While Canadian winters usually force many performance car owners to put their baby away for the winter, sports cars and other track-bred vehicles remain surprisingly popular here.

If money is no object, finding a good performance car is a breeze. Things become a little bit more difficult when operating on a budget, though, which is why the Performance Car Under $50,000 category has returned for the 2021 autoTRADER.ca Awards.

Our jury of 20 automotive experts from all over the country looked at every sports car and performance vehicle on sale for under $50,000 before voting to advance five cars to the final round of voting. They took a wide variety of factors into account when picking the finalists, including engine power, suspension and steering feel and, perhaps most importantly, how fun they were to drive.

Scroll down to learn more about the five performance-focused vehicles in the running for this year’s Performance Car Under $50,000 award. The winner will be announced in February 2021.

2021 Mazda MX-5

A list of budget-friendly sports cars wouldn’t be complete without making mention of the Mazda MX-5. This joyous Japanese roadster may not have a ton of on-paper performance, producing a modest 181 horsepower from its 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine, but what it lacks in outright power it more than makes up for with its spry handling, direct steering feel, and 50:50 weight distribution. The last time we tested the MX-5, our expert said it “continues to deliver excellent top-down motoring,” and concluded that there was “nothing like it at its price point.”

The current Mazda MX-5 comes standard with a six-speed manual and is only available with rear-wheel drive, though a six-speed automatic with paddle shifters is also available instead of the manual. There’s also a version with a retractable hardtop called the MX-5 RF. Prices start at $33,100 for the entry-level GS trim. This fun roadster won this category in last year’s awards but is another win in its future?

2021 Ford Mustang

The iconic Ford Mustang has unbelievable performance-per-dollar value, especially the GT. With a starting price of just $40,790 and a standard 5.0-litre V8 producing 460 horsepower, the latest Mustang GT is a lot of car for a modest amount of money. This V8 helps the Mustang GT hustle from zero to 100 km/h in just 4.2 seconds and run through the quarter-mile in just 12.2 seconds.

For customers who don’t need quite that much power, the base-level Mustang EcoBoost should have plenty of performance on tap from its turbocharged 2.3-litre engine, which produces 330 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque. These less powerful four-cylinder models start at $31,080 in Canada and will also be better on gas and cheaper to keep on the road. Both GT and EcoBoost models come standard with a six-speed manual transmission and are available with a 10-speed automatic.

2021 Hyundai Veloster N

While four out of five finalists on this list are well-known performance cars that have been on sale in one form or another for quite some time, the Hyundai Veloster N is a much newer entry into the Performance Car Under $50,000 category. Don’t underestimate this South Korean hot hatch, though, as it has received consistent praise from the automotive media for its impressive handling, direct steering feel, and big personality. A big part this car’s impressive performance come down to its electronically controlled dampers (an advanced feature at this price point), which automatically adjust the suspension settings to improve grip and feel.

The mean-sounding 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder is also noteworthy, producing a stout 275 horsepower and helping to propel the asymmetrical hatch from zero to 100 km/h in just 5.6 seconds. A six-speed manual is standard, but an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic is also on offer. Prices start at $37,799, which is admittedly expensive for a hot hatch like this.

2021 Honda Civic Si/Civic Type R

There’s a reason why many performance enthusiasts will practically throw themselves at the feet of the Honda Civic Si, offered now only as a sedan, and the more powerful Honda Civic Type R, which is only offered as a hatchback. Honda knows what it’s doing when it comes to performance and this is on perfect display with the Civic Si and Type R, which blend straight-line speed with impressive cornering capability to deliver a well-balanced and approachable performance package.

The Si is powered by a 1.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder making 205 hp, while the Type R makes 306 hp from its 2.0-litre turbo. The Civic Si can accelerate from zero to 100 km/h in roughly 6.8 seconds, while the Type R does the same dash in just 5.6 seconds. Both are only available with six-speed manual transmission and front-wheel drive. Prices for the Si start at $30,290, while the Type R is priced from $46,200.

2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI

The VW Golf GTI is perhaps the most refined performance car on this list. The GTI is surprisingly quiet and comfortable for a performance car, so those looking for a driving experience that’s more raw and visceral may want to look elsewhere. That said, the 228-hp 2.0-litre turbo and six-speed manual transmission are plenty fun, while the available seven-speed DSG gearbox is downright impressive with its lightning-quick shifts and refined operation when driving around town. Similar to the Honda Civic Si, the VW GTI is capable of accelerating from zero to 100 km/h in about 6.8 seconds.

Those customers who want an everyday car that’s a bit more fun when they open up the taps need to look no further than the VW GTI. This current model will soon be replaced by the next-generation MK8 Golf GTI, but as we noted when we drove the current version earlier this year, this model “raised the bar yet again for what a hot hatch is capable of,” and is still a very competitive offering. Prices for the VW GTI start at $30,845 in Canada.