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 sheet metal 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 some of the best tuner cars here. Specifically, we’ve cataloged relatively 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 is 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 racer, an autocrosser, or a showpiece.
Not all Civics are created equal, though. Pre-2000 models are preferred because they handle better and their engines are easier to tune, but the current, tenth-generation model is the first to feature a turbocharged engine straight from the factory. So while the Civic has been around for awhile, its tuning potential is just beginning.
Mazda MX-5 Miata
It may look like a toy, but the Mazda MX-5 Miata is about as perfect as a small sports car can be. It’s light, it handles well, it has rear-wheel drive, and it’s relatively affordable. 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.
The Miata feels right at home whether it’s on a road course, at a drift event, or dodging the cones at an autocross. It’s relatively simple to squeeze more power out of the stock four-cylinder engine, but 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 on the tuner scene is looking especially bright.
Toyota isn’t usually associated with automotive excitement, but the performance cars it has made over the past few decades have turned out smashingly. Case in point: The Supra.
Over the course of its first four generations, the Supra became one of the most iconic cars ever to wear a Toyota badge. That’s why the fifth-generation model introduced at the 2019 Detroit Auto Show was so hotly anticipated. We haven’t discovered the new car’s full tuning potential yet, but the older variants of the car are highly coveted for their 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 prized by tuners, the Supra is somewhat less exotic than its rivals, making it reliable and relatively easy to modify. Act fast if you want one, however, because Supra prices are skyrocketing.
The original Volkswagen GTI’s combination of performance and practicality remains as appealing in 2019 as it was in 1975.
The GTI helped launch a Euro-themed tuning subculture that’s as vibrant as any in the car world, and both the R32 and the Golf R cemented the model’s 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.
You can tune any generation of the Golf, from the original model made in the 1970s to the current, seventh-generation car. Some start with a GTI, while others prefer the simplicity, availability, and affordability of a basic, entry-level model.
Few cars in the world have a fanbase that’s as passionate as the Mazda RX-7’s. Why? One word: Rotary.
The Wankel-type 13B engine 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 Wankel was a joy. We’re hoping the rotary-powered sports car makes a triumphant return soon, though Mazda has made it clear that it has other priorities for the time being.
Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution
In the 1990s, Mitsubishi led the pack of high-tech Japanese performance cars with models like the 3000GT, the Galant VR-4, and its greatest creation, the Lancer Evolution. They’re all gone today, sadly, but the Evo in particular left a long, sideways skid mark in the automotive history books.
The Evo slowly but surely gained its reputation throughout the 1990s by winning races in the World Rally Championship (WRC), but PlayStation games and an introduction on the American market in 2003 turned it into a true performance phenomenon. 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.
Subaru Impreza WRX STI
Like the Mitsubishi Evo, Subaru’s WRX and WRX STI are ordinary compact cars that have been turned into rally machines. With a turbocharged, flat-four engine and all-wheel drive packed into a sedan (and sometimes hatchback) body, the practical yet fun WRX has always been one of the best performance cars for people who, you know, have lives. You can take the WRX to Ikea on a Saturday, channel your inner Vettel on a track the following day, and use it to commute to and from work during the week. What more can you ask of a hot hatch?
Subaru has always made the WRX and the WRX STI impressive right off the assembly line, but many enthusiasts view them as a blank canvas on which to produce truly awesome modern hot rods. Parts from numerous aftermarket vendors can help you build a flat-four whose output approaches supercar levels of horsepower. Make sure you upgrade the brakes, too.
Ever since Ford commissioned racer and engineer Carroll Shelby to build the very first GT350 in 1965, the Mustang has been one of the go-to platforms for speed junkies looking to make serious performance upgrades without breaking the bank. 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 ever-tighter 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 move) like it, and a new range of turbocharged, four-cylinder engines plus track-focused Shelby models are increasing the Mustang’s appeal even more. If it’s more power you’re after, you can either send your car to an aftermarket tuner like Shelby, or go on a shopping spree to build your own.
Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ
In a world obsessed with horsepower and top speeds, 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 back roads.
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. Some owners simply make suspension tweaks, while others have gone as far as fitting a Ferrari-sourced V8 engine under the hood; seriously, we’ve seen it.
The Scion brand recently folded, so for the 2017 model year, the FR-S became the Toyota 86, a clear homage to the drift-loving AE86 Corolla of the 1980s. Subaru’s version has always worn the BRZ nameplate. All three are essentially identical under the sheet metal. Regardless of which route you take, you’ll be putting one of the most tuner-friendly coupes of the 21st century in your garage.
Honda’s S2000 was a convertible-only sports car designed to celebrate the brand’s 50th anniversary. Production spanned 10 years, from 1999 to 2009, and during that time the car built a cult following for its precise handling, light chassis, and high-revving engine (its redline was 8,800 rpm for the first few model years). Honda doesn’t seem interested in giving the model a successor, so the S2000 is well on its way to becoming a modern classic. It’s the last of a breed, in a way.
Along with Mazda’s Mx-5 Miata, the S2000 is one of the best entry points for those looking to conquer track days. Some of the best mods you can make to an S2000 include fitting 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.