Pretty much since the invention of the automobile, people have been making them faster, prettier, louder … and although a little tail-out action is fun, it has always been just that … something fun. Today though, the sport of drifting is big, but to really get in to it, you need the best drift cars … these are just some of the most popular best drift cars for beginners.
The History of Drift (Driftory?)
When the automobile was first invented, anyone using one on a public highway had to follow a man walking in front of it, waving a big red flag to signify the danger. For a long time, it was thought that if you went over 15 mph, you’d die.
Of course, that notion was soon dispelled, and from that day forward, humankind has pushed to reach ever faster speeds, and as a result, big horsepower rules the day. Yet … having 5, 6 or even 900+ horsepower there’s only so much that a car or tire can take before it loses traction and ‘lights up’ the tires … burnout, donut, smoking, elevens … what ever you call it, it’s caused by one thing – lack of traction.
Controlling a car in a straight line while smoking the rear tires is one thing, even that can get a little … wayward … but add the element of corners in to the equation, and the fun begins. The old 60s muscle cars were great for that sort of thing … very little traction (because chassis’ were so poor and tires weren’t that grippy) and hundreds of horsepower meant that the slightest prod of the loud pedal would be enough to get it sideways.
Drifting was born.
A racer will tell you that drifting a car around a track means just one thing … a slow lap time, albeit rather a flamboyant one, and driving like that on public highways will get the attention of local law enforcement, so what do you do?
Find a load of other like-minded people where laptimes aren’t the be all and end all, where style and flamboyance is positively encouraged, and head down to the local raceway. Simple.
If any of you have ever seen in-car footage of a professional rally driver, specifically their feet, you’ll know that they’re working the pedals like Michael Flatley on crack – these pro drivers could out-dance anyone if they chose to.
It’s similar for drift drivers – they aren’t just punching the gas pedal and hoping for the best, they’re perfectly timed and choreographed movements, using a combination of all three pedals, sometimes all at the same time. Sure, having a decent amount of horsepower helps, but some of these guys could work their magic in the most standard of compacts. Technique is key.
There’s plenty that you can do to a standard car to make it more drift-able, from stiffening the rear suspension, changing the front anti-roll bar, or even just over inflating the rear tires (but that isn’t recommended for regular use), the key thing is to make the rear-end more ‘loose’.
If you’re looking at getting a drift on, on a bigger scale, then choosing the right drift car is important, there are a couple of mods that you should make as a very basic start – suspension and diff.
There’s a lot of confusion over suspension setup, perhaps because the drift scene is so amateur friendly, but this seems to be the accepted setup:
A decent set of coilovers is a must, you want slightly stiffer springs than you’d have on your road car, but not too stiff as this will encourage the car to ‘hop’ rather than slide. Front suspension should be slightly stiffer than the rear, and you need around 3 – 4 degrees of negative camber upfront (with as close to zero at the rear as you can get).
Front geo and setup is important, because it’s that which holds the drift – everything pivots around the front end, the simple way to think about it is set the front end up for road race, set the rear end up for drag race.
A limited slip differential (LSD) is really a minimum requirement, better still, a fully-locking diff is the ideal if you can afford it.
Finally, the minimum requirement is affordability, both in terms of purchasing and repairing … you WILL definitely crash it.
Understanding what makes for the best drift car is difficult … this isn’t just about having too much horsepower and hanging on to it, there is a science.
Also, using the catch all term of ‘drift car race’ is pretty lazy … that’s like just saying car racing … there’s many different formulas, types of race, types of race car … one size definitely doesn’t fit all. To a degree, your choice of car may be dictated by the actual type of drifting that you want to get in to – some cars are better for slower, wider drifting, whereas others are more nimble and allow for direction changes much easier.
Some of that is to do with the weight of the car (although all of these will be stripped out and lightened), put you also need to consider dynamics of the car, and physics … a long wheelbase just can’t turn as quickly as a shorter one, and then we have to look at inertia.
Once you’ve got the car, the learning really begins … like I say, this isn’t about giving it plenty on the gas pedal and hanging on, there’s a whole stack of techniques to learn like ‘clutch kicking’. The best advice I could give you is to take some professional lessons – so many race schools are now offering drift lessons, and it’s surprising just what you won’t know. Besides, understanding how to control an out of control car will do wonders for your road driving.
The Best Drift Cars
The following nine cars seem to be the most popular, I’ll try and highlight a bit about them, and why or what makes them the popular choice for a beginner’s drift car.
The 240SX aka S13 is legendary in the drift-o-sphere – for so many reasons.
In fact, so many people are looking to purchase the 240SX for drifting, that prices for used models are on the increase, with that said, you can still pick them up for between $2,000 – $3,000, so they’re cheap enough. But just what makes them so popular?
They’re pretty simple underneath – multi-link suspension with a MacPherson strut means simplicity, and no need for heavily modified or different subframes – fit some decent suspension bushes are you’re halfway there (with a great set of coilovers of course). The unibody design means lightweight (relative) which also helps to keep it nimble, and the 55/45 weight distribution is near perfect for drifting.
Parts are plentiful. Replacement standard parts and aftermarket tuning parts are very popular, which makes them easy to get hold of, and of course … well priced (cheap!). You can pick up a used motor for around $400 and easily damaged parts are super easy to find second hand … did I mention … you WILL crash it.
There’s also the ‘swapability’ factor … lots of companies do off the shelf conversions for all manner of things … prefer a big American V8 hauling it along? Yes … you can buy a kit to do that. Same with most of the Japanese big horsepower motors – all straight from the crate, in one box.
Summary: Cheap to buy, cheap to repair and quite literally thousands of parts available, whether they’re standard, upgraded or a completely different manufacturer. Big horsepower, lightweight … perfect drift king.
Let’s just get this out the way … it’s a great drift car, with a bit of experience, but those looking to learn in one should potentially give it a miss.
Why? They’re a bit rarer than things like the 240SX, which means parts aren’t as easily available, which makes the parts a bit more expensive, and if you really want high-quality, high-horsepower or performance parts, then they’re coming from Japan – expensive and time consuming.
The RX also takes a bit of getting used to with the power … yes, they can make some good bhp, but it’s quite a high revving motor, and most novices prefer the low down grunt of a V8 – which is why the 240SX has manufacturers supplying kits to swap them out.
Sticking with the engine for a moment … they can be quite fragile, and as a rotary, you’ll need someone that specializes in them, rather than just a regular engine guy when it does eventually pop.
With that all said, get that rotary engine singing, and the rear sliding and very little will live with it on a good day … perhaps the best engine noise yet (and that’s coming from someone that makes his living with V8s).
Summary: More expensive to buy and repair, parts aren’t quite as readily available, however, the Mazda RX-7 makes for a great drift car once you’ve completed your apprenticeship!
This really is one of the cars that started it all … big American muscle with too much horsepower for the available grip, and even heading in to the modern generation, it’s still a favorite with the drifters.
For those of you wondering whether it’s up there with the other favorites … I have three words … Ken Block’s Hoonigan. You see, Pony cars are known throughout the world for their ability to turn tires in to smoke, and there’s an abundance of tuning parts, from as many different manufacturers and suppliers as you’re likely to find anywhere.
Whether you upgrade your own motor, or buy a 1,000+ hp straight crate motor, you can’t walk down the block without tripping over a ‘Stang tuning company. Prolific. And it isn’t just powertrain … pretty much every part is available off the shelf, from an old classic right through to modern day monsters.
If you’re after American muscle, you won’t find better.
Summary: More American than the Stars & Stripes, legendary horsepower, you can trip over parts just about everywhere, but … if you’re on a tight budget, the purchase cost alone could steer you toward something Japanese or European.
Manufactured between 2002 – 2009, the ‘Zed’ is a popular choice for drifters – mainly because even out of the box, it’s a pretty solid drift car – a revvy V6 3.5 liter motor with 285 hp, manual transmission and RWD, it even has a limited slip diff (LSD) as standard.
Weight (in standard form) is a bit of an issue, but that’s no problem for the drifter – just junk anything and everything that doesn’t have a use, easy. The motor is bulletproof as standard, it will run on forever with a bit of maintenance, and finding extra horsepower is easy enough, providing you have deep pockets.
285 hp is plenty enough to get started. As your confidence grows, you may want to up that a bit, and 500 hp is achievable, without sacrificing too much reliability. But it’s all forced induction in the shape of turbo or supercharging – you could spend as much as $10,000 on a high-end turbo kit, even a cheap one will set you back around $3,500 – $4,000.
Summary: A great drift car, with enough power as standard to be usable, and decent looks.
BMW M3 E36
When the E36 was first launched, it seemed to take a huge step forward over other performance sedans, the handling was sharp, the naturally aspirated 3.0 liter straight-6 motor was smoother than silk, it made close to 300 hp, and it was just … every performance car enthusiast wanted one.
Thanks to its age (manufactured between 1992 – 1995), the E36 M3 is cheap, both in terms to buy and repair, I guess my only concern with an old M3 is that by their very nature, they’ve been driven hard … it’ll be high mileage, with a great many of those miles being clocked up with the gas pedal firmly wedged in to the floormats.
Putting aside the mileage and the nature of that mileage, they’re still reliable, still deliver the horsepower, and are pretty cheap to repair, WHEN you crash it. The added bonus is that the Germans were really pushing the engineering thing back then, so they were built to take some punishment without turning in to a money pit.
Tuning parts are still available, there’s plenty of suspension kits and power mods that you can do, and although they don’t look like a traditional drift car, I think that even 25 years later, they still look pretty sporty.
Summary: European engineering at its finest, near 300 hp as standard, LSD and manual 5-speed transmission all-in … a great starter car to learn to drift in, and prices are low. The E36 M3 is definitely one of the best drift cars for beginners in Europe – perhaps more so than the legendary 240SX.
Nissan Skyline R33 GTS-T
For me personally, this was the car that got me hooked on Japanese horsepower … I’ve seen them on a rolling road dyno making 1,600+ hp, and not popping the engine.
Straight from the factory, these were great for tail-happy driving – 280 hp from the straight-6 turbocharged engine, driving through a 5-speed manual transmission and limited slip diff – what wasn’t to like?
The great thing about the R33 turbo was that more horsepower was easily available – over 400 hp with just bolt on mods, that’s before we start getting in to mechanical mods or turbo chargers that could suck an elephant in. Better still, the engine was strong – virtually un-burstable unless you start pushing 600+ horsepower.
They’re popular car … they have a bit of a cult following, but drifters love them, and tuners do to, which means parts are in plentiful supply, the knowledge base is incredible, and they won’t cost you a body part to make them faster or cooler … could this be the perfect drift car?
Summary: Cheap, powerful and rugged with a dependable engine, even with some big bhp numbers. I love the R33 GTS-T … the look of it is right … there’s nothing out of place, and lines give it an aggressive look that others can’t match.
Toyota Corolla AE86
The Corolla, or is that Hachi-Roku, Levin, Trueno or Sprinter? For it’s been known by all of those names, not surprising really as it’s getting on for 36 years old. True fans know it as the AE86, which basically signifies the rear-wheel drive, 1.6 liter version.
This is the car that really started the drift sport proper … forget the Mustang and muscle cars … they just happened to like going sideways, whereas the AE86 was the firm favorite of the Japanese racers hooning around the mountain trails, sideways.
They were simple, lightweight, rear-wheel driven and around 120 hp on-tap, which in today’s money is pretty poor, but back then … it worked.
From a legend, to an almost ran … these aren’t that popular for drifting today, for two reasons … the power just can’t be had easily, and the price. The AE86 is getting collectible, finding one that has been unmolested & standard is nigh-on impossible, and even those that have been converted to a drift car don’t really work … the drift style needed to drive it is so far removed from today’s cars that people just can’t drive them efficiently.
Yes, in their day, they were the drift car of choice, much like the 240SX or 350Z is today – it had just enough power, was beautifully balanced, and the powerband was perfect for novice drivers. Today though … parts are increasingly difficult to get hold of (because of the age) and just like the purchase price, they’re expensive. If you can find a good example, buy it and store it somewhere warm & dry, because you can be sure it will only go up in value.
Summary: From the darling of the drift world to the long-in-the-tooth also ran. Finding a great example is difficult, and you’ll have to spend the dollars to get it, and to make it work. With so many better (and cheaper) choices, you’re heading in the wrong direction with the AE86, unless you’re a hardcore fan of vintage Japanese.
Mazda MX5 Miata
What can be said of the little Miata that hasn’t already been said? Cheap, lightweight, plentiful parts, rear-wheel drive … this is one of Japan’s finest small sports cars.
The MX5 Miata is the perfect cheap drift car for beginners – it has around 140 horsepower, which is just enough, it’s rear-wheel drive, and the whole ethos surrounding it was to make a lightweight sports car that handled.
Yes, it’s always nice to have a bit more power under the gas pedal, and that’s one of the drawbacks of the Miata … it’s naturally aspirated so finding an extra 100+ bhp is expensive … the only real way to do it is take the forced induction route, which will run in to thousands.
The aftermarket network is huge, which means cheap parts and great support, plus it’s extremely well built, solid and reliable, so if you’re just dipping your toe in the water, then it’s a great introduction to drifting. Buying a Miata can be just as cheap … I’ve seen these go for as little as $2,000, and even adding in a bit extra to get it right, you’re still way under the $5,000 mark.
Summary: If you’re looking for the perfect starter car for drifting, the Miata has to be on the list. Sure, it’s not going to take you to professional levels, but you’ll have great fun learning, without spending the price of a small condo in doing so. Cheap fun, super reliable.
Back to the American muscle.
The GTO, or Goat as it’s affectionately known, is cheap American muscle and makes for a great drift car, thanks to the big thumping V8 under the hood – just make sure you get the manual transmission.
It’s popular for a number of reasons … it’s cheap, has decent torque, and the long wheelbase means that it isn’t too ‘twitchy’ – perfect for holding long, slow drifts, but not quite agile enough if you’re running round a tight circuit.
There’s a huge aftermarket network, and you can’t walk around any neighborhood without falling over parts … these things fall out of the trees they’re that popular. What started life as a touring sedan, makes for a pretty hot drift car, providing you get the basics right.
700+ hp is pretty achievable, and you won’t need to sell your kids to get there, all in all, it’s a great starter car thanks to the lazy power delivery and stable chassis.
Summary: An ideal starter drifter … lots of power on tap and long wheelbase makes it more controllable and easier to hold a long drift. Parts are super cheap, and it will never cost much to repair, after the inevitable crash.
Learning to Drift
I’m guessing most of us at one point in our life has gotten a little tail-happy with a car, we like to think we’re the next Ken Block, but the reality is that driving sideways is pure art – I’m more kindergarten refrigerator drawing than Van Gogh.
Don’t be tempted to try drifting on the highways, the police don’t like (I speak from experience).