Want to push your car to its limits in a safe environment – and without the risk of seeing flashing blue lights in your mirrors? A track day might be just what you’re looking for. Track days take place at circuits around the country throughout the year and typically cost around £200. For that, you can use the track all day and, on an ‘open pit lane’ event, you can go out onto the track and come back into the pits whenever you like.
- Exclusive: we drive a Volvo V90 police car
- BMW M3: a history in pictures
- Faking it: rebranded cars revealed
Keep it cheap
Still, you’re unlikely to want to thrash your daily-driver around a circuit. What would your other half say if they found out you’d been drifting the family motor? How would your boss react if you were asking for new tyres on your company car a little too often? And remember, your insurance won’t cover you on-track, so the lower the value of the car, the less you’ll worry about getting it wrong.
So here are some options for track day cars that cost buttons, but will still leave you grinning from ear to ear.
Mazda MX-5 (Mk1)
There’s only one place to start a list like this and it’s with the venerable Mazda MX-5. There’s a reason you won’t go to a track day without seeing one of these. Rear-wheel drive makes it fun in the corners, and low weight means you’ll get plenty of track days from a set of tyres and brakes. It may not be the quickest on the straights, but the unstressed engine is practically bombproof. Just watch out for rust.
BMW 328i (E36)
Want to keep that classic front-engine, rear-wheel-drive balance, but with a bit more oomph? The BMW 3 Series might be a bit of a barge in standard form, but budget for uprated suspension and brakes and you’ll be driving one of the best all-round track cars for a minimal outlay. What’s more, you can pretend you’re a 90s touring car driver while you do it.
Toyota MR2 (Mk2)
The Toyota MR2 is the alternative for those who find the MX-5 just too obvious or, indeed, rusty. The mid-engined layout might make it intimidating for the first-time track day driver, but it provides a long-lasting appeal to those who like a challenge.
Renaultsport Clio 182
If the classic rear-wheel-drive track car is the MX-5, the archetypal front-wheel-drive track car is the Clio 182. As the name suggests, its 2.0-litre engine produces a healthy 182bhp. Combine this with low weight, sharp handling an affordable purchase price, and you can see why hot Clios make a popular track-car choice.
Honda Civic Type R (EP3)
The Civic Type R packs all the Clio 182’s pointiness and punch, but with the addition of Japanese reliability. Its high-revving VTEC engine is often criticised for lacking low-down torque on the road, but comes into its own on track, where you’re exploiting every last rpm.
A price tag of around £15,000 for a track-worthy Caterham might be pushing the limits of what we can describe as a cheap track car, but the sub-600kg weight means it’ll look after its brakes, tyres and other consumable parts like nothing else. And let’s not forget the mind-blowing handling, acceleration and braking that this featherweight offers.
The Elise is to the Caterham what the MR2 is to the MX-5. Uber-lightweight, direct and driver-focused, but with the engine in the middle instead of at the front. Also, like the MR2, we’d advise that the Elise isn’t for the inexperienced track driver – it can be notoriously snappy thanks to that mid-engined layout.
Toyota MR2 (Mk3)
A saying you hear trotted-out about the Mk3 Toyota MR2 is: ‘80% of an Elise for 20% of the price’. While we’re not convinced this really is the case, we can’t deny that the Mk3 MR2 makes a fine track car, no doubt helped by the weight saving of 200kg compared to its predecessor.
BMW M3 (E46)
We’ve already suggested the E36-generation 328i, but the E46 M3 has everything we like about its older brother turned up to 11. The screaming 3.2-litre straight-six pushes out 343hp which, combined with the M-car’s upgraded suspension and brakes, will put you straight to the top of the lap-time leaderboard. While these can be had for as little as £7,000, beware of the ‘M tax’ on consumable parts like brakes.
Subaru Impreza WRX
The only four-wheel-drive car to make the list is the rally-derived Subaru Impreza WRX. While the Impreza may have cut its teeth on the dirt, it can hold its own on tarmac, too. On a wet track day, not many things will keep up with it. But be warned, that four-wheel-drive grip means tyres won’t last long in the dry.
With just 123hp, the Ford Puma may be the least powerfuk car on this list, but it punches above its weight on-track thanks to its rev-happy Yamaha-developed 1.7-litre engine, low weight and acclaimed handling. Like the MX-5, though, finding one without the dreaded tin worm could prove a challenge.
The Mazda RX-8 is powered by a rotary engine, rather than a conventional piston engine. It revs to a dizzying 9000rpm and, thanks to its compact dimensions, is fitted low in the chassis, improving the car’s handling. Every silver lining has a cloud, however, and the RX-8 is notoriously unreliable.
Porsche 944s are getting rarer by the day but, if you can find a clean one, you’ll have a worthy track car. The 3.0-litre versions produce a healthy 211hp, although on a car of this age the suspension is likely to feel tired and be in need of a refresh.
The Porsche Boxster is one of the best performance bargains there is, with prices starting from as little as £3,000. A hardcore track-dayer may consider the Boxster a little soft for serious circuit work, but for someone wanting their track car to double up as weekend sports car, it could be the ideal choice.
And finally… the leftfield choice. The Jaguar S-Type, in V6 manual form, has all the right ingredients for a good track car: a reliable 250bhp engine, manual gearbox (essential), and its driven wheels at the back. Aftermarket parts may be hard to come by, but fit coilover suspension and strip out the interior to save weight and you’ll be embarrassing people in ‘faster’ cars.