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10 Project Cars Under $10K

A good game plan will ensure you get the best price and the best car.

Evan Griffey
Jul 29, 2011

Selecting a project car is a major investment and a proper plan will really give the build-up traction and save some pain in the wallet. There will be some universal compromises, maintenance versus mods, mileage versus price or choosing the lesser of two evils. Will the car be used as a driver during the project or will it be left at home in the garage? Does the plan call for a turbo conversion or motor swap? These questions will dictate the importance of the engine—a non-running car will cost less. If you plan to drive the car then engine condition and mechanical maintenance are critical. A good game plan will ensure you get the best price and the best car. Is body condition important? Do you care about the interior? A race car will be stripped out anyway but a street car will need its creature comforts. The bottom line is to buy the strongest individual car, weighing its pros and cons against price. Ultimately, the project platform purchase is a multi-axis balancing act and to get you off on the right foot, we offer this guide of popular platforms with an under-$10,000 entry fee. Remember, it’s okay to go for the glory but know the car’s story.

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1984 - 1987 Toyota Corolla
Price: $2,500 - $4,500
JDM counterpart: toyota sprinter Trueno, Corolla Levin
Original Goods: The original drift weapon from the touge days in Japan, star of Initial D and an icon on both sides of the Pacific, the AE86 Corolla GT-S is still a primetime player all these years later. In Japan, the AE86 came in many variations, including two different front ends. The Sprinter Trueno came with pop-up headlights like our US models, while the Corolla Levin has a fixed lamp design. The big draw here is the rear-wheel-drive of this era Corolla. The big difference between a GT-S and an SR5-trimmed Corolla is all under the hood. The SR5 has a carbureted 4AC engine while the GT-S sports an electronically fuel-injected 4A-GE rated at 122 horsepower.
Quirks & Problems: When it comes to AE86 problems, Bob W. from Drift-Office, an Auburn, Washington-based tuning shop, could write a book. The man owns 14 Hachi-Rokus. After checking the body and chassis for rust, Bob says brace for motor issues. “You are looking at a 25-year old motor; that’s a quarter century. Most of them are already on their way out. Also be on the lookout for orifice leaks. In order of most common leaks; distributor, front main seal, cam seals, rear main seal and finally valve covers.” Fuel tank rust is a concern. The fuel gauge sending unit is either always inaccurate or broken. Bob says he’s also been actively replacing fuel pumps due to contamination from rust particles. The rear differential is also a contentious area. Typically the ring and pinions haven’t been maintained and most diffs that Drift-Office has seen haven’t even had a fluid change in 20 years. “If it whines as you drive, it’s a $1,000 fix,” says Bob, “not including the LSD, if the car has one. A factory ring-and-pinion setup is about $530, plus bearings, plus setting it all back up. While you’re at it, the axle bearings should be replaced as well, $130 a pair for those, plus machine shop labor to cut them off.” Work the gearbox on your testdrive. GT-S transmission synchros are usually well-worn as the #2 and #3 gearsets are the usual suspects. Bob warns, “As the old adage goes, ‘you can get a Corolla for free, but it’s still going to cost you!”
Best Year: Toss up. The real AE86 question here is best body style: coupe or hatch?
Popular Mods & Swaps: Bob says the 4A-GE is equipped with an AFM so nothing in way of electronics can be used to gain performance, everything has to be mechanical at this point; cams, header, short ram intake and an exhaust would bring the car up to about 120 whp from the 4A-GE’s 98 to 103 stock whp output. Swaps start with more evolved 4A-GEs like the Silver Top 20-valve from 1992-1995 AE 101 Corollas or Black Top 20Vs from AE111 Corollas from 1996, the latter rated at 170 hp. From here, swaps become exotic as we’ve seen engines as wild as a Honda F20C from a S2K or a SR20DET from the S-Chassis. How crazy do you really want to get?

1989 - 1998 Nissan 240SX
Price: $1,200 - $5,000
JDM counterpart: nissan silvia, 180SX
Original Goods: Another drifter’s dream machine, the 240SX comes in two distinct models, each with its own sub-set. S13 models span 1989 to 1994; the ‘89 and ‘90 models are the least desirable of the lot, with their ‘pig-nose’ front ends and single-cam KA24E (140-hp, 153 tq) engines. Model years 1991 to ‘94 S13s are called Chuki’s (Japanese for middle); they have a different front bumper and the better twin-cam KA24DE engine (155 hp, 160 tq). S13 models are immediately recognizable by their flip-up lights. S14 240SX’s were produced from 1995 to ‘98. Unlike the S13, which was available in hatch, coupe and convertible, S14s are coupe-only propositions. There are two sub-sets of S14, the Zenkis of ‘95 and ‘96 denoted by its conventional exposed headlights and smooth hood, and Koukis from ‘97 and ‘98 which have flared projector headlights and creases in its hood as well as a busier lower grille area.
Quirks & Problems: Beyond a rattling timing chain caused by a plastic guide, there are no inherent engine issues at work here. Being the most prolific chassis of choice for drifters, most 240s have usually suffered some sort of ‘battle scar.’ While being tainted is cool in some circles, i.e. crisscrossed zip-ties holding body parts on, make sure the car’s alignment is not affected. Be wary of vehicles with over-fenders. Normally, over-fenders are used after the vehicle has had an accident... or two.

Best Year: ‘95-‘98 S14; The S14 provides more options including front fascia swaps to make it look like the JDM Silvia S15. (I disagree, S13 is way better.—SK) It’s all the same under the hood from ‘91 on up so there is little power advantage between S13s and S14s.
Popular Mods & Swaps: The KA24E single cam is limited to a few mods: aftermarket header and exhaust. If a turbo is in the cards KA24E owners can use a Stanza ECU to tune their setup. The KA24DE dual cam engines have more bolt-on potential and are commonly used as a ‘cheaper’ alternative to SR20DET swaps and are affectionately known as the ‘KA-T’ when turbocharged. Putting a price tag on power is always tricky but we break it down like this; a built KA with a serious turbo kit will make more power than a stock SR20DET swap for less money. But ditch the SR20’s limiting stock T25 turbo and drop in a GT30 Series and a SR20DET can pump out 400 to 420 on stock internals. So with the SR20 you’re buying into the potential of a factory turbo engine. Plus it’s sexier. The SR20DET is the engine that powers the JDM version of the 240SX, the Silvia. There are two popular versions of the SR primed for swapping. The Red-Top S13 SR20DET is rated at 205 horsepower and can produce up to 230-250 whp at a safe boost around 13 to 15 psi. It costs about $2,500 from a used engine depot. Black-Top S14 SR20DETs make 220 horsepower stock and 250-260 whp at 13 to 15 psi. They cost about $3,500. Other swaps include CA18DET and Skyline RB25 and RB26 swaps with a McKinney Motorsports adapter kit. You can always split the difference and buy a 240 that someone has already swapped but you are trusting the condition of the engine and the quality of the workmanship.

1989 - 1996 DSM
Price: $2,200 - $5,500
JDM Counterpart: N/A
Original Goods: The Mitsubishi Eclipse, Eagle Talon and Plymouth Laser make up the Diamond Star Motors (DSM) roster. They are the same car save for front fascias, taillights and stickers. Turbo DSM editions come in front-drive and all-wheel drive formats powered by the legendary Mitsubishi 4G63 while naturally-aspirated DSMs sport a 420A powerplant. The GSX, TSi or RS turbo, all-wheel drive models are the way to go.
Quirks & Problems: “Crankwalk” affects 1995 to 1999 models. A ‘walking’ crankshaft is a crankshaft that moves too much inside the engine. This is also known as excessive thrust bearing play. The movement is usually due to the crankshaft not fitting inside its bearings correctly. While not bad for the crankshaft, the movement can place excessive or uneven loads on the bearings, causing premature failures. Symptoms are usually indirect and difficult to diagnose until major damage occurs. Driveline maintenance is a big DSM issue so check for service records in this area. Observe clutch pedal actuation, a low pedal can mean a clutch lever to hydraulics problem. Also, some DSM ECUs suffer from capacitor leakage that interferes with the ECU’s signals. A clicking noise from the center console (where the ECU is installed) is a red flag.
Best Year: 1992–1994, six-bolt if possible. Early ‘90 to ‘91 models have pop-up lights while the more desirable ‘92 to ‘95 models have fixed headlamps but also a better flowing head, better transmissions and bigger brakes. There is a lot of talk about six-bolt 4G63s. Six-bolt refers to the number of bolts holding the flywheel to the crank. These engines have thicker rods and some other internal differences. The seven-bolt block began production around mid-1992 but was scaled into the line-up, not taking over completely until 1995. So some cars from ‘92 to ‘94, and all ‘90 and ‘91s, had the six-bolt. The six-bolt would be preferred if the owner plans to significantly lean on the engine but a seven-bolt is in no way a deal breaker.
Popular Mods & Swaps: With the 4G63 the DSMs possess huge up-side potential. The DSM’s deep aftermarket support means newbies don’t have to learn the hard lessons. Buschur Racing and AMS Performance have staged build-ups from mild to wild that deliver safe reliable power the first time.

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1992 - 1994 Civic
Price: $400 - $4,000
JDM Counterpart: Honda civic
Original Goods: The Civic is the founding father of the import movement. While any model year run of Civic will provide plenty of value we are concentrating on the ‘88 to ‘91 CRX and classic ‘92 to ‘95 EG Civic. We prefer hatches but it’s a pick-your-flavor proposition. The CR-Xs are the lightest cars in the Civic line-up and are go-to players for power-to-weight ratio freaks.
Quirks & Problems: There are no inherent issues with the EG Civic.
Best Year: ‘94-‘95 Civic Hatch

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Popular Mods & Swaps: The Civic has a rap sheet of power parts and accessories that would school Wiz Khalifa any day. There are multiple makers for every conceivable part so the limits are imagination and budget. The big swap partners include B-series from the Integra GS-R and K-Series bullets from the RSX Type-S and TSX. Stock EG Civic hatches sport 72 horsepower (CX), 92 horsepower (VX) 102 horsepower (DX) or 125 hp (Si). A B18C1 from a US-spec Integra GS-R ups the ante to 170 horses, a JDM B18C ranges from 180 to 189 horsepower depending on the year. Dropping in a US-spec ‘97-to-‘01 Integra Type R B18C5 delivers 187 horsepower. Going with a RSX Type-S K20A2 nets 200 horsepower in pre 2005 models; 210 after that. Going big-block with a TSX K24A2 results in 200 horsepower but 24 lbs-ft more torque than a K20A2. Hasport and Hondata will be likely dance partners for most EG-era swappers. Hasport produces a number of helpful adapter kits; engine mounts, wiring harnesses and shift linkage solutions that get the engine in the car. Hondata has trail-blazed through the computer codes and has ECU programs that literally bring the swaps alive. Honda swaps really pay off. How else can you take a 70-horse CX and drop 130 horsepower on it? The swap resets the clock because the engine is stock and will pump out even more power when modded. Remember, a base model Civic hatch tips the scales at a hair over 2,100 pounds, making it easy to see how swapped sleeper Civics wreaked havoc on unsuspecting Mustang 5.0’s back in the day. It was fast then and is still fast today.

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1990 - 1997 Mazda Miata
Price: $2,000 - $5,500
JDM: Mazda MX-5, Eunos
Original Goods: The Miata is a throwback to British roadsters of the 1960s with the welcome addition of Japanese reliability. The car was designed to engage the driver with a feathery 2,200-pound curb weight, rear drive and performance oriented 50/50 weight distribution. The Miata is one of the most popular race platforms on the planet with several serious race series dedicated to them. It’s the kind of ride you can lean into the throttle, work the gears and have fun without attaining terminal velocity. It’s also a convertible, which adds a whole new dimension to the drive.
Quirks & Problems: All 1990 (and some early 1991) engines have short-nosed crankshafts that may fail, check crank pulley, four slots bad, eight slots good, observe for wobble. Spark plug wires are a sensitive spot, causing rough idle and hesitation. Check convertible top for fraying, window for hazing, a new top will hurt the wallet. Also look for poorly sealed taillights and check the trunk where jack is stored for rust.
Best Year: 1994; ‘94-and-up Miatas are desirable because of their bigger engine. The BP-ZE displaces 1.8-liters and generates 128 horsepower, compared to early 1.6-liter, 116-horsepower B6-ZE powerplants. The ‘94s also have more chassis bracing, larger brakes and lighter wheels.
Popular Mods & Swaps: There is an extensive aftermarket following for the early Miata. The car is known more for its handling prowess than straight-line ‘wow factor’ so there are a wide variety of suspension bits for the roadster. Power-wise there are the usual bolt-on suspects, intake, header, exhaust but also some very well-sorted boost-up options like Flyin’ Miata or GReddy turbo kits as well as Jackson Racing and Kenne-Bell supercharger packages. Popular engine swaps include the 13B rotary and 5.0-liter Ford V8s.
“The Miata is one of the most popular race platforms on the planet...”

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1994 - 2001 Acura Integra
Price: $2,500 - $7,500
JDM Counterpart: Honda integra
Original Goods: The DC2 Integra was the king of the Honda FWD line-up for its long seven-year production run. Available in two-door coupe or four-door sedan configuration, the bug-eyed Teg is well-supported, but when it comes to swaps it is traditionally the victim not the recipient. The RS/LS models sport a 142-horse B18B1 engine while the GS-R flexes the venerable B18C1, VTEC-enhanced four-cylinder rated at 170 horsepower and the infamous Type-R rocks a B18C5 putting out 187hp. Quirks & Problems: The most popular quirk is thievery. The DC is one of the most stolen cars on the planet so park with care and think about investing in a capable alarm system. However, due to theft issues it is very easy to find a recovered vehicle missing a few parts (likely the engine) for very little cash. Mechanically speaking, the B-series engines personify bulletproof. The Type-R has the biggest performance upside and the key is finding a pristine example to base your build on.
Best Year: Any. The Integra was freshened for the 1998 model year so there may be some value getting the car with mid-cycle improvements.
Popular Mods & Swaps: See Civic entry. The Integra is usually the donor car for Civic swaps although the K-series has risen in popularity in recent years.

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1992 - 1996 Lexus SC 300/400
Price: $3,000 - $7,000
JDM Counterpart: toyota soarer
Original Goods: Get some affordable bling by rolling this older model Lexus. A $40,000 car when new, the SC line offers a luxury coupe vibe for well under $10k and in some cases less than $4k. The SC300 is powered by a 225-horse inline-six and the SC400 sports a 250-horse V8. Beyond the engine the only other difference is that a small number of SC300s were offered with a five-speed manual.
Quirks & Problems: Gauge needles tend to go dim, LEDs in center console stop working, leather seats crack, wheel center caps peel and crappy cup holders.
Best Year: ‘92-‘95; Pre OBDII models are easier to mod, available 5-speed SC300 key for swapping.
Popular Mods & Swaps: The aftermarket support for the SC400 and its V8 are limited but body mods and big-lip wheels fit the entire line. The SC300 has more aftermarket support and a few well-sorted turbo kits but the big battle plan is a Supra 2JZ-GTE swap, especially with a five-speed manual donor car that opens the door to using the Supra six-speed.

2004 - 2006 Scion xB
Price: $7,000 - $10,000
JDM Counterpart: toyota bB
Original Goods: Probably the newest and most expensive of our collection, the hip-to-be-square, first-gen xB has many appealing qualities beyond its blunt silhouette. Its definitive JDM connection to the bB certainly ups the cool factor. The xB is relatively agile and responsive and its interior is far bigger than one would think. The xB has touched a raw nerve and developed a cult following in the States. It is not an adrenaline pumping performance platform; it’s more of an urban cruiser, perfectly content going with the flow and playing more to the senses of sight and sound than speed.
Quirks & Problems: The xB is relatively new and there aren’t any ‘common issues’ at work.
Best Year: 2004

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Popular Mods & Swaps: Don’t be fooled; this is no heart-stopping performance machine; it’s powered only with a 1.5-liter four cylinder that generates 108 horsepower. Where the cult mindset flows, massive modification also goes. The usual bolt-ons will provide modest gains but the truly fiendish have a gaggle of boost kits waiting in the wings. There are many turbo systems and supercharger packages from TRD, GReddy and HKS. Boost needs to remain in the single digits because the 1NZ-FE is built to sip fuel not breath fire. The xB is all about visual appeal, consequently mods like billet grilles, body kits, lowering coils and big wheels really transform the Scion’s personality. Also, with its cavernous interior audiophiles have had a field day because the cabin is big enough to accommodate a lot of gear and the acoustics are great providing excellent results.

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2002 - 2004 Subaru WRX
Price: $7,500 - $10,000
JDM: subaru wrx
Original Goods: We finally got the good stuff. In 2002, the US market finally received a WRX version of the Impreza, replete with the turbocharged EJ20 powerplant. Previously the non-turbo Impreza 2.5 RS was as close to WRC glory as American buyers could get. Subaru’s WRX won WRC drivers titles with Colin McRae in 1995, Richard Burns in 2001 and Petter Solberg in 2003 as well as manufacturers championships in ‘95, ‘96 and ‘97. Those looking to be a newbie with a Subie have a lot to work with. Solid build quality, solid engine and a solid aftermarket are among the car’s strengths. Quirks & Problems: The WRX is one of two vehicles on our list built in the 21st Century. English Racing’s, Aaron O’Neal says to keep a sharp ear out for wheel bearing noise and pay particular attention to how the transmission shifts. The initial 2002 model run was especially susceptible to the ‘glass transmission syndrome.’ The gears were hardened for 2003 but maintenance of the transmission should be job one since this can be a failure point.
Best Year: ‘03-‘04; The 2003 WRX is desirable because of the fortified transmission. In 2004, the WRX was redesigned, ditching the bug-eye headlamps. We like this body style but it’s going to cost more than a ‘03.
Popular Mods & Swaps: English Racing also says the stock EJ20 bottom end is good for at least 375 whp with a good tune but the weak link is the cast pistons. They are very detonation sensitive and can crack if they are “knocked” repeatedly or intensely. On the swap front it’s all about the STi, dropping an EJ25 from the STi edition bumps baseline power to 300.

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1990 - 1996 Nissan 300ZX TT
Price: $4,000 - $8,500
JDM Counterpart: nissan fairlady z
Original Goods: The Z32 edition of the Z-Car features a 3.0-liter, 300-horsepower VG30DETT V6. The Z32 was a wildly successful race platform, capturing two GTS-class championships for Steve Millen in IMSA competition. The Z32 300ZX is one of the big three import sports cars of the 1990s, joining the Supra and RX-7 at the head of the class.
Quirks & Problems: Notoriously tight engine bay, leaky brake master cylinders in early models, clogging of passenger-side turbo oil line (updated lines have insulation), oil consumption.
Best Year: ‘90-‘91; the first two years of production accounted for about 57,000 of the 72,000 Z32s built in its life cycle.
Popular Mods & Swaps: Like any factory turbo car the sky is the limit for tuning. But the 300ZX’s considerable racing pedigree means there are many layers of parts available. Stillen has been a prominent Z-Car parts manufacturer since Day One, offering boost-up, suspension and urethane body tuning parts.

By Evan Griffey
271 Articles

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