Autocross Buying Guide – Select the Right Car

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

Out of all my other hobbies, I think this one is the best “bang for the buck” as far as thrills go with your car. Everybody can participate. Every car (some clubs have exceptions to this though like no SUV’s, no Trucks) can race. The nice thing about this kind 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 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 is not recommended if you are going to participate in several events a year. Autocross can create wear on the tires and other components very quickly and can get expensive very fast. I would recommend to get 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 use only for this hobby.

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

1) What type of car to get

2) The Price of the car

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

4) Aftermarket upgrades/modifications

WHAT TYPE OF CAR 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 that type of car would be nice, it is not required to be competitive in autocross.

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

This is done to avoid the “biggest and fastest is best” state of thought. It would be unfair to put a heavily modified Porsche GT3 up against a stock Ford Focus. This is why they do that.

So, to pick the right car for autocross, you would probably want a coupe or convertible FIRST if possible. Sedans can work well too, but some sedans are not geared for modifications, although, the sport sedans of today are really starting to take over.

Manual transmission would be recommended, however, if you have an automatic that is OK too. You may want to consider trading it for a manual in the future to remain competitive. Again, there are still “sport shift” type automatics out there that are getting better and better each 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 out there 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.

PRICE:

The price of buying a car for autocross is always the factor for me. I, like many others, cannot afford an expensive vehicle for autocross. There are, however, those that can afford it and price is still something for them to consider.

The $0-$5000 range:

This is the range most of us beginners want to start. Of course, free is GOOD, but consider the 3rd component (overall condition) when this option comes to mind. Several cars that can perform well and have a lot of upgradable options are the following:

1989-1997 Mazda Miata – Very nice power to weight ratio. It is VERY popular at autocross. 1979-1991 Mazda RX7 – Fast small car, handles well. Many upgrades 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 range now. 1988-2000 Honda Civic/CRX – I have seen several models compete well in autocross. 1984-1999 Toyota MR2 – Low center of gravity, great performance, mid engine. 1990-1999 Mitsubishi Eclipse/Eagle Talon – Many upgrades, some models Turbo AWD. 2000-2007 Ford Focus – Very competitive cars. SVT models available in price range. 1997-2003 VW Golf – Hatchbacks always like autocross. VR6 models available in range. 1990-1999 Acura Integra – Like the Civic, very competitive with many upgrades out there.

There may be a few more cars that I missed that fall under this price range. The method I use to hunt for cars can vary depending on the type I am looking for. I will use local classified ads, Craigslist. I will also use the bigger car searches 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 am glad you are think that because I am about 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 $5,001-$20,000 range:

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 fast, so as the years go by, some of the newer cars can be within reach for less money and are great for autocross. The cars below come to mind in this range:

1998-Current Mazda MX-5 – Still same basic car, but more power as they got newer. 2003-Current VW Golf – Even more modified than the previous versions, compete well. 1992-1997 Mazda RX7 – 3rd Gen is twin-turbo and can compete in autocross. 1992-2006 BMW M3 – M3’s are designed for racing. Some newer models will fall in this range. 1998-2003 BMW M5 – M5’s are very powerful and compete in their class well. 1994-Current Ford Mustang/Cobra – Very versatile car. Competes well in class. 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 fall in this range as well.

Now, this price range can vary in vehicles. A lot of these cars are still new and may require loans to purchase them.

The $20,001 spectrum will consist of some of the current-day models as well as the obvious “super cars” we all respect such as the Corvette, Viper, Porsche, Ferrari, Lotus and others. I will not include a list for those because if you are buying one of those for an autocross car, you did your research.

OVERALL CONDITION OF THE VEHICLE (USED):

When buying a second car for autocross, treat it like when you are buying your daily driver car. You want the car to be relatively free of major problems. Autocross racing can put stress on the car’s frame, the suspension, the brakes, the tire and the overall body of the car.

You want to be sure that the car has not been in any major accidents. Frame repair or frame damage can be very dangerous mixture when you autocross. That is the MOST important thing to check for when buying a car for autocross. I have experienced and used the service by Experian called AutoCheck. They offer an unlimited number of VIN checks for one of their service options and the price is way better than the other services out there. I have used it when shopping and comes in very handy when you are checking the history of a vehicle.

The next important item to check on the car is major component problems such as smoke coming out of the back of the exhaust, major oil leaks (small leaks are expected on most used cars) slight/major overheating of the engine. Autocross is outside and you push the car to the limit. You want the major components to be in the best shape they can be. The mentioned problems can leave you stranded at the track if you do not look out for them.

I usually have some expectation to do minor repair or preventive repairs on my vehicles when I am buying to autocross them. 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 be suffering from the leak as a result. Large/major leaks tell us the car may have been neglected by the previous owner and may carry residual problems unseen at the moment. When looking at a car, start it up, drive it around with the A/C engaged (even if it doesn’t work). When you are finished with the test drive, leave it idling while you walk around the car continuing to inspect it. If the car has an overheating problem, often this is the time it will show. This tip has helped me avoid several beautiful autocross cars that had an overheating problem.

Belts and hoses are my most frequent “preventive” repair I do, even if they are not a problem. It is always best to know when an important component has been replaced rather than to “guess” and trust the previous owner. Water pumps, too, fall in this category sometimes.

One thing people always check when buying a used car are 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 be sure the car’s stock “handling” ability is where it should be.

Why not worry about the tires? Well, tires should be one thing to consider buying for your autocross car to begin with, so the existing tires should be removed anyway. Tires are probably the most bought wear item an autocross member will buy. A lot of autocross racers will bring a set of tires for racing, one for driving home (those who do not use a trailer) and some will even bring spares for the racing 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 ever look into the aftermarket world of the auto industry, you know that there are literally thousands of places to look and buy. I will list a few spots that most people do not think to look, 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 stock vehicle and compete against fellow stock vehicles and remain competitive. Once you start to modify or upgrade heavily, you may start to move into different classes and compete with other cars that are equally modified. Keep that in mind when you want to change something.

Usually, I say modify the easy things first: Intake, exhaust and general tune ups. Most autocross drivers do not go far from that. These should be the first things you try to upgrade while you participate in autocross to get the most performance out of your vehicle.

If you decide to go further to be more competitive, my next recommendation would be suspension and body roll modifications. Please remember, certain upgrades in this area may change your class. Be sure to check your club or groups rules with these modifications.

Usually, the fastest upgrade to an autocross car would be front and rear strut tower bars/braces. They are usually inexpensive to buy and easy to install. They are also very modular meaning that when you buy these, they will work with other suspension components in place (usually). This modification helps stiffen the car’s suspension and frame and helps with cornering.

The next modification recommendation would then be the front and rear sway bars and links. These parts also help the body roll while cornering 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 (shocks/springs). This upgrade usually works well with the above items, but ads more stiffness, more response to the handling and sometimes lower the car overall 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 stopping ability for those moments where a tap of the brake is needed during a lap. Please keep in mind that high performance brake pads usually wear much quicker than OEM.

One of the last things I recommend to upgrade is the tires. Now, I’m not saying that you should not FIRST buy new tires when you autocross, but I am saying not to UPGRADE them to an autocross/race 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 last 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 be putting on the car during the autocross laps.

Car Accessories Are Necessities

I don’t know if it was ever properly documented, but it is my bet that car accessories have been around since the very first car was in the hands of the first private car owner. The clich├ęs of rearview mirror dice, license plate frames, radio antenna balls or other car exterior accessories were likely not in use (mainly due to the lack of those items on the first cars), but I guarantee something was added to that first car. Maybe a seat cover, or leather wrap on the steering wheel. Any way you look at it, your car will not remain truly stock if you’re anything like all the other car owners in the world. Let’s look at the various modern options there are out there for making your car, your car.

For anyone who lives in areas of the world where it gets cold, and there are winters almost everywhere, a remote car starter is a great luxury that borders on being a necessity when the thermometer drops well below freezing. I live in Vancouver now so it is not quite as needed as when I lived in Toronto, but it can still be useful on those frigid winter mornings. When buying your remote car starter from a car accessories shop, look into practical things like how far a distance you will be away from your car when you start it (driveway/garage to doorway you’ll be standing in), who will install it, do you want a one way or two way starter (a 2 way requires a confirmation signal be sent), how will you deal with possible factory security features, and can you get replacement parts. After looking into all this, and researching the options, you’ll be ready to get yourself the right car starter, and you’ll be able to start your day in a warm car with that mug of coffee in your cup holder not going cold.

Bluetooth hands free communication devices can be great for those on the go. They can be integrated into your factory equipment over your speakers, and can even have features such as caller ID, a backup camera picture displayed on the screen, and a number of other audio and video input features. With more and more police departments enforcing laws about people talking while on cell phones, occupying their hands and driving ability, those on the go can’t really afford not to buy a Bluetooth hands free communication tool of some sort.

Another safety feature is upgrading your lighting. The usual lighting options for your next drive include fog lights, which produce a broad and close in light, to normal which are narrower but further out, to driving beam patterns which are as broad as normal headlights but extend twice as far in front of you. You can also look into High Intensity Discharge (HID) upgrades. This feature is in all the new high end cars and gives you substantially better lighting at less power consumption. Auxiliary lighting manufacturers include: Hella, PIAA, Pilot, KC Lights, and Optilux. When it comes to car accessories, upgraded lighting can be one of your best investments.

Accommodating for the Power When Fitting a Big Engine in a Small Car

Car enthusiasts love creating an amazing machine out of a basic one. They always look for the most extreme engines and car parts to manufacture a street monster. It’s all fun and games, but you must know exactly what you are doing.

The first thing that pops up in a car enthusiasts head when they see an old car is “How cool would this piece of rubbish be if I stuck a big fat V8 in it?”. That’s when you know that they have some big ideas for that old wagon.

Most small cars that have had a big engine fitted will also have turbochargers. Bigger engines in small cars make them heavier and will require more power to move faster. The turbocharger will allow the driver to achieve this without using more petrol.

The most crucial part of swapping engines is the rewiring process. The distributor has been programmed to fire the sparkplugs at the correct time. The person doing the modification will have to test the firing times before fixing it into the bonnet.

The engine will also have to be connected to the throttle correctly in order to drive. It will also have to be connected to the speedometer for correct measurement of speed and how many revolutions per minute (RPM) the engine is doing.

You will also need to find a way to keep the engine cool. The space is smaller and retains more heat. Engine overheating is damaging and the correct cooling system is necessary. Coolant hoses will also need to be wider in diameter for more flow to the other engine parts.

In some cases, you may need to change the gear box for an increased amount of gears. The engine may not be used to full capacity if it doesn’t have a smaller gear to go to. Remember that the first gear is for higher torque and less speed. This means that the gear is bigger to allow for that power. Higher gears are smaller to allow for more speed as there is not as much diameter to go around.

Axles will also need to be changed or enhanced. Small cars don’t have very strong axles as they are not meant to go at extremely high speeds.

Check that the wheels and tyres can handle the speed too. Older and smaller cars have thinner tyres that will wear away at higher speeds. Ask a tyre supplier to advise you on this so that you get the most of the added engine capacity.

Snow and Your Car

Welcome to Winter! Snow, ice, and cold can be especially challenging to the body and mind, as well as to important items in your life, including your car. Is your vehicle ready for winter? If not, there are some things you can do to help ensure that your car will start on cold mornings and survive even the nastiest winter weather.

Check under the hood. Make sure that your battery and all of its connections are clean and fastened; hoses and belts securely in place; your oil and oil filter changes up to date; your air filter clean; the radiator flushed and refilled; and your engine well tuned. One of the biggest contributors to a car not starting is the battery. If it is old and needs to be replaced, do it now before you take that long trip.

Look at the windshield. Besides obvious cracks in your windshield which you can have replaced, make certain that the wiper bay is free of debris. Ice and snow can freeze your wipers in place making them completely ineffective. Never pour hot water on a windshield to remove ice. You will remove ice all right…and crack the glass in the process!

Observe the tires. Properly inflated all season tires are usually all that you need for winter driving. In some areas, however, chains may be required. Keep a set in your trunk for emergency purposes.

Carry an emergency kit. It doesn’t take much to get stranded during winter. Even the best maintained vehicle can get caught in a snow bank or stuck in a ditch. Carrying a fully charged cell phone for emergency purposes is essential when driving anywhere uninhabited. The following items should be a part of an emergency kit you have stored in your vehicle at all times:

*Flash light with spare batteries

*Jumper cables

*Tire chains

*Ice scraper/brush

*Sand or kitty litter for traction

*Auto tools

*Wire coat hanger

*Flares

*Candles, matches

*Distress sign

*Medical kit

*Gas line antifreeze; ice lock antifreeze spray

If you frequently travel back roads and find yourself in remote areas, carrying an extra set of hats, gloves, and coats as well as several blankets is wise. Some people carry chocolate with them at all times which can be a great [and delicious!] energy booster as well as fresh water [don’t leave it in the car as it will get frozen].

If you find yourself stuck in snow, make sure that the exhaust pipe is free of all snow if you run your car while idled. Keep a window cracked open to allow for air to circulate; turn the engine off every ten minutes for a half hour or more to prevent carbon monoxide build up inside of the car.

You can survive the hazards of winter by taking a little extra care and caution. Properly equip your car today to ensure that your next trip is a safe one regardless of the prevailing road and weather conditions.