Drifting along with autocross and hillclimbing is one of the last grassroots garagiste motorsports. Like Sir Jack Brabham’s ‘60s exploits in F1, you can build your skills, build a car and go and win championships yourself.
Described by some as the dressage of motorsport, it is one of pageantry over outright pace. That doesn’t take anything away from the fact that like any other motorsport, drifting requires finely-honed skill at the top end. Being as accessible as it is, it’s one of the most popular motorsports to get into at the minute. So, how do you start? How do you build up the seat time and experience? You need a starter car, of course.
The truth is that with the sport’s popularity comes an increasingly inflated market for cars that can get you going. Gone are the days of four-figure Nissan Silvias. Most have been bent, have rusted out, or are priced to give a real-world sting to the ironic ‘financial mistake’ sticker on the sun strip. Toyota Chasers, lesser Skylines and their ilk will also turn a sturdy house deposit into lunch money these days. So where do you begin? Here is our guide to the best starter drift cars you can buy on a budget.
There are a number of things to look for in a starter drift car and the first two generations of Mazda MX-5 offer nearly all of them, cliched a choice as it is. They’re still cheap, relatively widely available, simple to fix and reliable. There’s good availability of parts and a sturdy market for them. If you’re a handy disassembler, there’s room there to financially sustain your drifting habits as a breaker on the side. The aftermarket around them is strong too, so the blueprint for a drivable and durable car is but a forum search away.
The downsides? Well, as a convertible, there is the added expense of needing a roll cage, for eligibility on many of the UK’s tracks. They’re also quite susceptible to tin worm – a common foil in this market – and somewhat lacking in power. That last point really isn’t an issue at this level. That you’re forced to learn a car and drive around limited power is only a good thing for your budding skill set.
BMW 3 Series
In truth, the BMW 3 Series is rapidly going the way of the S-Body Nissan in this market. That’s to say, overinflated values that continue to rise. This isn’t without reason, though. The 3 Series, be it an E30, E36 or E46, offers a good chassis, decent power depending on the engine and nowadays, a strong aftermarket that supports them. A 328 E36 is a proven winner at SDC level.
Apart from the price, what issues will you face? Well, it’s a BMW, so the associated cost of parts increases, be it for engine maintenance or general modification. Like the MX-5 they also like to oxidise and in recent years, nicer examples have become increasingly difficult to find. They occupy the space the old E34 5 Series once did, along with, believe it or not, the Vauxhall Omega and Ford Scorpio. Drifting, especially at entry-level, is a sport of high attrition, so cars that were once numerous in number are today few and far between. With the 3 Series, get in there quick, get your car and look after it.
Lexus’s original foil for the BMW 3 Series in the compact executive space also offers a compelling alternative when it comes to drifting. So, like the 3 Series, Lexus IS200 prices are rapidly following suit, as car availability steadily drops.
Power is decent, with good scope for modification and reliability is solid, coming from Toyota’s era of massive over-engineering. They handle well too, though there is a trade-off when it comes to parts availability. You’ll need to be a bit more dedicated to the cause when researching your build. Thankfully, the smaller the community around a car, the more dedicated and well-informed certain members tend to be. There’s a good build and a competitive car to be had there if you’re willing to commit.
Where once there was the Silvia, now there is the Nissan 350Z. Nissan hasn’t entirely disappeared from this space, as its early 2000s sportscar becomes more budget-friendly for budding drifters. Of the selection here, as a platform, it has the most potential as a competition build. Many competing in the Pro 2 class in the USA use 350Zs, as do drivers that are just starting out.
The pros? It obviously has good power, a good chassis and there’s a great aftermarket around it. The cons? Well, some parts are expensive and they can be a bit delicate depending on the example you get. Earlier cars can suffer from engine and transmission issues if unduly abused. Given drifting is effectively undue abuse, supporting mods and spare parts are expensive but advised.
Ones to watch
There’s very little precedent for the BMW 1 Series as a drift car at the moment but the ingredients are there. Rear-wheel-drive, strong engine options, a good chassis – it’s next in the pecking order after the 3 Series, surely? Then of course there are newer 3 Series and 2 Series models to watch as they age. Keep an eye out.
It’s also worth watching the Toyota GT86. As Toyota’s driver-focused sportscar ages, it comes down in value. Soon it’ll be dangerously close to the drifting starter car thunder dome. Properly ropey examples are coming in under £10,000 now, so it’ll be interesting to see if they follow the trajectory of the 350Z. The flat-four engine isn’t a paragon of reliability or performance but in every other way, the GT86 could be a boon for budding drifters.
Past masters and wild cards
As above, the turmoil of the starter drift car space has chewed up and spat out the vast population of Omegas, Scorpios, Sierras, Skylines, Silvias, older BMWs and many more, but some do come up. Scour the classifieds on a regular basis to find yourself a rarefied gem.
If you’re feeling brave, Jaguar S-Types are an option, albeit with next to zero aftermarket support and sketchy reliability prospects. The same goes for rear-driven Mercs. A final word goes to, of all things, the Ford Ranger. Lower-sitting rear-driven examples are known to come with limited-slip differentials. Yes, a welded diff is the done thing but you can’t deny the idea of a drifted-out Ranger sounds cool. Go this route at the mercy of parts and aftermarket support but the rewards of kudos in the paddocks could be plentiful. The truth is, if you can get power to the rear wheels, through a manual ‘box, there’s half a chance you can use it to start your sideways career.
As you’ll have gathered, the popularity of the drifting space has left the market for budget-friendly skid missiles relatively thin. The glory days of Sierras you could buy on a bank account overdraft are long behind us. That said and as above, if you’re committed enough to the cause, you’ll find your chariot and find a way. God speed.