A question from a reader on Twitter asking for advice on cheap track day cars has set me thinking about possible contenders. Of course your definition of cheap might be different to mine, so all we really need to agree on is what makes a good track day car. Something quick, with sweet handling? Oh yes. Simple to fix and upgrade? Yup. A plentiful supply of relatively affordable parts is desirable, too, and above all it must be fun.
Well, following on from last week's Service History column, where we pondered which engine/drive layout might be right for the ideal summer roadster, I'm going to be bold and limit these searches to front-wheel drive cars only this week.
Hold on, though, I hear you gasp: the virtues of a RWD 350Z or Caterham hooning round a circuit are well known, ditto 4WD Imprezas and the like, but doesn't FWD impose severe limitations on handling adjustability? Could it turn a longed-for track-day blast into a Caroline Flack-day farce, as you yank uncontrollably with increasing desperation at your twirling steering wheel, your understeering car approaching the barrier fast, nose first?
Nonsense. Consider this 2002 Honda Civic Type R, a car you could corner on its door handles lap after lap and whose 197hp VTEC engine can scream like the proverbial all the way to 8000rpm. It grips well, too, stops smartly and it's easy to mod, and a 0 to 60mph time of 6.6 seconds gives you some idea of how much fun it might be. Throw in that super-slick gearbox with well-chosen ratios and it seems a bit of a pity to waste this car thrashing it round some cold provincial track, to be honest. Indeed if it didn't ride like it was broken it'd still be a bloody good road car, especially at £2995.
Almost as tempting is this ravishing Renaultsport Clio 182, up at just £1895. Stick a big engine in a little car and hold on tight - there's a 180hp 2.0-litre lump up front that pushes the pocket-sized Clio around with famous verve. But it's in the corners where this lithe gripster comes alive. It's pointy but dainty, and turn-in is razor-sharp. It'll cock a rear wheel in the air like a dog looking for its favourite lamppost, and if you want lift-off fun it'll do that, too.
Hundreds of years ago we went automatically to Peugeot for front-drivers that handled, and if you can find an old 306 Rallye, the stripped-down version of its phenomenally good 306 GTI-6, you'll enjoy fantastically neutral on-the-limit handling and a beautifully sorted chassis. Try the tiny 106 GTI as well, if you don't mind putting a bit more work into going fast. This one shares the 306's balance, if not its ultimate speed. There was a Rallye version of the 106, too, and again, though not stunningly quick, it was a lightweight and unassisted hoot through the bends. Boot it; flick it; catch it.
Don't overlook an old Ford Fiesta ST, either. The new one might be great, and the one before that was certainly worth a punt, but the original car, naturally aspirated and small as a church mouse, had character. A 148hp 2.0-litre of reasonable liveliness made it go, large brakes made it stop and a well-sorted chassis and fat Pirelli P Zeros gave it the sort of cornering prowess needed for track-day work. £2995 buys you this one.
Possibly the ultimate front-wheel drive driver's car, the stripped out Honda Integra Type R offered up a responsive and sonorous 187hp 1.8-litre VTEC engine, good for 9000rpm, in a car that weighed little more than a box of matches. With a stiff chassis, huge brakes and a limited-slip diff you could literally make this Integra do whatever you wanted it to do - accurate steering and relatively skinny tyres did the rest. Such purity doesn't normally come cheap, but this 1999 example's on sale for just £6400, which sounds like a lot of track-day fun for not much money.
Up the dosh a bit and you could have a limited edition Mini Cooper S JCW GP - this 2006 car is yours for £12,500. Mods to the intercooler and the engine management system upped the horses from the supercharged 1.6-litre to 215hp, 5hp more than a stock Cooper S, while weight reductions (so long, rear seats) and a tweaked chassis did the rest. It made this responsive little brick possibly the most desirable and enjoyable 'stock' BMW Mini, a blast on the straights and a hoot in the bends. Only 500 came to the UK, hence the steep price.
If the angle of the sticker price is less of a concern, consider the front-wheel drive hero that is the Renaultsport Megane. You can buy older ones for very little, but you'll need plenty of wedge to get your mitts on a Renault Megane Trophy-R, £25,995 in the case of the one we found in the classifieds, but it's one of only 30 in the UK and it'll be worth every penny. This record-shattering, lightweight beaut was built for the singular purpose of regaining the Nurburgring crown, and it comes stacked with plenty of serious kit - adjustable Ohlins dampers, lighter Speedline wheels and sticky Michelin Pilot Cup 2 tyres. As a front-wheel drive track day tool it's quite possibly without peer - blisteringly quick, huge grip, a riot in corners. Fantastic brakes too.
Finally, all lists of any credibility have to include a VW Golf GTI somewhere, and this one is no exception. There are many to choose from, of course, some with skant claim to any track pedigree whatsoever. But the Mk7 Clubsport S was Wolfsburg having a go at doing things properly: a stripped-out and hunkered down front-driver also with the Nordschleife record on its to-do list. The result is still a Golf in the classic, compliant mould - but one that'll do all manner of marvellous things when you put its feelsome, stability-happy handling and 310hp output to the ultimate test. It remains a wallet-tester, too, though: just 150 examples came to the UK and they still command predictably high prices. A few miles on the clock will obviously help - we found this one among several in the classifieds for £32,950 with 16k already on the clock. Plenty of room for 12.944 miles more then.