By this point, hundreds of makes and models have been autocrossed, perhaps thousands. The sport has seen everything from Corvettes and Porsches to Neons and Fieros compete and do so successfully. There are even those who maintain that a Corvair is a pretty good autocross car. We, however, are not looking for pretty good; we are looking for the best.
To judge the best, we set forth with some pretty strict criteria. First of all, it has to be fun to drive, otherwise, what is the point? We also considered availability. The 1965 Lotus Elan may be the greatest autocross car off all time, but there are only 3 of them left, and those guys aren’t selling. Our third criteria is affordability. Money-no-object autocross builds are great topics of conversation, but are rarely seen on course.
We also considered competitiveness and something we refer to as "progression." Competitiveness is heavily debated within the autocross world, and very difficult to determine absolutely. Weather, surface condition, tire selection, course design and most of all, driver talent, can all have major effects on the perceived competitiveness of a car. Great cars, however seem to transcend this, and that is where progression comes in. A cars progression is the classing path laid out before it as the level of preparation increases. A car with good progression will allow an owner to start out in Stock Category and move gradually up the classing ladder while being competitive along the way.
Finally, it had to be a good car to own. The 1993 RX-7, with twin turbos, great looks and awesome handling, is a great car to drive, but only the most hardened rotary fan would describe the ownership experience as "good." As such, the beloved 7 does not make our list, despite being a great autocross car. There are many cars that fall short on ownership experience. That does not mean they are bad cars, it just means that we call their owners "enthusiast" for a reason.
1. 2002-2004 Chevrolet Corvette Z06: When it arrived, the C5 Z06 redefined fast. At 405 horsepower and a sub 4 second 0-60, it brought a level of performance to Stock Category autocross that was once reserved for cars of much higher preparation levels. But this Corvette was more than a drag car, this Corvette actually turned, and did so very, very well. It dominated Super Stock from the get go, where 10 years later it is still very competitive. It is also a competitive Street Prepared car, a decent Street Modified car and an argument can be made in Prepared Class as well. That is just half of what makes the Z06 great. The other half is that the Z06 is affordable and it is unbelievably kinds to its tires. Chevrolet fitted the C5 with wide wheels and a brilliant suspension that maximizes contact and thus minimizes wear. As a result, C5 owners can expect two to three times the tire life of other owners. That combined with a current value under $25,000 and you have a mountain of bang for your buck.
2. 1990-1997 Mazda Miata: The Miata was built for the driving enthusiast. A throw back to the early British sports cars that defined the early era of the SCCA, the Miata is light, nimble, quick and fun. While all three generations of the MX-5 have proven to be formidable autocross cars, the first Miata was the lightest, smallest and has enjoyed the most success. The 1995 R-Package is the car to have in E-Stock, while more modified versions of the MX-5 are successfully campaigned in every category of Autocross. Overall cost varies as prep levels increase, but you can expect to buy a strong runner for $2500-$5000 and have a Stock Class warrior or a great starting point for your long-term project.
3. 1991-1999 BMW 3 Series: The E36 is the definition of autocross versatility. In its road-going form, it is refined, comfortable and civilized. In full race prep, the 3 Series can melt your face off. What really makes the E36 special is a combination of a narrow body, and effective suspension and gobs of BMW’s trademark low-end torque. This combination makes it one of the best cars to have in the Street Touring, Street Prepared, Prepared and Street Modified categories. Don’t feel like you have to drop coin for a M edition either, the more affordable 325 and 328 models are generally classed separately from the M3, giving budget minded BMW fans lots of options.
4. 2000-2010 Honda S2000: The S2000 is one of the purest sports cars we’ve seen in the past 10 years. The high revving, lightweight, two seater was an instant hit with autocrossers. Initial buzz on the S2000 was all about the engine, but the chassis and brakes proved to be excellent as well. Nowadays the Club Race (CR) version is the one to have for B-Stock, but the standard AP1 and AP2 models are still fighting it out in every other category. The biggest fight is in the sports biggest class, Street Touring R where 6 of the top 10 drivers at the Nationals Championship event were driving S2000s. S2000s are plentiful on the used car market, ranging from the low teens to mid 20’s for a well prepped, ready to win CR.
5. 2005-2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX: Autocross has had a love-hate relationship with all wheel drive since its inception. In the wet, there is no debate, the rally cars dominate, but in the dry many have found AWD cars to be resistant to direction change. That changed with the Evo IX. A more balanced AWD car than those before, the Evolution has enjoyed success in most categories, most notably Street Prepared where it’s success necessitated the creation of a new class. You almost can’t talk about the Evo without mentioning its rival, from Subaru. The Impreza based cars are also excellent autocrossers, but results thus far show the Evo has the edge for all wheel domination.
6. 1988-1991 Honda Civic/CRX Si: The EF chassis Civic and CRX Si are the only front wheel drive cars to make the list. It is not because autocrossing can’t be fun in other front wheel drive cars, it is because it is the most fun in an EF. The EF is light, small and has a proper double A-arm front suspension, just like a real racecar. The result is a giggle-inducing amount of grip. Stock Class competitiveness has long since faded for these cars, but they have come to rule the Street Touring category, often posting the fastest times in the category. The availability of these cars in good condition and stock trim has gone down in recent years but there always seems to be a few in race prep on the market. Expect to spend $6000-$10,000 depending on level of preparation for a solid Street Touring car.
7. 1983-1987 Swift DB-1: The Swift DB-1 is really just a placeholder on the list for any number of C-Modified cars; we picked it because it is the best looking of the bunch. C-Modified is class for Formula F cars, previously known as Formula Fords, but now carrying the “F” moniker as the Honda Fit engine is eligible for the class. Either way, these cars are affordable, readily available on a number of racing sites and unbelievably fun. Expect to spend about $10,000 on a ready-to-go car, with a trailer and a few spares. The Chassis in C-Modified are very similar, everyone runs the same tire and the two engine choices are identical in performance. They are light enough to be towed behind a small pick up truck or a family car on an open trailer, and fast enough to take top time of the day at almost any autocross. This may not be the best car for your first autocross, but when you are ready to drive a real racecar, this is the best place to start.
8. 2007-2008 Ford Mustang Shelby GT: There has been a long line of special packages cars that have shaped the landscape of autocross; one of the more recent is the Shelby GT. The special package cars generally excel in Stock Category, where the stricter rules dictate factory configuration. This has been the case for the GT in F-Stock, where it has dominated since its introduction. The Shelby combines a lighter weight with a great tire option and ample power to make it a very driver friendly and fun autocross car. It may not be the best Mustang to start with for higher prep classes, but there are few cars that walk the line of daily driver and autocross toy as well for under $30,000.
9. Fomula Jr Kart: Few adults ever drive a Junior Kart, but owning one may be the most fun you ever have. Juniors start as young as age 5, with National level competition beginning at 8. These karts are cheap, easy to maintain and can easily be towed behind the family van or your autocross car. Best part is, it makes autocrossing a family activity.
10. Your Car: While it is true, some cars are better for autocross than others, the fact remains, you don’t have to wait to own one to get started. Most people start out in the car they happen to own when they discover the sport. For some, that is a Corvette, for others it is a Camry. The important part is that you get out and do it. The more you drive, the better you get at feeling what a car is telling you and the more you will be able to get out of it. Besides, there is something eminently cool about overhearing someone in the paddock say, “hey, did you see the guy in that station wagon? He was getting it done!” and know that guy is you.
Honorable Mention - 2013 Subaru BRZ/ Scion FRS: Truth be told, it is too soon to know what the place in the autocross world will be for the twins, as they are known. But we do know this, the team that made this project happen had exactly this kind of use in mind when they designed the car, and it has drivers fired up about a new car. The last cars to gain this kind of attention are all on this list. Time will tell, but the twins have our attention.