The dust from your first class at DirtFish hasn’t even settled. There’s still gravel in your hair. You can still taste the dirt on your teeth. And now your fingers are cramping from ecstatically swiping through Craigslist trying to find just the right car to buy to start your rallying adventure. It can definitely be daunting at first trying to figure out which car to begin with and where to look. Hopefully these few tips will get you lined up in the right direction on the road to your first rally.
The first thing to keep in mind about choosing a first car is to be completely honest with yourself; you will crash. You will. Rally is one of the most challenging and unpredictable motorsports on the planet. Top level WRC events still have high attrition rates. Despite the YouTube videos that convince you that you know what you are doing, as a novice you aren’t going to win your first rally. With your first car, your goal should be to finish and get seat time; not to win.
I’m not saying this to bring your rally dreams to a screeching halt like a rock caught in your brake caliper. Trust me, it feels almost as good as a win just to pull into that final time control at the end of the rally knowing you successfully completed several hundred miles of grueling stages. You’ve beaten the odds. (The last rally I competed in had about 15 cars in a 57 car entry list not finish or crash out). Recognize that while rally is extremely fun, it is impossibly tough on cars! So you will want to be looking for a car that is going to be simple and reliable in order to get you the most seat time. More importantly, you want it to be cheap to fix and maintain; so that when you inevitably crash it, you can get right back out there and continue to race. More seat time equals more chances of winning in the long run!
– /Reality Check over
Before we get to a list of 10 cars we recommend as good starter cars for rally, I asked several of the DirtFish instructors what advice they had on the subject.
Our Lead instructor, Nate Tennis, recommends going older and simpler when looking for a first car. Typically they prove to be more reliable and stronger since they have simpler components. This will be more forgiving for a new driver. Additionally, older cars will have plenty of parts cheaply sourced from junk yards which helps reduce costs.
Travis Nease warns against being brand loyal. Don’t look to be unique unless you have deep pockets. Pick a car that the majority of the others are running since that is a good way to learn from the community and source parts if ever needed. The dream rally build can come after some experience. He also recommends trying to find a car that has already been built, which helps with initial costs.
Michelle Miller is a big fan of starting with a 2-wheel-drive car. Typically they are cheaper to buy and maintain. But more importantly, they are a great learning tool. Regardless of front-wheel-drive or rear-wheel-drive, it will teach you subtle car control and a key understanding of weight transfer. To get the most out of a 2wd car you need to understand momentum and strategic vehicle placement to maximize speed and safety. Going directly in to a turbo 4 wheel drive car can hide these deficiencies in your skill set that may lead to inconsistent results. Instructors Michelle, Nate, and Jack have all be highly successful with 2wd cars in rally, often times besting 4wd cars. It’s not about what you drive but how you drive. Now on to the list!
NA Subaru / GC chassis
Turbos are expensive and they are easy to blow up. A naturally aspirated Subaru will be cheaper to buy and less complicated to maintain. Being a complex 4wd, Subarus do tend to be more expensive to run than other options. However, with 90% of the competitors running them, you will have a fountain of knowledge to learn from and parts to share that will help with that cost.
We use the Subaru BRZ platform as our rear wheel drive cars here at DirtFish where they have proven their strength and reliability. They have a fantastic chassis making them playful and agile. They are just powerful enough to have fun but not get you in too much trouble. They are still a new car, so their price may be high initially. However, parts for it can be cheaper and easily attainable at Subaru dealerships. The early model years should be lower in cost making them a good option.
The ultimate driving machine. Both the E30 and E36 have great rear wheel drive chassis dynamics. They are fairly simple to work on, with plenty of aftermarket support. E30 prices are starting to rise but the E36 prices are still relatively low for now. The “Drift Tax” hasn’t hit these cars yet, but I’m betting it will soon. You don’t need the M versions of these cars either. The plug and play-ability, chassis dynamics, and strength make either a good rally choice.
Old Volvos are tanks. They are simple and strong. Their size makes them able to take hits and keep going. They are bigger providing easier maintenance, perfect for a new driver. You may think they are an old man’s car but that just means you haven’t seen one of these flying bricks soar passed you yet.
It’s the original hot hatch for a reason. Old Golfs and GTIs are like those old Volvos, simple and robust. They may not have a ton of power, but they are so light and agile you will still have plenty of fun in them. They will be a great lesson in conserving momentum.
The older Focus models are cheap and plentiful. It’s a reasonably small package on a light chassis which makes it easy to learn driving techniques. The simple design makes them easy to work on. There is good aftermarket support for these cars and there are plenty of them in junkyards if you need quick parts.
It’s a Honda, so you know it will run. The Civic has been around forever so there will be plenty of cars and parts cars to choose from. The Fit is starting to be old enough to be cheap. Both of these cars are small and light making them nimble and good cars for learning. Plus who doesn’t like VTEC?
The Fiesta is quickly becoming one of the go-to cars for new drivers. A solid strong package in a small nimble hatch make the car fun to drive and easy to learn. You see a bunch of these in the R2 rally class for good reason. They have plenty of support from Ford as well. Being newer, it could be a better option for someone with a bigger budget as opposed to the Focus.
The Integra is still a Honda after all. So it will be dead reliable. With its balanced chassis and handling, there is a reason it was one of the best driver’s cars to come out of Japan in the 90s. That pedigree will translate well to rally.
This car is known for its legendary drift car status. The balance and mod-ability that makes it good in drift should translate well to the loose conditions of rally. They have plenty of aftermarket support. However, their initial cost could be higher thanks to the “Drift Tax.”
- Saab 900
- Mazda 3
- Dodge Neon
- Geo Metro
- Toyota Celica
- Ford Mustang V6
Cars for Sale Links:
-North American Rally (FS/FT/WTB): https://www.facebook.com/groups/759562764155197
-*General car forums and craigslist ads related to the car you’re interested in*
Article and photos by DirtFish Instructor, Eric Schofhauser