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AFFORDABLE TRACK CAR PROJECTS: TOP 10

Posted by Matt Bell on 28th August 2020

Time on track is probably the most fun you can have in a car. Here’s our Top 10 affordable track car projects to get you started in the world of track days.

Any car can be a track car. You’ve literally just got to drive a car onto a track and bingo, you’ve already won. The first stage, really, is to teach yourself to be a track driver: adjust your methods of driving so that you’re essentially unlearning all of the good habits you use around town to be more aggressive on the circuit. Late braking, wide-open throttle, taking racing lines through corners, all the things you wouldn’t do on the way to Tesco (unless you’re some kind of terrifying menace to society). As your skills grow and you start to reach the limits of the car, you can begin to refine and optimise things to improve the experience – upgrading to some quality track-biased tyres, fitting more aggressive brake pads, uprating your suspension, maybe going a bit mad and throwing your rear seats in the bin in the name of weight loss. And once you get really serious, you’ll probably find that you’re building yourself a dedicated track car rather than using your daily driver.

Now, this might sound like an expensive hobby, but it doesn’t need to be. Once you’ve budgeted for the essentials, like a quality helmet and the necessary track day entry fees, the amount you spend on your track car is totally up to you – it needn’t necessarily cost a fortune, it can be surprisingly inexpensive. So we thought that, in the name of encouraging some entry-level track fun, we’d pull together a top-ten of our favourite bases for affordable track-based projects. Naturally the concept of ‘affordable’ is entirely subjective – some people may have earmarked a couple of grand for their next project, others will be lucky enough to have £5k, maybe even£10k, while some (like us) will be picking the lint out of their pockets in search of an extra 50p. So we’ve tried to keep this list sensible – some of these cars can be found for a couple of thousand (or less), but none of them will set you back more than £5,000 to buy. We’ve had a little look at the performance potential for each one, so you know what you might be getting into. Have fun choosing, and be sure to send us some pictures of your track exploits! Remember, shiny-side-up, and keep out of the kitty litter… Here’s out top 10 affordable track car projects.

Vauxhall Corsa VXR

We’re talking about the Corsa D here, the one sold from 2007-14, and the VXR is looking like pretty decent value at around £3,000. Within that aggressive little bodykit and hunkered-down stance you’ll find a 1.6-litre turbo motor spitting out 189bhp, and you also get a decent set of Recaros as standard. These are cars that were made to be modded, as Vauxhall proved by having a crack at it themselves more than once: in 2008 they offered a ‘888’package, which included AP Racing brakes and a bunch of suspension tweaks. And then of course there was the Nürburgring Edition, which came bristling with 202bhp, Bilstein dampers, lowered springs, uprated exhaust, forged wheels and, most importantly, a Drexler torque-sensing LSD. But even if you have a bone-stock VXR, you’ve still got a super playful track toy, and all of those upgrades are things you can readily find in the aftermarket. We’d suggest the most entertaining route is to find one that’s a bit aesthetically shabby but mechanically tip-top, then just strip out and throw away the interior, whack it on a set of Bilstein B14s (replacing all the bushes as you go), fit some sticky Nankang AR-1 tyres, then blow the budget on Tarox6-pots. That little package would be a whole bunch of fun.

Price today: £3000

Top mods: Bilstein B14 Coilovers, Drexler LSD, semi-slicks, Goodridge braides hoses.

Ford Fiesta ST150 (Mk6)

The Ford Fiesta ST150 has a hell of a lot going for it as a track project. We’re talking about the Mk6 Fiesta ST here, the one sold between 2003-08, and it’s often referred to as the ST150 because (you’ve probably guessed) it has 150bhp. This is courtesy of a 2.0-litre Duratec, a big engine to shove into a little car at the time – and it’s pretty tuneable too. The ST also received a fresh bodykit with different bumpers and spoilers, disc brakes at the rear (lesser models sometimes had drums), lower and sportier suspension, and part-leather seats – with the option of full heated leather. The best part is that you can pick up a tidy example for about £2,000, and there are plentiful upgraded parts available off the shelf. A set of Newman cams, a Cosworth intake manifold and a bigger throttle body will get you well over 200bhp, and that’s just for starters! Throw in a 3J Driveline LSD, a set of KW coilovers and some meatier brakes and you’ll be laughing. Quite literally. All the time.

Price today: £2000

Top mods: Newman Cams, KW Coilovers, 3J Driveline LSD.

BMW 3 Series (E46)

The E46 makes for an awesome budget track rocket these days – the prices have come way down, and they’re still plentiful enough on the used market that you can pick and choose to find a good one. And despite the number of them that are being ragged to destruction on the drift scene, it’s worth remembering that these aren’t just skidders, they make for excellent circuit toys. Naturally you’re not going to find a cheap M3, and you may well find that the petrol/manual 325i options (or, if you can track one down, the 330i) are increasingly prone to scene tax. But any E46 is a fun E46 – you may be lucky and get one with a big engine, but even a 318i will be a hoot once you’ve stripped it out and got it on some decent suspension and rubber. There are plentiful parts options available, and a huge number of owners groups on various social channels that can help you pick out the best mods for track heroism –so it’s not just a fun project, it’s a gateway into a whole new community. Start with some HSD coilovers (and we’d recommend OEM shock tower reinforcement plates to prevent ‘mushrooming’) and a set of Nankang NS-2R tyres, and work up from there.

Price today: £1500

Top mods: Shock lower reinforcement plates, HSD Coilovers, Nankang NS-2Rs.

Porsche Boxster (986)

How brave are you feeling? Buying a cheap early Boxster is one of those life decisions which could end up being the best choice you ever make, or the most financially ruinous. And the fun part is that there’s no way of knowing which way it’ll go – still, it’s good to roll the dice sometimes isn’t it?

There are a few things you can look out for to help your peace of mind: most important is a good service history, as the engine’s pretty inaccessible so it’s possible a budget-minded owner won’t have bothered. Check for wet carpets caused by roof leaks, as the ECU’s under that soggy carpet, and walk away from overheating cars as early ones sometimes had terminally porous engine blocks.

However, if you’ve bought a good one, you’ll find yourself with a fabulous track car right out of the box –awesome handling, endless grip, perfect steering, and oodles of potential for upgrades. Suspension mods can be handled in three phases if you want to spread the cost: first upgrade the anti-roll bars to H&R items, then whack on some Eibach springs, and finally (when you’re ready for maximum attack) swap in some Bilstein B16 coilovers. A lightweight flywheel and Quaife LSD make a massive difference, and the combo of K&N induction and Milltek exhaust is a no-brainer.

Price today: £5000

Top mods: H&R anti-roll bars, Milltek exhaust, Quaife LSD, Goodridge braided hoses.

Toyota Celica (Mk7)

The Mk7 generation was very few people’s favourite Celica. But that’s their loss and your gain, because these peachy little coupes can be picked up for around £2,000 (often even less), and you’re buying a whole lot of performance potential for the money. The most important thing is tomake sure you buy the right one to start with; you see, they all came with 1.8-litre engines, but confusingly there were two different ones sold at the same time. The 1ZZ-FE motor served up 140bhp which was perfectly OK, but the 2ZZ-GEis the one you want; co-developed by Yamaha and sporting variable valve timing and two-step variable valve lift control(which is sort of Toyota’s version of VTEC), it gives you more revs and 188bhp, which is much more like it. How can you tell if you’ve got the right one? Helpfully, it’s written on the engine cover: the 140bhp motor is badged VVT-I,while the 188bhp one says VVTL-I – that little L makes all the difference.

So, you’ve got a decent starting point. And once you’ve added in some Goodridge braided lines, grooved discs and Orange Stuff pads from EBC and a set of BC Racing coilovers, you can talk to Fensport about a remap. These engines love being cammed too, Cat Cams can help you with that.

Price today: £2000

Top mods: EBC discs/pads/lines, BC Racing coilovers, Fensport map.

Honda Civic Type R (EP3)

The EP3 is one of those cars that you can buy for under a couple of grand, but you probably shouldn’t. There’s a fair few of them about still, and a lot of them have been thrashed mercilessly, so the sub-two-grand cars are always a bit baggy – cheap to buy, but you’ll spend a fortune fixing it up. If you’re after a tidy road car for daily use you can budget up to £5k, although good usable ones for track purposes will be between £3-4k. The most important things to check for are a) a good service history and b)a sympathetic owner – because the K20 motor uses a surprising amount of oil, and its sky-high redline and VTEC lunacy encourage drivers to push it hard… if it hasn’t had its oil checked and topped up regularly, it’ll be eating itself.

Find a good one and you’ll be very happy. These thing sare simply phenomenal on track! Start with the chassis mods: Hardrace rear camber arms and lower control arms, Eibach front camber bolts, JDM rear anti-roll bar and Eibach Pro Kit springs will get you cornering like a champ. If you’ve got cash to splurge, an LSD is a strong option (although with your chassis mods and a decent alignment setup, by no means essential). Exhaust upgrades are more for noise than actual power unless you swap the manifold too– Tegiwa can help with a full system, and a carbon-boxed ITG Maxogen induction kit is a great addition. And bear in mind that if you want to map it, you’ll need to physically open up the ECU and get a Hondata piggyback chip fitted.

Price today: £4000

Top mods: JDM anti-roll bar, Hardrace camber arms, ITG Maxogen induction.

Mazda MX-5 (NA)

We can’t stop looking at these in the classifieds, as we’re waiting for the time to come when serious big-money collectors start snapping up the mint ones for silly prices and drag up the values of all the crap rusty ones. Amazingly, it’s still possible to pick up a solid and MOT’d Mk1 (NA) MX-5 for about £1,500, which has to be the bargain of the century. Aside from the fact that it’s got pop-up headlights (and all the coolest cars have pop-ups), it’s another worldly experience to drive: probably the sweetest manual gearshift of any car ever, a super-playful chassis which you essentially steer with your butt-cheeks, an eager little twin-cam that wants to rev for days. Believe the hype, these cars are fabulous.

Look out for rust in the sills and rear arches, and avoid any car that has ‘DETUNED’ stamped on the V5 (these UKDM-only 1.6s only had 88bhp,for some reason), and you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. The mechanicals are bombproof, and there are plenty of tuning options whether you go for the 1.6 or the 1.8. A Japspeed short-ram intake is a good start, along with a Racing Beat exhaust. With the 1.6, a set of Kent Cams ‘SportsR’ camshafts eliminate the flat-spot at the top of the rev range. It’s also worth bearing in mind that while there was never a factory turbo MX-5,these engines were designed with forced induction in mind as they also appeared in the 323 Turbo – so there’s a lot of aftermarket turbocharging options. BBR are the experts to talk to there. Whiteline ARBS are well regarded, and if you’re getting really serious then Öhlins Road and Track coilovers are the way to go. Goodridge braided brake lines are a must and try some EBC Yellow Stuff pads too.

Price today: £1500

Top mods: Racing Beat exhaust, Whiteline anti-roll bars, Japspeed short-ram induction

SEAT Leon Cupra 20VT

This is the forgotten Cupra. Based on the Mk4 Golf platform, it’s always been overshadowed by its upgraded Cupra R sibling, which had the TT 225-spec BAM engine. But the regular 180bhp-spec Leon Cupra 20VT has always been a bit of a hidden gem – not least because it’s pretty stealthy. These cars are usually found in burgundy or dark blue, looking like regular OAP shopper runabouts rather than full-fat hot hatches. But with a super-tweakable 1.8T under the bonnet and all the good bits from the VAG parts bin throughout the chassis, you can build a real weapon here.

Essentially, anything you can do to a Mk4 Golf, you can do to this. A Revo remap will easily take that 180bhp base up to around 210bhp, then you can add in a Milltek exhaust, RamAir induction, and the sky’s the limit. With a few supporting mods, the bigger turbo from the 225 engine will pay huge dividends, and once things start to get really hardcore you can save those pennies for a K-Sport 8-pot BBK and some KW V3 coilovers. Keep it in that boring stock paint shade and wrap the standard alloys in semi-slicks, and no-one will suspect a thing…

Price today: £2000

Top mods: Revo remap, Milltek exhaust, KW coilovers, Toyo R888R tyres.

MINI Cooper S (R53)

Much like the EP3 Civic, the R53 Cooper S is a car that you can very easily pick up for peanuts, but it might not be a great idea. Yes, you can buy one for under £2k, but buying one for closer to £4k with a decent history will be less painful in the long run.

These cars are an absolute blast on track even in standard form, and the thing we’d recommend first of all is to downsize the supercharger pulley. There are various percentage options but there’s no point mucking about – go for the full-on 17% pulley, combine it with an Airtec top-mount intercooler and your stock 170bhp will suddenly rise to around 200bhp. Plus, the blower will be wailing like a banshee!

It’s not cheap, but the next step for the serious track fan is to swap in a full Eibach chassis makeover – coilovers, top-mounts, anti-roll bars, the lot. It makes a world of difference, and turns a really good car into a great one. And one of the things R53s are known for is the pops and crackles from the exhaust – particularly facelift models, which had more of this stuff mapped in from the factory! There’s a lot of exhaust options out there, but our extensive research found that the Scorpion system sounds the best – as well as adding a few horses, of course. An LSD makes a huge difference to these cars too: some models had them fitted as factory-standard (like the Checkmate edition, for instance), but otherwise get yourself a Quaife ATB.

Price today: £4000

Top mods: 17% pulley, Airtec intercooler, Scorpion exhaust

Audi TT 225 (Mk1)

The Mk1 TT is another of those cars that’s so goodto drive, it amazes us that they can still be bought so inexpensively. When Audi saw fi t to bolt in a quattro system underneath, they created a chuckable coupe that would just grip and grip and grip until the tarmac itself started rucking up like a hallway carpet. Combine this with the crazy BAM engine (which involved so much more than bolting a big turbo to a 1.8T; it also had upgraded pistons and rods, juicier fuelling and bigger intercoolers), and you’ve got the recipe for something truly special. £2k buys a tidy runner, and the tuning world’s your oyster. We’d start with a Milltek cat-back and RamAir induction as your belt-and-braces mods, combined with a set of Goodridge braided lines, EBC grooved discs and Red Stuff ceramic pads. Upgrade to a Forge front-mount intercooler, and a Revo Stage2 map will catapult you up to about 275bhp. Some Toyo R888Rs will help you deploy this effectively, and a Haldex controller can send more torque to the rear wheels for fruitier handling.

Price today: £2000

Top mods: Milltek exhaust, Forge intercooler, Revo remap, Goodridge braided hoses.