11 Best Budget Project Cars

27th November, 2018 in Editorials

We review and compare the best budget project cars on the market to help you decide your next purchase. This is the ultimate budget project cars guide.

best project cars

You don’t have to be going through a midlife crisis to feel the need for a project car. Owning one can be one of the most enjoyable, yet tough, decisions you’re likely to make.

Whether you just want to strip the car back to a bare shell and start from scratch or create a budget street weapon, this guide will undoubtedly help with your decision.

Wondering whether to go for a turbocharged or supercharged platform for your project car? Our Turbocharger vs Supercharger guide was written just for you.

Sure, chances are it’s probably not going to be the wisest financial choice you’ve ever made, but you can’t put a price tag on the amount of enjoyment you can get out of cheap project cars.

Often, you can sell them for what you paid, in fact, some of our choices are already increasing in value, so it could well be the perfect time to snap one up as a future investment before they continue to escalate further.

drift cars

Initial considerations

We highly recommend considering some important factors before you decide which car you’d like to go with.

Will the car be daily driven? In which case, mods you make will most likely need to be done over the evenings and weekends.

If you’re lucky enough to have storage space then this is obviously not a concern and you can leave the car on axle stands for a few days or weeks without worry when carrying out upgrades/maintenance/repairs.

Are spares easily available and within your budget? Now, there are heaps of alternative project cars you could potentially go with outside of our recommendations, but we’ve already considered the fact that most parts for these cars are available on the used market for relatively reasonable prices.

If you’re considering something super rare that’s likely to break every other week and cost you a fortune in impossible to source parts, it’s probably going to end up being more frustrating than enjoyable.

Should I look for a high-powered car?

Is the car going to provide enough power for your current plans? Is the engine even running? You’ll need to think about which upgrades are planned further down the line and what potential upgrades and engine swaps are available for that specific car.

We’ve noticed that budgets rarely work with these things, but it’s always good to have a rough idea in mind.

If drifting is your aim, you’re obviously going to need to be looking at the rear-wheel-drive platforms in our guide. It’s always easy to want to buy something with huge power to begin with, but lower powered cars can be heaps of fun too, so they’re definitely worth considering.

toyota hilux

Think outside the box

Sure, you’re probably already thinking along the lines of, “Drift car? Simple, I’ll get a 240SX!” However, remember that this what others are thinking too, and this is where ‘drift’ or ‘scene’ tax comes into play, and you’ll probably end up being screwed over on prices for parts.

With that being said, it’ll undoubtedly be worth it if you have your heart set on a specific selection which you’ve always dreamed of owning. We’ve made some pretty questionable choices in our time but we don’t have any regrets!

You’re on Drifted, so chances are you’re set on something RWD. However, don’t completely rule out FWD cars too, these can be heaps of fun, especially if you’re looking for something cheap. A great-handling, cheap FWD on a tight and twisty track would provide great bang for your buck.

Before we begin, check out what Donut Media’s opinion of the best tuner cars for under $10k is to give you some initial ideas!

Now, let’s take a look at our budget project cars

Remember, project cars don’t have to be the absolute best cars on the market, nor does it have to be what your buddies think is cool. Find something YOU like, pour a s**tload load of blood, sweat, and tears into it, and it’ll soon win over your heart. (Or become your worst enemy, but we’ll hope for the best!)

Nissan 240SX (S13, 180SX)

nissan 240sx s13

  • Model year: 1989-1999
  • Engine size: 2.4L
  • Power output: 1989-1990 – 140 hp (100 kW). 1991-1994 – 155 hp (116 kW)
  • Drivetrain configuration: RWD

Our comment: Yeah, you knew it was coming! It’s been hugely popular since it rose to fame in the ’90s, and the 240SX is certainly no exception now. Due to their cult following and age/drifting taking its toll, the 240SX has undoubtedly risen in price over time. Reasonably priced models can still be had, but be prepared for it to be a little more of a project than you perhaps planned.

If you have a choice, we recommend going with the KA24DE which has more power out of the box, and far more tuning potential. Many owners choose to swap out the engine for an SR20DET, which it actually left the factory with on the JDM equivalent (180SX).

If power is your aim, then you may feel a little riskier and want to opt for a Skyline RB25 or RB26 replacement for something a little different!

As you’ve probably guessed, the 240SX is an incredibly capable lightweight chassis with great handling for drifting and will undoubtedly make a great platform for a project if you’ve got the cash. If you want to know more about why we recommend 240SX’s so highly, make sure you check out our ‘Why the Nissan 240SX is the best drift car’ guide.

If you feel like the 240SX is the ideal project for you, and maybe have a little more money to splash, we highly recommend checking out S14’s!

CarThrottle Review:The chassis, the chassis is where this car shines. Now I am not going to talk about the drift potential of this vehicle. The internet will tell 1000 times its great for drifting and it will tell you 1000 more times. The car is tossable into corners. It can really carry a lot of speed through sweepers and tight twisties. The steering is fast, transmission is tight, pedals in the perfect spot and a chassis that communicates really makes this a fun car to carve in.”

“I genuinely feel like people who buy this JUST for drifting are missing out. Not that doing that is a bad thing but SO many people look at this vehicle like its god given talent was drifting that they miss out on the other great things this car can achieve. You S-chassis owners that don’t, try some canyon carving, autocross or track, you guys are really missing out. This car has plenty more on its resume than its drifting career.”

– Read the full review


BMW E36

bmw e36

  • Model year: 1990-2000
  • Engine size: 1.8L-2.8L
  • Power output: 73 kW (98 hp) to 142 kW (190 hp)
  • Drivetrain configuration: RWD

Our comment: The German legend has arrived. Known throughout America and Europe as one of the best budget drift cars, the BMW E36 has definitely earned its place on our list. In Europe, E36’s generally out-number most other cars at drift days, and with parts easily sourced and common, they’re becoming a great alternative to the more expensive JDM cars.

Their popularity in the US has also risen quickly in recent years, with companies such as Pandem modernizing it with their Rocket Bunny kits to keep the stance (and brave drift) scene happy.

There are several different models of the E36, but a few basic mods will allow even the lowest power ones to go sideways. We highly recommend these for some cheap, great handling fun!

With E46’s more affordable than ever, these are also a fantastic option if you fancy something a little more modern. If you like the old-school look, E30’s have to be a sure temptation. We always love M3’s, but we also know first hand the cost involved with owning them, so proceed with caution if they tickle your fancy!

Motortrend Review:The E36 generation BMW 3 Series Coupes has a quite a few highs, the odd low and a whole heap of appeal. There are some rough examples around and buying a well-serviced car that’s been kept as close to standard trim as possible is a wise move.”

– Read the full review


Nissan Skyline R33

nissan r33 skyline

  • Model year: 1993-1998
  • Engine size: 2.0L-2.5L
  • Power output: 96 kW (128 hp) to 184 kW (247 hp)
  • Drivetrain configuration: RWD

Our comment: Nissan Skyline R32 and R34 prices have shot through the roof in recent years, even for the lesser models. Luckily, if you’re after a Skyline, the R33 has remained relatively affordable during that time.

It’s certainly not the cheapest option on our list, but it’s a whole lot of car for the money. We expect that these will eventually creep up in value like their siblings too, even if they are the ugly duckling of the bunch.

With up to 250hp available from the RB engine in stock form, they also take extremely well to upgrades with some simple bolt-on modifications to squeeze the extra horses out.

Weighing in at 1,360kg, these certainly aren’t the lightest of our choices, but strip out the interior and some handling mods and we have no doubt it’ll keep you grinning ear to ear around the track.

Autospeed Review:The RB25DET is undoubtedly one of the best single turbo engines we’ve ever sat behind. Off-boost torque is strong, but get some load on above about 3000 rpm and she’s a real rocket. Torque holds strong until close to the 7000 rpm redline.”

The R33 is quite a large car – but its chassis is very well suited to an urban chuck-about. Tromp it a little early exiting a corner the back end squats, cork-screws a little and then eases to the side oh-so progressively. It’s so sublime you don’t always realize that it’s happening.”

– Read the full review


Mazda RX-8

mazda rx8

  • Model year: 2003-2012
  • Engine size: 1.3L
  • Power output: 141 kW (189 hp) to 177 kW (237 hp)
  • Drivetrain configuration: RWD

Our comment: You’re probably upset that we didn’t include the RX-7, and believe me, we wanted to. If you can get one reasonably enough, don’t even hesitate! However, we can’t ignore that RX-8 prices are plummeting while FC and FD prices rise, so we think it could well be the perfect time to land an RX8 for a project car base.

With a chassis that is comparable to the legendary FD, the RX8 provides up to 250hp weighing in at just 1,309kg.

On paper, it sounds like the perfect option, however, the reason for these being so cheap is due to the difficult to maintain rotary engines. Despite being incredible technology, they’re definitely not the most reliable engine on the market.

Planning on picking up an RX8? Our RX8 tuning guides are written for you. The RX8 exhaust guide will wake up that rotary..

If you can get one cheap enough, consider adding something like an LS1, or take it back to its true heritage with a 13B turbo. This way, you’ve got an affordable AND reliable lightweight drift car!

Autocar Review:First off, there’s still nothing else like an RX-8. That low, sleek coupé shape, those wacky suicide rear doors and two-rotor engine that sounds like a hoover on full chat continue to make it a unique proposition.”

The RX-8 feels really well balanced, eager to turn in, gripping more strongly at the front and with body roll now much reduced. The back end sticks very well, but switch the DSC off and as you exit a tight bend with power on, round it comes. And that’s in the dry. But it’s all well telegraphed and easy to catch.”

– Read the full review


Honda Civic

honda civic

  • Model year: 1991-2000
  • Engine size: 1.3L-1.6L
  • Power output: 52 kW (70 hp), to 93 kW (125 hp)
  • Drivetrain configuration: FWD

Our comment: No sighing, please. You’ve probably already realized that here at Drifted, we don’t exactly claim to be Honda Civic experts. That being said, we’ve been out in some track-prepped ones and we know that these can provide a s**tload of fun for the money!

With some models weighing a mere 925kg and capable of up to 125hp before you’ve done any upgrades, these are great value for money.

If you want some cheap, reliable, high-revving front-wheel-drive fun, these are definitely worth considering!

Autocar Review:Peak horsepower is developed at a lofty 6600 rpm. And there’s no serious penalty for turning the VTEC engine so fast, as it stays remarkably smooth right up to the point where its electronic rpm limiter steps in.”


Mazda Miata (Eunos, MX5)

mazda miata

  • Model year: 1989-2005
  • Engine size: 1.6L-1.8L
  • Power output: 86 kW (115 hp), to 99 kW (133 hp)
  • Drivetrain configuration: RWD

Our comment: Cheap, cheerful and a fantastic base for a daily or a track-car alike. We love the Mazda MX5 and this throwback to British roadsters really is a unique car to throw sideways with the wind in your hair.

Certainly not the most powerful, but they’re light and can take a good old-fashioned ass-kicking without causing too much of a fuss. Coilovers and an exhaust can really transform these. If you’ve got some spare cash, you can even go down the supercharger route for maximum potential!

Roadandtrack Review:By mixing the fun of yesterday’s roadsters with the technology of today, it marks a giant leap forward in the evolution of the sports car.”

– Read the full review


Lexus SC400 (Toyota Soarer)

lexus sc400

  • Model year: 1991-2000
  • Engine size: 4.0L
  • Power output: 186 kW (250 hp), to 216 kW (290 hp)
  • Drivetrain configuration: RWD

Our comment: The SC400 was $40,000 worth of car when it was first released, and now they can be had for a steal. The 290hp from the 1UZ-FE V8 isn’t to be sniffed at, but they’re not the lightest cars out there.

Whether you’re looking for a drift car, or a VIP/daily, these will fit the bill extremely well. Many owners have gone all-out with 1JZ and 2JZ swaps from the Supra for maximum tuning potential.

The Truth About Cars Review:There is nothing quite like it!” Every enthusiast I know has that attitude towards their car. But rarely is it actually true. If you find a well preserved one with less than 150k. Buy it. If you can find an SC300 with an all too rare manual tranny in it. Call me first. I’ll buy it and be your new best friend.

– Read the full review


Lexus IS300 (Toyota Altezza)

lexus is300

  • Model year: 1999-2005
  • Engine size: 4.0L
  • Power output: 186 kW (250 hp), to 216 kW (290 hp)
  • Drivetrain configuration: RWD

Our comment: The Lexus IS300 is quickly becoming a modern-day legend. With great looks and easy tuning ability alongside the potential of plenty of convenient off-the-shelf turbo kits, the 2JZ powerplant has a huge amount of potential.

These once again are great drift, daily or VIP-style cars with a huge amount of mods available on the market. We’ve got guides to show you our favorite coilovers and exhausts specifically for the IS300, and believe me, there’s certainly no shortage of selection!

RAC Review:If you can track down a reasonably priced IS300, it makes a very satisfying ownership proposition. The interior is well appointed, the engine is delightfully smooth and the reliability record is second to none. As one of those cars that seems to make a whole lot more sense used than new, the IS300 deserves a little recognition.”

– Read the full review


Nissan 350Z (Z33)

nissan 350z

  • Model year: 2003-2008
  • Engine size: 3.5L
  • Power output: 214 kW (287 hp) to 228 kW (306 hp)
  • Drivetrain configuration: RWD

Our comment: The 350Z has been popular for many years in all sorts of motorsport, and with the arrival of its younger brother, the 370Z, chances are that you’ll be able to pick one of these up at a more impressive price than ever.

With the reliable, yet underpowered, 3.5L power-lump under the hood and a bombproof gearbox, the 350Z has heaps of tuning potential and we have the perfect guides to help you find the ultimate parts for your build. Some basic mods will make this an extremely capable drift car with a lot of room to progress if you decide to go down the forced induction route later on.

Check out our wide variety of guides for the 350Z, there are simple bolt-on mods such as coilovers, exhausts and cold air intake to get you started.

Once you’ve got the car sitting and sounding nice, you may want to consider the forced induction route. If so, there’s an epic range of tried-and-tested off-the-shelf supercharger and turbo kit options to turn your 350Z into a tire-shredding monster!

If you have big bucks to spend and fancy something a little different, the 370z is a fantastic consideration too.

Evo Review:I’ve become a massive fan of the latest-generation Z-car. I reckon it’s one of the greatest affordable performance cars of the last ten years.


Toyota GT86/Subaru BRZ/Scion FR-S

toyota gt86

  • Model year: 2012-present
  • Engine size: 2.0L
  • Power output: 147kW (197 hp) to 153 kW (205 hp)
  • Drivetrain configuration: RWD

Our comment: GT86, BRZ, FR-S, whatever you want to call it! It’s undoubtedly one of the best cars of this decade and prices on the earlier models are now becoming more affordable than ever.

Based on the original AE86, this stunning creation really does tick so many boxes. It may not have a huge amount of power from the factory, but the lightweight with skinny-tire combination makes it insanely fun to drive.

If you do fancy giving it an extra kick up the a**, we’ve got our GT86 turbo and supercharger guides to keep you happy!

For those of you that want to keep it simple and do some basic modifications, make sure you check out our exhaust, coilover guides!

We highly recommend the AE86 as a project car, but unfortunately, prices are soaring. If you’re able to pick one up at a bargain price, don’t even hesitate as it’ll undoubtedly be a great investment!

Top Gear Review:The simplest and most exciting Toyota in years is also a real pleasure to drive. It says a lot that Toyota took a whole five years to update the GT86, and kept the changes so light when it did. This is a fundamentally great car that may not look or feel especially modern, but that’s sort of the point.”

– Read the full review


Honda S2000

honda s2000

  • Model year: 1999-2009
  • Engine size: 2.0L
  • Power output: 177kW (237 hp) to 184 kW (247 hp)
  • Drivetrain configuration: RWD

Our comment: The S2000 doesn’t typically spring to mind when thinking of project cars, but we think it has heaps of future potential. Prices are starting to get lower and for some of you it will be an affordable consideration

Honda created the S2K to mark the company’s 50th anniversary, and it was certainly lived up to expectations. Think of it as a high-revving modern-day Miata on steroids. Once again, these have a huge variety of off-the-shelf parts if you feel the need for more than 247hp!

If you have the balls to whack a turbocharger on this lightweight chassis, you’ll definitely want to take a look at our turbo and supercharger guides to keep you happy!

For those of you that want to keep it simple and do some basic modifications, make sure you check out our coilover and exhaust guides.

Top Gear Review:You rev until you think pistons are going to burst through the bonnet, before grabbing the next gear via the utterly, utterly superb manual shift. One of the best I’ve ever used. Perhaps the best.”

– Read the full review


We normally decide our winner here…

This time, all our choices are winners for different reasons.

We’ve selected these cars from literally thousands of possibilities, and we’ve tried to give a wide variety of price ranges and choices. Admittedly, they may be a little drift biased, but what else would you expect from Drifted?

We have no doubt that whichever car you select, you’re most likely going to have a rollercoaster ride at some point during your ownership, but as long as you see the project through, we have no doubt it’ll be worth every minute you put into it.

Project cars have a special place in our heart, it’ll open up a whole realm of possibilities as you begin to build the car, take it to meets and take it to the track. We hope you manage to build the car of your dreams and make new friends that last a lifetime.

Why not take a look around our site to give you some more ideas? We recommend our Best Drift Cars For Beginners guide.

Thank you for reading our best project cars guide

We hope that you’re now confident in choosing the right car to satisfy your inner urges!

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