Know how much you can spend on a car but haven’t made up your mind which one to buy? We recommend two sensible options, plus a left-field choice.

Requirements: Lusting after the new BMW Z4 M40i but don’t have a million rand burning a hole in your pocket? These three offer comparable thrills at a third of the price.

BMW Z4 sDrive35i Steptronic

0-100 km/h: 5,48 seconds
Top speed: 250 km/h
Power: 225 kW
Torque: 400 N.m
CO2: 252 g/km
Fuel consumption: 10,80 L/100 km

BMW could write a fascinating book on its roadsters. After a storied heritage – starting in 1934 with the 315 – that eventually lost momentum, revival came with the Z1 followed by the Z3 and three generations of the Z4.

To the second-generation model featured here, BMW added a tin top to replace the previous cloth item and offered a variety of engines, including our choice here, the turbocharged 3,0-litre inline-six. A meaty powertrain with its peak torque at a low 1 300 r/min makes this one of the most satisfying engines in BMW’s recent history and, mated with a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox with paddle shifters, it provides a healthy dose of performance.

There’s not much luggage space, of course, but this is a weekend or business vehicle and is not meant to replace the family SUV. The cabin is beautifully finished and spacious for two.

When new, a five-year/100 000 km maintenance plan was offered. Some of the mileages are well below this limit but the time span is not, so extended plans are worth considering, especially because this is a direct-injection engine with dual variable valve timing and adjustable-length intake manifold, so it’s complex. Keep an eye on the water pump, oil leaks and misfiring which may merely require a new ignition coil.

A pair of new front tyres will cost about R6 700 but the rear tyres are wider and a pair of these (Bridgestone Potenzas are OE) will set you back around R9 000.

Space: 2 seats, 176 L
Safety and aids: 4 airbags; ABS with EBD and BAS; stability control
Cost of 4 tyres: R15 700
Road test: August 2009

Mercedes-Benz SLK350 7G-tronic

0-100 km/h: 5,6 seconds
Top speed: 250 km/h
Power: 225 kW
Torque: 370 N.m
CO2: 167 g/km
Fuel consumption: 8,52 L/100 km 

Our 2011 test of the second-generation SLK featured the four-cylinder SLK200 with 135 kW. If you can extend the budget to the brawny 3,5-litre V6 in the SLK350, it'll be worth your while in terms of performance, while fuel consumption isn’t much heavier. With the 350, you receive something equal to the six-cylinder Z4 in power (225 kW) with almost as much torque. This V6 is not turbocharged and therefore somewhat less complex.

The interior is sporty and tasteful, with design elements inherited from the SLS. It is well equipped, too. Like the Z4, it has a metal folding roof which quickly transforms the driving from al fresco to nicely snug.

The SLK’s ride is mostly absorbent for comfortable driving but the 7G-tronic transmission is not the smoothest around, with some hunting and lethargy.

The engine might be more compact than a straight-six but this means trickier maintenance procedures (thanks to, for example, difficult access to spark plugs and exhaust manifolds). One minor engine issue is a timing chain rattle on start-up. This is quite common as it takes a few seconds for oil pressure to build up. There are possible improvements if this becomes worrisome.

At our price point, we spotted some newer models than similar priced Z4s but, strangely, these younger cars had much higher mileages than the older Z4s, suggesting they are used as everyday transport rather than weekend fun cars.

Space: 2 seats, 192 L
Safety and aids: 6 airbags; ABS with EBD; stability control
Cost of 4 tyres: R11 538
Road test: August 2011 (SLK200)

Honda S2000

0-100 km/h: 6,62 seconds
Top speed: 239 km/h
Power: 177 kW
Torque: 208 N.m
CO2: 209 g/km
Fuel consumption: 9,41 L/100 km

Honda has a solid history of producing high-performance engines. This started with its motorcycles; one example is the Honda 250 six (RC166) that revved to 18 000 r/min.

The soft-top S2000 isn’t a pint-sized racer, nor does it have more than four cylinders, but it can spin to 9 000 r/min and sounds glorious while doing so. Beware, though: with lots of power going to the rear wheels, this one can catch you out, especially if you settle for one of the earlier models. In typical Honda fashion, the six-speed gearbox is superb and, despite it having much less power and torque than the BMW and Benz, the S2000 is a mere second slower to 100 km/h.

For Performance Shootout 2007, we took a selection of cars to Killarney Raceway and asked two racing drivers – Stephen Simpson and the late Gugu Zulu – to test them. There were mixed feelings about the S2000: Stephen loved the rev-happy engine but Gugu not so much. To quote him, “The engine just feels too pap below 7 000 r/min, but from seven it accelerates very quickly all the way to 9 000.” He loved everything else about the car. Stephen admitted, “We almost went sideways a couple of times.”

There are not many available in the classifieds, as they are highly sought after, mainly for some high-cost modifications these days. Owners will spare no expense to customise S2000s and lower the suspension. To allow for some driveability, some drivers add air suspension. Still, there are several untouched original examples waiting to be snapped up.

Space: 2 seats, 128 L
Safety and aids: 2 airbags; ABS/EBD, ESC
Cost of 4 tyres: R6 400
Road test: August 2007 (track test)

Second hand cars for sale