Drifting is one of the most expensive hobbies that you can think of. It isn’t hard to see why. In essence, you’re beating on a piece of machinery until it inevitably gives up. Then there are all of the other necessary accouterments like tires, brakes, constant oil changes, etc, etc. Everything adds up quickly when you’re getting sideways and a lot of that is dependent on the car that you choose to run.
Enthusiasts have made drift cars of pretty much everything under the sun at this point. There’s a lot of variety, some are expensive and some are cheap. For the purpose of this article, we’ll be focusing on the cheap ones.
Just because a car is cheap doesn’t mean that it won’t work as a drift car. In fact, they’re typically better for beginners. Drifting a hoopty removes the fear of failure that the guys running 800 hp FD RX-7s likely feel. In this guide, we’ll outline five of the best cheap drift cars that you can buy for under $10,000.
Best Cheap Drift Cars – Considerations
As with any secondhand car buying experience, it is important to know what you’re looking for in a cheap drift car before honing in on a model. There are some general indicators that make some cars better than others for drifting. Most of these indicators revolve around drivetrain configuration, transmission choice, chassis dynamics, and power delivery.
Best Engine Configuration for Drifting
It is pretty much undisputed that a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive setup is the ideal drivetrain set up for drifting. That has a lot to do with how weight transfers through a vehicle’s chassis when traction is lost. It is actually pretty easy to explain how that works.
It is extremely important for a drift car to have good front-end grip. The rest of the chassis follows the direction that the front wheels are pointed. There are a few ways that you can improve front-end grip. Arguably, the two most important factors are front tire width/compound, and the weight that sits between them. In a front-engine configuration, there is a lot of weight sitting between the front tires, pushing them down into the asphalt. That increases front-end traction and makes it easier to keep the car moving the way that you want it to when you lose rear traction. However, weight over the front wheels can also cause a front-engined car to understeer.
The inverse is true for the rear. Since you want the rear end to break loose as easily as possible, you want less rear traction and therefore less rear weight. Obviously, it is important for the rear to have some traction, as that is where your forward momentum comes from. But, that little bit of traction doesn’t have to come from additional weight. It can come from your tire compound or size.
With all of that out of the way, those two requisites aren’t set in stone. In fact, mid-engined cars can drift very well too. They’re just harder to control oftentimes. As the engine’s weight moves further back, the center of mass of the car also moves towards the rear. That presents all kinds of new handling characteristics, especially when drifting.
Best Drivetrain Configuration for Drifting
The drivetrain is arguably the most important factor when shopping for an affordable drift car. It’s so important, in fact, that I’d go as far as to say that anything that isn’t rear-wheel drive isn’t even worth considering at this price range. There’s a big reason for that.
With a rear-wheel-drive (RWD) car, power is sent from the engine, through some other components including the differential (we’ll get to that in a bit), and to the rear wheels. Drifting is a sport that requires a car to be propelled by at least the rear wheels from a physics standpoint. Since the front wheels of a RWD car are only used for steering inputs, it is easier to break traction than it is in an all-wheel drive (AWD) car.
It is, however, possible to drift an AWD car, it just typically requires more power to do so. Cheap cars tend to have less horsepower than more expensive ones. In fact, none of the cars on our list have over 350 horsepower from the factory. The less horsepower your car has, the more difficult it is to break traction generally. That is yet another reason why RWD is the best drivetrain configuration, especially for someone just learning the ropes.
Drift Car Chassis Dynamics
If you’ve ever attended a drift event, you’ve no doubt seen quite the spectrum of cars. You’ve probably seen quite a few gutted Nissan 240SXs with an overall curb weight of less than a Pringles can. On the other hand, you’ve also probably seen a few LS swapped mid-90s Volvo station wagons with a full interior and some bricks in the back for good measure. Weight is a very important factor in drifting, but everyone has their own preferences.
Lightweight cars, like the Nissan 240SX, Mazda Miata, and BMW E30, tend to be more nimble on their feet. That is because the engine has to do less work to lug the vehicle’s (and your) weight around. Lighter cars are able to change direction quickly and, most of the time, accelerate faster out of a drift. They also need less power to break traction as there isn’t as much mass pushing them into the ground. Extremely light cars can have the issue of being twitchy and unpredictable at high speeds, as there isn’t as much keeping them planted.
Heavier cars, like Dodge Challengers, Chevy Camaros, and Ford Mustangs, are also very capable drift cars. They just have dramatically different characteristics than lighter cars. Heavy cars with lots of torque and horsepower will gain a lot more inertia at speed than lighter cars. This means that they are able to sustain a high-speed slide easier and more predictably. A heavy drift car won’t respond as quickly to steering inputs or direction changes as a lighter car. They also need heaps and heaps of power and torque to keep the weight moving.
Best Transmission For Drifting
Like the drivetrain discussion, there’s really only one kind of transmission that’ll truly get the job done when it comes to drifting: a manual transmission. In general, most performance engines are designed to deliver the most power near the middle or high up in the rev range. It is important to stay in this “power band” when drifting to maintain a slide. With an automatic transmission, you don’t typically have the ability to stay in the most effective rev range. That’s because the vehicle usually upshifts immediately after the engine reaches that point.
You’ll often hear drift cars banging the limiter while sliding through long corners and there’s a reason for that. With a manual transmission, you have complete control in determining which gear is optimal for a given turn. That allows you to choose, and stay in, a gear where torque and power delivery are at a maximum level. Having a clutch pedal also gives manual drivers a distinct advantage. A skill known as “clutch kicking” is one of the most popular ways of initiating a drift. This entails rapidly depressing and letting off the clutch and immediately getting on the power. This allows the rear end to break traction from a rapid onset of torque and power. Since automatics don’t have a clutch pedal, initiating a drift is a bit more difficult.
While it is definitely harder to drift a car with an automatic transmission, it is possible. That is especially true if a vehicle has a sequential automatic that will allow you to stay in a chosen gear without interfering or upshifting.
Best Differential For Drifting
Differentials are a major factor in terms of how well a car can drift. In very basic terms, a car’s differential is responsible for transmitting and splitting engine power and torque to the wheels. Different differentials deliver power to the wheels in different ways. The two most common differential configurations are open and limited-slip differentials.
Open differentials allow the wheels to rotate at different speeds when cornering. They are also designed in a way that provides engine power to the wheel with the least amount of traction. That is good for dry-condition road driving, but bad for low traction situations. That also applies to drifting. When one of the rear wheels loses traction, an open diff stops sending power to the other wheel. This pretty much stops a drift in its tracks.
Limited slip differentials (LSDs) are the other form of differential, often found in performance cars. LSDs work by shifting a bit of power to the wheel with most traction while also forcing the wheel with less traction to keep up better. This is beneficial from a drifting standpoint because no matter what, both wheels will receive at least some power. That allows both wheels to break traction.
Best Cheap Drift Cars
Now that we’ve covered the basics, here’s our list of some cheap cars that fulfill a lot of the criteria. Most of the cars on this list have been brought up in conversations about this topic for ages.
Best Cheap Drift Cars – 2002-2005 BMW E46 330i
Engine: M54B30 Naturally Aspirated Straight-6
Horsepower / Torque: 231 hp / 221 lb-ft
Average Price: $2,500 – $6,000
As older BMWs are starting to fetch a premium these days, the E46 is perhaps the last 3-Series chassis that you can still get for a reasonable price. That probably won’t be the case for too much longer. BMWs have always been a solid choice for drift applications, especially in Europe. That’s because they satisfy a lot of conditions that generally make a car good for sliding.
The 330i is the most performance-oriented 3-Series model in the E46 lineup behind the M3. It’s 3.0L M54B30 inline-6 pumps out enough power to get it sideways with relative ease while also delivering power very linearly. It also has near-perfect 50/50 weight distribution, adding further to its predictability while drifting.
You’ll want to find a 6-speed example of one if you intend on drifting, as you’ll need to stay high in the revs to reap the benefits of the M54B30’s dual-VANOS variable valve timing. While the 330i has enough power to get it moving under its own weight, you’ll probably want some engine upgrades in the future to give it some more oomph.
Luckily, the E46 aftermarket community is massive. An LSD upgrade should be first on the priority list. The E46 M3 was the only E46 model that came with a factory LSD, so you’ll need to find an aftermarket option. The M54 is a notoriously strong and resilient engine that is very receptive to upgrades. Forced induction is a very common upgrade to E46 drift cars and M54 turbo kits are widely available by a lot of aftermarket vendors. If you are interested in additional E46 330i performance mods, check out this M54 Upgrade Guide.
Best Cheap Drift Cars – 1997-2004 Lexus GS300
Engine: 2JZ-GE Naturally Aspirated Straight-6
Horsepower / Torque: 225 hp / 225 lb-ft
Average Price: $2,500 – $7,000
Unlike the BMW above, the Lexus GS300 doesn’t seem like it should be a promising drift car on paper. They weigh nearly 4,000 lbs, have a very long wheelbase, and were only available with an automatic transmission. With that being said, some of the things that make them unlikely drift cars also make them very fun ones.
The crowned jewel residing in the GS300’s engine bay is what really seals the deal. The Toyota 2JZ engine is notorious in the JDM world for being one of the best engines ever made, and the GS300 has one under the hood. While it isn’t the turbocharged 2JZ-GTE found in the Mk IV Supra, it is the naturally aspirated 2JZ-GE that shares very similar construction and strength with the GTE. The 2JZ-GE can handle ridiculous power figures with very little, if any, internal work.
Because the GS300 is so heavy, it is easy to swing that weight around and get one sideways. In the drifting community, some people refer to this style as “inertia drifting.” While it is harder to change direction due to the added weight, once you get a heavy car moving sideways it tends to stay sideways. More power makes that whole process a lot easier.
The GS300 was only sold with a 4-speed automatic transmission, which isn’t ideal for drifting. Despite that fact, many enthusiasts claim that it’ll still get the job done. There are also countless forum posts and resources for auto to manual GS300 swaps.
Best Cheap Drift Cars – 2003-2008 Infiniti G35
Engine: VQ35DE / VQ35HR 3.5L V6
Horsepower / Torque: 260-306 hp / 260-270 lb-ft
Average Price: $4,000 – $8,000
Most people will tell you that this one is a no-brainer. I agree. There is so much about the Infinity G35 that makes it a fantastic budget drift build. For starters, the VQ35DE engine that powers the G35 is known to be highly reliable and provides ample stock horsepower to drift. Late-model (2005-2008) G35s produce more power than early model (2002-2005) G35s, and there is a slight performance advantage for those equipped with the 6-speed manual. Regardless, all RWD G35s can drift.
The Infiniti G35 shares the same chassis and most notable parts with the Nissan 350Z which is another notoriously good drift car. While they are similar in many ways, the 350Z has always been the drift crowd’s preferred choice. That is mainly due to the 350Zs lighter weight, stiffer suspension, and overall performance focus. That has, however, made the G35 the more affordable option despite being only slightly less capable in stock form.
Some G35s, depending on options and bodystyle, came with a factory VLSD. The factory LSD is most common on well-optioned 6-speed coupes, but can also be found on similarly well-optioned automatics as well. The factory VLSD was not an option for 2003 G35 sedans.
Despite their relatively heavy curb weight and long wheelbase, the Infiniti G35 is a great budget drift option. While it is getting harder to source manual G35s, they’ll still likely be a cheaper alternative to a 350Z despite having very similar hardware. The VQ35 is a very solid engine from the factory, but it is expensive to extract huge power from one.
Best Cheap Drift Cars – Mazda Miata
Engine: BP-ZE 1.8L Inline-4
Horsepower / Torque: 129-133 hp / 110-114 lb-ft
Average Price: $2,000 – $6,000
It is impossible to have a list of cheap drift cars without including the Mazda Miata. Miatas are the go-to answer for a cheap, reliable, front-engine, rear-wheel-drive performance car with tons of potential. And that’s what truly makes the Miata a fantastic option, their modifiability.
From the factory, the NA Miata came with a tiny 1.8L BP-ZE inline-4 engine that produces between 129 and 133bhp. Torque is similarly as meager. But, in the case of the Miata, that’s okay, mainly due to how light they are. NA Miatas only weighs 2,100 lbs, which means that the little BP doesn’t have to work too hard to get it going.
In most instances, Miatas are known for how well they grip around corners. This benefit in some applications can become a detriment as far as drifting one is concerned. The most common way to overcome that issue is by introducing more power into the mix.
Since the Miata has one of the largest aftermarket communities of any car that you can think of, the high-horsepower Miata formula has been well and truly cracked at this point. There are hundreds of NA Miata turbo kits currently on the market which make a 300-horsepower power goal relatively affordable and easy. The same can be said for pretty much every other drift-enhancing performance part that you can slap on a Miata.
Best Cheap Drift Cars Summary
There are a lot of things to consider before making a drift car purchase. But, it’s easy to remember the basics and stick to the general drift-friendly formula. It is vitally important to find a car with a rear-wheel drive drivetrain configuration, as RWD cars are able to break traction and maintain a low-power drift much easier than an all-wheel drive car. Front-engined cars also tend to be better balanced and easier to control than other engine configurations. It is also important to find a car with a manual transmission to maintain better control over how power is delivered or compensate for an automatic transmission by finding a car with enough power to pull through the entire rev range.
Weight and chassis dynamics boil down to personal preference. Some people prefer lighter vehicles, like the Miata or E46, as they tend to change direction easier and respond better to steering input changes. Others prefer heavier vehicles, like the Lexus GS300 or Infiniti G35, as they maintain inertia better and are more stable at high speeds. Both setups work, it just depends on what you are most comfortable with.
Of the cars listed above, the Infinity G35 and BMW 330i are the most likely to drift well straight out of the box. Both provide very good power, have a front-engine, rear-wheel drive layout, and have near-perfect weight distribution. All of these qualities make for a great starter build for someone who is just getting into drifting. For a price point of under $10,000, those two are hard to beat.