Ultimate Tuner Cars Guide

author avatarJoe Terrell
30th September, 2019
Filed under Editorials

We take a look at the best tuner cars on the market that are screaming out for you to modify them to their full potential.

tuned toyota supra

Here, you can click on a particular section within this article, otherwise, scroll down as we take a look at our list of Best Tuner Cars.

r34 vs supra

Introduction

Automobiles are predominantly built to cater to the needs of everyday life or for a specific use, they’re typically created as a convenient means for getting you from A to B as simply, or as luxuriously as possible.

As quickly as the car manufacturers are launching sensible brand-new designs and chassis for the to the market, there are tuning houses across the world lying in wait to get their hands on the latest creations to redesign, improve and upgrade the parts to unleash their true potential.

You’d be forgiven for wondering why tuning is so common and why enthusiasts are so keen to tear apart what can often be a brand new car that’s just rolled out of the showroom, but this is just a tiny chunk of the sacrifices that owners are willing to go through to build their dream tuner car.

Cars can be tuned in a variety of ways, but we see tuning as the modification, or improvement (most of the time) of the car’s performance. This can be anything from upgrading your internal LED lights, right the way through to engine swaps or advanced ECU refining.

jdm tuner cars lineup

Tuning enables you to carry out tweaks, to not only personalize the car but to prove its true capabilities. Manufacturers are under an ever-increasing struggle to meet the latest economy restrictions, which has eventually uncovered some huge issues within the auto industry – VW, we’re looking at you!

This has meant that there are stricter restrictions in place than ever before, and it’s likely only going to get harsher. Our future generations will undoubtedly be forced to tune their electric cars, although that, too, could potentially uncover some exciting new tuning possibilities.

Tuning plays a huge part in the automotive world, not just within the drifting scene, but any unique car that you see on the road would have been tuned to some extent.

bozoku cars

Whether that’s a hot rod, a rally car, or the incredible Bōsōzoku builds in Japan, tuning has become a way of life for many and has birthed the much-loved tuning culture which exists across the world.

Drift cars are often some of the most tuned cars out there. Unsurprisingly, cars are never really designed with drifting in mind right out of the showroom.

Even if cars like the GT86/BRZ/FR-S arguably had a twitchy rear-end built into their mindset from the ground up, they were still sold to be mass-produced to appeal to the everyday market for use on a typical road.

Where do I start with tuning a car?

Once you’ve got your basic platform, the fun can begin. Whether you’re looking to do simple engine mods such as an intake or an exhaust, or perhaps upgrade your suspension, or even do a complete engine swap, the sheer number of upgrades that are available for just about every chassis out there is simply mind-blowing.

Some cars are more tuner-friendly than others, and while we’re just scratching the surface with the potential that’s available out there in this guide, we’re going to be taking a look at some of the most convenient tuner cars that are available for you to get your hands on.

It can be a difficult decision to choose your ultimate tuner car. If you can afford the car of your dreams, then great – that can always be improved! In a more realistic scenario for most of us where you can’t, why not buy what you can afford, then turn it into the ultimate sleeper weapon over time? Chances are that the more blood, sweat, and tears you put into a car, the more you’ll love it over time.

You’ll also learn how to carry out most upgrades yourself, gaining heaps of fascinating car knowledge in the process.

What is the best beginner tuner car?

We highly recommend that you take a close look at some of the cheaper cars such as the Mazda Miata, BMW 3-Series and the Honda Civic in this guide. These cars are all fantastic bases for beginners, and since they’re not high-powered, the chances are that they’ll have cheaper insurance than some of the bigger-engine cars.

Your main consideration should be whether you plan to have a front or rear-wheel-drive car from the start, as converting at a later stage would be a huge task.

What are the easiest cars to modify?

In our opinion, this award goes to the Nissan Silvia 180SX/200SX/240SX which features the SR20DET engine. The SR is well known for its huge range of off-the-shelf modifications, and although it may not be capable of the biggest power in our list, you’ll see very impressive gains for your money.

There are many breathing mods as well as turbo upgrades available, and your SR soon become capable of around 350-400hp. Paired with a lightweight S-Chassis, this makes for an incredible combination and also a perfect drift setup.

What is the cheapest car to make fast?

This all depends whether you want to go fast at the drag strip, drifting or doing circuit racing. The Honda Civic and Mazda Miata are great cars for the twisties, but if you’re looking for bang-for-your-buck in the power department, an older LS-powered V8 is likely to be your best bet.

Best tuner cars

This has been a tough list for us to choose, so don’t hate on our decisions, we could cover thousands of cars here, but sit back and take a look at what we think are some of the Best Tuner Cars on the market today!


Mazda Miata

mazda miata mad mike

Yup, you guessed it, the hairdressers’ weapon of choice has made the cut! We can’t lie, we have a big soft spot for Miata’s here at Drifted. There’s something about that feeling of getting the roof down on a nice calm, tranquil day, just to kick the clutch and throw it down sideways!

Jokes aside (maybe), Miata’s can be had for absolutely bargain prices in the current used car market, and with their small, lightweight, fantastic-handling chassis and responsive engines, they can make for heaps of fun in stock form. Once you begin the tuning, you can be onto a real winner.

With the NA (1990-2005) models having a maximum of 146hp under the hood, they’re certainly not going to be the quickest things you could ever drive in a straight line, but this was later improved with the 181hp capability of the 2015-onwards ND model.

However, we guarantee that if you throw this thing into the twisty roads and kick the back end out, it’ll certainly leave you grinning from ear-to-ear, especially if you’ve tuned the suspension to the best of its abilities with a coilover setup.

Ear-to-ear grins in the twisties, not enough? Let’s not forget that there are always ways of turning this into an untamed beast. Whichever generation you have, there are supercharger kits sitting on the shelf waiting to be fitted. If that’s a consideration of yours, then make sure you check out our Miata supercharger guide!

If forced induction isn’t for you, then how about a V8 LS swap? Check out our LS1 vs LS2 article to see which will be the perfect answer to your power issues!

With four-generations now under the belt of the Miata family with their NA, NB, NC, and ND, there’s certainly no shortage of selection when it comes to this legendary modern-day bargain.


BMW 3-Series

e46 m3 drifting

There’s no question that the BMW 3-series has earned its spot on our tuner list, they have no shortage of models these days, so whether the E21, E30, E36, E46 E90/91/92/93 or the latest F30/31/F34 tickles your fancy, the 3-series offers something for everyone.

BMW undoubtedly had tuning in mind when it created this chassis, and while the ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’ M3 models may not be affordable to everyone, you certainly shouldn’t rule out the possibility of a used engine, or other M-mods popping up on the market.

This compact rear-wheel-drive chassis makes for an incredible platform and there’s certainly no shortage of performance or styling modifications to carve it into your ideal creation.

With the 3-series, its popularity undoubtedly began with the boxy E30, which have become somewhat rarer over the years. The E36 and E46 were extremely worthy successors though, and either one provides an excellent tuner car with some minor mods.

We’ve created several guides to help you with tuning your 3-Series, so make sure you check out our Ultimate BMW E46 M3 Exhaust Guide, Ultimate BMW E46 M3 Supercharger Guide, Ultimate BMW E46 Coilover Guide, and Ultimate BMW E36 Coilover Guide.

One of the most convenient things about the 3-series is the interchangeability of parts. As an example, if you have an E36 then you can easily swap the brakes for E46 330i along with the corresponding master cylinder and servo, and you’ll gain yourself a valuable amount of stopping power.

The 3-series is one of the best cars out there for tuning potential, and we’ve witnessed some crazy power gains from just an ECU tune on some of the 330/335 engines, both petrol, and diesel. If you’re looking for convenient, easily accessed power for a few hundred bucks, this is well worth looking into!


Honda Civic

ek9 tyre r

That’s right, the haters favorite has made our list! Whatever your thoughts are on the Civic, you surely can’t deny that it’s a great tuner car? Okay, so perhaps not for drifting (the McDonald’s trays disagree) but hear us out.

For those of you looking for your first car, the chances are that there’s a reasonably-priced, unmolested Civic somewhere near you that’s screaming for some upgrades.

Civics, especially the pre-2000 models, are a great handling and reliable package right out of the box, making them an excellent opportunity for first-time tuning enthusiasts.

With a handful of convenient engine swaps available, you can turn even the lowest-spec model into a worthwhile track weapon if you’re willing to put the time, effort and money into doing so. If you’re considering a swap, the K20 is an incredible engine, which we featured in our Ultimate Honda K20 Guide – Everything You Need To Know guide.

If a Civic is a consideration for you, take a look at our 11 Best JDM Cars Of The Nineties and 11 Best Budget Project Cars to understand why we hold them in high regard, even as drift fans.

We also think this looks like heaps of fun, even if it causes a lot of controversy by claiming to be drifting!


Nissan Fairlady Z33/Z34 350z/370z

350z vs 370z

There’s certainly no secret that we’re huge fans of the Fairlady here at Drifted, and we’ve already written a huge variety of tuning guides that cover just about every upgrade you could wish for!

In fact, being honest, you could put just about any Z-car here and it’d tick all the right boxes. Oh, and while we’re on the subject, let’s not forget the Fairlady’s twins, the Infiniti G35 and G37!

Nissan’s Z-cars, particularly the Fairlady, make for one of the best tuner cars due to the wide range of on-the-shelf modifications. Not only can you squeeze impressive power out of the underpowered factory V6, but they also look insanely good once you’ve carried out some simple styling mods.

With the release of the 370Z, the 350Z has dropped in price and they’ll certainly provide you with a lot of bang-for-your-buck. If you can afford the 370Z then we have no doubt that it’ll leave you just as happy!

If you’re looking to get yourself a 350Z, make sure you check out our Ultimate Nissan 350z Guide – Everything You Need To Know guide, or if a 370z is tickling your fancy, we’ve also got our Ultimate Nissan 370Z Guide for you! Unsure on which one suits you best? We’ve even got you covered there with our 350z Vs 370z – What’s Best? Guide!

Either way, make sure you check out all of our 350z and 370z tuning guides to make sure you make the right decision, even if it is a win-win situation!


Toyota GT86/Subaru BRZ/Scion FR-S

gt86 drifting

Whichever model you opt for here, you can’t go wrong. These cars are the closest you can get to a modern-day answer to the 90’s Japanese cars that we know and love. You even get a nice interior and increased reliability to go with it!

These cars are truly a breath of fresh air in a mostly stale, dull modern market. A lightweight, well-refined and focused machine which is perfect for that back-road blast.

Sure, they may have prioritized handling over horsepower, but as always, there are ways around that. Remember that these cars all share the same engines, so if you’re looking for more power, there are turbo and supercharger kits waiting on the shelf to be fitted.

To make the handling even more impressive than it already is, you can opt for some shiny new coilovers to complete the ultimate package.

These are quite possibly the most tuner-friendly cars of the 21st Century, and we predict that they will one day be seen as a modern-day S-Chassis. We have no doubt that as prices decrease there will be even more crazy drift cars being built on this platform, although since Ryan Tuerck has already fitted a Ferrari 458 engine into one, we’re not quite sure if it can get much more insane!


Toyota Supra

best tuner cars

This will most likely come as no surprise, given that the Supra provides us with quite possibly the best tuner engine in existence – the 2JZ! (We’re going to ignore ‘that’ new BMW-powered thing for the moment!)

There’s no question that the styling of the MKIV Supra is one of the most immediately recognizable tuner cars, and even in stock form, it can look incredible.

If we take a moment to silence the V8-lovers, the sheer number of top-level drivers within a huge variety of motorsports opting for the 2JZ certainly says something. Daigo Saito has been reppin’ the 2JZ for many years, and even Naoki Nakamura finally folded when he swapped a 2JZ into his new D1GP S15 car.

We’ve witnessed 3,000hp being pushed out of this engine, proving its insane tuning potential. Sure, you’re going to have to throw just about every penny you’ll ever earn in your life at it, but it’ll be worth it.

2JZ aside, the prices of the turbo-powered MKIV Supras is skyrocketing, so if you have plans to buy one, now may well be the time, as these will only increase in popularity, especially with Toyota’s decision to move on to a BMW-powered alternative with the MKV.

We’re yet to witness the true potential of the latest fifth-generation model, but there’s no doubt that it did a great job of stirring up some opinions from the JDM fan club online! Papadakis Racing is on a quest to achieve 1,000 bhp out of the new B58 engine, so be sure to check that out!

We’ve provided everything you could want to know about the 2JZ in our 15 Must-Know 2JZGTE Specs That Prove The 2JZ Is Still The Tuner King guide, so we highly recommend taking a moment to appreciate the unicorn of JDM tuner engines!


Nissan Silvia (180SX/200SX/240SX)

nissan silvia s15

The Nissan Silvia has become quite possibly the most sought-after tuner car out there. It’s sent prices through the roof, but anyone that’s lucky enough to own one will most likely argue that it’s worth every penny when they get behind the wheel.

We took a look back over the comprehensive Silvia family history in our Ultimate Nissan Silvia S15 Guide.

With just 554 cars being sold in its first generation in 1965-1968, they would roll what seems like it could be the last Silvia ever out of the Nissan plant in 2002, with the tuners dream car – the S15.

With the S15 still a victim of the 25-year import laws at the present time, the most highly regarded options available in the States is the 180SX, 200SX, and 240SX. As you most probably already know, if you’re lucky enough to get your hands on either the S13 or the S14 – you certainly won’t be disappointed!

The S-Chassis is arguably the best platform out there for drifting, and although we wrote a guide on how to get the most out of your KA24DE engine, the US alternative to the JDM SR20 doesn’t quite tick the same boxes. For that reason, most owners opt for carrying out an SR swap or opting for something even wilder.

If you’re keen to know more about the SR20DET, make sure you check out our 15 SR20DET Specs That Prove Why Drifters Love This Engine guide. If you’re interested in seeing the power potential of the SR, then the Ultimate SR20DET Turbo Guide will provide everything you need to know.

While the SR20 arguably has huge tuning potential, the CA18DET can often be an engine of choice for S-Chassis owners. We decided to put them head-to-head in our CA18DET Vs SR20DET- Which One is Better and Why? Guide.

If you have the opportunity to grab yourself an s-chassis, ANY s-chassis, then do so! We honestly believe that this is one of those cars that every tuning enthusiast must own at least once in their life. Warning, they’re highly addictive!


Lexus IS300

jdm is300

Although the IS300 may not be the first tuner car that springs to mind, it’s certainly not to be underestimated!

With its great looks, a huge range of aftermarket modifications and also the coveted 2JZ under the hood, surely this sounds like the perfect choice?

Well, almost. It may well be a 2JZ, but this is the non-turbo 2JZ-GE variant. Thankfully, a host of tuning houses have created a kit to turbocharge your N/A 2JZ, and it’s most likely more reasonably-priced than you think! We’ve compared all of the IS300 turbo kits in our Lexus IS300 Turbo Kit Guide.

Don’t think that the tuning potential of the IS300 stops there. There’s also a wide range of exhausts and coilovers available to get your IS300 looking and sounding epic.

It may not be a Supra, but at a small fraction of the price, the IS300 is certainly not to be overlooked. With 5-doors, great looks and a chunk of power under the hood, they can be picked up at bargain prices and even come with the typical luxury upgrades you’d expect from Toyota’s upper-class brand!


Nissan Skyline GT-R

skyline r34 gtr

We kept you hanging with this one, but of course, we weren’t going to miss it off the list! The Nissan Skyline GT-R was Paul Walker’s weapon of choice in both real life and the Fast and Furious series, which brought tuning to the mainstream.

The R32 was the car that shot the GT-R to fame, and the R33 then carried the torch over to the final ‘Skyline GT-R’ ever to be made – the R34.

From there, the R35 GT-R was born, and Godzilla once again lived up to its name.

With the RB26DETT under the hood of the R34, it earned itself a cult following which was boosted by the F&F franchise. With the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ claiming 276hp from the factory, around 330hp was a more realistic figure.

The tuning potential of the RB26DETT is huge, and we’ve frequently seen these engines capable of reliably producing in excess of 1,000hp. It’s often caused an argument among JDM fans as to whether the RB26 or the 2JZ is the better tuner engine. We take a closer look in our RB26DETT Vs 2JZGTE – Which is better? guide.

If the R34 GT-R hasn’t already impressed you enough, in December 2007, Nissan unleashed what is quite possibly the greatest tuner car on the planet, the R35 GT-R.

Born from an entirely new concept, this newly created VR38DETT V6-powered monster showed up and turned the tuning world on its head. With 479hp and 434ft/lb torque being produced from the engine in stock form, it was easily capable of leaving most grey-haired supercar owners in tears.

Since then, over 3,000hp has been achieved from these insane engines, and although there are several GT-R drift cars out there, they have also stunned the drag racing scene, often breaking the 6-second quarter-mile barrier.

Not only that, but the GT-R also holds the current world record for the fastest drift, at 304.96km/h, held by Masato Kawabata.

If you’re lucky enough to have got your hands on one of these incredible machines, you’ll undoubtedly want to make it sound as impressive as it looks, and our Ultimate GTR Exhaust Guide has the perfect solutions for your needs!


Mazda RX-7/RX-8

black rx7

Mazda’s RX-7 and RX-8 are yet another incredible platform, especially if drifting is your intention. There’s certainly a reason that Mad Mike made both cars his weapon of choice over the years, with the infamous MADBUL being one of the most memorable drift cars ever made.

The RX-7 rocked the market with their two best-known generations, the FC and the FD before they later brought the RX-8 to the market.

There’s no doubt that the RX-7 is one of the greatest cars ever produced, and Mazda took a huge gamble by persistently keeping the ‘spinning dorito’ rotary engine under the hood.

While rotary engines may not be the most convenient engines when it comes to maintenance and servicing, they are unquestionably a modern-day work of art.

Although you have to be brave, and preferably have a few truckloads of cash, there is a huge amount of potential to be had from the rotary engine, and we’ve had the pleasure of enjoying the sound of over 1,300 horses being pushed out of a 13B, so the tuning potential is undoubtedly there!

Our Ultimate Mazda RX-7 Guide dives deep into the RX-7 but let’s not forget about its younger brother, the RX-8.

After its release in 2003, the RX-8 stayed loyal to the rotary engine, and although it no longer featured the twin-turbos of its predecessor, it’s still a fantastic drivers car.

Although both the FC and FD prices are likely to be out of the average-buyers price range, the RX-8 can be had incredibly cheap and would make a fantastic platform for a tuner build. We’ve written RX-8 Exhaust and coilover guides to get you on your way to creating an awesome street or track weapon!


Honda S2000

s2000 stanced

With its 9,000rpm redline, think of the S2000 as a modern-day NA Miata on steroids.

We absolutely love S2000’s, and Honda’s brave return into the correct-wheel-drive platform certainly lived up to expectations.

With its incredible handling and ridiculously high-revving engine, it’s already an exceptional package right out of the box, but the tuning companies have once again pulled it out of the bag to give you the option of creating a terrifying monster.

We’ve created several guides for the S2K, from intakes, coilovers, and exhausts, right the way through to turbo kits and superchargers.

We haven’t had the pleasure of driving a forced induction S2000, but it undoubtedly remains on our bucket list!

Given that there hasn’t yet been a worthwhile replacement to the S2000, they seem to be holding their value quite well. We think that they’re well worth paying the money for and are undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable driving cars out there.


Anything With An LS Engine

mazda miata v8

Our final selection isn’t a single model of car, as there’s just too many to list.

We have no doubt that you’ve already heard of the benefits of LS engines, which proven to be hugely popular among the tuning scene, not just within drifting but just about all forms of motorsport. If you’re looking for bang-for-your-buck, the LS engines often cannot be compared.

Whether you want to grab yourself a shiny modern crate engine or grab yourself an old LS1 from a junkyard, we’re sure that any model LS will serve you well in just about any chassis!

We put the first two LS generations head-to-head in our LS1 Vs LS2: What’s The Best Engine For You? guide. If you’re interested in swapping an LS into a different car, our Ultimate 350z LS Swap Guide will certainly give you an idea of what to expect.


Conclusion

Although we’ve covered a wide range of cars in our guide, we know that we’ve missed off heaps of untapped potential. The truth is, just about any car is capable of being tuned, it just depends what your end goals are going to be from your build, and how much time, money and experience you must throw at it!

Some engines are easily capable of accepting forced induction, which can provide some huge gains with an off-the-shelf upgrade, where others are likely to be a dead-end which will leave you bankrupt for the sake of a few additional horses.

When tuning engines, the most important part is to ensure that you have a great base. It’s always important to do a thorough inspection of an engine before you throw wads of cash at it. There’s nothing more disappointing than pouring money into a dud block, just for it to explode on your first outing.

Likewise, if you’re looking at improving your handling, you’ll want to ensure that you have a decent chassis to work with. Begin with checking all the bushings to ensure that they’re in good condition and that the car has never been involved in a serious accident.

Whichever route you choose to go down, there’s a huge amount of information for modifying any car you can possibly imagine online. We’ve already written a huge number of guides here at Drifted to help you on your way.

Whatever you decide, build the tuner car that works for you, not for your buddies or what the internet tells you. If you want to rock those underbody neon lights and pretend that you’re in the latest Fast and Furious movie, be our guest.

The most enjoyable part of tuning is creating the car that is truly your pride and joy, your ultimate creation!

Photography credits

Drifted would like to extend thanks to the following sources for use of their images:

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author avatar Written by Joe Terrell Drifted.com founder, motoring journalist and all-round car enthusiast. Read more about Joe and the Drifted team on our about us page.

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