Drift cars don’t have to be expensive, and they definitely don’t have to be brand new

Drifting has its roots in Japan. Ask every petrolhead out there about drifting and he’ll tell you it’s something he attempted at least once in his life. Done right, drifting transcends the motorsport discipline status. Done right, drifting is art. Oh, and drifting has nothing to do with that neon underglow BS from The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift.

Contrary to what some might think, speed is not what primarily drives a drift. Sure, you need some amount of power to get the wheels spinning, but to drift properly, it also takes a lot of skill, rear-wheel-drive, and a light platform (a two-ton S-Class will drift, of course, but it’s way harder to handle).

A 50:50 (or close) weight distribution ratio between the axles helps the cause, too. And we get it. The right car doesn’t come cheap. But since physics applies equally to all earthly things, you don’t have to break the bank to find a good drift car. Some used vehicles will definitely do, so let’s explore the alternatives, shall we?

Mazda MX-5 (NB)

Top 10 Best Drift Cars That Won't Break The Bank
- image 893511

The world’s most loved sports car was presented in 1989 at the Chicago auto show and came to the U.S. market as a 1990 model.

The first-generation MX-5 ‘Miata’ (codenamed NA) tipped the scales at just over 2,000 pounds (around 907 kilos) and was fitted with a 1.6-liter engine twinned to a five-speed manual transmission.

No automatic was offered, so the mill’s 116-horsepower output was fully yours to play with. You also didn’t get power windows or aluminum wheels unless you specifically asked your dealer to include them in the final configuration.

In 1994, the 1.6-liter engine was tweaked to displace 1.8 liters. It now made 128 horsepower, but come 1996, it would churn out 133 ponies. Three years later, the second-gen 1999 Mazda MX-5 (NB) was introduced, and minor nips and tucks took the 1.8-liters mill power to 140 horses. A four-speed auto ‘box was also offered, alongside the crisp five-speed manual. A Mazdaspeed version of the Miata NB came in 2004 imbued with a turbo four-pot good for 178 horsepower and a torque-sensing limited-slip differential.

You can get a pre-loved Mazda MX-5 NB for around $6,000.

Mazda RX-7 (FD)

Top 10 Best Drift Cars That Won't Break The Bank
- image 893512
The RX-7 is, without a doubt, one of the greatest sports cars to come out of Japan.

It also came to be because the Toyo Kogyo Corporation was willing to risk fitting the then-new and thus unproven Wankel engine. That’s how the Mazda Cosmo became the brand’s flagship, lending a hand towards the inception of the Mazda RX-7 lineage.

We are, however, interested in the third iteration of the RX-7. Power came from a twin-turbo 1.3-liter Wankel rotary engine. The turbos were developed by Hitachi as part of a complex sequential setup: one turbo provided 10 psi of boost from 1,800 rpm to 4,000 rpm, while the second kicked in at 4,000 rpm, to maintain the same boost value to redline. In 1993, when the FD model debuted, it packed 252 horsepower, but by 2002, power went up to 276 horsepower. That aside, the RX-7 was light, nimble, rear-wheel-driven, and a charm to handle, so it quickly rose as the ultimate drifting machine for many aficionados.

Mind you, thought, the RX-7 FD is quite hard to find, but you can also go for the FC. Used FCs sell for around $6,500 to $9,000 depending on their state and version (convertibles are a tad cheaper).

Toyota Corolla AE86

Top 10 Best Drift Cars That Won't Break The Bank
- image 893513
The AE86 (aka Hachi-Roku, Japanese for ‘eight six’) is closely bonded to the one known as the Drift King: Keiichi Tsuchiya.

The AE86 derivative on the Toyota Corolla was introduced in 1983 with a 1.6-liter, double overhead cam four-cylinder engine that revved to 7,500 rpm and also churned out 124 horsepower routed to the rear wheels via a five-speed manual gearbox. The car’s reputation was also boosted by its appearance in the highly-popular ‘Initial D’ Manga/anime series from 1995, but it also backed than up on the road.

Often praised for its nimble handling, low weight (2,300 pounds or roughly 1,000 kilos), and perfectly balanced chassis, the Toyota AE86 quickly rose to become an automotive icon. And if you’re wondering what AE86 stood for, here’s the facts: it was powered by a 4A-GE engine, sat on an E-code chassis (E80), and it also was the sixth Corolla variant offered in the lineup at that time. Hence the AE86.

Prices for the AE86 vary a lot. Cheaper used models sell for $10,000, maybe even less for high-mileage ones, but the car’s icon status has boosted prices a lot. These days, you can get a mint-condition AE86 for as much as $23,000.

Toyota JZX-90

Top 10 Best Drift Cars That Won't Break The Bank
- image 893459

To talk about the Toyota JZX-90 means mentioning the Toyota Cressida. Offered in the U.S. until 1992, the Cressida (aka Toyota Mark II) didn’t die entirely. It got to live in Japan, where JDM versions were codenamed JZX-81, JZX-90, and JZX-100, all powered by, you’ve guessed it, JZ engines.

These were all six-cylinder powerplants, but the hottest of the bunch was undoubtedly the twin-turbo, 2.5-liter 1JZ-GTE mill inside the Mark II Tourer V.

The unit churned out 280 horsepower and the car itself was a declaration of sportiness, as it packed a reinforced body, sports suspension, and a bunch of optional features that included the likes of a Torsen limited-slip diff and five-speed manual transmission (for those who don’t want a four-speed auto doing their shifting). As of 2018, the Toyota Mark II JZX-90 can be legally imported in the U.S.

A drift-prep JZX-90 that’s been abused a lot can cost as much as $12,000, but a bone-stock model in tip-top condition might go well above $23,000.

Toyota MR2

Top 10 Best Drift Cars That Won't Break The Bank
- image 893509
When it debuted in 1984, the MR2 was Japan’s first-ever two-seat, mid-engine sports car.

In fact, the name told the whole story; MR2 stood for ‘Mid-Ship Runabout 2-Seater’, one that spun the rear wheels courtesy of a 4A-GELU twin-cam four-banger borrowed from the E80 series Corolla. The mill could be paired to either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission. Another engine offered in the MR2 was a 1.5-liter 3A-LU (pairable with the aforementioned gearboxes).

The former powerplant made 130 PS (128 hp) at 6,600 rpm, while the latter was good for just 83 PS (82 hp) at 5,600 rpm. Depending on the engine choice, the MR2 tipped the scales at either 940 kilos (2,072 pounds) or 920 kilos (2,028 pounds).

Top 10 Best Drift Cars That Won't Break The Bank
- image 893508

Come 1988, a more powerful, supercharged engine was dropped inside the MR2. It churned out 145 horsepower at 6,400 rpm, but it also bumped up the sports car’s weight to 2,494 pounds (1,131 kilos).

Prices for used MR2 models range from $8,000 to $10,500.

Read our full review on the Toyota MR2

Nissan 180SX

Top 10 Best Drift Cars That Won't Break The Bank
- image 893514

The Nissan 180SX was concocted as a sister model to the Silvia.

Nissan built and sold the 180SX in Japan only, between 1989 and 1998.

Despite being related to the S13 Silvia, the 180SX got its own dealership. Nissan would only sell it at its Nissan Bluebird Stores, while the Silvia could be purchased at Price Stores. The 180SX also had pop-up headlights and a fastback-shaped body.

Like many other Japanese cars, the 180SX hides its intricacies in its name, a reference to the CA18DET engine displacing 1.8 liters. The same unit was upgraded in 1991 and turned into a 2.0-liter mill – the SR20DET, but the 180SX name was retained. The new engine was offered in two flavors: naturally-aspirated and turbocharged. The first CA18DET-powered cars packed 175 horsepower, while 2.0-liter models churned out 202 horsepower and were fitted with larger brakes and limited-slip differentials.

Used Nissan 180SX models can be bought for a sticker ranging from $5,000 to $14,000.

Nissan 240SX (S13)

Top 10 Best Drift Cars That Won't Break The Bank
- image 893510
Based on the same S platform as the 180SX, the Nissan 240SX was offered in North America between 1989 and 1999.

It came to replace the 200SX with a 2.4-liter inline-four engine codenamed KA24E (KA24DE later on).

The 240SX S13 packed 150 horsepower and 152 pound-feet of twist and was updated in 1991 with 155 horsepower and 160 pound-feet of torque. Optionally, you could fit it with a limited-slip diff and Nissan’s HICAS four-wheel steering. Although it tipped the scales at around 2,700 pounds, the 240SX was considered by some a tad underpowered, but as we all know, a lot of tuners managed to solve that issue and turn their S13s into mean drifting machines.

You should be able to find a decent to good Nissan 240SX on the used car market for around $3,000 to $11,000. Keep in mind that quality and condition improves as the sticker goes up.

Nissan Skyline R32 GTS-T

Top 10 Best Drift Cars That Won't Break The Bank
- image 893462
Largely considered as the true precursor to the GT-R we know and love today, the Nissan Skyline R32 came to play ball in 1989.

It’s GT-R version was, indeed, all-wheel drive and benchmarked against the Porsche 959, and packed Nissan’s RB26DETT twin-turbo, 2.6-liter, inline-six powerplant churning out 276 horsepower.

However, Nissan also offered rear-wheel-drive R32s and one of the best you could get was the R32 GTS-T, basically the GT-R’s less popular cousin, which sat the top of the RWD R32 lineup. The GTS-T used a 2.0-liter RB20DET turbocharged straight-six engine rated at 212 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of twist. It’s also lightweight and equally important, very reliable.

You can get a GTS-T for $9,000, more or less, buy you’ll have to be patient and move quickly when the opportunity presents itself, as these cars are rather rare.

BMW E46 M3

2000 BMW E46 M3 review
- image 84218

The third-generation BMW M3 came in 2000. It debuted BMW’s automated manual gearbox (SMG), packed a straight-six like its predecessor, and was sold in no less than 85,000 units. That made it the most successful BMW M model to date. Plus, this means more cars you can pick from in the used market.

The E46 M3 was blessed with the S54B30 engine, a 3.2-liter unit derived from the E36 M3’s beating heart.

Packing 343 horsepower and 365 Newton-meters of torque (roughly pound-feet), the E46 could also be had with a six-speed manual by those who weren’t exactly head over heels with the paddle shifters offered by the SMG unit.

The rear axle was home to a limited-slip diff. The E46 also got a 360-horsepower CSL version, the race-ready M3 GTR, and a Touring (i.e. station wagon) prototype. But those are different stories for another time.

You can get your used E46 M3 for anything between $8,000 and $11,000.

Read our full review on the BMW E46 M3

BMW E36 M3

1992 - 2000 E36 BMW M3 Review
- image 84046

It’s pretty obvious that the BMW E36 M3 isn’t the most beautiful M-badged car we’ve known.

Nonetheless, the second iteration of the BMW M3 was a pure, old-school M car because it was light, agile, and had God-like handling abilities.

On sale between 1992 and 1999, it was initially powered by a straight-six, naturally-aspirated, 3.0-liter S50B30 engine churning out 286 horsepower. What’s more, the E36 M3 was also the first M3 to be offered with a sedan body to supplement the coupé and the convertible.

The facelifted E36 M3 got a bigger engine, that displaced 3.2 liters. Power went up to 321 horsepower, allowing the M3 to zap from 0 to 62 mph in 5.5 seconds. The rear wheels got the engine’s grunt through a six-speed manual. It’s also worth mentioning that BMW also offered the E36 M3 GT and the E36 M3 Compact prototype. The former was limited to just 350 units and had aluminum doors for less overall weight as well as stiffer shocks and an M strut brace. The latter came with Recaro seats and a roll bar, as well as a four-pipe exhaust, but never made it to production. The E46 M3 would pick up the exhaust configuration, though.

The E36 is cheaper, so decent models can be had for as little as $5,000.

Read our full review on the BMW E36 M3

Tudor Rus
Assistant Content Manager - Automotive Expert - tudor@topspeed.com
Tudor’s first encounter with cars took place when he was only a child. Back then, his father brought home a Trabant 601 Kombi and a few years later, a Wartburg 353. At that time, he was too young to know how they worked and way too young to drive them, but he could see one thing – each of them had a different ethos and their own unique personality. As time went on, he started seeing that in other cars as well, and his love for the automobile was born.  Read More
About the author
What do you think?
Show Comments
Car Finder: