As petrol-heads, we all universally love certain things. There is the speed of a fast car , the steering of a proper sports car , and the look of well-designed exotics. We also tend to love the thrill, adrenaline and camaraderie that comes with a track day. In fact, of all the great things that car lovers do, I think the track day may be the single greatest combination of everything that we love. You have the friends, you have beautiful cars to look at, and now thanks to the proliferation of track-day-specific cars, you can have all the speed and handling you want without owning something with a Ferrari badge.
After my recent track experience at the Flyin’ Miata summer camp, I have found myself obsessed with lightweight track-ready cars. Lots of these machines are relatively cheap in terms of a track car, and many of them you can even build yourself with a few friends and few weekends in the garage.
I decided that I would search through the collection of cars currently available and pick out five of the best. I made sure to cover cars from all price brackets, and I included cars that you can build yourself, as well as fully-built turn-key cars that you just pick up and flog immediately. I also wanted to stick to pure track cars, and I stayed away from the track-prepped versions of standard road cars.
Take a peek at my choices and tell me what you guys think. There are lots of other great choices out there, so make sure to let me know which ones you think I should have included. They make the cut next time.
Continue reading to find out what are five of the best track-day cars
When it comes to the proliferation of true track toys, it is hard to argue against the prominence of the Lotus Seven. Of all the authorized re-creators of the Seven, Caterham is the best known and most prolific. Currently, there are no less than nine different Caterham Seven models split between the U.S. and the UK markets. For our purposes, we are sticking to the cheapest and lightest Caterham you can currently get on U.S. shores, the Seven 280.
The Seven 280 is powered by a 1.6-liter Ford engine that produces 140 horsepower. That may not seem like a lot, but it is enough to move this tiny machine from 0 to 60 mph in less than five seconds, and it’s good for a top speed of 120 mph. You don’t need a lot of horsepower when your car only weighs 1,200 pounds.
The style is old-school, but so is the driving dynamic. If you want a great way to get into the track car scene, the Caterham makes a great turn-key option. With a starting price of $33,900 it isn’t the cheapest thing on this list, but it hard to argue with the legacy or pedigree of this machine.
Exocet – Budget Build-it-yourself
If you weren’t aware, I have driven the Exocet and it is amazing. The car is based on a simple external frame like other track days cars, but it has been designed to exactly fit a Miata roller skate. This means that the car handles and drives exactly as a normal Miata, it just happens to weigh about 1,000 pounds less than its donor car.
By going with a design like this, the Exocet is not only incredibly cheap to build, but it is also extremely easy. If you have ever been interested in building a kit car or track car, the Exocet is one of the best places you can start. With the exception of an engine hoist, you don’t really need any tools beyond what would be easily found in the garages of most petrol-heads anyways. You simply disconnect the roller skate from under a Miata, plumb the Exocet body for fuel and brakes, than drop the Exocet frame on the Miata running gear. Wire it all up, install a few things like seats, fuel tank and a steering wheel, and you are basically done. Exomotive says the whole project can be done in around 100 hours. So a few long weekends with some friends and some wrenches.
When it all gets finished, you are left with a car that is extremely fast, very forgiving, and easy to drive. It can even be made road legal in several states with nothing more than addition of some lights. The base price for an empty shell kit from Exomotive will run you $6,500. The most expensive one will only cost you $8,000. Add in a wrecked Miata for less than $2k and you can be in your very own Exocet for under $10,000. Sounds like a bargain to me.
Of course if you don’t want to build one, Flyin’ Miata will happily build you a turn-key machine for a bit more cash.
Catfish – Beauty
The Catfish is another kit car based on the Miata, but unlike the raw and focused and Exocet with its minimal bodywork and exposed chassis, the Catfish pays special attention to visual presence.
While the Catfish does feature a similar tube-frame chassis construction as the other cars on this list, it also comes with a full exterior body that has been created from a form of composite fiberglass called woven S-Glass that uses carbon reinforcements in key areas. The result of using this is an extreme light weight. The entire side of the car is one single panel and it only weighs 20 pounds.
That body is not only light, it is incredibly attractive. The sleek shape of the Catfish is incredibly modern and unique, while still maintaining a feel that is very classic in regards to its proportions. The model seen here is Flyin’ Miata’s personal test car and it has been painted in an incredible color of blue that really shows off the shapes and curves of the car.
Since it takes any Miata drivetrain from 1990 to 2005, your traditional engine choices are a 1.6- or 1.8-liter four-cylinder. There is room for the turbocharger and necessary plumbing that comes with either the stock Mazda speed motor or an aftermarket turbo kit. Flyin’ Miata’s Catfish is fitted with a full FM II turbo system on a stock 2001 engine. The results are exciting to say the least.
Just like the Miata, building the Catfish is fairly simple, thanks to a chassis that was designed to accept the full Miata running gear with no major modifications. The Catfish does move the seating position slightly, and the weight balance is not quite identical, so it does feel different to drive than either the Miata or the Exocet. It does maintain a similar weight profile to the Exocet, however, with their first example at the SEMA show weighing in at 1,550 pounds.
Cost for the Catfish starts at $13,900 for the base kit from Bauer Limited Production. The car comes in pieces with all the body panels covered in a gel-coat that is ready to be sanded and painted. There are several more options for the car that you can add on, including DOT-approved glass for the windshield assembly. You will also still need a donor Miata drivetrain as well, adding to the cost.
Just like the Exocet, you can build this thing yourself, or have a professional handle it. Flyin’ Miata and two other companies are currently authorized to build and sell the Catfish.
Ariel Atom 3 Supercharged – Brawn
Thanks to a piece on the television show Top Gear, as well as the viral YouTube video of Jeremy Clarkson’s face being blown away, the Ariel Atom is likely one of the most well-known cars on this list. Much like the Exocet, the Atom is an exoskeleton style car that uses the chassis and framing as the body of the car. There is minimal body work, and all the focus has been placed on speed.
Where the Exocet uses an unmodified Miata drivetrain to keep costs and assembly issues to a minimum, the Ariel Atom is almost completely custom in its manufacture, needing only a donor engine and transmission. Unlike the rather wimpy stock motors used in the other cars in this list so far, the Atom uses something with a bit more grunt. In the U.S. all Ariel Atoms use the 2.4-liter engine and six-speed manual transmission from a Honda Civic Si. They also mount that engine in the rear, giving it a very 911-esque weight distribution.
Now in stock form, that engine is good for a bit over 200 horsepower, and it will rev willingly and quickly. It is quite the peach of an engine. But stock isn’t good enough for a machine like the Atom, and so Ariel offers an upgrade kit that adds a supercharger and pushes that horsepower number to 300. If you take a close look around, that makes the Atom Supercharged the most powerful car in our list.
Sadly that power does come with a price. The base cost of an Atom, before any extras like that fancy supercharger is $56,480. Once you add some of the go-faster goodies like the supercharger, upgraded brakes, and bigger wheels and tires you are suddenly staring at more than $60k. The Atom is also not really a looker, either. The short, low and aggressively pointed nose afforded by having no engine in front of the driver is certainly interesting; it looks like a modern interpretation of an open-wheel racer for the road, but I wouldn’t exactly call it pretty.
Ah, the BAC Mono. This is what happens when you give someone a blank check and tell them to create greatness. It has everything you could ever want in a track-day car. It looks incredible, it is very lightweight, and aside from the Atom, it has more power than every car here.
Providing thrust is a 2.3-liter four-cylinder that started life with a Ford badge, but it has been taken to Cosworth to be completely rebuilt. The result is a mind-blowing 280 horsepower, and it is all naturally aspirated. No turbo or supercharger here, just pure engineering and petrol. Making sure all that engine power gets to the rear wheels is a Formula 3-spec six-speed sequential transmission from Hewland that feeds into a Powerflow limited-slip diff.
For maximum speed and handling abilities, that engine is mounted mid-ship directly behind the driver, but still in front of the rear wheels. That gives the Mono a very neutral 48/52 front to rear weight bias. 0 to 60 times are quoted at 2.8 seconds, and BAC claims that with enough road, you will hit 170 mph. All of this in a single-seat open-cockpit toy. It is marvelous.
The drivetrain isn’t the only part of the car with true racing pedigree. The suspension is a full pushrod setup in all four corners, just like you get in a Formula 1 car.
The Mono is all things to all track day toys. It has speed, it has handling, and it has looks that could kill. It is essentially perfect, but that perfection comes at a cost. BAC has authorized a handful of Monos to be built for the American market at a starting price of $130,000 each. With a handful that price will rise very quickly.
Nobody said perfection would be cheap.