Know how much you can spend on a car but haven’t made up your mind which one to buy?

This time we're looking at performance cars for under R500 000 each. We recommend two conventional options plus a left-field choice...

Mercedes-AMG A45 4Matic 7G-DCT

0-100 km/h: 4,35 seconds
Top speed: 250 km/h
Power: 280 kW
Torque: 475 N.m
CO2: 171 g/km
Fuel consumption: 8,28 L/100 km

It really is a tug-of-war out there. This smallest AMG was desperate to be the power king and, when we tested the upgraded model in May 2016, it was … for a while (Audi then stole its crown). To achieve that status, AMG increased power from 265 to 280 kW and tightened up the gearbox ratios for improved acceleration. More of a hooligan than the RS3, the A45 achieved a 0-100 km/h time of 4,35 seconds.

The 280 kW comes from a mere 2,0 litres, naturally with turbocharging; all 1,8 bar of pressure. That is an astonishing 140 kW/L. Only a few years ago, we would have been suitably impressed by a figure of 100 kW per litre. So, a lowly four-cylinder engine can nevertheless be exciting. Exhaust flaps let you choose your level of neighbourly civility, with open flaps usually reserved for less-congested roads.

The A45 we tested had optional 19-inch rims but the ride quality was still praised by the team. No spare wheel was stashed in the boot; just a mobility air compressor and sealant. Nevertheless, the boot may be the smallest of these three but utility space turns out the largest.

A five-/six-year/100 000 km maintenance plan will help your pocket. Turbo oil-feed issues were sorted out before the upgrade; just stick to the recommended oil changes. The seven-speed dual clutch can take a hammering and it’s wise to remember the oil here as well. If the car shudders on pull-off, the clutches could be worn.

Space: 5 seats, 208/912 L
Safety: 6 airbags, ABS with EBD, stability control
Cost of four tyres: R16 600
Road test issue: May 2016

Audi RS3 Sedan Quattro S tronic

100 km/h: 3,93 seconds
Top speed: 250 km/h
Power: 294 kW
Torque: 480 N.m
CO2: 191 g/km
Fuel consumption: 10,08 L/100 km

The RS3 four-door was introduced in 2016 but CAR managed to road test an example only in 2017. It was worth the wait, as it rocketed off the start line in an incredible 0-100 km/h time of 3,93 seconds. It’s also a docile daily drive so its reputation as a usable everyday sportscar is firmly cemented.

The AMG A45-besting ouputs of 294 kW/480 N.m come from turbocharging a 2,5-litre five-cylinder engine which manages to sound nearly as impressive as a straight-six. Unlike five-cylinder Audis of old, this one uses a camchain and, hopefully, there will be no breakages even though every chain has a weakest link.

The dual-clutch, seven-speed gearbox is heaps of fun to use. Remember to have it serviced when stated to keep operation smooth and clean.

We noticed plenty of black RS3s on the market, more so than any other colour. This could be due to new-car purchasers opting for the optional black styling pack with black paintwork (R9 000 extra in 2017). Many other options were offered to bump up the purchase price. Ask what is included with your potential buy.

The maintenance plan lasts for five years and 100 000 km. If the RS3 is too much of a stretch (or too heavy on fuel), the S3 is a still-rapid alternative.

Space: 5 seats, 248/752 L
Safety: 6 airbags, ABS with EBD, stability control
Cost of four tyres: R16 404
Road test issue: October 2017

Left-field: Ford Mustang 5,0 V8 GT Fastback

0-100 km/h: 5,31 seconds
Top speed: 263 km/h
Power: 306 kW
Torque: 530 N.m
CO2: 289 g/km
Fuel consumption: 16,32 L/100 km

A Mustang features once again, this time a much more powerful V8 (they make great second-hand buys). There are many who believe a four-cylinder Mustang is not really a Mustang. Certainly, the sound of a V8 is not possible to emulate with fewer cylinders or via audio speakers.

What’s more, the shape and history of this Fastback variant mean everyone recognises the car. A good name can make or break any project and, in the early 1960s, Lee Iacocca and the team finally decided on “Mustang”, from the very successful World War Two fighter plane and the suggestion of wild horses running free.

CAR tested both the 2,3- and 5,0-litre in 2016. The four-cylinder was the Convertible which makes a lot of sense if you love boulevard cruising and do not require much grunt. The 2,3 EcoBoost is also as much as 40% lighter on fuel than the thirsty V8.

The rear seats are fully useable but the headroom is limited so adults won’t be too comfortable; the boot, however, is quite spacious.

The V8 pips the others here in the power stakes but not acceleration due to extra mass and that fact that the torque peak is far up the curve at more than 4 000 r/min. A five-year/100 000 km service plan was included.

Space: 2+2 seats, 256/672 L
Safety: 6 airbags, ABS with EBD, stability control
Cost of four tyres: R14 800
Road test: February 2016

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