1960s / 1970s / 1980s / 1990s / Editorial / English / Fiat / German / Italian / Japanese / Lancia / Lotus / Porsche / Toyota

Moderately Priced Mid-Engined Cars


Automotive manufacturers have understood the advantages of placing a car’s engine in the middle (or, behind the driver and ahead of the rear wheels) for some time. By placing the engine there, the weight balance of the car can be made much more even over the front and rear axles. This allows (in most cases) for superior handling over front-engined cars, which tend to understeer, or rear-engined cars, which tend to oversteer. Auto Union grand prix cars from the ’30s, designed by Ferdinand Porsche, were some of the earliest examples of this configuration. At the time, it was considered somewhat unstable, but the greater advantages of mid-engined design were continually explored, perfected, and adopted in particular on racing cars by nearly all manufacturers. It was not until the 1960s that mass-production of a mid-engined road car would really begin.

Not all mid-engined cars have to be outlandishly expensive supercars like Ferraris or Lamborghinis. There are a few examples of these well balanced sporting cars that the “average Joe” can afford to purchase and enjoy, even as a starter classic. So, we have prepared a list of some moderately priced mid engined cars for the masses which can be had for under $20,000. Granted, in the long run, some can end up costing you much more, but let us start with the most affordable:

Toyota MR2
(1984-2007)

                                                      
 
The Toyota MR2 has the great advantage of being affordable, fun, and reliable though to be honest, they’re not exactly the most desirable of the lot here. Honestly, most people don’t dream of some day owning a Toyota over say, a Porsche, Lotus, or nearly anything Italian. Nevertheless, they’re a good starter sports car or easy-to-run weekend runabout.

The original MR2 of 1984 featured crisp styling as boxy as one could expect from a 1980s design. The car was designed in cooperation with Lotus and it’s not surprising considering the car’s light weight and excellent handling. Initially, a 1.6 L DOHC four-cylinder engine was mounted transversely behind the passenger compartment. While it wasn’t exactly the most powerful engine in the world, it was quick and eager to rev.

By 1986, an optional T-top roof configuration was made available, adding some appeal to those desiring an open air experience. These early MR2s can be had for just a few thousand dollars (or less if they’re an abused example in need of some care). Beware though – they are getting old and they are made in Japan – rust can be an issue.

In 1989, the MR2 went through a complete redesign with a more rounded and organic body. The car weighed a few hundred pounds more than its predecessor, though it also became more powerful, and even a 200hp turbocharged variant was available. Again, the T-top was offered. These Turbo models obviously cost a bit more even today, though finding a decent example for under $10,000 is not at all unheard of.

Finally, the last of the MR2s, the Spyder, marked a rather drastic change in direction from the previous two generations. Another complete redesign made the sporting Toyota a full roadster for the first time. The very successful Mazda Miata must have left them wanting a piece of the market. The “new” MR2 also lost the pop-up headlights of past models and also, several hundred pounds over the last generation. Once again, the model was light and very nimble, though only a 1.8 L four-cylinder was available, and alas, no turbo. To many, these are the best of the MR2s and since production stopped in 2007, they can be purchased quite cheaply from roughly $8,000 to $15,000.

Fiat X1/9 (1972-1989)

The Fiat X1/9 was a rather radical departure for the company known for its small economy cars and classic Italianate roadsters. The crispy body was styled by Bertone and the basic drivetrain was that of a Fiat 128 moved to the back. While initially, the X1/9 weighed in at roughly 2000lbs, the anemic 1.3 L four-cylinder was hardly a powerplant for a sports car, producing a wheezing 75hp and virtually nothing in terms of torque.

The car did have the advantage of a fairly stiff body, a removable top, and of course, good handling. Furthermore, it also had some luggage capacity, which is typically at a premium on mid-engined cars. Granted, I wouldn’t choose one to take on a cross-country camping trip, but some weekend luggage would fit.

As Federal crash-test regulations increased, so did the bumper size as well as weight. Smog equipment further taxed the engine and decreased it to a down-right poor 63hp. By 1979, a larger 1.5L engine was fitted and added a little much-needed power. Fiat left the US market in 1982, and the X1/9 was marketed as a Bertone until 1987. World-wide production and sales of the car ceased in 1989.

While the earlier cars are a little better looking and lighter, later cars do have advantages in terms of a little more passenger space and better rust-proofing. Being Italian and from the ’70s, rust is naturally a major concern when purchasing an X1/9. It’s not hard to tune one to respectable performance provided local laws allow it. Fortunately parts are readily available as about 160,000 were made and it utilizes many standard Fiat parts. Finding a decent example may be difficult, but should only cost you well under $10,000. Be prepared though – it’s Italian, and it will break.

Lancia Montecarlo / Scorpion (1975-1982)

The Montecarlo (or Scorpion to the US market) was originally intended as a big-brother to the Fiat X1/9. The Scorpion / Montecarlo, however, is larger and perhaps most importantly, more powerful. Unfortunately, the Scorpion was very short-lived in the US market (sold in only 1976-77), though a few Montecarlos have been imported. Unlike the 2.0L European counterpart, the US Scorpions were only sold with a 1.7L four-cylinder offering only 80hp. Still, the Pininfarina styled body is aesthetically more pleasing to many over the Bertone X1/9 and the weight nearly the same.

One unique feature of the Lancia design is the large retracting canvass roof. Though not all Montecarlos had this feature, all Scorpions did. Naturally, being Italian, build quality was always questionable, but you can’t deny that the cars certainly have that Mediterranean flair.

As I’m sure one could expect, reliability and rust are the biggest problems with the Scorpion. Furthermore, these cars were notorious for easily locking the front brakes and creating a rather scary situation for the driver. It wasn’t until after US sales stopped that Lancia simply removed the brake booster as a quick solution.

The Scorpion is a rather rare beast here in the States as only 1800 were made for the American market. If you find one, it’s important to make sure the car has been well taken care of and is properly sorted out. If not, you could be in for the nightmare of your life. In spite of the car’s relative rarity, prices vary considerably. A fixer-upper could run you only a few thousand – a restored example around $20,000 or more.

Porsche 914 (1969-1976)

Here at RWP we’re no strangers to the Porsche 914. In this writer’s humble opinion, having grown up with these, it is one of the most under-rated sports cars ever made. The styling may take some getting used to for some, but the 914 seems to fit very well with the rest of the classic Porsche stable. The bodies were assembled by Karmann and were fitted originally fitted with either a VW-sourced “Type-4″ engine, or Porsche’s classic flat-6. When the 914 was introduced, it was largely applauded for its spaciousness, two trunks, removable hard top, and superb handling. If you opted for the 1.7 L flat-four engine, however, you’d be less than impressed with the performance. The 914-6, on the other hand, was fitted with the same 110 hp 2.0L flat-six as an early 911. The problem though, was the rather high price which fell just short of a 911T at the time. Not much of an “entry-level” Porsche in those respects.

By 1971, Porsche saw that the 914-6 was too costly and opted to drop it from the line. In 1973, a 95 hp (100hp outside of the US) 2.0L variant of the VW engine was offered and gave the car a good balance of performance and price. The base-model was uprated to a 75 hp 1.8L as well. These would be the first mass-produced cars with electronic fuel injection. The 914 was never really a “cheap” car, and lower-cost competition from Fiat, Datsun, and Triumph, for example, made the 914 rather hard to sell.

By 1975, big Federal bumpers and smog equipment did their best to kill the 914 like so many other imports. Sales dropped along with power (the ’75 and ’76 cars all had the 2.0 but were de-tuned for emissions) and the 914 ceased production.

Many 914s have been tastelessly and poorly modified to American V8s and/or fitted with body kits and other gaudy accessories. These should probably be avoided. 914s were often abused over their lifetime and a good, rust-free example can be tricky to find, but they’re out there if you look – Porsche built nearly 119,000 of them. It’s easy to hot-rod a VW engine and most 914s are old enough to get around emissions regulations. A ’73 or ’74 model is probably the most desirable, as they have a better shift linkage, smaller bumpers, and decent power. There are some well done 6-cylinder conversions as well. Expect to pay $10,00 to $18,000 for a nice 4-cylinder and an original 914-6 may run well over $20k. They’re very reliable and VW parts keep running costs down, but be warned, anything with a Porsche part number is pricey.

Lotus Europa (1966-1975)

 
You could say that this is the one that started it all, in terms of mid-engined road cars. The Europa was the first “mass-produced” production car to have the engine in the middle (if you consider less than 10,000 units “mass”). Like earlier Lotus designs, the Europa used a steel back-bone chassis with a fiberglass composite body. Say what you will about the styling (some love it, I personally hate it), but it was certainly aerodynamic with a drag coefficient of 0.29. This, combined with a curb weight under 1,500lbs made for a very nimble car.

Power was sourced from the Renault 16’s 1.5L four-cylinder and 4-speed gearbox and tuned to a respectable 82hp. in 1968, the S2 variant was introduced with several refinements over the original design. These are probably the most desirable of the early cars. Finally the 1.5L Lotus Twin-Cam engine became available in 1971 along with a change in the body. The rear “flying buttresses” were carved out a bit to make it easier to see out of the incredibly tiny car.

As far as practicality goes, there essentially is none with this Lotus. It’s very small, hand-made in England and therefore likely to have build quality issues, and probably the most unsafe of this entire lot of cars. That being said, they’re incredible fun. Values for these cars are rising, particularly for an early example or a Twin-Cam. Watch out for typical electrical gremlins and poor fiberglass repair that could literally leave the body coming apart at the seams. Lotus made relatively few of these, but they’re still out there for $10,000 to $20,000+ if you can find them.

Lotus Esprit (non-V8s 1976-1996)

Lotus again employed the proven fiberglass body over steel backbone chassis design for the Esprit. The wedge-like design of the Esprit was also becoming somewhat of a Lotus trait in the era, referencing some of their racing cars’ shapes. Like most of these early Lotus models, it has a bit of a kit-car feel to it, which some may not like. Regardless, the Esprit was another great “driver’s car” in terms of its road holding and feel.

The earliest examples of the Esprit were powered by Lotus’ own 2.0L “Torqueless Wonder” power plant driving the wheels through a Citroen SM transaxle. As you’d probably expect, these are the slowest of the Esprits, and probably the most prone to quality issues. The S2 had various improvements over its predecessor, though the engine remained the same. In 1981, a lightly re-worked Esprit, the S3, was equipped with a more powerful 2.2L Lotus-built engine. A turbocharged version also hit the market, finally adding some much needed “real” power.

In 1987, a less angular and stronger body was fitted to the Esprit. These cars mark the transition to the “modern” Esprits. Various trims and engine specifications were available throughout the 1990s and it actually seemed as if the design was finally coming into its own and shedding the ‘kit car’ image. Beginning in 1996, a turbocharged, all-aluminum, 350 hp V8 developed by Lotus found its way into the car. These are the fastest of the Esprits, but also the most expensive. In terms of being an “affordable” mid-engined car, they’re a little too far off the chart.

Like anything, condition is a large factor in price with these cars. You can find an earlier model for around $10,000 or so, but unless you’re willing to spend a lot on repairs, you may be better off finding a later S3 model that’s been well taken care of. These can be had for under $20,000, but a really nice one can be significantly more. V8 models are usually well over $25,000.

Porsche 986 Boxster (1996-2004)

It hardly seems like it was so long ago that the Boxster was automotive industry front-page news. Porsche was having a hard time financially, and the 986 marked the beginning of a new era in Porsche’s history. The completely new design was a significant departure from the line-up preceding it, which were cars all based on designs dating back to the 1970s or earlier. Porsche was no stranger to water-cooling by this period (924, 928, 944, 968, etc.) but this was the first time the company used it on typical flat-6 engine layout.

Everything about the Boxster was new, including the very method in which Porsche produced the car. To keep costs under control and therefore make the model a success, the Germans actually hired Toyota to advise them on production processes and parts sharing. The Boxster shared much in common with the 996 series ‘911’ including styling cues such as the unique headlights. Perhaps realizing that their last attempt at an entry-level mid-engined car (the 914) was rather distant from the classic Porsche shape, the Boxster bore more than a passing resemblance to the legendary 550 Spyder.

At its debut, the Boxster could be purchased for just under $40,000 – a relative bargain compared to a 911 and even more so when one considers the arguably superior handling over its big brother. Granted, power wasn’t as great – the 986’s engine was initially a 200 hp 2.5L – but overall, the whole package was just what Porsche needed to revive the company. Boxsters sold faster than they could be built.

Some criticized the Boxster for being a little too cheaply built, particularly in interior quality. Early cars had issues with engine failures due to production flaws and as a result Porsche instituted a massive recall program. Most of these cars had entirely new engines fitted under warranty and are trouble free.

In addition to great handling and a full roadster layout, the Boxster, like the 914, has two trunks and therefore a considerable amount of luggage space for a car of this type. Like all Porsches, year-to-year changes are numerous, but perhaps most important is the fitment of a more powerful 2.7 L engine in 2000. Boxsters are perhaps the most common Porsches on the road today. Fortunately for those wishing to own one, prices of used models are fairly low. Certainly some have been abused, but a decent late-90s example can be had for a very resonable $10,000 or even less. Later models and “S” spec cars may run closer to $20k and a second-generation “987” series will be higher still.

Photos are not the property of RWP and we do not claim credit for them

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5 thoughts on “Moderately Priced Mid-Engined Cars

  1. >Gahh…. I knew somebody would bring up the Fiero at some point. I almost put a disclaimer at the end of the article. I didn't want to taint the reputation of any of these cars (particularly the fine build quality of the Italian and English ones) by including a Pontiac…ha.

  2. >Haha, well not going to lie, yeah I do have a strong Euro bias. I mean, the entire blog does if we're honest. Given that there were something like 300,000 Fieros made, I kind of figured most automotively inclined Americans are fairly familiar with them anyway. That being said, I should note that it's not necessarily intended to an exhaustive list…James, I actually looked into those cars (with the exception of the Fiero). My cut-off was if you could relatively easily find an example for under $20,000. The Ferraris and the NSX tend to be a bit more expensive. (more like $30,000 or more) Besides, it ended up being a rather large article as-is…

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