15 Fun-to-Drive Four-Cylinder Sedans Under $55,000

Before the days of widespread use of forced induction and ever-tightening emissions regulations, cylinder count mattered because a good majority of fun cars had more than four. However, in a world where fuel economy mandates are getting so high that some automakers have resorted to cheating, the lower the number of cylinders, the better. That doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice power and torque, because even though big engines are on the decline, car companies are stepping up with small but powerful engines. In return we get lighter, more agile cars that are also more fuel efficient than before (provided you drive responsibly). Talk about having your cake and eating it, too. There’s little need to step up to a car with a six-cylinder engine to get your performance fix, and you don’t have to sacrifice practicality, either, as there’s a growing number of sedans entering the market that are plenty entertaining to drive. Here are 15 fun-to-drive four-cylinder sedans that cost less than $55,000, with five honorable mentions. Honda Civic Reborn with a more upscale exterior design and an optional engine with turbo but without VTEC (gasp!), the 2016 Honda Civic is a return to form for the brand, and a new chassis and lighter weight provide a driving experience that’s greatly improved. In its class, the 2016 Civic is now one of the most engaging to drive and strikes a nice balance between comfort and handling—plus class-leading fuel economy of 31/42 mpg city/highway when equipped with the 174-hp, 1.5-liter, turbo I-4 and the CVT. Expect the performance-oriented Si to return after the debut of the coupe and hatchback, followed by the Type R in 2017. Check out the First Test of the 2016 Civic here. Audi A3 2.0T Quattro Although the base front-drive Audi A3 with the 170-hp, 1.8-liter, turbo I-4 is already pretty fun, the A3 2.0T Quattro takes the car up a notch with more power and AWD. Riding on the Volkswagen Group’s MQB platform that also underpins the Golf family, the A3 offers an engaging drive and all-weather traction. This means that even if Mother Nature decides to try and ruin your day, you can enjoy your drive through the twisties knowing you’ve got extra traction to keep you from careening off a cliff. Mazda3 Not many compact cars can match the Mazda3 in terms of driving dynamics, and this newest iteration of Mazda’s best-seller punches well above its weight and is dressed to the nines. On the road, the Mazda3 drives better than any compact car has the right to, and when equipped with the optional 184-hp, 2.5-liter I-4, it gives you an extra dose of zoom-zoom in a car that aims to please with its enthusiastic personality and great handling. The base Mazda3 equipped with the 155-hp, 2.0-liter I-4 won a 2014 compact sedan comparison test (the loaded GT is shown above). Buick Regal GS Even though this isn’t the return of the GNX or the Grand National, the Buick Regal GS speaks English with a German accent, giving you a hint that it’s essentially a rebadged Opel Insignia. In its base form, the Regal is fun to pilot down your favorite road, but in GS guise, it’s taken to another notch with a unique suspension that includes GM’s trick Hi-Per Strut front setup, Brembo brakes, and 19-inch alloy wheels. While the 2.0-liter, turbo I-4 retains its 259-hp and 295-lb-ft rating, the suspension upgrades in the Regal GS make an even more willing dance partner, and the available AWD system makes it a great four-season vehicle. Ford Fusion Titanium Looking more like an Aston Martin than a Ford thanks to its stylish front fascia, the Ford Fusion is one of the best-handling midsize sedans money can buy. In Titanium trim, it comes with a 240-hp, 2.0-liter EcoBoost I-4 that gives it plenty of zip. What really makes the Fusion stand out, in addition to its sexy exterior design, is its driving dynamics, offering plenty of fun from behind the wheel thanks to a willing chassis that’s at home eating up twisty roads or simply cruising on the highway. Subaru WRX Since it arrived in U.S. shores in 2001, the Subaru WRX has been taking names and then some on the streets and the track, solidifying its reputation as a rally-bred sport compact. The latest iteration of Subaru’s icon has been greatly improved and features a new 2.0-liter, turbo flat-four with more power and torque, better chassis tuning, and two types of AWD systems depending on your transmission choice. As a result, the WRX is a better everyday sports car for your weekday commute and for tearing up your favorite canyon roads on weekends. The WRX won a comparison test against the Ford Focus ST. Volkswagen Jetta GLI The Golf GTI takes the majority of the limelight when talking about Volkswagen performance vehicles, but the Jetta GLI is a lesser-known gem. Other Jetta variants are already plenty fun to pilot, and the GLI takes the formula up a notch with a good dose of power courtesy of the Volkswagen Group’s ubiquitous 2.0-liter, turbo I-4 making 210 hp and 207 lb-ft in the GLI. Sure, it isn’t as potent as the GTI, but for those with an aversion to hatchbacks and wagons, the Jetta GLI offers an amplified Germanic character of solidity and even higher handling limits than your run-of-the-mill Jetta. It’s autobahn-ready and up for a good time in the twisties, that’s for sure. Mazda6 No, the Mazda6 and its 184-hp, 2.5-liter I-4 isn’t the most powerful midsize sedan out there, but its excellent chassis and suspension tuning make it the most driver-focused in its class. Take it out on your favorite twisty road, and for sure it’ll give you more smiles per mile behind the wheel than that nearby V-6 Toyota Camry that just understeered and nearly drove off a ledge. So although it doesn’t have a more powerful engine option, the Mazda6 caters to your inner driving enthusiast and ensures that you live a little thanks to its lively handling and responsiveness. Read our First Test of the 2016 model here. BMW 328i Long revered by car enthusiasts as the benchmark luxury sports sedan, the BMW 3 Series has gotten a teeny bit soft in its newest iteration. But that doesn’t mean it’s no longer fun to drive. Nearly every variant is still plenty entertaining. The best balance of fuel economy, fun, and practicality is the 328i sedan powered by the 240-hp, 2.0-liter, turbo I-4 (the N20 for you BMW geeks; the pre-refresh model is shown here). Opting for the M Sport package, which adds a more aggressive suspension, 18-inch alloy wheels wrapped in summer performance tires, and a unique aero kit, helps the 328i come alive a little bit thanks to a slight improvement in its handling. Cadillac ATS 2.0T Currently one of the best-handling compact luxury sport sedans, the Cadillac ATS was created with one goal in mind: dethrone the BMW 3 Series. Did it succeed? The answer is yes because while the mighty Bavarian is getting softer, the ATS and other competitors are stepping up. When equipped with the 272-hp, 2.0-liter, turbo I-4, the ATS is perhaps one of the most balanced cars in its class, and it gets even better when you opt for Magnetic Ride Control, which enables it to make quick work of winding mountain roads. One of the most significant 2016 updates is that the old six-speed automatic has been ditched in favor of the slick 8L45 eight-speed automatic developed in-house by GM, making the ATS quicker than before. Acura ILX For 2016, the Acura ILX got a much-needed injection of power thanks to a new direct-injected, 2.4-liter I-4 rated at 201 hp and 180 lb-ft and an eight-speed dual-clutch gearbox. As a result, the ILX has become a more formidable entry-level premium compact sedan rather than just a hopped-up Civic Si. Although the six-speed manual is gone, the ILX remains a tossable car offering great handling and a rev-happy four-banger that’s willing to scream to the moon. Subaru WRX STI Is the WRX not potent enough? Well, consider the more powerful and purposeful WRX STI with its 305-hp, 2.5-liter, turbo flat-four. Bred to excel on pavement and on gravel, the WRX STI is the most potent version of the rally-bred sport compact available today, and it’s only available with a good old-fashioned six-speed manual. Should you have friends wanting to join you on your adventures, there’s seating for four (five in a pinch), so you can scare the living daylights out of them as you drift through the dirt (or pavement) and leave everything else in your dust. The WRX STI won a comparison test and triumphed against the Mercedes-AMG CLA45 and the BMW M235i. Audi S3 Essentially a compact sport sedan in a suit and tie, the Audi S3 is the car you grow into once you’ve moved past your days of hooning around in a bright blue rally-bred sport sedan with a big wing out back. More conservative and classy than in your face, the S3 offers up 292 hp from its turbo I-4 and comes with snappy six-speed twin-clutch gearbox for seamless and lightning-quick shifts. Add to that the availability of magnetic shocks and standard AWD, and you have a small all-weather sport sedan packed with sophistication and class. Mercedes-AMG CLA45 Under the hood of the Mercedes-AMG CLA45 is one of the most powerful four-cylinder engines currently in production, a 375-hp, 2.0-liter monster. Like every Mercedes-Benz with an AMG badge, the CLA45 can pound the pavement into submission via its performance-tuned AWD system, allowing it to run with the big boys in a straight line. When the road starts twisting, the CLA45 can hold its own without breaking a sweat, but make sure you opt for the AMG Dynamic Plus package, which adds a limited-slip differential, adaptive suspension, and a Race mode. This will give the car an extra injection of precision and agility to go with the insane amount of power. Also add the available performance exhaust so you hear more of those snaps, crackles, and pops everywhere you go and cause a little havoc. Volvo S60 T6 Drive-E Volvo’s strategy of using engines that are no larger than four cylinders may seem odd, but when you see the one found in the S60 T6 Drive-E, you’ll be in awe at the kind of power it can produce. Featuring a supercharger and a turbocharger, the 2.0-liter mill produces 302 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque routed through an eight-speed automatic, giving it instant power everywhere. Add to that a chassis that’s well balanced and tuned for great handling without sacrificing Volvo’s renowned ride quality, and the S60 T6 Drive-E is a Swedish missile that does nearly everything well. AWD will be available with the T6 Drive-E engine in early 2016. Read our 2015 S60 T6 Drive-E FWD First Test here. Honorable Mentions These are the predecessors of these four-cylinder fun machines, and they are sorely missed. Acura TSX Not the quickest sporty four-door in its time, the Acura TSX still provided a great balance of fun and frugality thanks to a rev-happy four-cylinder engine and well-tuned chassis that made driving through twisty roads a joy. The available six-speed manual gearbox also made the TSX more engaging to drive, and as a result, drivers everywhere let them rev to the moon the moment they got a chance to do so. Saab 9-3 Saab died in 2011, and with it went the 9-3, a sport sedan that was offered with a lineup packed with turbocharged engines, including a 2.0-liter I-4. Quirky was the name of the game, and the Saab 9-3 was full of quirks, good and bad. Everything from torque steer, turbo lag, and a chassis that gave it great handling were present, giving the 9-3 a character all of its own. Mazdaspeed6 Performance and driving fun have always been Mazda’s forte, and no sedan in its lineup has ever embodied it better than the Mazdaspeed6. Featuring AWD, a six-speed manual, and a 2.3-liter, turbo I-4 rated at 270 hp and 280 lb-ft, the car had all the ingredients for an affordable sport sedan. Additionally, the standard AWD system meant you could easily traverse through poor weather conditions with little trouble. Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution With the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution no longer in production, the rivalry between it and the Subaru WRX has come to a close. However, the Evo left its mark on the automotive landscape through its legendary performance and rally legacy. The Final Edition models commemorate the end of the Evo’s life by giving the last cars off the line more power—at 303 hp and 305 lb-ft—and more go-fast hardware, such as 13.8-inch Brembo brake rotors up front and 13-inch units out back, Bilstein shocks, Eibach springs all around, and Enkei alloy wheels wrapped in Yokohama performance tires. So long and see you again soon (we hope), Evo. Subaru Legacy GT One of the last affordable performance-oriented midsize sedans to leave the market was the fifth-generation Subaru Legacy GT. Sharing the same 265-hp, 2.5-liter, turbo flat-four found in the previous-generation WRX mated to a six-speed manual, the Legacy GT was for buyers that wanted something more mature. However, low sales took the Legacy GT off the U.S. market in 2012.