The launch of a new car is a momentous event — an occasion where years of planning, designing, and testing finally culminate. Despite that, there are always those who can’t wait to rip that carefully-crafted sheetmetal and fine-tuned engine to bits. With the right amount of money, knowledge, and patience, you can modify just about any car. Some take better to enhancements than others though, so we’ve cobbled together 25 of the best tuner cars here. Specifically, we’ve cataloged modern vehicles that have carved out a niche in the tuner scene for one reason or another. You should probably start gathering parts now.
Despite what Fast & Furious tells you, the Honda Civic has never been an incredible performer. It is, however, an inexpensive, versatile, and reliable vehicle that works just as well as a starter car as it does as a long-term daily driver. There are also a legion of aftermarket companies that support the plucky compact, which means you can build any type of Civic you like, whether it be a drag car, an autocrosser, or a showpiece.
Not all Civics are created equal, though. Pre-2000 models are preferred for their better-handling chassis and more-tunable engines, but the latest generation is the first to feature a turbocharged engine from the factory. So while the Civic has been around for awhile, its tuning potential may be just beginning.
On the other end of the spectrum is the iconic ‘Vette. A favorite among drag-racers, road course champions, and weekend warriors, the Corvette really can do it all. It was one the first muscle cars to emphasize handling, but it’s also as synonymous with American horsepower as anything on four wheels.
In 2017, you can buy a Corvette with as much as 650 horsepower from the factory, but the car’s capability is seemingly limitless. We’ve seen tuned versions with more than 1,000 ponies on tap, and when you consider the plethora of performance parts available for the Vette’s trusty LS and LT series V8s, it’s not a stretch to imagine more power coming on down the road. Be afraid Mustangs, be very afraid.
Ford Escort RS Cosworth
The Ford Escort RS Cosworth is awesome. Why? Because it’s literally a race car made road-legal, one fitted with a ridiculous “whale tail” spoiler and one of the most potent four-cylinders ever made.
Under the Escort’s vented hood lies a 2.0-liter Cosworth YBT engine that produces 217 hp as standard. Enthusiasts and racing teams have coaxed more than 1,000 hp from the little four-banger though, and when you consider the car’s incredible handling, that makes the Escort RS Cosworth one of the perfect tuner cars ever.
Mazda MX-5 Miata
It may look like a toy, but the MX-5 Miata is about as perfect as a small sports car can be. It can also be modified for any number of uses, however nearly all of them involve roll cages, crash helmets, and lots and lots of duct tape.
Whether it’s on a road course, at a drift event, or dodging the cones at an autocross, the Miata is equally at home – and dropping a V8 into one of these babies isn’t unheard of, either. Considering the latest version is one of the best Miatas ever, we’d say the MX-5’s future is looking especially bright.
Volkswagen Baja Bug
Companies like Jeep and Land Rover are probably the first brands you think of when discussing off-roaders, but a long time ago, Volkswagen proved you don’t have to spend your life savings to have fun in the dirt. At its core, a Baja Bug is just a normal VW Beetle that has been modified to traverse tough or sandy terrain, which basically makes them dune buggies on a budget.
Surprise surprise, the Baja Bug originated in Southern California in the 1960s. But because of their home-grown nature, every Baja Bug out there is a little bit different, just like their owners. These Bugs are also some of the easiest cars in the world to turn a wrench on, so we just had to include it.
One usually doesn’t associate Toyota with exciting cars, but as it so happens, the automaker’s rare efforts at building performance vehicles have turned out smashingly. Case in point, the Supra.
Over four generations, the Supra became as iconic as any model that has ever worn a Toyota badge. It unfortunately isn’t around anymore, but the two-door remains highly-coveted for its sensual styling and wild engines, which can be upgraded to produce mind-boggling 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 modify.
With the original GTI, Volkswagen invented the modern hot hatchback, but its combination of performance and practicality is as appealing today as ever.
The GTI helped launch a Euro-themed tuning subculture that’s as vibrant as any in the car world, and both the R32 and Golf R cemented its place in history. The result is a nameplate that — like most others listed here — comes with an avalanche of available aftermarket parts, as well as a massive nationwide network of enthusiasts.
There are many reasons to modify a car other than straight-line speed. In fact, there’s an entire industry dedicated to enhancing off-road prowess, and if we’re talking about gettin’ dirty, we just have to mention the heroic Jeep Wrangler.
Modern Wranglers are remarkably similar to the YJ generation that debuted in 1986, but they’ve evolved tremendously in the technologies they offer and the obstacles they can tackle. Thankfully, the aftermarket world has kept pace with the automaker, as there are more body armor packages, winches, electronic performance modules, and lighting kits available than you can shake a stick at.
Want even more utility? A pickup truck version is expected to debut sometime in the next few years. For all the latest news, check out our 2018 Jeep Wrangler roundup.
Few cars in the world have fanbases as passionate as the Mazda RX-7. Why? One word — rotary.
The Wankle-engineered 13B that powered the sports car throughout its life is a flawed masterpiece, one that offsets incredible smoothness and eye-opening horsepower potential with mechanical quirks RX-7 owners usually refer to as “charm.” You can recognize these drivers from the extra quarts of oil they keep on them at all times.
Because of its die-hard aftermarket support, you don’t have to look hard to find quad-rotor RX-7s with 800 hp or more, but even from the factory, the lightweight dynamo was a joy. Here’s hoping the rotary makes a triumphant return soon.
Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution
In the 1990s, Mitsubishi led the pack of high-tech Japanese performance cars with models like the 3000GT, Galant VR-4, and its greatest creation, the Lancer Evolution. Sadly they’re all gone today, but the Evo in particular left a long, sideways skid mark in the automotive history books (No, not that kind).
The Evo slowly but surely gained its reputation throughout the 1990s with World Rally Championship success, but a few PlayStation games and a 2003 U.S. debut later, and you have a bonafide performance phenomenon.
Featuring sophisticated all-wheel drive systems and endlessly tunable turbo engines, these diamond-star warriors are still favorites among people who spend their off hours at the track.
Subaru Impreza WRX STI
Like the Mitsubishi Evo, Subaru’s WRX and WRX 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 practical yet fun WRX has always been one of the best performance cars for people who, you know, 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.
Ever since Ford commissioned Carroll Shelby to build the very first GT 350 in the 1960s, the Mustang has been a go-to platform for performance upgrades.
The 1979 introduction of the “Fox-body” ‘Stang and subsequent decades 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, and a new range of turbocharged EcoBoost engines and track-focused Shelby models are increasing the ‘Stangs appeal even more.
The Ford Shelby GT350R took the performance category in our 2016 Car Awards. To see how the car did on our track, click here.
In a world obsessed with horsepower, vehicles like the Toyota 86/Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ are breaths of fresh air. Much like the Mazda MX-5, the 86 prioritizes handling over brute force, and the result is an incredibly focused machine built for backroads.
Put simply, the FR-S is a return to form for Japanese sports cars. Its compact size, low weight, and rear-wheel drive character will fill Toyota Celica, Nissan 240SX, and Honda S2000 fans with nostalgia, and the car is only getting better and easier to modify as it ages.
The Scion brand recently folded, so for the 2017 model year, the FR-S will become the Toyota 86, a clear homage to the drift-loving AE86 Corolla of the 1980s.
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, and we all have the BMW M3 to thank for that.
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 M3 isn’t all that difficult, and what’s more, every generation is equally epic in its own way.
Just kidding, the E30 is clearly the best.
This one might require a greater reserve of skill and cash, but an enhanced 911 promises equally great results.
The legendary 911 is 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.
The car is still evolving though, as all non-GT3 911s now feature turbocharged engines instead of high-revving naturally aspirated units. That means the car has a different personality than it had before, which presents a whole new canvas for the aftermarket community to fiddle with.
Mitsubishi may have fallen off the performance wagon lately, but it was a dominant engineering icon in the mid-90s. One car in particular solidified the automaker’s authority – the 3000GT VR4. Though the 3000GT was packed with sophisticated technology, including the first production application of four-wheel steering, the car’s crown jewel was its twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 making 325 hp. This engine was shared with Dodge’s Stealth RT of the same generation.
If you can get your hands on an unmolested 3000GT twin-turbo, you’re both extremely fortunate and in for one heck of a mod machine. Keep the all-wheel drive platform, upgrade both turbochargers, swap in a bigger intercooler, add methanol injection, and you’re in for more than 400 ponies at the wheels.
Honda’s S2000 was a convertible-exclusive sports car designed to celebrate the brand’s 50th anniversary. Production spanned 10 years from 1999-2009, and during that time, the car built a cult following for its precise handling, light frame, and high-revving engine (redline was 8,800 rpm for the first few model years).
Along with Mazda’s Miata, the S2000 is one of the best entry points for those looking to conquer track days. Some of the best mods for the S2000 include bigger front and rear sway bars, more aggressive brake pads, and wider wheels to accommodate beefier tires. And before you consider adding power, try lightening the car for a better power-to-weight ratio.
A clear favorite among drifters, Nissan’s 240SX was the late ’80s/early ’90s version of today’s Toyota 86. Low weight, rear-wheel drive, superb handling, and only modest output make the 240SX a prime candidate for modification. Fortunately, the vehicle’s long hood leaves ample room for engine swaps, forced induction, and more.
Those who wish to keep the stock KA24E (1989-90) or KA24DE (1991-98) four-cylinder engines can try upgraded headers, cold air intakes, full downpipe exhaust systems, and ECU tunes to get closer to 200 hp. If that’s not enough, common engine swaps include the Nissan Silvia’s SR20DET turbocharged four-cylinder, the Nissan Skyline’s RB20DET turbocharged four-cylinder, and if you’re feeling ambitious, Chevy’s LS1 V8.
Dodge Neon SRT-4
The Dodge Neon SRT-4 is a ridiculous vehicle. Dodge took its cheap, boring Neon compact, completely overhauled its engine internals, and added a turbocharger. With 215 hp and 245 pound-feet of torque on tap (subsequent years made 230 hp/255 lb-ft), the Neon SRT-4 chugged to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds – a phenomenally quick sprint in 2003. At the time, no other vehicle could match the SRT-4’s performance for under $20,000.
Fast as the stock Neon SRT-4 is, the car begs to be modified. Common upgrades include a short-throw shifter, Mopar turbo-back exhaust, cold air intake, turbo waste gate actuators, hardened motor mounts, and electronic boost controllers. These modifications alone will get you close to 300 hp, which is all you’ll need to embarrass German luxury cars.
There’s a very good chance that including the Acura NSX in this list will upset some folks. Why? Because some regard Japan’s original supercar as perfect. In other words, modifying a car that was co-developed with F1 legend Aytron Senna is blasphemous.
When the NSX hit the market in 1991, it rocked the performance world with its telepathic steering and hummingbird agility. Powering the vehicle was a mid-mounted 3.0-liter V6 engine that pioneered Honda’s iconic VTEC (variable valve timing) system. While impressive, the NSX and its 270 hp can’t quite hang with todays’ 500+ hp performance machines.
This “underpowered” dilemma has inspired tuners to get busy under the NSX’s hood. On earlier models, a favorite mod is aftermarket or ported headers. With proper engine tuning, this single change can add more than 25 hp. For additional gains, air intakes, lightweight exhausts, or improved fuel injectors (with a good tune) can push you well beyond 300 hp.
Land Rover Defender
The Land Rover Defender is a blank canvas for enthusiasts who want to build their dream off-road rig. There are countless suspension and tire options that fit the Defender, so you can dial in the precise amount of ground clearance you need. You can also install accessories like a winch, a roof rack, and a bull bar.
The list of potential engine modifications is just as long. The Defender hasn’t been what you’d call a powerhouse in recent memory, but it used to come with a V8, so you can drop one in if you’re willing to fabricate parts like engine mounts. California-based Icon once built a Defender with a 6.2-liter V8 tuned to 430 hp.
Land Rover stopped selling the Defender in the United States about 20 years ago, so the most difficult part of the project might be finding a car to start with.
The Integra stands out as one of the most enthusiast-oriented models Acura has ever built. It’s fast, it’s nimble, it’s affordable, and its tuning potential is as big as the wing on a Lancer Evolution.
Several tuning shops in the United States specialize in making the Integra go really, really fast. You can perform simple modifications like adding bigger brakes, or you can go all out and build a supercharged engine from scratch, complete with a revamped suspension and a stripped-out cabin with sport seats. Places like Pro Import Tuners have you covered in terms of parts.
Acura used the Integra nameplate on four different models between 1985 and 2001. We suggest getting a third- or fourth-generation model for maximum performance.
If you want a really quick Dodge Challenger straight from the factory, you can call up the nearest dealer and buy either a Hellcat or a Demon. If you’re looking for a project, there are several ways to squeeze more power out of even a standard Challenger. It’s a relatively basic car (at least by today’s standards), so the majority of the modifications are within the reach of a skilled DIYer.
Once you’ve got a Challenger in your driveway, your modification options include alloy wheels, accessories like dual chromed exhaust tips or retro-inspired emblems, and performance parts like a cold air intake and a cat-back exhaust system. Most of these components are available directly through Mopar, which is Dodge’s official aftermarket parts provider.
BMW 3 Series (E36)
The E36 was the third generation of BMW’s vaunted 3 Series sport sedan. It was bigger than its predecessor, and it was hailed as one of the best driver’s cars on the market when it made its public debut in 1990. Today, it has become the one to choose if you’re out to build something. It’s considerably more modern than the first two variants of the 3 Series, but it’s not as high-tech as its replacement, so you won’t have to deal with too many electrical gremlins. It’s a car you tune with a wrench, not a USB stick.
One of the most popular modifications on the BMW scene is to take a garden-variety E36 (like a 325i) and replace the straight-six with a more powerful engine from a wrecked M3. Your car won’t have the same pedigree as a real M3, and the BMW Car Club of America might not let you in, but you won’t care when you’re grinning from ear to ear while doing hot laps around Lime Rock.
The Mini Cooper is known worldwide for its go-kart-like handling. It’s now well into its third generation, so there’s a model to suit everyone’s budget. The standard four-cylinder engine can handle a lot more power, according to aftermarket parts vendor Mini Mania. One of the most mouth-watering modifications is the addition of a supercharger that bumps the standard, first-generation car’s output to nearly 200 hp and 170 lb-ft.
The cool part about modifying a Mini Cooper is that virtually every part of it is customizable. You can install custom mirror caps, color-coded tail light bezels, a hatch handle with the Union Jack flag on it, and even door handle covers. If you get creative, you can easily end up with a one-of-a-kind Mini that reflects your personality.
Update: We’ve added the Land Rover Defender, Acura Integra, Dodge Challenger, BMW 3 Series, and Mini Cooper to the list.
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