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Best cars to modify: 10 starting points for the ultimate custom car

The launch of a new car is a momentous event, the culmination of years of careful planning, designing, and testing. 

Yet there are always people who can’t wait to rip that carefully-crafted sheetmetal and fine-tuned engine to bits.

Sometimes stock isn’t good enough, and that’s when it’s time to break out the welder and modify. But everyone has to start somewhere.

You can modify just about any car by throwing money and knowledge at it, and customization has been a part of the car scene for decades.

That being said, we looked for cars that probably won’t require any restoration work to make roadworthy – hence the lack of 1932 Fords and 1968 Dodge Chargers on this list – as well as ones for which a decent amount of aftermarket parts and knowledgeable mechanics are available.

BMW 3 Series/M3

The darling of car magazines is also the darling of the garage. Modified Euro (meaning German) cars have gotten nearly as popular in the U.S. as staple Japanese models, largely thanks to the 3 Series.

Its compact rear-wheel drive chassis makes an excellent basis for performance mods, and there’s also plenty of room to improve its handsome-but-staid exterior.

Despite its luxury badge, finding a used 3 Series is also pretty easy. Any of the past generations will do.

Ford Mustang

Since Ford commissioned Carroll Shelby to build the first GT 350, the Mustang has been a go-to platform for performance upgrades.

The 1979 introduction of the “Fox-body” ‘Stang and subsequent decade of development proved that this muscle car could survive in the era of electronic fuel injection and emissions regulations, while still remaining attractive to hot rodders.

That’s still the case today. It may not be your father’s Mustang, but does look (and go) like it. So, presumably, will the all-new 2015 model.

Honda Civic/Si

Don’t let its Fast & Furious reputation fool you: the Civic is one of the most versatile cars out there. Cheap and plentiful – and with a legion of aftermarket companies to support it – Honda’s compact can easily be converted into a great drag car, autocrosser, or showpiece.

After all, if you’re planning expensive modifications, it’s sometimes better to start with a cheap car.

Not all Civics are created equal, though. Pre-2000 models are preferred for their better-handling chassis and more-tunable engines. Also look for the sporty Si version.

Mazda MX-5 Miata

It may look like a toy, but the Miata is basically a generic sports car that can be modified for any number of uses.

Most of those uses involve speed and crash helmets. Whether it’s on a road course, at a drift event, or dodging the cones at an autocross, the Miata is equally at home.

Dropping a V8 into one of these little roadsters isn’t unheard of, either.

Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution

In the 1990s, Mitsubishi led the pack of high-tech Japanese performance cars with models like the 3000GT and Galant VR-4. Today, they’re gone, but Mitsu’s greatest creation remains.

The Mitsubishi Evo gained a reputation in the World Rally Championship and on PlayStation consoles, but didn’t arrive in the U.S. until 2003.

When it did, the Evo did not disappoint. Featuring sophisticated all-wheel drive systems and endlessly tunable turbocharged engines, these diamond-star warriors are still favorites among people who spend their off hours at the track.

Nissan 240SX

Nissan’s discontinued entry-level sports car is best known today as a drift machine. It’s rear-wheel drive chassis and bulletproof powertrain make it perfect for going sideways.

Even if you’re not drifting, the 240SX can become the basis for an agile track car, and its classic good looks pair well with a variety of body kits and wheels.

Until Nissan decides to build the IDx NISMO, this is among the cheapest ways to get behind the wheel of a fun car from the people who brought you the GT-R.

Porsche 911

This one might require a greater reserve of skill and cash, but it promises equally great results. 

The 911 one of the only high-end sports cars with significant customization support, perhaps because it wears modifications so well.

From the peerless builds of Singer and Magnus Walker to purposeful track rats, there’s a remarkable amount of possibilities for a car that hasn’t changed much in 50 years.

Subaru Impreza WRX/STI

Like the Mitsubishi Evo, Subaru’s WRX and STI are ordinary compacts that have been turned into rally machines.

With turbocharged boxer engines and all-wheel drive packed into sedan (and sometimes hatchback) bodies, the WRX has always been one of the best performance cars for people who have lives.

Despite their impressive spec sheets, it wasn’t long before people started modifying the Subaru WRX models, producing some truly awesome modern hot rods.

Toyota Supra

Toyota chairman Akio Toyoda wants his company to build more exciting cars, like it used to.

Over four generations, the Supra became as iconic as any model that ever wore a Toyota badge.

 It may not be around anymore, but the Supra is still coveted for its styling and engines, which can be upgraded to produce massive amounts of power.

While it’s not the only Japanese sports car preferred by tuners, the Supra is also somewhat less exotic than its rivals, making it reliable and relatively easy to work on.

Volkswagen Golf/GTI

With the original GTI, Volkswagen invented the modern hot hatchback. It’s combination of performance and practicality is still attractive today.

The GTI helped launch a Volkswagen tuning subculture that’s as vibrant as any in the car world. 

The result is a car that – like most others listed here – comes with an avalanche of available aftermarket parts, as well as a massive nationwide network of enthusiasts.