Car ownership comes in many forms, and for those of us who really love our cars, they’re an extension of ourselves. They represent what we like and carry those ideals every day whether we drive them or not. We let our passions choose what we drive and what modifications we make to have the perfect ride. For many of us, those passions dictate rear-wheel-drive cars. Their versatility as the optimum driveline for racing and their capability as a year-round daily driver make them useful in many different roles. There are plenty of affordable rear-wheel-drive cars out there, and it can be a little tricky to choose one, so we put together a few of what we thought were the best affordable used examples for a given role.
Ultimate Family Hauler - BMW E91
BMW’s fifth-generation 3-series was a smash hit. Taking over from the beloved E46, the BMW E90 delivered more refinement and a better driving experience. Like its predecessors, the E90 was available in touring trim as a wagon, which BMW dubbed the E91. While at least eight years old, these wagons still offer huge value for the money, a comfortable, competent platform to modify, and reliable drivetrains that are affordable to maintain and easy to repair.
BMW offered one rear-wheel-drive variant of the E91, the 328i. It uses the N52N or the N51 and makes 230 horsepower and 200 lb-ft of torque. The engines are nearly identical normally aspirated 3.0L inline-6 cylinder engines, save for extra emissions equipment on the N51. Their simplicity helps them be some of BMW’s most reliable engines, and they’re known for collecting many miles without a fuss The few issues they do have, relating to the plastics in the cooling system and various oil sealing gaskets, are very DIY friendly and make a great place to start for anyone looking to do their own work. Backing up the engine is a six-speed ZF automatic transmission or a rare six-speed manual. The overwhelming majority of them will feature the automatic, not that there are many examples of them, though. Wagons have had a bad reputation in the US since the malaise era, only having recovered in some enthusiast circles, and the evidence of that shows in the E91 sales numbers.
The E91 is already tough enough to find, but a non xDrive car is even more challenging. BMW made all their wagons all-wheel-drive for the next generation, making the E91 the last of rear-wheel-drive examples. If you can, find yourself an LCI model. The LCI cars are the updated version of the E91 offered between 2009 and 2012, featuring different exterior lights, bumpers, and various interior features. The premium package is also another bonus to look out for. It included power leather seats with memory, auto-dimming mirrors, and BMW Assist/BlueTooth for most of the E90’s run. Depending on the model year, the premium audio was part of the Premium Package; otherwise, it was a standalone option.
Even without the fancy options, the E91 is a perfect family hauler. The wagon adds quite a bit more room to the sedan’s already nicely sized trunk; the hatch glass even opens separately from the hatch, allowing you to remove items without everything falling out. Inside, the cabin is still a relatively modern place, with most examples sporting Bluetooth and some sort of navigation. The back seat has plenty of legroom for the kids and a car seat, even though it was the smallest sedan BMW offered in America at the time.
When you find your wagon, and they are out there, there’s a good chance it’ll be in excellent shape. Many folks who ordered one new or bought one second-hand did so precisely because it’s a wagon. They understood it was unique and cared for it as such. So what will this rare wagon cost you? Right around the $15,000 mark, actually. Even with their rarity, they’re still just another 3-series to most people and are priced as such. Go out and grab one of these before people catch on to just how nice they are as everyday drivers.
Wheel-to-Wheel Warrior - Porsche Spec Boxster (986)
Motorsports is not cheap. As the saying goes, the quickest way to a million dollars in racing is to start with twice that. Building a car is expensive; to be competitive, parts need to be changed often, and engines and transmissions rebuilt regularly. On top of that, a tow vehicle and trailer are necessary, the driver needs equipment, and there are usually no purses for winning unless it's top-level motorsport. So how do you get into racing without eviscerating your wallet? Find yourself a Spec Boxster.
A spec series uses the same cars with the same parts, the driver being the only real differentiator between them. The Boxster has two Spec racing series; SPB through Porsche Club of America and BSR through Porsche Owners Club. Both series utilize the early 1997-1999 986 Boxster as the model of choice. It uses a 2.5L water-cooled flat-six, making 201 horsepower and 181 lb-ft of torque, and is backed up by a Getrag-built five-speed manual transaxle. Bilstein PSS9 coilovers with pre-specified spring rates handle the damping, while GT3 sway bars and control arms round out the rest of the suspension. The interior of each car is stripped entirely except for the dashboard. Each roll cage runs the same wall thickness, though teams can choose two different door bar options. All cars also must run a hardtop, whether aftermarket or factory.
The Boxster is a perfect basis for a race car; small, light, and mid-engined, they offer unrivaled handling characteristics for the price point. Their modest power makes them great for new racers and old alike, requiring the driver to carry momentum rather than leaning on the power. On top of that, the drivetrain and brakes are stock so that parts costs are kept reasonable. Oil changes, brake services, and transmission services need to be more frequent and use race quality parts, but are relatively inexpensive; cheaper than servicing any modern performance BMW or Porsche. Thanks to the stock engines, the spec cars even run on pump gas.
Finding a Spec Boxster isn’t the most straightforward task in the world. Used examples come up for sale every so often and can be found priced around the $25,000 mark. Look specifically at Porsche forums like Rennlist and Pelican Parts, as well as places like 986forum.com and racingjunk.com. Before purchasing, it’s a great idea to have a local motorsports shop do a pre-purchase inspection. Have them look over the cage and suspension to ensure that the car has never seen significant chassis damage and everything is still straight. Ask for the logbooks, too, to see how many hours are on the drivetrain since their last refresh. If everything checks out, you’ll have yourself a competitive car at a relatively low entry point.
Drift Missile - BMW E46 M3
The drift scene in America has exploded in the last 20 years. What started as some kids sliding around empty parking lots is now a widely supported movement dedicated to killing tires and getting sideways. It is still largely grassroots, and thanks to that, events are cheap, and the community is very friendly. Local drift events are great places, not just to drive but to learn about drifting and its culture. Once you decide that drifting is your choice, it’s best to start with something slow and cheap. After you learn the ropes and are ready to step into something quicker, do yourself a favor and consider the BMW E46 M3.
This pick shouldn’t come as a big surprise, as every local drift is likely to have an E46 chassis sliding around in one form or another. Their natural weight balance and sport suspension design make them an ideal starting point for anyone looking to build a reasonably serious car. Even more so in its favor is the mountain of drift-specific aftermarket parts available for it. Every possible thing you might need is available, from knuckles to arms to hydro-brake setups and beyond. The E46 chassis shares a lot of the same suspension parts, too, allowing some crossover between the M3 and non-Ms. Any E46 will also benefit from some rear subframe reinforcement plates, as those areas can become an issue if left stock.
What sets the M3 apart from any other E46 chassis is the beast under the hood. The third-generation M3 uses BMW’s S54, a 3.2L screamer of a normally aspirated inline-6 cylinder. It touches redline at 8,000 RPM and makes its peak 333 horsepower, just 100 RPM below that. Pushing that needle up that high is the 262 lb-ft of torque it produces. The M3 puts that power down through a six-speed manual or BMW’s six-speed Sequential Manual Gearbox and a limited-slip differential at the rear. The manual is the way to go here; the SMG works on track when driven hard but can be obscenely expensive to repair when the SMG pump inevitably fails. Combine the engine and gearbox with the sublime chassis and suspension, and you get a car tailor-made to go fast sideways or in a straight line.
However, you do need to be careful with the S54. Its high redline puts a toll on its internal components if not appropriately treated and serviced on time. At the bottom of the engine, the OEM rod bearings have a penchant for quickly wearing when beaten hard. OE-type bearings that use a WPC coating are your best bet for longevity and reliability. At the cylinder head, the valves will need an adjustment every 30,000 miles to survive 8,000 RPM regularly. Next, the VANOS unit can develop issues with its solenoids or pumps; the easiest fix is a new unit, although they are pricey. While you’re in the engine bay, you’ll want to replace the water pump. They can last as little as 60,000, though this isn’t exclusive to the S54. Throw in a bigger radiator and oil cooler, and the S54 will power you through any event quickly and reliably.
For $25,000, you won’t be getting a collector-grade example, though that shouldn’t matter when drifting is the goal. These examples will have cosmetic imperfections inside and out and more than 100,000 on the clock. Major service work likely has been performed at those mileages, though, so make sure you ask for all documentation confirming servicing. It’ll take some work converting it to a drift-ready machine, but it will be worth it.
Highway Bruiser - Mercedes-Benz S550 (W221)
Comfort and speed; the two requirements of any luxury vehicle designed to eat up highway miles in style. The US is filled with long stretches of road through seemingly endless fields, and mountains; having a comfortable and quick cruiser is the best way to demolish those long trips. For $25,000, there are many good choices for this section, but we believe the true king of depreciation is your best choice. Few luxury sedans can come close to what Mercedes-Benz does with their S-Class. From technology to comfort to refinement, it's genuinely hard to beat an S-Class, especially a used one.
The W221 S-Class was offered in the US and Canada between 2007 and 2013 and started at around $100,000 back then. Several trims were available, though the S550 seems to be the most common. The 2006-2011 S550 uses Mercedes’ M273 V8 engine, displacing 5.5L and producing 382 horsepower and 391 lb-ft of torque. The later S550 uses the M278, a 4.7L twin-turbocharged V8 making 429 horsepower and 516 lb-ft of torque. Both engines use the 722.9 7G-Tronic automatic transmission to smoothly apply all of that power through the rear wheels.
Taking care of the comfort portion of the requirements is the Airmatic air suspension fitted to every US-spec S550. The Airmatic suspension can read and adjust for the road surface as you drive over it using various sensors and computers to deliver the perfect ride. It also gives you the option to choose your suspension settings when things get too sporty for normal driving conditions. Inside the cabin, you’ll find leather and wood everywhere, both of which are top quality. The standard seats are heated, 14-way adjustable, and use air bladders to adjust the bolstering. Satellite navigation and radio are standard, as are dual-zone automatic climate control, sunroof, Bluetooth, and a power rear sunshade. It could also have a Harmon Kardon sound system, massaging seats, and night vision cameras, among other options.
I know what you’re thinking; the S-Class, filled with so much technology, can’t be cheap to maintain. Truthfully, that depends. The M273 V8 is very closely related to the M272 V6 used in the C and E classes, which helps keep most of the service costs at a reasonable level. It is a pretty reliable engine whose common faults are very reasonable to repair. Oil changes and spark plug replacements are under $100, and things like ignition coils and drive belt kits can all be had for non-vomit-inducing costs. Keep up with the scheduled maintenance, and you shouldn’t have to worry about your wallet. If you’re bent on picking up a W221, there are plenty out there for under $25,000. The majority of examples will be the S550, though you’ll find the occasional S400 Hybrid, S600, or S63 within budget. The latter two models, while higher-spec, will be more expensive to repair and maintain thanks to their drivetrains.
Fancy Stance - BMW 5-series (F10)
There's just something that looks right about a big German sedan slammed on airbags with big wheels. While it’s not what the boffins in Munich had in mind for the F10 5-series, it’s an excellent platform for the fitment scene. In standard form, the F10 is just another luxury executive sedan. They’re comfortable, quiet, and quick depending on the engine choice, but overall a bit bland. However, throw on a set of wheels and bags, and you have yourself a fantastic looking and driving daily.
BMW offered the F10 5-series between 2011 and 2016 in different trims with various engines. The 528i uses the N52 for its first two model years and uses the N20 for the others. Both engines make 240 horsepower, though the N20 makes 258 lb-ft of torque, 37 more than the N52. The 535i uses the N55, a 3.0L turbocharged inline-6 making 302 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque. Lastly, the 550i used the N63, a twin-turbocharged 4.4L V8 that pumps out 443 lb-ft of torque and 402 horsepower or 444 horsepower depending on the model year. The overwhelming majority of F10s come equipped with the ZF 8HP automatic transmission, though 2011-2013 F10s had a six-speed manual transmission as an option.
The F10 5-series is readily available on just about every used car website around. A $25,000 budget leaves you with plenty of options; any of the three models are available within the budget with under 60,000 miles. Once you have the car, the next step would be suspension and wheels. A quick google search brings up several different options for aftermarket air suspension. Unfortunately, there isn’t a bolt-in OE option, so aftermarket is all that’s available. No matter, though, as those aftermarket companies, like Air Lift Performance and D2 Racing, are reputable with good customer service support should something go wrong. Expect to spend around three to four thousand dollars on a quality air suspension kit.
Search around on Instagram and the forums, and you’ll find no shortage of F10s with tight, tucked fitment. Use these as inspiration, especially when it comes to wheel choice. Numerous companies create wheels that fit the F10, from Forgestar to Work to Vorsteiner to Vossen, all in the 19” to 21” range. Owners appear to be running 9.5” wide wheels up front and 10.5” in the rear with varying offsets depending on the car. The airbag suspension should continue to give you a comfortable ride, but your wheel choice will also affect that directly. A smaller diameter wheel will provide you with more sidewall, which translates to better bump absorption. Keep that in mind when deciding how big you want to go.
The rear-wheel-drive platform has long since started to disappear from showroom floors across the world. Non-enthusiasts might not have noticed and assuredly don’t care, but for the rest of us, it’s the waning of 100 years of innovation. Affordable rear-wheel-drive cars are still out there for reasonable money in new and used conditions. Life’s too short to ignore your passions and drive a boring car. Go pick up the rear-wheel-drive car that best suits your needs and crush a couple of burnouts, we promise you’ll feel better. As always, if we missed an obvious choice, let us know in the comments below! Subscribe to our YouTube channel and keep following the blog for more great content.
Owner of a flat-six swapped 1998 Impreza 2.5RS and a 1973 Porsche 914. Horizontally opposed views, only.