Our man Michael Thompson called me out seeking advice on a cheap car for rallycross, and then listed five great choices for rallycross cars that aren’t Subarus. All of the cars he suggested are excellent. Like him, I owned a 1991 Nissan Sentra SE-R. It was the best front wheel drive car I’ve ever owned. The SR20 motor’s oil pan sits a bit low, but that’s nothing a good solid skidplate can’t solve. The early Focus is also a great rallycross car, but don’t limit yourself to the SVT model. The Acura Integra is awesome, but again, don’t limit yourself to the increasingly rare GS-R. Beat up a lower trim level with enough power to spin the wheels instead. An older Volvo is excellent for all the reasons Michael said, and is a great choice for some #gravelmachinegun rear wheel drive action. So are the RX-7 and Miata. The one time I rallycrossed my 1993 Miata, not only did I win Prepared / Rear Wheel Drive, I was the fastest car in the entire rear wheel drive division. The same qualities that make it handle so great on pavement still apply at lower traction levels off pavement. Just budget an extra $1,000 or so for a Miata hardtop, which the SCCA requires for convertibles that rallycross.
Michael’s list is great, but there are many more good choices, too. Here are my additions to the list.
Why NOT Subarus? (Full disclosure – I’m a Subaru Ambassador, so of course I’m going to highly recommend them.) The 2005 Impreza 2.5RS that Michael’s friend is selling would be an excellent rallycross car. In fact, for rallycross, I’d actually prefer the instant linear torque of the naturally aspirated 2.5 to the turbo lag of the more powerful WRX (at least the older ones – my 2015 WRX has very little). I also had a ton of fun on a frozen lake in my ex-wife’s basic 1996 Impreza L with the smaller 2.2 motor, as you can see in this photo. A 1990s vintage Legacy is smaller than a modern Impreza or WRX, and is also a good choice. Subaru themselves rallied the Legacy before the smaller Impreza came out. And do I even need to mention the advantage of all wheel drive on any Subaru made after 1995 (except the BRZ, of course)? Subarus are by far the most popular rally or rallycross car out there, so you can get practically any replacement or upgrade part you want, as well as the know-how to set one up exactly the way you want it.
2. Volkswagen Golf/Jetta
Before acquiring their fleet of pre-production Ford Fiestas, the Team O’Neil Rally School used a fleet of Mk2 Golfs and Jettas as their front wheel drive training cars. I was quite impressed with them when I took a two day rally school. German cars are extremely solidly built, and though the Mk2 is a bit long in the tooth these days, at the time Team O’Neil used them parts were still common and cheap. After rallycrossing Michael Gallant’s Smyth Ute, I wouldn’t hesitate to play in the dirt with our Mk4 Jetta donor once all the bugs are worked out. The VR6 engine puts too much weight in the front for good handling. The 2.0 is okay, but the engine you really want is the 1.8T. It generates maximum torque at just 1700 RPM, providing great power whenever you want it at the mid-range RPMs you’ll be hanging out at during a rallycross run. We picked up our 2003 Jetta for just $600 and won’t have more than a grand in it by the time it’s fixed, so it’s a great cheap option.
3. Ford Focus
Michael already mentioned the SVT, but there are only so many of those. Our bare bones Ford Focus LX was one of the easiest cars to control under left foot braking that I’ve driven. It still has a multilink rear suspension, which helped provide that experience. Literally any old Focus can be a beast at a rallycross. Be careful of rocker panel rust, but you can find a relatively rust free example for pretty cheap. Our 2.0 LX motor was no powerhouse, especially with the automatic transmission, but it would’ve been plenty to spin the wheels, and beyond that point any extra power just throws the dirt farther away. We would’ve rallycrossed the hell out of that car if we’d kept it.
4. BMW E30/E36
The same thinking as the Miata applies here – these are great handling rear wheel drive cars. Get one with a fixed roof and save the expense of a separate hardtop. Like the VW, it’s German, and built like a Panzer tank. These are more common rally cars than you might expect, and of course the aftermarket for BMWs is huge. E30s are starting to increase in value, so the newer E36 might be a better buy. But don’t count out a beat up E30 325e. As Jalopnik‘s Patrick George will attest, it’s still a great car, and like the 2.5RS as compared to the WRX, the high torque of its 2.7 liter engine might actually work better for rallycross than the “more desirable” 325i. I don’t think the four cylinder 318i would have much of a disadvantage, and I love the 318ti hatchback.
5. Dodge/Plymouth Neon
Laugh if you want, but back in the day the first generation Neon was Dodge’s disposable race car. It’s tough, handles well, and as long as you skip the horrible three-speed automatic it puts plenty of power through a five-speed manual. Either motor, SOHC or DOHC is fine. The DOHC makes more power at the track, but low end grunt is more important in rallycross, and either engine makes enough power to spin the wheels. The motor mounts are basically made of Swiss cheese, they’re so flimsy, but stiffer upgrades are available, or you can just dump a bunch of window weld into the stock ones to stiffen them up a bit.
Even with these additions, our list of good cheap rallycross cars isn’t complete. These five, plus Michael’s choices, are probably the best and/or most common. But don’t let that stop you from taking your beat up old Firebird out to play, or a Saab, or a even a Civic wagon. I didn’t.
You need to be prepared for dirt to get everywhere, and the possibility of some new scratches and dings. But really, any cheap car that will pass tech inspection and you don’t care about beating up a little is good for rallycross. You don’t have to be in trophy contention to channel your inner Colin McRae and have a blast playing in the dirt.