Want to stand out, then? Start with an off-beat automobile. And if buying an under-appreciated car means finding a barren aftermarket, well that’s where we come to your rescue with this handy roadmap to the less-explored territory of today’s modifiable—though very attainable—performance cars.
In order to make The Drive‘s list of the top easily-modified first cars, a vehicle needs to hit these three criteria:
- You can actually get one: We were able to find one near a population center, in respectable shape, and less than $10,000.
- You can modify it: Does it have a large aftermarket following?
- It’s cool: It’s not the first thing you find in a Craigslist search for cheap cars.
We identified 10 cars that fit the above criteria. Each hit the sweet spot of being volume cars and not yet uncommon finds, are old enough to be cheap, and weren’t popular enough to be bought (and crashed) by people who treat the Monster Energy logo the way new money treats Louis Vuitton. And most importantly, each one has a respectable amount of aftermarket support, and some are ideal platforms for engine swaps.
10. 2000-2005 Toyota MR2 Spyder
Some call the Toyota MR2 Spyder the “poor man’s Boxster,” owing to their similar styling, but don’t let the Porsche-lite looks fool you: The MR2 Spyder is possibly the meanest sports car on the list. Its mid-mounted engine (behind the driver, but in front of the rear axle) makes it exceptionally agile, though as a consequence it’s possibly the trickiest car on this list to drive to its potential, and few young drivers have what it takes to handle a knife-edged, mid-engined sports car.
Those responsible enough to own an MR2 Spyder will enjoy a helpful community, bountiful aftermarket support, and some engine swap potential. Owners commonly trade out the car’s factory 1.8-liter, 138-horsepower 1ZZ-FED engine for the brawnier, 187-horsepower 2ZZ-GE, effectively turning the MR2 Spyder into a budget Lotus Elise.
Note that early MR2 Spyders are known to clog their pre-cats, which can be an expensive job if not already performed. Avoid cars with six-speed automated manuals, which are known to be dogs—stick with the five-speed manuals.
9. 2006-2010 Pontiac Solstice
As a result of GM shuttering Pontiac in 2010, the historic brand has faded from the public’s collective memory, despite most of its final products receiving critical acclaim. One such case is the Solstice, which was a front-engined, rear-wheel-drive roadster built on GM’s Kappa platform, which has been likened by its fans to that of a shrunken Corvette. Roof options consist of convertibles like the car pictured above, or a rare targa roof offered during the car’s final two model years.
Manual and automatic transmissions are available, as are naturally-aspirated and turbocharged engines, the latter in the relatively rare GXP variant. Swapping in the GXP’s turbocharged engine can be done, though there are also shops out there building LS V8 Solstices, so the sky’s the limit to what you can do with a Solstice (no pun intended—the Solstice had a prettier, Saturn-badged sibling called the Sky, but it’s much harder to find a cheap example).
8. 1999-2005 Lexus IS300
Sold elsewhere as the Toyota Altezza, the first generation of Lexus IS was a sports sedan developed under the wing of racing driver turned engineer Nobuaki Katayama, who influenced the acclaimed AE86 generation of Corolla. It was a platform Katayama was rumored to have designed with modification in mind, and that comes through in the IS300’s architecture: engine up front, driven wheels out back.
IS300s sold in the US came exclusively equipped with the 2JZ-GE inline six, whose turbocharged 2JZ-GTE sibling was made famous by a certain 2001 Hollywood blockbuster. It was paired with either a five-speed manual or automatic transmission (only the latter on rare SportCross wagon variants). Swapping isn’t inherently necessary to have fun with an IS300; its 217 horses are more than enough for a novice driver.
7. 2003-2012 Mazda RX-8
The most recent rotary-powered sports car built by Mazda, the RX-8 was lauded on its debut for its sharp handling, rev-happy rotary engine, and quirky, rear-hinged “suicide” back doors. 238 horsepower from its front-mid-mounted “Renesis” rotary engine is a number for which some modern sports cars still ache, and is more than enough to get you into some oversteer-y trouble. As a compelling platform for modification, the aftermarket can provide almost anything imaginable for RX-8s, from coilover suspension to turbo kits and engine swaps.
Young buyers should take warning that the Wankel rotary engines used in Mazda’s RX-series sports cars are notoriously finicky about how they’re operated. They consume some oil as part of normal combustion (some owners mix oil into their gas for better reliability), and as a result may struggle to pass emissions in some states, especially if modified. Rotaries are prone to flooding in certain conditions and should be brought to operating temperature (some even say redlined) every time they’re started.
Due diligence should be done when shopping for an RX-8. Look for examples sold by Mazda and rotary geeks, not by traditionally trustworthy retirees, who may be unaware they’re burning through their car’s apex seals.
6. 1996-2001 Audi A4 (B5)
The first-generation “B5” A4 attempted to challenge the E36-generation BMW 3 Series, even though it lacked the Bimmer’s performance hallmark: rear-wheel drive. Front-wheel drive was standard, with Audi’s Quattro all-wheel drive offered as an option—though the B5 A4 had other things going for it.
The A4 launched with a 2.8-liter, 172-horsepower V6, but for the car’s sophomore year, Audi added a 1.8-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine with five valves per cylinder. That allowed the four-banger to make an impressive (for the day) 150 horses, with a robust torque curve. Its V6 later got five-valve heads, boosting output to 190 horsepower, while the four-cylinder was upgraded to 170 horsepower for the 2001 model year.
Audi also offered a sportier S4 version, with a 2.7-liter twin-turbo V6 making 250 horsepower, though that engine has proven less reliable than the standard A4 engines. As a low-volume performance model, the S4 will likely be harder to find in both affordable and unmolested condition. The A4, in contrast, offers an affordable jumping-off point for modification.
5. 2002-2006 Acura RSX
With Integra prices pushing into insane territory, its successor is looking more attractive by the day. The Acura RSX was actually badged as a Honda Integra in Japan and Australia, and it carried the 1990s performance icon’s spirit onward in the United States. The Type-S model’s 2.0-liter, four-cylinder K20A2 engine produced 200 horsepower (later upgraded to 210 horsepower), and Acura even raced the RSX in the SCCA World Challenge (now the Blancpain GT World Challenge America).
Nevertheless, the RSX never made quite the same impression on car enthusiasts as the Integra did. That means this last bastion of old school Acura/Honda goodness will likely continue to be a performance bargain for years to come.
4. 2003-2007 Infiniti G35
Infiniti has been trying to match German luxury brands for decades, and with the G35, it briefly did. Introduced for the 2003 model year as both a coupe and sedan, the G35 was a legitimate rival to the benchmark BMW 3-series. This Infiniti received plaudits from automotive journalists, of which today’s Q50 and Q60 can only dream.
Crucial to the G35’s success (and its value as a platform for modification today) was good DNA: the G35 rides on same the FM platform as parent company Nissan’s 350Z sports car. “FM” stands for “front-midship,” meaning the engine is shoved further back in the chassis for better weight distribution. Said engine is the 3.5-liter VQ-series V6, meaning aftermarket support is fairly strong. Rear-wheel-drive was the model’s most common drivetrain, though all-wheel-drive can be found on some sedans, denoted by Infiniti as the G35X. Available body styles include sedans and coupes, though the latter only for 2007, the G35’s final model year.
3. 2002-2008 Nissan 350Z
The Z33 generation of Nissan’s Z-car was destined to make this list. The 350Z is a classic rear-wheel-drive sports car designed to be affordable from the start, with a production run long enough (from model years 2002 to 2008) to seed the used market with plenty of cheap, yet serviceable examples.
Launched at the height of the Fast and Furious-fed tuner craze, aftermarket support for the Z33 has always been robust. That means plenty of options for upgrading the 3.5-liter, VQ-series V6 engine, which made 287 horsepower in early cars, but got a bump to 306 for the 2007 model year (a grittier Nismo model joined the lineup that year as well). If all else fails, the 350Z’s engine bay is also big enough to accept a General Motors LS V8 swap.
2. 1993-2002 Pontiac Firebird
The Firebird nameplate has been dead for 17 years, meaning many people reading this list were born after the model’s discontinuation, and won’t know it to be the fraternal twin of the catfish-faced Chevrolet Camaro, both of which shared the General Motors “F-body” platform.
Aside from their chassis, the Camaro and Firebird shared a series of transmissions, from four-speed automatics to five- and six-speed manuals. All engines (except the early 3.4-liter V6) are easily modifiable, from the stout, Buick-sourced 3.8-liter V6 to a pair of 5.7-liter V8s of slightly differing specification; as small-block Chevrolet V8s, they have some of the best parts availability and aftermarket support in the business. Between its engines and its superb handling courtesy of the double-wishbone suspension, aspiring racers of any kind needn’t look elsewhere for cheaper ways to go fast today.
1. 1998-2006 BMW 3 Series (E46)
The E46 generation of the BMW 3 Series was the rightful darling of car magazines in the early 2000s. It possessed some of the best driving dynamics outside the sports car realm, and was available in myriad body styles—sedan, wagon, coupe, convertible—to boot. As the apotheosis of the performance philosophy that started with the BMW 2002, this car was so good that unflattering comparisons to newer models have become a bit of a problem for BMW.
As such, the E46 a desirable car for modification (and racing). This generation of 3 Series has gotten plenty of attention from the aftermarket and its supporting tuners, although that means you’ll have to choose your car wisely. The vaunted E46 M3, for example, isn’t really an option for buyers on a budget—but lower-level models offer the same basic chassis, and many options for upgrades.
Cars are more than mere machines for transportation nowadays; they are seen as pieces of functional art with a wide variety of body styles, performance levels, technological specifications, and so on. People enjoy the way cars are designed, how they drive, how it feels to be inside of them, and how they are regarded by car enthusiasts worldwide.
The way people appreciate cars and enjoy them has created an entirely new term to refer to this phenomenon- car culture. Car culture, however, is not something very recent either; it has its history dating back many decades. This article answers the question- What are the best cars to modify?
- What Is Meant by Car Modification?
- List Of 11 Best Cars To Modify
What Is The Best Car To Modify For Cheap
A significant part of the contemporary car scene is the modification of cars as the driver/ owner of the car would like. Nowadays, simple customization options are widely available to the average car buyer since manufacturers usually provide enough basic options. This is satisfactory for most people, but some want even more options. The alternative provided by the manufacturers was creating means to create bespoke cars or one-off cars, but both of these options are quite expensive and beyond the reach of many.
Car modifications then come into the picture. Often, car modifications tend to hold nothing back and create unique designs which go all out and grab attention and turn heads. The exact shape of the car body, the paint, the wheels, the interiors, and others, is given a complete overhaul using aftermarket parts (which are used after the car has been purchased from carmakers) such as lighting mods, body kits, and so much more.
This naturally requires a good understanding of car designs and enough knowledge of what one is doing. Although some whacky and utterly attention-grabbing designs do exist, in the end, it is upon the car owner to choose. However, underrated modifications are usually the most welcome, which tend to only modify some parts of the car without completely overhauling it and changing its character. Reliability is an essential factor to consider when deciding which are the best cars to modify.
Moving beyond appearances, many car modifications are under the car’s body. They are made to add more power and improve performance, handling, and driving dynamics most noticeable to the driver. Such modifications do not aim to turn heads but instead enhance the car. This is the best of both worlds. Usually, alterations in the appearance of cars are known as modding a car, and making changes to enhance the performance is referred to as tuning the car. Still, the term car modification is used to describe both. The best cars to modify are good cars, to begin with, and can benefit from receiving these upgrades.
Traditionally, the more exotic cars usually do not have a lot of modifications since their looks are performance levels are already pleasing enough that they do not need enhancements. They are not considered the best cars to modify since they are rarer and require a higher skill level. Therefore, car modifications are more common on low to mid-end sports cars, sedans, hatchbacks, and older car models. However, this is not always necessarily true. Most car modifications mimic the performance, looks, and driving dynamics of exotic cars.
List Of 11 Best Cars To Modify
1. Toyota Supra
The Toyota Supra, particularly the mk4 Supra, best exemplifies the car modification culture. It catapulted to fame following its appearance in the Fast and Furious movie franchise, and car modifiers have never looked back, modifying the car to an unparalleled degree. The Toyota Supra became most famous in its previous model, utilizing the famous 3.0 L 2JZ engine made by Toyota, modified heavily by those who brought the car. The 2JZ engine is well regarded as being easily tuned and could rival the high-end performance cars of its day in the early 2000s.
The simple body design also meant that aftermarket parts were used to create extensive body kits, such as Rocket Bunny, TRD. A very popular modification with this Toyota is cranking up the power through turbochargers and boosting the performance manifold. The unique specifications mean that the car modding community went insane with this car, which is still the poster boy modding world. It is indeed among the best cars to modify period.
2. Nissan Skyline GT R
Another favorite in the modding community from Japan, the Nissan Skyline, with its high performance 2.3 L engine, shared space with the Supra in the Fast and Furious movie franchise. The Skyline GTR is also often equipped with performance-boosting enhancements like engine swaps NOS, turbochargers, and the wide availability of aftermarket parts. It can also have various body modifications and customizations.
The Skyline GTR featured the best from Nissan’s stable, including all-wheel drive, HICAS, and four-wheel steering. It grew in appeal as it was a common sight at the drag strip and racing circuit. Its easy-to-tune performance, one enhanced, earned it the nickname of ‘Godzilla.’ The Nissan Skyline is still incredibly fun. It has excellent tuning potential, which the vast community that the car modding world is enjoyed immensely, and has earned its place amongst the best cars to modify.
3. Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution
The Mitsubishi Lancer is another Japanese car so popular with the modding community. The Lancer Evo also is among the vehicles that car experts choose, time and again, for modding. Though the base engine is not incredibly powerful, like some other cars on this list, the Lancer evolution still enjoys great popularity since it is a great platform to build upon in terms of modding.
The Lancer Evolution VII was originally shipped with a 2 L, 4-cylinder turbocharged engine in its stock form. The Lancer Evolution VII also had an automatic transmission, making modding easier. Aftermarket parts are incredibly easy to attain and don’t cost a lot of money, making modding for this particular car relatively cheap. However, because of its massive tuning potential, most people do not stop at the initial level and continue building on, modifying, and customizing this vehicle.
4. Volkswagen Golf
The humble VW golf is a front-wheel-drive hatchback powered by a 2 L $-cylinder engine. It debuted in 2012 as the 7th generation and has gained popularity. The Golf was available with two engines- the regular version or the more powerful and zesty Golf R engine, already having received some tuning upgrades from the VW factory. The VW Golf is already a fun car to drive and is well regarded by automotive enthusiasts since it has earned its spot amongst the hot hatches.
Performance modifications are very common for the VW Golf, and so are cosmetic upgrades, although the more drastic upgrade options are not so popular. After changes to improve its ride and performance, the Golf remains a fairly practical hatchback with seats for four occupants, making it among the best cars to modify.
5. BMW M3
The BMW M3 is a hell of a car in its stick form, but owners have taken to modding their cars to improve it even further. The F80 M3 debuted in 2014 with a 3 L straight-six engine, producing a good 430 HP and turbocharged. Automotive enthusiasts loved the dynamic performance and the car’s great handling, and it earned its spot among the popular driver-focused cars despite being a 4 door sedan.
The beemer also has extensive body kit options available. The aggressive, stylized, and well design fascia of the car begs for mods to its fenders and exhausts, earning it its spot on this list of the best cars to modify. Body kits and wheel mods abound for this particular car. Performance upgrades to this car weren’t particularly easy but were still very popular among owners who wished to go all out in terms of power. Even in its factory form, the car was a looker, and most customizations involved simply lowering the ride height for an even meaner look.
6. Mazda Miata
The Miata is usually overlooked as a tuning car since it is already such a joy to drive in its factory form and is meant for those who like the act of driving more than raw numbers. Nonetheless, that does not mean that people have not tried and succeeded in modifying the Miata. The Mazda Miata zoomed on its debut with its preppy, naturally aspirated engine back in 1989 and is currently in its fourth generation. The core formula remains the same- a preppy rotary engine placed between the axles with a light chassis convertible coupe form.
Upgrades to this car often involved tuning the engine to produce more power, improving the handling, and the ubiquitous upgrades to customize the car’s body. With its long run of production, car owners have discovered it is pretty easy to find aftermarket parts for the Miata and have taken to customizing their ride over the years, making it one of the best cars to modify.
7. Honda S2000
The Honda S200 is another proper open-top roadster admired by multitudes for its nimble handling. Equipped with a 2.2L 4 cylinder engine which revved as high as 8000 rpm, following the facelift in 2002, the Honda s2000 conquered the hearts of many driving enthusiasts.
Common modifications made to the venerable S2000 included body customizations, paint jobs, wheel rims, and suspension upgrades, making the ride more dynamic and sporty. The Honda S2000 had relatively tame modding upgrades compared to the Supra, the Skyline r the Lancer Evo like the Miata since it is already a capable car from Japan which captured the collective imagination of driving geeks since it was quite affordable as well, earning it a secure place in this list of the best cars to modify.
8. Ford Mustang
American muscle cars already being so popular, it is no surprise that the most well-known of them is on this list. The Ford Mustang is already a sweet thing to drive powered by V6 or V8 engines. Still, over the years, people have begun modifying these cars to handle better, produce more power, and overall become better-driving cars.
The modified car community prefers older examples of the mustang since they are quite simple and can take big upgrades easily. Companies like Roush, Steeda, and Sutton Clive cater exclusively to Mustang owners. The Mustang commonly sees mods like massive power boosts, suspension and handling upgrades, and beguilingly rich body and paint custom jobs and is definitely among the best cars to modify.
9. Ford Fiesta
The Fiesta is a well-known hot hatch that car enthusiasts already appreciate. It is also a surprisingly cheap car to modify, with the widespread availability of aftermarket support through body and tuning kits. The 7th generation Fiesta has a range of engines and configurations to choose from, going from a 1L EcoBoost Turbo to a 1.5 Ecoboost Turbo available in diesel as well. Different models with varying performance levels are available, with the range-topping ST being the best.
The best part is that it already has a factory-approved level of modding which means that modding the Ford Fiesta ST will not void the warranty by the manufacturer. Mods for the Ford Fiesta are quite cheap and popular among owners. All said and done; the Fiesta remains a practical hot hatch for families despite its upgrades; however, many have not stopped there but gone on to add a roll cage and go full-on Ken Block mode. This makes it among the best cars to modify.
10. Subaru WRX STI
The Subaru WRX is a beloved gem among car enthusiasts for its driving dynamics and wide availability of aftermarket options to choose from to modify this car. Having originally debuted with a 2L high revving engine, the WRX is produced sufficient power as a sedan.
However, with the long production run and wide availability of aftermarket options to modify the car, body customizations and powertrain upgrades are quite common. Subaru owners often increase the power produced by their engines and add handling upgrades like custom tires for improved grip and handling, making it very popular and among the best cars to modify.
11. Honda Civic
The Honda Civic is another very popular hot hatch, especially with the Type R trim level, which adds more power and character to the car. The 10th generation of the Civic unified the model line and grew in appeal to driving enthusiasts. Its wide appeal makes it among the best cars to modify.
The Honda Civic vastly benefitted from cranking up the power produced and customizations made to the suspension and tires for better driving dynamics. Another very popular upgrade type was engine swaps for owners of the Civic, who also upgraded to a double-wishbone suspension to improve the driving dynamics of the car.
With this list, you will be able to choose which are the best cars to modify easily. However, it must be noted that modifying your car is not something that is strictly required. In most cases, except for the fiesta, performance upgrades by changing the engine suspension or gears will void the warranty. Japanese cars are especially popular due to this factor since they are well known for their reliability and are widely regarded as the best cars to modify. Mostly, the older the car is and the longer its production run lasts, the more options will be available to modify the car. However, safety should be kept in kind while modifying any vehicle.