Are you tired of your car? Looking for a challenge, or to drive something a bit more unique? Enter the exciting world of tuning, where the spec of your base car is only the start, and the sky is the limit. Whether you are looking to drag race, compete at track days or simply turn some heads in your neighborhood, car tuning is a great opportunity to explore your creative side and create a car that is uniquely yours.
Not all cars are ideal tuners. Before jumping right into makes and models, there are some basic questions every driver needs to ask themselves before buying a car, especially one they hope to tune up.
This is an obvious first question, but it's more complicated than it looks. Because we're talking about tuning cars the base price is important, but not an indicator of the total spend. Cheaper cars might seem more appealing at first, but the more that you modify and change, the higher the final price. If you have a high bar of where you want to end up it might be more cost-effective to get a higher-spec car that only needs small adjustments. At the same time, clever buying and a little knowledge of installation can help you turn a plain Jane base car into something special.
Older cars have a classic look and a lot of street appeal, but they can be more expensive to buy and harder to maintain because the parts aren't as available. Newer cars are often more practical for first-time tuners.
Heavier weights are harder to shift, that's just common sense. The heavier your base car, the harder it will be to boost its speed on it. If you've got a light speedy car as your base model, consider the weight of each modification and the additional part. The speed they are promising will need to offset the weight they bring to the table.
There's no point in buying a car to tune up when there are no parts to tune it up with. Before you buy a car, check your local aftermarket parts sellers for the availability, quality, and price of parts. Cars with difficult-to-source parts will usually require custom work, which can drive the cost of the whole build-up significantly.
Lots of these common tuner cars may come from fellow fanatics that have made their own mark on the vehicle. When considering a vehicle that already has modifications, be very careful that you know what you're in for. Some sellers will be well-meaning people without a lot of knowledge, others might be actively trying to get rid of a wreck they screwed up. If possible, find a mechanic you trust to look under the hood - ideally someone who specializes in the make or model of the car but hasn't seen it before - to make sure there are no surprises before you buy.
This is probably the question that will dictate your tuning experience the most. What you want to do with your car will inform what modifications you add and, crucially, which base car will get you there the quickest. Are you taking this to track days or drift events? Looking for high-top speeds and fast sprints? Or is this something to cruise the neighborhood and show off?
If you're looking for an easy lift of a tuner car, the Acura RSX is a good starter. With a nifty 2-liter engine already putting out 200 horsepower at 7,400 rpm, this is a powerful enough car to begin with, and with a few modifications, the RSX can get even faster. One thing to bear in mind: while the base car is more affordable than a lot of similar spec vehicles, its aftermarket parts are a bit more expensive than the average low-budget tuner car. Many of the RSX models available on the market have been modified already, which could provide a good starting point for first-time tuners.
If you picked up a car magazine in the early 2000s, you'll likely see a gleaming E46 somewhere in there. It boasted powerful mechanics in a variety of packages from sedan to convertible, and still holds up against some more recent BMW models. This makes the E46 a great choice for a tuned-up race car. In fact, the mod market tends to be flooded with E46 models with top-of-the-range aftermarket parts, but there are usually some lower-level models available for tuners on a budget.
Another BMW stalwart, buyers looking for an E36 are spoilt for choice. Picking between the six body styles, four transmission options and 14 potential engines might take you a while. Depending on the configuration, the E36 can have anywhere between 89 and 316 horsepower as standard, a difference of 10kg per horsepower as a weight-to-power ratio. Naturally, the higher end specs come at a cost: the various options range from around $3,000 at the low end, to upwards of $15,000. But if that's not enough choice for you, the E46 has lots of readily available aftermarket parts for tweaking and boosting to your heart's content.
A Honda Civic is a tuner's playground. Not the fastest base model (only 74 horsepower in the base car), but it's not going to turn any heads when it comes to speed. What it lacks in power, it makes up in customization. Civics are simple to build on and there are plenty of generations out there, many of which can share parts. A cheap car, with cheap parts, and the only way is up when it comes to performance. Count us in.
If you've been to any large-scale race event or training day, chances are you've seen an S2000. These Japanese sports cars are fun straight off the factory floor and respond excellently to mods. It's lightweight and powerful, weighing 2,809 pounds and packing 240 horsepower out of the box, adding up to a mere 5.31 kg per hp, even without mods. The skilled tuner and the right turbo or supercharger can push this to 300 horsepower without too much trouble. That is, if they can find one: they're not always easy to find and are often snapped up quickly, even at prices up to $25,000, though keen-eyed shoppers have been known to find bargain options that need fixing up.
On paper, the Nissan 240SX doesn't look like a hard hitter. 140 horsepower isn't anything to sniff at, but it's not up there with a lot of the base cars on this list. But look under the hood and you'll see why the 240SX is a drift fan's dream. The standard KA24DE engine is naturally aspirated, making it easy to turbocharge the horsepower. Boosting the speed will turn this lightweight car (only 2698 pounds) into a super fun ride. Plus, the car's status as an icon of the Japanese brand makes it a popular tuner car, meaning aftermarket parts are readily available.
Another great Nissan, the 350z is a fun and affordable tuning project. This is one of the most powerful sports cars as standard, boasting an impressive 300 horsepower. This powerful punch can come at a hefty price, with higher-end and tuned models selling for up to $10,000. Luckily, the model is a hugely popular tuning project, meaning there are lots of aftermarket parts available to supercharge the lower-end models, usually priced around $6000. Just keep an eye on the weight: at 3,602 pounds, it's easy to overburden the 350z and sap that already powerful engine.
The Beetle has been around for nearly a hundred years in some iteration or other, and for a good chunk of that time, gearheads have been finding ways to supercharge the classic car. Most tuned models are based on the New Beetle, introduced in 1997. These Beetles were so widespread that VAG group aftermarket parts are everywhere, making the options for tuning virtually unlimited. In 2011 Volkswagen changed the design to introduce the A5 Beetle, which has a different platform and takes different mods, but these newer models are still a popular choice for converting into anything from drag racers to dune buggies.
Celebrated for its excellent handling and driving position, the Corrado is a classic car in the making from 1988. With 188 horsepower it's not the fastest or the slowest base car on this list, but it's easy to find parts to supercharge its engine. Plus, less than 100,000 Corrados were ever made during its seven-year manufacturing period, making it a somewhat unique find to show off to your tuner friends.
You can't say muscle car without thinking of this titan from Ford. The first Mustang in 1965 enjoyed the most successful vehicle launch ever at the time, and the model's popularity has endured for nearly 80 years. While the engine doesn't have as much to boast about as other cars in the same price range - only 220 horsepower on a 5-liter engine - modders pick this car for its classic aesthetic and the ability to turn every head you drive past. Plus, tuners have nearly a century of aftermarket parts available to boost the base car into something fun.
The Ford Focus came out in 1998 and was named car of the year in 1999. This should tell you everything you need to know about this timeless hatchback, sadly not sold in the US anymore but still widely available worldwide. The Duratec engine is the result of years of refinement and is a joy to tune, and some models have recorded 215 horsepower or more on the track. Improvements to the handling should be first on your list, followed by dropping the suspension to make the most of the high-performance chassis.
The Bronco was a classic SUV for nearly 30 years before an equally long hiatus, but now it's back and it means business. The renewed popularity and its long tenure mean you get the best of both worlds when it comes to aftermarket parts and tuner communities: newcomers bringing fresh knowledge and old-timers sharing their hard-earned wisdom, not to mention Ford Performance itself. If you're looking for an SUV to work on, you can't go wrong with a Bronco.
Fair warning: the Mazda RX-7 might be a little tough to find. It was mostly marketed in Japan, and few were sold in the US market. Their rarity has earned them an avid following, but it can mean models are a bit more on the expensive side. As the car gets older more will be available to import, which should drop the price. If you can get a hold of one, they are a great choice for a tuner car. Starting with a huge 255 horsepower as standard, it's easy to push these to 300 hp and above with only some minor tweaking.
Another regular at track days and autocross events, the Mazda MX-5 Miata is fun to drive and easy to modify, making it the perfect choice for tuners of all skill levels. It might not be the most powerful sports car on the market, but it is the most popular roadster ever made, so it's not hard to find the parts to boost that engine by 150 horsepower on top of the standard 167 hp. Plus it's light - only 2,480 pounds - so it's easier to increase its weight-to-power ratio than on most similar sports cars.
A lesser-known Mazda, the Mazdaspeed 3 is a hot hatch that means business. The base model comes in at 263 horsepower already, but tuners have pushed this past 300, 400, and even up to 500 horsepower with the right parts. Bear in mind that the base car isn't known for its handling at the best of times, so at those supercharged breakneck speeds, you'll have to pay careful attention to torque.
Lancer Evolution rally cars have brought home more championship titles for Mitsubishi than many other cars on this list combined. It's no surprise: ten generations of upgrades and perfecting have resulted in a great race car that is fun to drive and fun to tune. Sadly, Mitsubishi has stopped making new models, but there are still plenty of available styles and varieties from its 20-plus-year history, and aftermarket parts to go with them.
Subarus might not stack up on paper as great value for money on paper - after all, 200 horsepower for up to $25,000 dollars? But Subaru drivers are some of the most loyal car owners out there, so they must be doing something right. What this means is that if you do choose to tune up a Subaru BRZ you will find a broad community of like-minded people to turn to for advice, guidance, and, crucially, aftermarket parts. Also, the BRZ was also marketed as the Toyota 86 or Scion FR-S, which can often fetch a lower price than the Subaru-tagged version.
More evidence for why Subaru drivers are so loyal: the Impreza is a super popular model that has a legendary tuner following. There are plenty of high-performance varieties available in the US, and the standard EJ20 Boxer engine is so popular with tuners that you might struggle to find one that hasn't been tinkered with already. But at least you'll have no trouble finding someone to talk through your tuning ideas with.
The Mk IV Supra is one of the most tunable cars available, and that's saying something. Wide wheel arches, a streamlined body, top-end suspension, and a 3-liter twin-turbo pushing out 320 horsepower all come together to make a mean base car, and a huge aftermarket gives you all the runway in the world to turn this into an absolute track monster.
This compact executive car was designed under Nissan's luxury division back in 1991. Also known as the Nissan Primera or the Nissan Skyline, it comes in a range of body styles and associated options, making it a great modular choice for tuning. The base car comes standard with 298 horsepower, a bargain at an average price of $8,000, and is available significantly cheaper if you look carefully. That means it's easy to turn this into a real track demon without breaking the bank. This is another car with great aftermarket options, including easily available turbo or supercharger kits, cold air intakes and plenum spacers.