probably wondering how we managed to “lose it” enough to classify a pickup truck as a performance bargain. We think if you hear us out on this one, you will be able to see the world from our point of view.
Granted, it might not exactly look like a typical performance machine, the ’99-07 Chevrolet Silverado and its twin, the GMC Sierra, has the heart of a champion. Sporting your choice of the 5.3L or 6.0L v8 is a great place to begin when building something that’s designed to get down the 1320′ in a hurry while retaining some style and comfort as well. Many examples were equipped with the underdog 4.8L LS-variant, and that just makes them even more susceptible to boost.
If you’ve spent any amount of time around the racing community, you’ve probably seen folks plucking the hearts out of the deceased trucks at junkyards around the country and popping them straight into just about anything from Mustangs to motor homes in the name of going fast. Because these trucks share so much lineage with the LS engines found in musclecars of the modern ear, the parts supply is endless and many say that the durability of these engines is second to none.
In a worst case scenario, your high mileage truck engine blows up and it’s off to the junkyard with another $500 to find yourself another blank canvas. Personally, if we were to start another build today, there’s a good chance that it would be in the form of one of these budget buildable pickups. Come to think of it, we already have.
1. ’93-02 LT1/LS1 Powered F-body
To us, this decision was pretty much a no-brainer. When you step foot inside the gates of your local dragstrip or any car meet/show, odds are that you will find yourself amidst a wide range of Camaros and Trans Ams that were produced somewhere between the years of 1993 and 2002, and for good reason.
If we didn’t emphasize to you how plentiful the parts were for the pickup trucks spoken about above, then allow us to blanket you with the idea that you could find just about anything and everything you could ever need for your ’93-02 F-Body as easily as punching a few letters into your local Craigslist’s search box. Did we mention that, when compared to more expensive models like the Corvette, you’ll also be spending pennies on the dollar to fit your LT/LS Camaro or Firebird with any part that you see fit? In fact, it could be argued that an LS1 F-Body is the dollar for dollar cheapest way to go fast, no matter what you spend on the car.
Yeah, it’s all true and it’s all wrapped up in a readily available sub-$5000 package. Of course you can spend north of $15000 to pick up a pristine Camaro or Firebird, the premise of getting yourself into one at our price point is oh so possible and realistic.
As one would expect, the LS1 version of the car produced from 1998-2002 is the clear front-runner as the best bet in the price bracket, and you can step into a slightly older pre-98 LT1 powered car for a fraction of the price. While the power gains for the LT cars aren’t as readily available as they are for the LS series of engines, a clean LT car isn’t a bad way to step into the game for just a few thousand bucks.
Jesse is currently a senior at the University of Delaware and has been around cars his entire life. From a GTO and a C5 Corvette, to a CTS-V and a C6 Z06, he’s always seemed to have his fingers in LS performance. He is a student by day and a YouTuber and automotive journalist by night!