Autocross Buying Guide – Choose the right car

In my experience, autocross can be a very fun and exciting sport. I have participated in several events in my area. I also found the hobby very addictive.

Of all my other hobbies, I think this is the best “bang for the money” in terms of the thrill of your car. Everyone can participate. Any car (some clubs have exceptions, but like no SUVs, no trucks) can race. The beauty of this type of race is that you compete against others in your class, which are usually defined by the SCCA, but you are alone on the track, so there is only a minimal chance of hitting other cars.

The hardest part of autocross (apart from learning to race) is, in my opinion, finding the right car. Sure, you can use a daily driver, but that’s not recommended if you want to attend several events a year. Autocross can very quickly lead to wear of tires and other components and become expensive very quickly. I would recommend buying a vehicle that you can use for autocross. This can be a “trailer car” or a car that you can still drive on the road but only use for this hobby.

There are 4 key components to consider when choosing a car for autocross:

1) What kind of car to get

2) The price of the car

3) The overall condition of the vehicle (if used)

4) Aftermarket upgrades/modifications


For autocross races, some people would assume that the car must be very powerful, small, 2 doors and modified. That is not entirely correct. While this type of car would be nice, it’s not required to be competitive in autocross.

Keep in mind that most autocross events and clubs have grouped the cars into some sort of class. The club I participate in follows the guidelines of the SCCA class. The classes help to group the cars so that the same “level” of vehicles can remain competitive within each class.

This is done to avoid the state of thought “greatest and fastest is best”. It would be unfair to pit a heavily modified Porsche GT3 against a standard Ford Focus. That’s why they do it.

So, to 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 aren’t geared toward modifications, though today’s sports sedans are really starting to gain the upper hand.

However, a manual transmission is recommended if you have an automatic that is also fine. You may want to consider trading it for a manual in the future to stay competitive. Again, there are still “Sport Shift” automatics that are getting better and better every day.

Ideally, you also want a rear-wheel drive car for autocross. RWD cars offer better control and handling in most cases. I know some enthusiasts out there won’t agree with me, but that’s okay. On the other hand, I’ve used several front-wheel drive cars that run on the best of them.


The price of buying a car for autocross is always the factor for me. Like many others, I can’t afford an expensive vehicle for autocross. However, there are those who can afford it, and the price is still something they should consider.

The range $0-$5000:

This is the area that most of us beginners want to start. Of course, free is GOOD, but consider the 3rd component (overall state) if this option comes to mind. Several cars that can work well and have many upgradeable 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 small car, drives well. Many upgrades available. 1989-1998 Nissan 240sx – Several aftermarket upgrades, can be handled very well. 1990-1999 BMW 3 Series – Very versatile car. You can now find very nice models in this assortment. 1988-2000 Honda Civic / CRX – I have seen several models that compete well in autocross. 1984-1999 Toyota MR2 – Low center of gravity, great power, Mittelmotor. 1990-1999 Mitsubishi Eclipse/Eagle Talon – Many upgrades, some models Turbo AWD. 2000-2007 Ford Focus – Very competitive cars. SVT models available in the price range. 1997-2003 VW Golf – hatchbacks always like autocross. VR6 models available in the range. 1990-1999 Acura Integra – Like the Civic, very competitive with many upgrades out there.

It may be that there are a few more cars that I missed that fall into this price range. The method I use to search for cars can vary depending on the type I’m looking for. I’m going to use local classifieds, Craigslist. I will also take advantage of the larger car searches and expand my general “hunting area”. I have successfully found great cars with 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’m going to list them below.

If you have some money to work with and want to get something newer, you can consider the following cars:

The range from $5,001 to $20,000:

This range can include both newer cars and used cars that are not older than a few years. Keep in mind that cars tend to lose value very quickly, so over the years some of the newer cars can be within reach for less money and are great for autocross. The following cars come to mind in this area:

1998-Current Mazda MX-5 – Still the same base car, but more power as they became newer. 2003-Current VW Golf – Even more modified than the previous versions, compete well. 1992-1997 Mazda RX7 – 3rd Gen is biturbo and can compete in autocross. 1992-2006 BMW M3 – M3’s are designed for racing. Some newer models will fall into this range. 1998-2003 BMW M5 – M5 are very powerful and compete well in their class. 1994-current Ford Mustang/Cobra – Very versatile car. 1994-2002 Camaro/Firebird – Competes well in class. Many autocross upgrades. 2007-Current Mazda Mazdaspeed3 – Turbo, hatchback, competes well in autocross. 2003-2008 Nissan 350z – Great autocross car, very popular on the track. Special autocross kit cars such as the V6 Stalker also fall into this series.

Well, this price range can vary in vehicles. Many of these cars are still new and may require loans to buy them.

The $20,001 spectrum will consist of some of the current models as well as the obvious “supercars” that we all respect, such as Corvette, Viper, Porsche, Ferrari, Lotus and others. I’m not going to add a list for these, because if you buy one of them for an autocross car, you’ve done your research.


When you buy a second car for autocross, treat it as if you were buying your daily driver’s car. You want the car to be relatively free of major problems. Autocross races can put a strain on the car’s frame, suspension, brakes, tire, and overall body of the car.

You want to be sure that the car hasn’t had any major accidents. Frame repair or frame damage can be a very dangerous mixture in autocross. This is the MOST IMPORTANT thing to look out for when buying a car for autocross. I have experienced 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 much better than the other services. I have used it when shopping and is very handy when you check the history of a vehicle.

The next important point to check on the car is major component issues such as smoke coming from the back of the exhaust, large oil leaks (small leaks are expected on most used cars), slight/large overheating of the engine. Autocross is outside and you take the car to the border. You want the main components to be in the best possible shape. These issues can leave you stranded on the track if you’re not on the lookout for them.

I usually have some expectation of doing minor repairs or preventative repairs on my vehicles when I buy to cross them. As I mentioned earlier, small oil/liquid leaks are “OK” and can usually be fixed very easily. Small leaks tell us that the car is only in use and may not suffer from the leak. Large/larger leaks tell us that the car may be has been neglected by the previous owner and can bring residual problems that have not been seen at the moment. If you’re looking at a car, start it, drive it around with the air conditioning on (even if it doesn’t work). When you’re done with the test drive, leave them idle as you walk around the car and continue to inspect it. If the car has an overheating problem, this is often the time it is displayed. This tip helped me avoid several beautiful autocross cars that had an overheating problem.

Belts and hoses are my most common “preventive” repair I do, even if they are not a problem. It’s always best to know when an important component has been replaced, rather than “guessing” and trusting the previous owner. Water pumps also sometimes fall into this category.

One thing that 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 alignment. Autocross is all about handling and you need to be sure that the “handling” capability of the car is where it should be.

Why not take care of the tyres? Well, tires should be one thing you should buy for your autocross car, so the existing tires should be removed anyway. Tires are pRobably the best-selling wear item an autocross wearer will buy. Many autocross racers will bring a set of tires for racing, one for the drive home (those who don’t use a trailer), and some will even bring spare parts for the racing tires. This is so common that Tire Rack only offers tires for autocross. I used them and they are the best place to get tires for it.


If you ever look into the aftermarket world of the auto industry, you know that there are literally thousands of places to search and buy. I’m going to list a few spots that most people don’t think about, but surprisingly have things for the autocross fans.

First and foremost, autocross cars do NOT always need major upgrades to be competitive. A driver can use a production vehicle and compete against other production vehicles and remain competitive. Once you start heavily modifying or updating, you can start switching to different classes and competing with other cars that are equally modified. Keep that in mind if you want to change something.

Usually, I say, modify the simple things first: inlet, exhaust, and general tune-ups. Most autocross drivers don’t go far from that. These should be the first things you try to update while participating in autocross to get the most power out of your vehicle.

If you decide to go further to be more competitive, my next recommendation would be chassis and body roller modifications. Please keep in mind that certain upgrades in this area may change your class. Make sure you review your club or group rules with these changes.

Normally, the fastest upgrade to an autocross car would be front and rear strut turret bars/struts. They are usually inexpensive to purchase and easy to install. They are also very modular, which means that when you buy these, they work with other suspension components (usually). This modification helps to stiffen the suspension and frame of the vehicle and helps with cornering.

The next modification recommendation would then be the front and rear stabilizers and links. These parts also help the body roll in curves and handling, and can sometimes be modular to the suspension system as a whole.

The final suspension upgrade is usually the most expensive: the struts (shock absorbers/springs). This upgrade usually works well with the above elements, but provides more stiffness, more responsiveness to handling, and sometimes lowering the car overall for a lower center of gravity.

Once you’ve modified the entire suspension, my next recommendation would be to improve the brakes (at least the pads). This will help you stop in those moments when a tap of the brake is required during a lap. Please note that high-performance brake pads in usually wear out much faster than OEMs.

One of the last things I recommend to upgrade is the tires. Well, I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy new tires FIRST if you’re doing autocross, but I’m saying you shouldn’t upgrade them to an autocross/racing tire just yet. Most autocross enthusiasts will tell you that you should get used to your car’s standard/regular tires first.

Once you get used to bearing tires, modifying to a race tire or a softer tire will actually improve your lap times (that’s the theory anyway).

One last note. I recommend replacing the fluids in your car with as many plastics as possible. Synthetic liquids have higher heat resistance and can take advantage of the intense moments you put on the car during autocross laps.

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wendy encarnacion

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