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Autocross Buying Guide – Select the Right Car
In my experience, autocross can be a very fun and exciting sport. I have attended several events in my local area. I found the fun to be very addictive too.
Out of all my other hobbies, I think this one is the best “bang for the buck” as far as excitement goes with your car. Everyone can participate. Every car (some clubs have exceptions for this though no SUVs, no trucks) can be raced. The nice thing about this type of race is that you are competing against others in your class usually defined by the SCCA, however, you are on the course alone so there is a minimal chance of hitting other cars.
The hardest part about autocross (aside from learning how to race) in my opinion is finding the right car. Sure, you can use a daily driver, but that’s not recommended if you’re going to participate in several events a year. Autocross can create wear on tires and other components very quickly and can get expensive very quickly. I would recommend getting a car that you can use for autocross. This can be a “trailer car” or a car that you can still drive on the road, but use only for this pleasure.
There are 4 key elements to consider when choosing a vehicle for autocross:
1) What kind of car to get
2) The price of the car
3) General condition of the vehicle (if used)
4) aftermarket improvements/modifications
WHAT TYPES OF CARS TO GET FOR AUTOCROSS:
For autocross racing, some people would assume that the car has to be very powerful, small, 2 doors and modified. This is not entirely accurate. While this type of car would be nice, it doesn’t have to be competitive in autocross.
Remember that most autocross events and clubs have the cars grouped into some sort of class. The clubs I participate with follow the SCCA Class guidelines. Classes help group cars so that the same “level” of cars can remain competitive in each class.
This is to avoid the “bigger and faster is better” state of mind. It would be unfair to pit a heavily modified Porsche GT3 against a stock Ford Focus. That’s why they do it.
So choose the right car for autocross, you would probably want a coupe or convertible FIRST if possible. Sedans can also work well, but some sedans are not suitable for modification, although, today’s sports sedans are really starting to take over.
Manual transmission would be recommended, however, if you have an automatic that is also OK. You may want to consider trading it for a manual in the future to stay competitive. Then again, there are still “sport shift” type automatics out there that are getting better and better every day.
Ideally, you would also want a rear-wheel drive car for autocross. RWD cars typically provide better control and handling in most cases. I know some enthusiasts will disagree with me, but that’s OK. On the other hand, I have used several front-wheel drive cars that run with the best of them.
The cost of buying a car for autocross is always the factor for me. I, like many others, cannot afford an expensive car for autocross. There are, however, people who can afford it and price is always something to consider.
This is the series most of us beginners want to start. Of course, free is GOOD, but consider the 3rd element (general condition) when this option comes to mind. Several cars that can perform well and have many upgrade options are the following:
1989-1997 Mazda Miata – Very nice power to weight ratio. It is very popular in autocross. 1979-1991 Mazda RX7 – fast car, good handle. Many upgrades are available. 1989-1998 Nissan 240sx – Several aftermarket upgrades, handles very well. 1990-1999 BMW 3 Series – Very versatile car. You can find very nice models in this series now. 1988-2000 Honda Civic/CRX – I have seen several models compete well in autocross. 1984-1999 Toyota MR2 – Low center of gravity, high performance, mid engine. 1990-1999 Mitsubishi Eclipse/Eagle Talon – Many upgrades, some Turbo AWD models. 2000-2007 Ford Focus – Very competitive car. SVT models are available in price ranges. 1997-2003 VW Golf – Hatchback still like autocross. The VR6 model is available in range. 1990-1999 Acura Integra – Like the Civic, very competitive with many exterior upgrades.
There may be a few more cars that I missed that fall under this price range. The methods I use to hunt for cars can vary depending on the type I’m looking for. I will use the local classifieds, Craigslist. I will also use the larger search machines and expand my general “hunting” area. I have successfully found great cars using VEHIX, AutoTrader as well as Government Auction Sites.
But what about the autocross cars above the $5000 range? Well, I’m glad you think so because I’ll list them below.
If you have some money to work with and want to get something newer, you can consider these cars:
This range can include newer cars as well as pre-owned cars that are no more than a few years old. Remember, cars usually depreciate very quickly, so as the years go by, some of the newer cars may be within reach for less money and are good for autocross. The following cars come to mind in this series:
1998-present Mazda MX-5 – Still the same basic car, but more power as they got newer. 2003-Present VW Golf – Even more modified than previous versions, competes well. 1992-1997 Mazda RX7 – 3rd Gen is twin-turbo and can compete in Autocross. 1992-2006 BMW M3 – M3s are made to race. Some newer models will fall into this range. 1998-2003 BMW M5 – M5s are very powerful and compete in their class well. 1994-Present Ford Mustang/Cobra – Very versatile car. Competing well in class. 1994-2002 Camaro/Firebird – Competing well in class. Lots of autocross improvements. 2007-present Mazda Mazdaspeed3 – Turbo, hatchback, competes well in autocross. 2003-2008 Nissan 350z – Great autocross car, very popular on the track. Special Autocross Kit cars like the V6 Stalker also fall into this range.
Now this price range can vary in the cars. A lot of these cars are still new and may require loans to buy them.
The $20,001 range will consist of some of the current models as well as the obvious “super cars” we all respect such as the Corvette, Viper, Porsche, Ferrari, Lotus and others. I’m not going to list people because if you’re buying one of these for an autocross machine, you’ve done your research.
General CONDITION OF THE VEHICLE (USED):
When buying a second car for autocross, treat it like buying your daily driver’s car. You want the car to be relatively free of major problems. Autocross racing can put stress on the car’s frame, suspension, brakes, tires and the overall body of the car.
You want to make sure that the car has not been in any major accidents. Frame repair or frame damage can be a very dangerous combination when you autocross. This is the most important thing to check for when buying an autocross vehicle. I have experimented and used Experian’s service called AutoCheck. They offer an unlimited number of VIN checks for one of their service options and the price is way better than other services out there. I’ve used it when shopping and it’s very helpful when checking a car’s history.
The next important item to check on the car is major component problems such as smoke coming from the back of the intake, large oil leaks (small leaks are expected on most used cars) small/larger engine overheating. Autocross is out there and you push the car to the limit. You want the biggest components to be in the best shape they can be. The problems mentioned can leave you stuck in the track if you don’t look out for them.
I usually have some expectation of doing minor repairs or preventative maintenance on my cars when I shop for autocross. As I stated above, small oil/fluid leaks are “OK” and can usually be fixed very easily. Small leaks tell us that the car is just used and may not suffer from the leak as a result. Large/large leaks tell us the car may have been neglected by the previous owner and may carry residual problems not seen at the time. When looking at a car, start it, drive it with the A/C engaged (even if it’s not working). When you’re done with the test drive, leave it idle while you walk around the car to continue inspecting it. If the car has an overheating problem, often this is the time it will show. This tip helped me avoid several nice autocross cars that had an overheating problem.
Belts and tires are the most frequent “preventive” repairs I do, even if they are not a problem. It is always better to know when an important component has been replaced rather than to “guess” and trust the old owner. Water pumps, too, fall into this category sometimes.
One thing people always check when buying a used car is the tires. Yes, this is important for an autocross car, but not to see how “good” the tires are, but to see if the car needs an alignment. Autocross is about handling and you need to make sure that the stock car’s “handling” ability is where it should be.
Why not worry about the tires? Well, tires should be the only thing to consider buying for your autocross vehicle to begin with, so the existing tires should be removed anyway. Tires are probably the most purchased item an autocross member will purchase. A lot of autocross racers will bring a set of race tires, one to drive home (those not using a trailer) and some will even bring spares for the race tires. This is so common that Tire Rack offers tires just for autocross. I have used them and they are the best place to get tires for this.
AFTERMARKET MODIFICATIONS FOR AUTOCROSS:
If you’ve ever looked into the aftermarket world of the auto industry, you know that there are literally thousands of places to look and buy. I’ll list some spots that most people don’t think to look at, but surprisingly there are things for autocross fans.
First and foremost, autocross cars do NOT always need major upgrades to be competitive. A driver can use a stock car and compete against other stock cars and stay competitive. Once you start modifying or upgrading a lot, you can start moving to different classes and compete with other equally modified cars. Keep this in mind when you want to change something.
Usually, I say modify the easy stuff first: Intake, exhaust and general tune ups. Most autocross drivers don’t go that far. These should be the first things you try to improve while participating in autocross to get the most performance out of your car.
If you decide to go further to be more competitive, my next recommendation would be suspension and body roll modifications. Please note, certain upgrades in this area may change your grade. Be sure to check your club or group’s rules with these modifications.
Generally, the fastest improvements to an autocross car would be the front and rear beam towers/braces. They are usually inexpensive to purchase and easy to install. They are also very modular which means that when you buy these, they will work with other suspension components in place (usually). This modification helps stiffen the suspension and frame of the car and helps in cornering.
The next modification recommendation would be to give them front and rear swings and links. These parts also help the body roll during cornering and handling and sometimes they can be modular in the whole suspension system.
The last suspension upgrade is usually the most expensive: the Struts (shocks/springs). This improvement usually works well with the items above, but ads more stiffness, more response to the handling and sometimes lower the car in general for a lower center of gravity.
Once you have modified the entire suspension, my next recommendation would be to upgrade the brakes (at least the pads). This will help your ability to stop for those moments when a brake tap is needed during a lap. Please keep in mind that high performance brake pads usually wear faster than OEM.
One of the last things I recommend upgrading are the tires. Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t FIRST buy new tires when doing autocross, but I am saying don’t upgrade to an autocross/racing tire just yet. Most autocross enthusiasts will tell you to get used to the stock/regular tires on your car first.
Once you get used to stock type tires, modifying them to a race tire or softer tire will actually improve your lap times (that’s the theory anyway).
One final note. I recommend replacing the fluids in your car with as many synthetics as you can. Synthetic fluids have higher heat resistance and can take the intense moments you will put on the car during the autocross.
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