Plenty of drivers enjoy the thrill of driving a fast car, but some car owners enjoy the process of drawing out the hidden potential of cars to create their own speed demons. This hobby got its start in Japan, as drivers would take cars with good performance numbers, typically older Japanese makes like Honda and Nissan, and modify them with body kits, cold-air intakes and other aftermarket performance parts. Eventually, the hobby migrated across the ocean to the United States. After a brief dip in popularity during the 2008 recession, tuning is once again a popular hobby of many passionate gearheads. If you’d like to work on a tuner car of your own, we’ve gathered some of the best tuners in this article.
Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution
With its impressive base specs and friendliness to aggressive modification, the Lancer Evolution is one of the most popular tuner cars available, beginning with its introduction in 1992 and continuing to the present day. The Evolution, or Evo as it’s known to tuner enthusiasts, boasts a stock turbocharged engine that delivers 291 horsepower to its 4WD transmission. Unmodified, it can reach a top speed of 162 mph and accelerate from 0-60 mph in 4.5 seconds. Those specs give tuners a fantastic baseline to work from, but its lightweight, flexible computer controller and cast-iron engine block put the Evo in a class of its own. Simple bolt-on modifications, such as a new air intake or test pipe, can easily push the Evo above 400 horsepower, and more in-depth modifications can turn this car into a bona fide racer with more than 1,000 horsepower. The Evo supports a full range of modifications, from body kits and rear wings to fuel injection systems, turbo upgrades, and custom controllers.
Subaru WRX STI
The Subaru WRX STI is one of the most popular tuner cars that’s been in production since 1992. Like the Evo, it sports impressive base specs: a 305-horsepower turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, four-wheel drive transmission, a 0-60 mph time of five seconds, and a top speed of 144 mph. Simply reprogramming the engine controller can give this car another 20 horsepower, but the WRX STI can support so much more. Upgrading the intake and exhaust gives the car a boost of another 30 horsepower, and the improvements just keep coming from there. Drivers interested in a great rally car can add a number of modifications, such as improved headers and external waste gates, to push the stock turbo to its limits of around 380 horsepower. If you just want to make your WRX the fastest it can possibly be, a new turbo, and a whole host of other improvements can push the WRX above 500 horsepower.
From its debut in 1986 until its cancellation in 2001, the Acura Integra was a popular pick among tuner cars. In its base specs, it pulled 195 horsepower out of its 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine, delivering that power to its front wheels to provide a top speed of 143 mph and a 0-60 mph time of 6.6 seconds. The engine came from the factory, beautifully optimized, providing a displacement to power ratio similar to a Ferrari. Standard intake and exhaust modifications provide immediate improvements to engine power, and the vehicle’s front-wheel drive transmission gives it great responsiveness and handling right out of the gate. Adjustable shocks and new bushings can give drivers even better handling, and an aftermarket flywheel is another popular modification that can help get the most out of this nimble beast.
Nissan Skyline GT-R
Like most of the cars on this list, the Nissan Skyline GT-R, in production from 1989 until 2002, boasted plenty of power straight from the factory. Its 2.6-liter 6-cylinder engine produced 280 horsepower in its basic trim, with a top speed of 112 mph and a 0-60 mph time of 5.6 seconds. What really set the Skyline apart, however, was its unique all-wheel drive transmission; the computer-controlled transmission intelligently distributed the power between the wheels to give the Skyline an unparalleled ability to come out of curves fast. Standard aftermarket modifications, such as improved turbos, custom-fabricated intakes and exhaust systems, could easily push the Skyline into speed demon territory. Extensively modified Skylines can reach over 1,000 horsepower without significantly sacrificing drivability, making the Skyline one of the most coveted tuner cars around.
The Toyota Supra, produced between 1992 and 2002, has no shortage of fans among tuner enthusiasts. In its base specs, the Supra boasted a 3.0-liter 6-cylinder twin turbo engine, putting out between 280 and 320 horsepower, giving the stock car a 0-60 mph time of 4.9 seconds and a top speed of 155 mph. However, what gives the Supra its tuning potential is its exceptional engine, which was originally designed to produce more than 600 horsepower; a few simple modifications, such as a controller update and less restrictive exhaust pipes, can release significant power. Simplifying the turbo system and adding a boost controller can unlock even more power. Before major engine modifications are done, it’s not unusual for a Supra to put out more than 700 horsepower. In the hands of a master tuner, the Supra can even outperform the mighty Bugatti Veyron.
For more than two decades, between 1978 and 2002, the Mazda RX-7 showed the world what a rotary engine could do. Despite only having a 1.4 liter engine, the Mazda’s high-performance Wankel engine put out 255 horsepower, giving the car a 0-60 mph time of 5.3 seconds and a top speed of 155 mph. The small rotary engine helps the RX-7 to be one of the lightest tuning cars available, amplifying the effect of any power boosts. Common modifications include turbo replacements to extract more power, frame reinforcements and gearbox replacements to improve the transmission, and replacement intake and exhaust ports to improve airflow through the engine. The RX-7 is naturally well-balanced, but shock turret reinforcement, coilovers and a rear strut brace can give drivers an even better cornering experience.
The Volkswagen R32 is a variant of the Golf GTI that was produced from 2004 to 2008. Although the GTI boasts a worthy pedigree of its own, the R32 offered a level of customizability and power that went beyond what the more mainstream GTI could support. The legend of the R32 rests on its adaptable 6-speed manual transmission that sent power to all four wheels, giving the vehicle the ability to blow through corners like nothing else. Its 3.1-liter engine put out 240 horsepower, giving the vehicle a 0-60 mph time of 6.4 seconds and a governor-limited top speed of 130 mph. The R32 excels at cornering, and many of the most popular modifications, such as tunable suspensions and race-quality brakes, focus on maximizing the sporty vehicle’s cornering ability. Of course, there are plenty of power modifications available as well, including turbochargers, intake valves and exhaust pipes.
The Honda S2000 is a different kind of tuner car, a two-seat convertible that’s more reminiscent of a roadster than a race car. The S2000, which was produced between 1999 and 2009, offered a finely optimized engine that pulled 237 horsepower out of a 2.2 liter 4-cylinder engine. Combined with a six-speed manual transmission, the S2000 can go from 0-60 mph in 5.8 seconds and can hit a top speed of 149 mph. Handling, performance and power begin life in the S2000 close to their optimum levels, but there are a few mods that tuners have used to make the perfect car even better. Sports exhaust and induction kits can help to improve low-end power, as can optimizing the engine’s VTEC settings. Retainers and valve springs are another rare weak point in the S2000, so many tuners will upgrade those parts as well.
Originally introduced in 1989, the Mazda Miata remains a popular production car to this day. Its lightweight and agile handling have made the Miata a favorite among driving enthusiasts, but the stock Miata has never been a powerhouse. With a 2.0-liter engine producing 155 horsepower, the Miata pulls a respectable 0-60 mph time of 6.4 seconds, with a top speed of 129 mph.
Simply adding a supercharger to the Miata, however, can turn the polite and pleasant vehicle into a more powerful creature, adding 14 mph to the top speed and more than 50 horsepower to the engine without disrupting the handling and responsiveness that make the Miata a pleasure to drive. The Miata’s engine block is sturdy enough to support a number of other upgrades, including cold air intakes, improved exhaust manifolds, and higher compression pistons.
The Nissan Silvia, sold in the United States as the 200SX or the 240SX, is one of the longest-running tuner cars out there, having been in production from 1964 until 2002. It’s a versatile tuner that can be made into either an exceptional drifter or a powerful track car. In its stock specification, it delivered around 200 horsepower from its 2.0-liter engine, giving the vehicle a 0-60 mph time of 7.3 seconds and a top speed of 142 mph.
Replacing the turbo, fuel pump and air intake system with aftermarket parts can easily push the engine close to 400 horsepower. An adjustable suspension can help to unlock the car’s drifting potential, and an upgraded clutch is essential for dealing with a more powerful engine.
All of these cars were fantastic machines direct from the factory, but the true potential of these finely engineered vehicles was only unlocked after years of experimenting by dedicated backyard and professional mechanics.
What’s your favorite tuning car?