This two-part series was inspired by an email sent by one of our readers,
"I was wondering if you knew of a few sweet handling ‘80s cars that may or
may not have great power. I have a modest budget so extreme power improvements
on a car are unlikely - but I still want something fun to drive. I prefer a RWD
because I like oversteer more than understeer but if you know of a FWD that is a
good handler I might be interested. My budget for the car is around AUD$5k -
mods included. I have thought of a few already but haven’t driven any yet so I
don’t know if they are as good as they are cracked up to be. These include the
Starion, early RX-7 (Series 2 or 3), Prelude, Saab 9000 turbo and 3 series BMW
(though a good one is becoming hard to find). I have also considered importing a
Kei class but they don’t appeal to me - squashed styling and impractical."
We reckon Anton isn’t alone in his search for an AUD$5k car that delivers
enjoyable handling. So to help Anton, and everyone else in the same position,
we’ve done some research and come up with a list of cars that fit the bill.
Let’s start off with the rear-wheel-drive machines...
Time hasn’t been kind to the Starion. Once a dominant force in motorsport,
the mighty rear-drive Mitsi is now unrecognised, unloved – and very
The Starion is probably the most competition-oriented vehicle in the AUD$5k
price range, bringing a strong mix of handling, braking performance and turbo
Released in 1982, the JA Starion was praised for its balanced handling and
rigid body – even if its power-assisted recirculating ball steering was widely
reported as vague. Ventilated four-wheel disc brakes provide good stopping power
for the 1265kg coupe.
The later model JB and unleaded JD Starions use the same platform, except
with the availability of a rear LSD, larger 15 inch alloys and slightly altered
body and trim. All models are fitted with sports instrumentation and many have
leather (which is now usually in need of replacement).
Under the bonnet lives a G63B Turbo engine – a 2.0 litre SOHC donk with
single-point fuel injection and a TC06 turbocharger. Leaded JA and JB models are
rated at 125kW while the unleaded JD version (despite fitment of an intercooler)
makes only 110kW. Leaded Starions can accelerate to 100 km/h in under 8 seconds
and the unleaded slug struggles in the low 9s. A 5 speed manual gearbox comes
The biggest problems with the Starion are age and limited availability of
good second-hand parts. We’ve seen rough an’ ready Starions for sale at around
AUD$2000 but we recommend spending more on an example that’s well maintained. A
good-nick Starion should cost 4 to 5 grand.
Set aside some cash to spend on maintenance (maybe some new dampers, bushes
and interior trim) and you might also have some money left over for some basic
mods. Treat the engine to a high-flow exhaust and Japanese-import intercooler,
whack on some grippy tyres, high-performance brake pads and go have some
For the money, this makes a very fast – if relatively high maintenance –
Note that the Starion genuinely deserves to be crowned as a modern classic -
prices might swing upward in the future.
See Pre-Owned Performance - Mitsubishi Starion
for more details.
Mazda RX-7 (Series 1 or 2)
The early generation RX-7 was good enough to save Mazda’s dead-in-the-water
rotary engine program in the late ‘70s. So, no, you don’t get a cigar for
guessing it was an excellent all-round sports car.
Using a front-engine, rear drive platform the ‘Series 1’ 1978 RX-7 was
intended as a sports car – and at around 1070kg, it is also one of the lightest
performance vehicles to adopt the FR layout.
On paper, the MacPherson strut and live-axle Watts-link rear seem pedestrian
but the 51:49 front-to-rear weight balance, low centre of gravity and
well-sorted spring and damper rates ensure it’s a Good Thing. Road testers
complimented the RX-7’s balanced but safe and predictable handling. There’s mild
understeer that can be countered with a dose of power-oversteer when required –
this is particularly the case when driving RX-7s with a few power-up mods.
The steering and brakes are the biggest letdowns. The Seven’s recirculating
ball steering gives poor feel and weight while the ventilated disc/drum brake
combo was prone to fade when pushed. Rear discs were fitted from late 1980.
Aerodynamics was also an important part of design for Mazda – its 0.36Cd is a
mammoth step over ol’ RX2s, 3s and 4s... The shape remains attractive to this day
– the Series 2 version is distinguished by integrated bumpers, a new-look rear
and 14 inch wheels. The RX-7’s 4-seater interior is now very dated in appearance
but has a sporty feel.
In standard form, the Series 1 RX-7 came equipped with a 12A carb-fed rotary
engine generating 77kW. Power had been lifted to around 85kW by the time the
Series 3 ended in late 1985. With 9 - 10 second 0 – 100 km/h acceleration, the 5-speed manual RX-7 was only average in straight-line go but the engine was well
matched to the chassis – very responsive and willing to rev. In any case, the
standard power output and performance is now largely irrelevant – most examples
have an import replacement or rebuilt engine (often with performance porting).
In terms of handling, Whiteline Suspension suggests adjusting the standard
suspension to deliver 4 degrees of castor. From there, install firmer radius rod
bushes (to hold a more consistent castor angle while cornering), upgrade the
bushes in the rear trailing arms and Watts link and beef up the swaybars. These
are the ingredients of the Handling Pack, which retails for around AUD$850
(fitted). The springs and dampers will probably be due for replacement as well –
be careful when lowering because there’s limited front suspension travel.
For more power most people turn to a 13B turbo or 12A turbo engine (as
available in the Japanese-spec RX-7 Series 3). However, to maintain the lightest
possible weight and throttle response it's best to take the NA route – the EFI
13B 6-port engine (factory rated at around 120kW) is a good choice. A lot of
power is not a great idea because the chassis has relatively poor torsional
Expect to pay from AUD$4000 for a S1/2/3 RX-7 in good condition. Some sellers
ask a lot more depending on maintenance and modifications.
See our article Mazda RX-7 Series 1 (X605)
As mentioned in previous articles, small-body/big engine BMWs hold their
value stunningly well – but the E21 and E30 323i models are now old enough to be
snapped up for under AUD$5000.
The 1979 E21 is distinctly old-school in appearance and design. These are
fast becoming classics and with limited parts availability, these are best left
to the restoration enthusiasts. For an everyday fun machine, you’re better off
with the newer E30 model.
The 1983 – 1985 E30 323i employs semi-trailing arm IRS to deliver good
composure on a variety of road surfaces. The chassis is tuned to understeer when
pushed but it can be oversteered with the appropriate driving technique – it
behaves very much according to how you drive it. Spring and damper rates are set
to ‘sporty’ for the go-fast 323i but the ride remains comfortable and with
adequate suspension travel. Unfortunately, the steering is very low geared.
The engine is an EFI 2.3 litre SOHC straight-six producing 110kW – this
enables the 5 speed equipped 323i to run to 100 km/h in the low 9s.
The E30 323i was offered as a 5 speed manual and automatic. Two-door models
are more popular but a 4 door was released in late 1983. Both are relatively
upright body styles which gives good space and practicality. The interior is
very business-like and efficient.
In today’s second-hand market an E30 323i can be bought from just under
AUD$5000. A low kilometre example with full service history goes for almost
double that. Depending how much you spend, we suggest replacing any worn suspension components, experimenting with alignment angles, fitting some quality
tyres and enjoying yourself.
Stick around for Part Two – the final – of this series. We’ll check out the
front-wheel-drive and 4WD handling machines for under AUD$5000...
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