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Cheap Cornering Contraptions - Part One

We check out some of the best handling cars available for under AUD$5000 - starting off with the rear-wheel-drive machines..

By Michael Knowling

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At a glance...

  • First of two part series
  • The best handling RWD cars for under AUD$5000
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This two-part series was inspired by an email sent by one of our readers, Anton.

Anton wrote...

"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...

Mitsubishi Starion

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 cheap!

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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 power.

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).

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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 standard.

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.

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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 fun.

For the money, this makes a very fast – if relatively high maintenance – package.

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.

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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).

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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.

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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 stiffness.

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)

BMW 323i

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.

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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.

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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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