Photos by Jacob Leveton.
The dream has you sliding sideways at dizzying speeds, so close to the wall that only the air pressure build-up between your bumper and the concrete keep you from making contact. Your steering is a full lock, throttle at full open, and Adrenalin gland at full capacity … you’re hooked on drifting. You wake up in a frenzy looking to score that first drift car.
Twelve years after Formula Drift launched as a professional drifting series here in the United States, the sport has quickly evolved into one of the most entertaining motorsports to watch. However, unlike drag racing or autocross, the sport requires a specific mechanical configuration to get started. While rear-wheel drive cars are coming back in style on local dealership lots, they’re becoming a bit rarer on local Craigslist or Autotrader posts as more enthusiasts pick them up to get into the sport. We decided to take a look at six chassis you may want to consider for your first slider — all of which can be made into great beginner drift cars for under $5k. After a few conversations with some Formula Drift pros, we put together a list of cars you can build and turn into fun sliding machines without breaking the bank … initially. We’ve divided the list into three sections:
The Classics: Containing the two most well-known starter drift chassis in the Nissan 240SX and the Toyota Corolla, these cars are very competitive out of the box, and there’s a reason they’re so well known as beginner drift cars.
The Cult Heroes: Recognized as alternatives to the classics but with known shortcomings for competitive drifting, the Mazda RX7 and Mazda Miata have become great cars that willfully generate some casual sideways fun.
The Rising Stars: While not normally considered as drift cars by beginners, the Toyota Cressida and BMW 3-series are quickly becoming the affordable drift chassis of today.
The Classics: Nissan 240SX And Toyota Corolla AE86
Chassis to look for: S13 (1989 to 1993) and S14 (1994 to 1998)
How to shop for your first 240SX: Known as the Nissan Silvia in Japan, where it helped jump-start tough drifting, the 240SX is a popular first drifter. Scouring your local auto classifieds, especially when using the S13 or S14 keyword, is likely to turn up someone’s abandoned project car or crashed-but-repaired dropout from the hobby that can be spotted by dents in the corner of the rear bumper or a mix of body panel colors. The odds of finding a stock, five-speed car in either chassis is relatively low, but regular people do own some of the survivors out there.
A manual transmission car equipped with the KA24DE DOHC engine will be preferred over the earlier KA24E SOHC engine. The S13 is often considered to be more desirable due to being around 200 pounds lighter than the S14. More affordable cars are likely to be automatics, which can be a blessing if bought by a mechanically-inclined individual who can afford the downtime to build the car properly with a full pedal swap, a task not for the casual weekend wrench-turner. While no S13’s came with a limited slip differential from the factory, all S14’s had the option to add an LSD from Nissan. Should you find a factory LSD-equipped S14, the chances of the LSD needing either a rebuild or replacement are fairly high. An S14 with ABS should be equipped with an LSD.
The top row shows a VQ35 swap and a more popular SR20DET. On the bottom row is another SR swap and a more exotic Skyline RB26 installation.
What engine should you look for? While Japan got plenty of cool engine options for the Silvia, our 240SX, the American market wasn’t so fortunate. The SR20DET motor from Japan that was readily available in both the S13 and S14, as well as the S15 chassis that the United States never got is a relatively easy swap, although not necessarily legal depending on your local state laws if you plan to drive the car on the streets. Swap kits for the Toyota 2JZ-GTE out of a Toyota Supra, Nissan VQ35 out of a Nissan 350z, Nissan Skyline RB series engines, and even Chevy LS motors are not just readily available, but probably already attempted by someone in your neighborhood. There are usually a number of SR20-swapped 240s on the market, but you’ll need to be sure the swap was done right. Drifting on a KA24DE is still an option to learn, at which point some basic maintenance like changing the timing belt, flushing the cooling system, and replacing any worn or cracked hoses may be all you need before you head to the track. After a while you will be faced with the ‘KA Turbo vs Swap’ dilemma.
What to modify first: Unlike some of the other cars we will cover, the Nissan 240SX is a fairly capable drift car out of the box. Once you add an LSD and fix any worn parts, your S13 or S14 should be ready to slide immediately. Adding a seat with better side bolstering will be appreciated once you get the hang of figure 8s, while updated suspension will also help with weight transfer. Beyond that, your first year of drifting should be spent on tires, gas, and track time, especially if your first chassis is an S13 or S14. Keep an eye on engine temperatures, and be sure the clutch-based cooling fan is working as this is a common KA failure point along with the thermostat.
Chassis to look for: AE86 Corolla GT-S (1985 to 1987)
How to shop for your first Toyota Corolla: The AE86 is pretty much the founding father of drifting and with the ‘Initial D Tax’ these cars are an expensive date that challenges our $5,000 buy-in. You want a GT-S model. AE86s are available as a coupe or hatchback and while the hatchbacks are the classic drifters, it’s getting hard to be too picky as AE86s are becoming harder to find.
Left to right, we have a 4A-GE 20-valve, original 4 AG-E, and a fully built turbocharged 4A-GE.
What engine should you look for? While the overall weight balance of the AE86 Corolla is one of the biggest compliments of the chassis, the overall lack of power is one of the most common complaints. Motor swap options are limited, especially without disturbing the weight balance. Turbo kits are always an option, but the 1.6-liter 4A-GE motor won’t go very far north of 300 horsepower, especially without fully built internals. The Honda S2000 F20/22A is a somewhat common swap as is the 20-valve version of the 4A-GE that we didn’t get in America.
The Corolla has received a JDM Levin conversion, an aggressive body kit, deep dish wheels, and a Honda S2000 swap under the hood.
What to modify first: Again, due to the age of this chassis, focus should be on maintenance and updating of worn components for many of these cars. Also similar to the 240SX, it’s highly likely that all seat bolstering is worn, and a racing seat will probably help with driver comfort. A car with a factory LSD will likely need a rebuild, while a car without a factory LSD will need one before you turn your first donuts. Once you have the car updated with maintenance items, many Corolla owners look for more steering angle early in the modification process, and switching to a non-power steering rack with added tie rod spacers will generally suffice.
The Cult Heroes: Mazda Miata And Mazda RX7
Chassis to look for: NA (1994 to 1997) and NB (1998 to 2005)
How to shop for a Mazda Miata: While often joked about as being a girly car, the Mazda Miata is one of the longest produced RWD cars on the market and can easily be made into a fun drift car. The NA chassis was first produced in 1989, the ’94 through ’96 cars came with a larger 1.8-liter engine that is much more desirable than the smaller, early 1.6-liter motor. There were many special edition cars produced including the R Edition, M Edition, and Special Touring Edition, most of which came with a Torsen LSD. Some early NA cars came with a Viscous LSD, but these cars will have a smaller, 6-inch differential compared to the larger, 7-inch differential that is used for the Torsen LSD. Torsen LSD’s will also lock more frequently and consistently compared to a Viscous LSD, which is what is needed in drift a car. NB cars have dipped in price recently and should also be considered as a first drift car, especially since all of them came with the larger 1.8-liter and are more likely to have lower miles.
Left to right we have a supercharged 1.6 liter, a turbocharged 1.8-liter, and a naturally aspirated 1.6.
What engine should you look for? As mentioned above, the 1.8-liter engine is definitely the most desirable option. First year 1.6-liter engines had known issues with the short nose crank, which is distinguished by four slots in the crank pulley. Known quick fixes involve JB Weld, Loctite, or welding the keyway to the crank pulley.
What to modify first: As the guy who has been most successful in Formula Drift in the Mazda Miata, we turned to Danny George to get some feedback on how to modify the Mazda roadster for drifting. Having owned more than 20 Miatas over the years, many of them purchased for under $2,000, George has seen these cars in nearly all conditions. He tells us that similar to the Nissan 240SX, the seats in the Miata weren’t known for their side bolstering. If sliding the roadster is in your plans from the get go, spend your money on a racing bucket that fits you snugly to keep you from moving around in the cabin.
Additionally, the Miata has very minimal steering angle out of the box, so tie rod spacers come highly suggested. Once you’ve added tie rod spacers, George also suggests spending decent money for grippy front tires as they will help with both steering feel and will wear much less than your rear tires. Since the Miata fender openings are a bit restrictive, you probably won’t be able to fit much wider than a 215 or 225 series tire under the front fenders, which keeps the tire options fairly affordable. “A Miata with spacers and maybe some nitrous to help give the car some balls is really all you need to have a really fun car,” George said.
A Miata with spacers and maybe some nitrous to help give the car some balls is really all you need to have a really fun car. – Danny George
Unfortunately, the short wheelbase can make the car twitchy to handle and hard to maintain long, high-speed drifts, so lower speed courses and open parking lots will be the most fun for the Miata. Big power tracks like Willow Springs on California or Evergreen Speedway in Washington may be tough to navigate, so pick your drifting course wisely.
Chassis to look for: FC3S Series 5 (1989 to 1991)
How to shop for a Mazda RX-7: There’s no denying that the FD3S RX-7 is one of the sexiest looking cars that rolled off of a factory showroom … unfortunately they’re still expensive. The FC3S chassis, which was produced from 1985 through 1991 was also a very capable drift car, and it can be found on a reasonable budget. Overall, the Series 5 model from 1989 to 1991 has much better wiring, brakes, and differentials across the board, and the turbocharged versions will have a more robust rear differential and axles. Luckily, FC3S parts are relatively easy to find in all shapes and sizes, so if your car doesn’t come with the drivetrain of your choice, you should be able to update it quite easily.
A Chevy LS1 is a great swap for torque mongers. Purists may opt for keeping it triangular and going with a triple rotor 20B.
What engine should you look for? Reliability was not the forte of the rotary engine, so many of the FC3S chassis you find will not have the OEM engine in the engine bay. We spoke with Justin Pawlak, who is the lone Formula Drift driver to podium in the FC3S chassis, and he suggested moving to the JDM Turbo II motor as soon as possible. “Almost any time I picked up an FC3S chassis, I always picked up a JDM Turbo II motor and swapped it in almost immediately. They can be had for relatively cheap, and produce 300h horses easily” says Pawlak. The swap is relatively straight forward, and if your car didn’t come with the Turbocharged motor from the factory, you can use the driveshaft from an Automatic RX-7 to hook the Turbo 2 transmission to your naturally-aspirated differential. Overall, Pawlak says that the N/A rear end is good for around 300 horsepower while the Turbo II rear end can handle around 400 horsepower before you run into issues. From here swap possibilities are abundant. You can keep things triangular and move up to a 20B three-rotor or go outside the box with an LS V8, SR20DET, or possibly a high-revving Honda S2000 plant.
What to modify first: The FC3S chassis came with a unique Dynamic Tracking Suspension System (DTSS or DTS System for short) that created passive rear steering under cornering loads. Unfortunately, this system can wreak havoc while drifting, so a DTSS eliminator kit is a must if you plan to slide the FC3S. Companies like Parts Shop Max, Racing Beat, and MazdaTrix among others all make DTSS eliminator kits for under $100, so fitting this into your budget shouldn’t be a problem.
Pawlak also suggested removing the rear sway bar, as the car will drift much better with it removed. Some people may prefer to remove the front sway bar as well, but he tells us that removing the rear sway bar is essentially a must to keep the car sliding. “With a Turbo II swap and a three-inch exhaust, you’ll be pushing around 250 horsepower. Add some 245 tires in back and the car is great to slide around most mid-sized tracks like Horsethief Mile.”
Rising Stars: BMW 3-Series and Toyota Cressida
BMW 3 Series
Chassis to look for: E36 (1996 to 1999) and E46 (2000 to 2005)
How to shop for a BMW 3-Series: Much like the Corolla, early E30 BMW’s are quickly rising in cost. In speaking with Formula Drift driver Chelsea Denofa, he was quick to suggest a late E36 six-cylinder car (328 or M3), many of which can be had for under $5,000 and with more power and creature comforts compared to an E30. “It blows my mind that E36’s are so much cheaper than E30’s, especially since they have lower miles and better suspension geometry,” Denofa tells us.
He also suggests the E46 chassis, much like his current car and the chassis Michael Essa used to win the Formula Drift championship in 2013. The suspension geometry in both chassis is quite conducive to drifting. Additionally, cars with the ‘winter package,’ which includes heated seats, will often include a limited slip differential as well. This is an easy way to reduce the overall cost to get your car sideways, so look for used cars with the package even if you don’t care about the temperature of your booty while driving.
What engine should you look for? Overall, the inline six cylinder motors will be much torquier and much easier to get sideways than the four-cylinder motors, although an E46 is almost guaranteed to have a six motor unless you find a rare 318. Denofa noted that the E36 engine handles boost much better. On the other hand, the E46 motors will have more horsepower and torque out of the box as well as double VANOS variable cam timing, and on tighter, low-speed drift tracks like PARC (Pat’s Acres Racing Complex) in Oregon or Adams Motorsport Park in Southern California, the E46 cars will be a great option. If you do go for a boosted option, the E36 M52 block can handle 400 to 500 horsepower without internal upgrades, so you’re in good hands.
Denofa ran this E36 era BMW in competition and the pros and cons of this chassis are more or less in line with the E46.
What to modify first: Like most German cars, the cooling system of both the E36 and E46 are relatively brittle from the factory. Swapping the radiator to an aftermarket aluminum radiator, ditching the factory water pump for an aftermarket water pump that uses an aluminum impeller, and installing a new thermostat is heavily suggested even before you take the car out for its maiden track voyage. The plastic impeller in the factory water pump is known to disintegrate under high load, distributing itself through the entire cooling system.
Assuming that your car came with a limited slip differential that is in good working order, Denofa suggests a bottle of nitrous for some instant horsepower and a seat to keep you planted in the car, especially since many BMWs have heavy leather seats. “You wouldn’t believe how many E46’s I’ve bought for under $3k,” says Denofa. “Strip it out, strap some nitrous on it, put a seat in there, and buy a garage full of tires, and you’re still in it for less than $5k.”
Chassis to look for: MX83 (1989 to 1992)
How to shop for a Toyota Cressida: Until recently, the Toyota Cressida was all but forgotten as a RWD option. Seen as the predecessor to the modern day Toyota Camry, the car has a lot in common with both the MA70 Supra and JZX80 Toyota Chaser, both of which have a ton of aftermarket support. In Japan, the JZX80 Chaser is often spoken about alongside the S13 and AE86 as one of the best starter drift chassis, so overlooking the American counterpart seems silly.
In the U.S., the Cressida didn’t have many different trim models, and was only sold with an automatic transmission, so this option should really only be considered if an auto-to-manual swap is part of your game plan. Luckily, Toyota’s 1JZ and 2JZ engines, including the Supra 2JZ-GTE, are relatively well documented swap options, so along with the transmission swap, you will likely be exponentially increasing your horsepower options with a bullet known for pushing over 500 horsepower without being opened up. Cressidas didn’t have factory limited slip rear differentials, so a welded diff, or swap to one of the factory Toyota 8-inch rear differentials from either an MA70 Supra or Corolla GT-S will be needed.
The Supra 's 2JZ-GTE is the ultimate combination of power and reliability.
What engine should you look for? The stock Cressida 5M-GE or 7M-GE motor isn’t known for handling power very well, and the Cressida automatic transmission is even less supportive of big power dreams. As mentioned previously, your best bet is to move to a 1JZ or 2JZ engine as soon as possible.
The Chaser is a JDM version of the Cressy and the JZX90 and JZX100 are popular platforms in Japan.
What to modify first: After adding a third pedal under the dash, and presumably a bit more power under the hood, one of the first modifications should be the steering rack from an older model MX73 Cressida. Hiro Sumida, who has driven a Cressida in competition for the past few years, informed us that the MX73 (1985 to 1988) has much more angle, and is a relatively easy bolt-on affair. On one side of the rack, a larger bushing is needed to hold the rack in place due to the rack being a different size, but several manufacturers make bolt-on kits that make this rack swap possible.
Additionally, the rear suspension can easily be fitted with coilovers from either the MA70 SUPRA or JZX90 Chaser, with several companies making adjustable arms for both chassis. One final tip from Sumida centers around the rear differential mounting. “The front of the Cressida differential is only held on by one mounting point, while most differentials have two mounting points. If you choose to weld the stock differential, or retrofit a limited slip, you should definitely look to fabricating a second mounting point in the front,” says Sumida.
While choosing your first drift car will be limited by budget, availability in your area, and personal preferences, we hope that this insight will help you widen your options and consider what, beyond the purchase of the car, you will need to consider before diving at those clipping points in earnest.