There are few things as exotic in the automotive world as a mid-mounted engine configuration. Think Ferrari 458, Lamborghini Diablo, Audi R8… you get the idea. However, you need not spend a six-figure sum in order to experience the unique poise and balance afforded by a mid-engined layout. Indeed, as the cars below prove, there are a handful of offerings out there that can be picked up for the price of a MINI – or less. Which one would you choose?
Price from: £1,000
The little MR2 has been around since the 1980s, but it’s the third-generation model built between 1999 and 2006 that is most easily available to buy today. Unlike its predecessors, the third-gen MR2 is a roadster, meaning you can drop the roof to enjoy open-air motoring. It is also brilliant to drive, offering all of the advantages of a mid-engined layout in a package that can now be bought used for as little as £1,000.
Power comes from a 1.8-litre, four-cylinder naturally aspirated petrol engine. Admittedly, there’s only 140bhp to play with, but because the MR2 weighs less than 1,000kg it still feels brilliantly responsive, and will get from 0-62mph in less than 8 seconds. Throw in a limited-slip differential, communicative steering and Toyota’s fine reputation for reliability and you have a great first step into mid-engined motoring.
TOP TIP: Although all MR2s have the same power output, cars from the 2003 facelift onwards benefit from six gears rather than five.
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Price from: £3,000
If you’re thinking somebody has left a 0 off the price quoted above, fear not: you really can buy a mid-engined Porsche for as little as £3,000. Not only that, but right from its launch in 1996 the Boxster has rightly been regarded as one of the best handling cars money can buy.
With even the earliest 2.5-litre cars getting 201bhp there’s no such thing as a slow Boxster, plus with the engine’s six cylinders arranged in Porsche’s favoured boxer configuration it still makes all the right noises. For ultimate thrills, however, we’d still be inclined to stretch the budget to a 3.2-litre Boxster S, which has 248bhp and six gears rather than five. Whatever the case do remember that a low purchase price doesn’t also mean low running costs, but if you’re prepared for that then a good Boxster represents perhaps the most tempting low-budget mid-engined motoring of all.
TOP TIP: Finding a good independent specialist to maintain your Boxster is highly recommended, as is paying for a pre-purchase inspection to help guard against some well documented and potentially costly engine problems.
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Price from: £10,000
Porsche spent years resisting requests to build a coupe version of the Boxster, perhaps because it feared such a car would be so sublime it would harm sales of the more expensive 911. Sure enough, when the Cayman did eventually arrive in 2006 (based on the second-generation Boxster) it was indeed every bit as good as anybody could have hoped, with a sharper steering response than the 911 and a wonderfully natural balance to its chassis that made it a dream to drive.
Admittedly, it’s never quite toppled the 911 for overall appeal, but that also means it’s a more affordable used buy, with prices of early cars now hovering around the £10,000 mark.
Price from: £12,000
If you want a mid-engined car that delivers outright driving thrills without a concern for practicality or comfort it doesn’t get any better than a Lotus Elise. With no power steering and a cockpit free from creature comforts the Elise allows you to focus on the essence of driving, delivering a level of feedback through the controls that makes even the Cayman appear like a monosyllabic teenager.
There are downsides of course, most obvious of which is that you’d need to be truly dedicated to use an Elise as your daily driver. But as a thing to tuck away in the garage, ever ready to blow away the cobwebs, the little Lotus is just the job.
As with all these cars, we’d stress the importance of getting a specialist to inspect the car prior to purchase, plus look for a full service record and clean history check as signs it’s been well cared for.
TOP TIP: Due to being so light the Elise is generally easy on components, but proper maintenance is still essential, including checking the wheel alignment every couple of years.
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MGF AND MG TF
Price from: £300
That you can buy an MGF for the price of a year’s road tax on one of the Porsche’s listed above is remarkable. It’s not like the MGF (later renamed MG TF as part of a major revamp) is a terrible car either. In fact, find a tidy example and it can be really good to drive.
Launched by the Rover Group in 1995, the MGF was designed to rekindle memories of classic British sports cars such as the MG B, and was thus a rival to the Mazda MX-5. Although it didn’t ultimately have the staying power of its Japanese rival, there are still plenty of used examples to choose from, ranging from the entry-level 1.6 through to the more power 1.8-litre VVC engines. Admittedly the latter offer superior performance, but in reality it’s best to buy on history and condition rather than seeking out a particular model.
TOP TIP: Be aware that head gaskets were prone to failure, and the interior was never designed for tall drivers.
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Price from: £7,000
If you fancy a Lotus Elise but are a couple of thousand pounds short then why not buy a Vauxhall instead? Obviously, we’re not talking about an Astra here, but the bonkers VX220, which was built (by Lotus) between 2001 and 2005 and is based on the same aluminium chassis as the second-generation Elise S2, albeit with many different parts attached.
There’s perhaps even an argument to be made that the VX220 is the superior car, both because it uses larger engines (including a seriously rapid 2.0-litre turbo that could get from 0-62mph in less than 5 seconds), and because you get airbags and ABS brakes as standard. It also looks the part, handles every bit as well as its Lotus equivalent, and has a dedicated following. And so, while a Vauxhall might not be the most obvious choice of mid-engined car, it’s certainly worth investigating.
TOP TIP: It might be a Vauxhall, but don’t assume that means the VX220 is cheap to repair. Quite the opposite in fact, with a new front or rear clamshell alone coming in at more than £1,000 each.
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