When looking for a car for either a fun daily driver, track car, or something in between, finding the best value can be difficult. The best car for the money is something that is constantly changing. When I was first interested in import cars, the ae86 was still considered a cheap beater to get started drifting with. Having recently seen a rolling chassis with no interior listed for $2,000, that’s obviously no longer the case. Also long gone from the list of budget conscious cars is Nissan’s venerable S-chassis, another former staple of such lists.
Here in my own opinion is one of the better lists of cars which can be had for cheap. This is of course not exhaustive, and keeping with the spirit of the site, they are all Japanese.
Second Generation RX7
I’ve always felt that the 86-90 RX7 was essentially a rotary powered S13, they had similar looks, and more or less similar power. The FC chassis is pretty capable once you dig into it, and of course the always polarizing rotary engine has a ton of potential in Turbo form, and can still make decent power even in NA form with enough time and money. Any example you could get will more than likely need a full suspension refresh as the oldest cars are now 30 years old.
If you plan to swap engines, or are ok rebuilding a rotary engine, these can be found all day in non-running condition thanks to so many folks junking them when the apex seals inevitably give out. You can get them in rough, non running shape for hundreds, or later year turbo cars in show room shape for upwards of 10k. That’s a huge range, but finding running cars for under $2000 is not difficult, and even Turbo II models can be had in running shape for under $5000.
First Generation MR2
If you missed the AE86 boat before prices went crazy, you can still get a rwd car of the same vintage, powered by the same legendary 4AGE engine for much less. Thankfully the 85-89 MR2 is a less than ideal chassis for drifting which has probably helped. Depending on where you live, you should be able to find running examples for under $2,000 with varying degrees of work being needed to restore them to their sporting demeanor. You can also find them with the 4AGZE, the supercharged variant, for a bit more. As an owner of the naturally aspirated version, I can tell you that the motor is still plenty potent enough to move this lightweight chassis around.
As another car in the 30 year range, you’re looking at a full refresh of any item that can wear out, and try to find one without t-tops if you value staying dry. What you’ll get is a car that handles brilliantly and just begs for more throttle in turns.
Mazda recently produced their millionth Miata, which means they are not exactly rare. I’m specifically talking about the first and second generation models, which spans from 1990 all the way through 2005. The cool thing about these cars, is that the second generation was almost nothing more than a cosmetic refresh, keeping both models very similar. A set of coilovers from your 1990 will happily bolt right up to a 2005 model.
Prices for these are all over the place, the earlier models powered by the 1.6L are usually lower, and you can get all the way into the 12-13k range for a nice Mazdaspeed example from 2004 or 2005. Less than pristine examples of the first generation can be had for $2000 or less, and $4000 will get you a really nice second gen. A high mile car will of course need a bit of work, and a low mile example of the later years can be found needing absolutely no work (as was the case with my own car). What you get is a platform known for its legendary handling, but can also be a fun car for drifting, all while giving great gas mileage and reliability.
Honda Civic Sedans
I think the drifting craze did quite a bit to knock down the prices of Civics a bit. Even so, a nice hatchback will usually fetch a premium over the other body styles for the 3rd, 4th, and 5th gen civics ranging from 1988 to 2000. Coupes are usually the second most desirable model of the Civic for obvious reasons, but if you can live with a 4 door project car, the sedans of any of these generations can be had for far far less, and are more or less mechanically identical to their 2 and 4 doored siblings.
What you wont get are any sort of performance models like the Si, so you can forget about scoring any factory B-series cars. But with Civics being the most swapped car of any import, finding a new power plant (or boosting the stocker) is going to be a well worn path with lots of resources and advice. Checking my local Craigslist, I can find 5 speed 5th gen sedans for under $3000 with ease. Older cars only go down from there. Another bonus with the sedan, is that their lack of appeal with the early tuner crowd means they can also be found unmolested, which is hard to find in a Civic.
The RX8 might be the best bang per buck car on the list. I’ve found running examples for $4,000. That’s a 200ish hp car with a brilliant chassis, nice interior, and lots of potential. This is yet another car on the list I’ve actually owned, and it was a great car. As with all rotary cars, this is another that gets sold off for a song once the motor gives up, and you can find those as well for quite a bit less. This is another great option if you plan on chucking the old motor and going with an LS swap.
So that’s my list, what would you include on here? Let me know in the comments below.