Armed with a £5,000 budget, we choose the best track day cars for the 2019 season. Be warned, though – you may end up searching the classifieds for your own!
Track days are the perfect antidote to congested roads and speed limits, and are seemingly more popular than ever.
We count ourselves among track day enthusiasts, and even purchased a Ford Focus RS to drive on circuits around the UK. You could say we’ve been bitten by the track day bug!
With the 2019 season fast approaching, many will be considering a new machine to modify for track use. Below, we have picked our top five cars from European manufacturers that should deliver thrills by the bucket load, without breaking the bank.
1) Audi S3
The first-generation Audi A3 is now 23 years old, and it’s most fondly remembered for giving us the S3. Here was a four-wheel drive hatchback with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine generating as much as 225bhp in later form, and capable of seeing off VW’s Mk4 GTI.
Early models lacked variable valve timing and made 210bhp, but that was still enough to make B-road blasts interesting. Get the S3 on track and you’ll appreciate the car’s excellent traction, particularly when things get greasy, as well as its healthy in-gear torque.
The facelifted version arrived in 2002 and brought a few cosmetic upgrades. The 210bhp motor delivered a 6.8-second 0-62mph time and 148mph vmax, while the 225bhp engine was two tenths quicker to 62mph, and 3mph faster overall.
A desirable car to this day, the original S3 took the fight to more mainstream rivals and reminded everyone of Audi’s considerable motorsport pedigree.
2) BMW 325i Coupe
No track car guide worth its salt would be complete without a rear-wheel drive BMW, and our £5,000 budget bags a 3-Series in E92 Coupe form. That’s a lot of German metal for not a lot of cash.
The 325i packed a sweet-spinning six-cylinder motor with 215bhp and almost 200lb ft torque. Not quite an M3, the 325i is nonetheless a fantastic track day car when fitted with uprated tyres and brakes. The Bavarian is also primed for a serious weight-saving program to build on its 6.7-second 0-62mph time, and 153mph top speed.
Mechanicals are robust and easy to replace, and of course you’ve got an excellent BMW chassis to play with. You may even pray for rain on your next track day, to experience the car’s superb handling to the full, the stiffer M Sport chassis a must-have for track enthusiasts and bringing out the best in the E92.
The 325i Coupe also happens to be a stylish and capable cruiser away from the race track, and could easily double as a daily driver if required. That should make selling the idea of ownership to your nearest and dearest that bit easier…
3) Renaultsport Megane R26
Attend any track day and you’ll always find a Renaultsport lurking about – and with good reason. The French have a reputation for turning sedate hatchbacks into supercar rivalling machines, and the Megane 230 F1 Team R26 (launched in 2007) is no different.
A special edition car that celebrated Renault’s involvement in Formula 1, the R26 boasted a limited-slip differential up front, revised Cup chassis with stiffened settings, and 5bhp power increase over the 225 model.
Thus tuned, the turbocharged four-cylinder engine pumped out 230bhp, along with 229lb ft torque. That was enough for a 6.2-second sprint to 62mph, and 147mph top speed.
What makes this car special, however, is its awesome handling. It begins with the taut yet subtle ride, and then you notice the hyper-alert steering. Enter a corner with enough speed and you can play with the rear’s angle of attack simply by lifting off the throttle.
The R26 really is a master of this sort of thing. The six-speed manual gearbox is short-throw, and the Brembo brakes are positively stonking. On a £5,000 budget, you’d do very well to find a better hot hatch.
4) Vauxhall Astra VXR
An all-together more extrovert proposition than the Renault, the front-wheel drive Vauxhall Astra VXR caused a big stir when it arrived in 2005. Part of that was down to its wedge-shaped looks, but the rest was due to its staggering performance, which totally overshadowed rivals from Honda, Volkswagen and Renault.
The two-litre four-cylinder engine was boosted by a sizeable BorgWarner turbocharger and made 237bhp, which meant 62mph arrived in just 6.2 seconds.
The suspension was developed by Lotus, and active damping was on the options list. Yet you still had to be super smooth with your throttle input to avoid spinning up those 18-inch wheels. The 152mph VXR could eat tyres if you weren’t careful…
The VXR isn’t as nimble as the Megane R26, but it’s cheap to buy, parts are readily available, and it’s easy to extract even more performance from that turbocharged four-pot. A proper performance bargain – and it sounds great, too.
5) Porsche Boxster S 3.2
Five grand for a first-generation Porsche Boxster? You’d better believe it – and we found a few of the top 3.2 S versions within budget. Stuttgart’s answer to the Mercedes-Benz SLK and BMW Z3 really takes some beating…
Admittedly, this two-seat roadster’s looks are an acquired taste. But that won’t matter when you’re behind the wheel and reveling in the car’s incredible mid-engined dynamics. The steering oozes feel, and you don’t have to drive the Boxster fast to enjoy the experience, thanks to its open top.
Launched in 1996, the ‘986’ Boxster was equipped with a yowling flat-six motor linked to an exceptionally feelsome, six-speed manual gearbox. In 3.2 form (2000-on), the engine produced 252bhp, then 260bhp from 2003.
With weight distributed 47/53%, the Boxster exhibits fantastic traction off the line, and in 3.2S form is a more serious sports car than the entry level 2.7 model.
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Images: Newspress/Renault Press/BMW Group/Porsche AG