Best Tuner Cars for All Budgets: Under $5K, $10K & $20K

Stock cars are boring. There, we said it. But they don’t have to be! You can take an otherwise boring car, make some nice cosmetic mods, upgrade the heck out of it, and BAM — you have something that is a street weapon.

The challenge is finding the right car to turn into your masterpiece. It requires a lot more work and research than just heading out to the sales lot and finding any ol’ car that looks aggressive. You need to find something that fits your budget, has the right performance potential, and tons of aftermarket support.

Not sure where to begin? We’ve got your back with this fantastic list of tuner cars. To make your search easier, we’ve arranged the best options in every budget. If you’re serious about getting a car to work on, reading through this list is where you start.

Things to Look For in a Tuner Car

Before you start your search for the right car, make sure to give some thought to what you want out of it. Do you want it to be easy to work on? Heavy or light? Old or new? Answering these questions will help you to narrow down your list of options.

Take a look at the base of each car and how easy they are to modify. Yeah, a car without a ton of horsepower isn’t as fun, but if you can install a turbo, intake, exhaust, and get it tuned, it might be easy to add an extra 100 to 200 horsepower, even if you’re on a budget.

From there, take a look at the weight. Heavier cars are harder to improve overall because they have a ton of extra weight to lug around. So, each horsepower you add isn’t going to give you the same feeling on the butt dyno — especially for 0-60 times.

Finally, consider what the suspension set up is like. If the car you’re starting with has a great suspension and braking system, often you can get away with lowering springs instead of coilovers, which can be a cheap way to make your car handle a bit better and look great, while also keeping the authorities happier, and your modified car insurance premium lower.

Past that you’ll also want to consider how you will drive the car. Are you looking for awesome burnouts, fast quarter-miles, or high-top speeds? Do you plan to take it to local track days, or drift events? Each car is different, so having an understanding of what performance specifications best suit your needs is the way to go.

Scion FRS burnout

Also remember, you’re looking for a car to improve — which means you’ll want bolt-on parts to make changes with. That’s why it’s just as important to check out what aftermarket parts are available before you make a purchase.

Otherwise, you might be stuck with a car that’s fun to drive but requires custom work every time you want to modify it. If you have limited funds to spend, you really can’t go wrong with bolt-on modifications which you can install yourself at home.

Mistakes to Avoid When Buying Used

If you’re buying a car that has already been tuned, you’ll want to take a thorough look at it before you make a purchase.

You’ll come across many sellers who happen to be great people with great intentions, but you’ll also run into dodgy sellers who will try to get rid of a screwed-up car.

If you’re new to tuning and don’t know what you’re looking at, find a mechanic you trust and have them take a look under the hood before making any purchases. The best way to get a car inspected is to find a mechanic who specializes in that type of car, but who hasn’t worked on it before.

That mechanic can check it out thoroughly, possibly doing a compression or leak-down test, among other things. That’s the best way to avoid getting ripped off.

Your Best Options

Whether you’re hunting down a tuner car for a beginner or you’re planning a serious build involving an engine swap and more, these are all outstanding choices.

We’ve broken the list down to suit a wide price range. The further down the list you go, the more you’ll be spending, but you’ll often get more options and perks too. Let’s get into it.

Cheap Tuner Cars Under $5K

Who says you need to spend a ton of cash to get a top-notch car? Not only are these awesome options, but they’re also really light on the pocket. As long as you’re browsing around and skimming through the right car forums, you can find them for an absolute bargain.

Fun cars at a great price — that’s what this list of the best cars under $5K is all about.

Honda Civic EG Hatchback

Tuned Honda EG Civic Hatchback

Average Price: $2,000 to $3,000
Drivetrain: FWD
Power Output: 74 horsepower @6,300 rpm
Engine Capacity: 1.3L
Torque Specs: 102 Nm @3,100 rpm
Curb Weight: 2,094 pounds
Weight to Power Ratio: 12.8 kg/hp

To be clear, we didn’t say you were gonna win a ton of races if you spent as little as possible on a cheap car to get started. But if you’re looking for a fun car to play with, the EG Civic Hatchback is an outstanding choice.

It’s not the easiest car to find in the states, but that means you’re getting something incredibly unique without having to drop a ton of cash.

Sourcing parts won’t be too difficult either; you can steal most parts from EK or EG Civic sedans manufactured between 1992 and 1995. It’s the best of both worlds — a unique car that’s easy to source parts for.

The 74 stock horsepower is nothing to write home about, but it’s simple to build on and very tuner friendly. More is the only way to go! All in all, it’s a great starter car that you can practice and make mistakes on. Since it’s not worth a ton, you don’t have to worry about screwing it up either. Go crazy.

VW Corrado VR6

VW VR6 Corrado

Average Price: $4,000 to $5,000
Drivetrain: FWD
Power Output: 188 horsepower @5,800 rpm
Engine Capacity: 2.8L
Torque Specs: 245 Nm @4,200 rpm
Curb Weight: 2,809 pounds
Weight to Power Ratio: 6.8 kg/hp

If you don’t mind going closer to the top end of your $5,000, consider shelling out for the VW Corrado VR6. It’s much faster than the EG Civic Hatch, but calling it a speed demon would be a bit of a stretch. That said, it’s a fun car to tune and build on.

It’s incredibly easy to find parts for without spending a ton of cash, which explains why it’s such a popular choice. You can get creative and install even more parts with small mods, allowing you to transform your VR6 into something truly unique.

Acura RSX

Modified Acura RSX

Average Price: $3,000 to $6,000
Drivetrain: FWD
Power Output: 200 horsepower @7,400 rpm
Engine Capacity: 2.0L
Torque Specs: 192 Nm @6,000 rpm
Curb Weight: 2,778 pounds
Weight to Power Ratio: 6.3 kg/hp

With an RSX, if you’re looking to stay under $5,000 you might have to shop around a bit, but the options are there. There’s little doubt that there are a few extra perks to an RSX over the other options on our under $5k list.

First, it’s very powerful when stock, which means you’ll have an even faster car after tuning. Not only that, but it redlines much higher than most cars in this price bracket.

However, while parts are abundant for the RSX, they’re a little more expensive than the other options on the low-budget list. Still, compared to some of the premium options, it’s far from expensive. It’s a fun car and one you won’t regret buying.

Under $10k

So, you have a little more to spend — you can put those dollars to good use with the cars on this list of the best tuner cars under 10k.

Even better for car enthusiasts, it’s at this price range we start to enter into the world of rear-wheel drive. Yeah, they might be a little more expensive, but they’ll also be more fun!

BMW E36

Tuned BMW E36

Average Price: $3,000 to $15,000
Drivetrain: RWD
Power Output: 89 to 316 horsepower
Engine Capacity: 1.6L to 3.2L
Torque Specs: 104 Nm to 350 Nm
Curb Weight: 2,899 pounds to 3,075 pounds
Weight to Power Ratio: 14.76 kg/hp to 4.4 kg/hp

Narrowing down anything to a single option for the BMW E36 is a tricky task. There are fourteen different engine options, four different transmission options, and six different body styles! No wonder the price and specs vary dramatically.

If you’re looking for a low-end 316i E36, you’ll be spending close to $3,000, but if you’re getting a top-notch M3, you can easily spend $15,000 or more!

That’s why we put the E36 somewhere in the middle. There are plenty of options under $10,000, and you can navigate how you spend that money however you’d like. The good news is that many of these makes and models share parts, so there are tons of options out there to choose from!

Ford Fox Body Mustang

Tuned Fox Body Mustang

Average Price: $4,000 to $10,000
Drivetrain: RWD
Power Output: 220 horsepower @4,200 rpm
Engine Capacity: 5.0L
Torque Specs: 406 Nm @3,200 rpm
Curb Weight: 3,037 pounds
Weight to Power Ratio: 6.26 kg/hp

There’s something to be said for American muscle cars, and nothing epitomizes that spirit more than a classic Ford Mustang. These cars are torque monsters, and they offer a decent amount of horsepower considering their age.

No, they don’t have as much horsepower as most other cars at this price range, but c’mon, it’s a Mustang! There are tons of options to choose from, but go with a manual transmission and tune the crap out of everything.

It’s a fun car to play with, and it’ll turn heads like no other. Even better, there are tons of options to choose from, and it’s easy to stay under $10,000! But while you might be able to find them under $5,000, those vehicles are likely to need a little more work to stay roadworthy.

Infiniti G35

Tuned Infiniti G35 4 door sedan

Average Price: $5,000 to $10,000
Drivetrain: RWD
Power Output: 298 horsepower @6,400 rpm
Engine Capacity: 3.5L
Torque Specs: 352 Nm @4,800 rpm
Curb Weight: 3,512 pounds
Weight to Power Ratio: 5.35 kg/hp

Next up on the list is the Infiniti G35, and it’s an outstanding choice. Once again, there are multiple body styles and options to choose from — but we opted for the 3.5L manual sedan for our list here as it’s great value and begging to be modified.

If you do some homework you can find these at a great price. They come powerful from the factory, so if you’re willing to do some work they can truly turn into track monsters.

In fact, we’ve covered several performance upgrades including turbo or supercharger kits, or simple changes like G35 cold air intakes and plenum spacers. With a car like this there’s a heap of aftermarket support, so tuning one is very easy.

As a fun fact, if you’re looking for an Infiniti G35 overseas, it’s might be called a Nissan Skyline V35. It’s the same car —  just branded differently.

Nissan 240sx

Nissan 240SX with subtle mods

Average Price: $5,000 to $11,000
Drivetrain: RWD
Power Output: 140 horsepower @5,600 rpm
Engine Capacity: 2.4L
Torque Specs: 206 Nm @4,400 rpm
Curb Weight: 2,698 pounds
Weight to Power Ratio: 8.74 kg/hp

Okay, so the S13 240sx doesn’t come with the most horsepower out of the gate, but there’s good news. This engine is naturally aspirated which means you can easily ramp up the horsepower numbers with a little work.

Some people choose to turbocharge the standard KA24DE engine, while others swap it out for a turbocharged CA18DET or SR20DET, which this car came with from the factory in Japan and other markets.

And since the S13 weighs significantly less than most other cars in this price range, even adding another 100 horsepower will make this one of the most fun cars in this price range.

But perhaps most important is, as far as Japanese cars go, this one is probably the most iconic. And isn’t that what we all want from a project car in the first place?

Nissan 350z

Nissan Z33 (350z) Turbo street build

Average Price: $6,000 to $10,000
Drivetrain: RWD
Power Output: 300 @6,500 rpm
Engine Capacity: 3.5L
Torque Specs: 371 Nm @4,800 rpm
Curb Weight: 3,602 pounds
Weight to Power Ratio: 5.45 kg/hp

Another outstanding option is the 350z. Parts are abundant and affordable, and even when kept stock, this machine puts out an impressive 300 horsepower.

Out of all the sports cars we’ve reviewed, this is the most powerful right out of the gate. But that doesn’t mean you have to max out your budget to get one.

You can find lower-end options around $6,000 which give you plenty of spending money for parts and tuning! There’s huge aftermarket support for 350z mods, and with that extra $4,000, you can consider a bolt-on Z33 turbo kit, and still have a little extra money left over to upgrade the exhaust.

Under $20k

If you’ve got close to $20,000 to spend, there are some really fun options available. Just keep in mind that you want money left over for tuning and upgrades too, so don’t spend all of your cash on the ride!

But, it’s not going to be easy because the best tuner cars under 20k are more than a little tempting.

Mazda Miata

Tuned Mazda Miata with exterior upgrades like converted headlights

Average Price: $10,000 to $20,000
Drivetrain: RWD
Power Output: 167 horsepower
Engine Capacity: 2.0L
Torque Specs: 190 Nm @5,000 rpm
Curb Weight: 2,480 pounds
Weight to Power Ratio: 6.74 kg/hp

Let’s start with the elephant in the room. Yes, you can find a Miata for under $10,000 – but it’s going to need some work, or it’s going to have a ton of miles. If you’re willing and able to spend just a little bit more, a top-notch option awaits.

No, it’s not a torque monster, and no, it’s not the most powerful sports car we’ve reviewed so far —  but it’s exceptionally light. What that means is each horsepower you add will make a big difference from the driver’s seat.

Think of it this way, if you tune an extra 150 horsepower into a MX-5 Miata, it’s going to outperform just about any car on this list.

If you’re serious about tuning, check out this complete guide to Miata modifications. As a general rule, you can never go wrong with buying a Miata.

Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X

Tastefully tuned Mitsubishi Evo X

Average Price: $11,000 to $15,000
Drivetrain: AWD
Power Output: 303 horsepower @6,500 rpm
Engine Capacity: 2.0L
Torque Specs: 413 Nm @4,000 rpm
Curb Weight: 3,527 pounds
Weight to Power Ratio: 5.28 kg/hp

Finally, a car with an all-wheel-drive drivetrain! Don’t get us wrong, rear-wheel-drive cars are fun especially for drifting, but when you’re racing you want traction. And the best way to get more traction is to deliver power to all four wheels.

Not only that, but it delivers the most power per kg out of any car reviewed up to this point. Don’t be fooled by it’s small engine and stock turbo, drastically increasing horsepower from this car is a walk in the park.

However, if you’re at a loss on potential upgrades we have you covered there with a litany of mods and upgrades for you to consider in this comprehensive guide to Mitsubishi Evo X mods and upgrades. If you’re looking for a car that requires nothing more than a tune and some extra boost, this is a very fun and easy option.

Mazda FC RX-7

Pandem's Mazda FC RX7 turbo tuner car

Average Price: $15,000 to $20,000
Drivetrain: RWD
Power Output: 185 horsepower @6,500 rpm
Engine Capacity: 2.4L
Torque Specs: 245 Nm @3,200 rpm
Curb Weight: 2,756 pounds
Weight to Power Ratio: 6.76 kg/hp

Mazda’s FC RX-7 Turbo coupe might not be the fastest car out there, but it certainly is the most fun to drive. There are multiple models and engine packages for this car, so it’s essential to get into the nitty-gritty details when finding one.

We opted for the RX-7 Coupe with a turbo here, but if you’re looking for something slightly cheaper, you can always choose one with a naturally-aspirated engine.

As you’re probably already aware, the FC RX-7 has a 13B rotary engine under the hood — a notorious piece of machinery that demands to be taken care of. If you decide to buy this car, and if it’s going to be your first time owning a rotary engine, it’s really important that you understand how it works.

Nissan 370z

Lowered Nissan 370z

Average Price: $15,000 to $20,000
Drivetrain: RWD
Power Output: 332 horsepower @7,000 rpm
Engine Capacity: 3.7L
Torque Specs: 265 Nm @5,200 rpm
Curb Weight: 3,232 pounds
Weight to Power Ratio: 4.42 kg/hp

Nissan unveiled their first 370z for sale in North America in 2009, so it’s no surprise they’re a little more expensive than we’d like. However, they have higher performance specs, and they come with more comfort features.

Since they’re still making 370z today, getting parts is easy. Although if you’re looking for a brand new 370z for less than $20,000, you’re out of luck.

Instead, to stay in the average price range listed above, look for a 2009 to 2013 model year. Don’t worry, they still have plenty of features and are among the best modern tuner cars!

Porsche Boxster 986

Bisimoto's custom built Porsche Boxster 986

Average Price: $15,000 to $25,000
Drivetrain: RWD
Power Output: 217 horsepower @6,500 rpm
Engine Capacity: 2.7L
Torque Specs: 260 Nm @4,500 rpm
Curb Weight: 2,778 pounds
Weight to Power Ratio: 5.8 kg/hp

Wait, you can buy a Porsche for less than $20,000? Absolutely — as long as it’s an older one. Porsche Boxsters in this price range are from the year 2000 and earlier, but considering that a brand new Boxster costs close to $100,000, it’s one heck of a deal.

But let’s be clear about one thing, Boxster parts aren’t cheap and neither is the labor. So, while you might be able to get a Boxster for under $20,000, keep in mind that you’re going to need more money to maintain and tune this sports car.

Furthermore, it’s not as high-performing as other cars you can get at this price range. But, it’s a Porsche, and it’s relatively easy to turn it into one of the best-looking tuner cars around.

Subaru BRZ

Tuned Subaru BRZ

Average Price: $20,000 to $25,000
Drivetrain: RWD
Power Output: 200 horsepower @7,000 rpm
Engine Capacity: 2.0L
Torque Specs: 204 Nm @6,400 rpm
Curb Weight: 2,824 pounds
Weight to Power Ratio: 6.4 kg/hp

There are few car brands with as loyal of a following as Subaru. So, while the BRZ measurables might not stack up, it’s still got a loyal following and rabid fan base. What that means for you is that there are plenty of forums and support groups to walk you through different upgrades.

This is a massive perk for beginners and experts alike! But the BRZ is fairly new, which is why the BRZ is in our top price bracket. Keep in mind though, that these were also sold with Scion and Toyota badges, so if you don’t mind which you’re driving, you may be able to find a deal by considering the others.

Despite the slightly lower stock specs, it’s still a joy to drive — just be sure to opt for the manual transmission, or you’ll notice even more of a performance drop-off.

Honda S2000

Performance tuned Honda S2000

Average Price: $20,000 to $30,000
Drivetrain: RWD
Power Output: 240 horsepower @8,300 rpm
Engine Capacity: 2.0L
Torque Specs: 207 Nm @7,500 rpm
Curb Weight: 2,809 pounds
Weight to Power Ratio: 5.31 kg/hp

The S2K is another car that you’re going to have to hunt to find under the $20,000 price range, but if you do your research and wait for the right deal it’s possible.

And all that hard work will reward you with a car that has impressive measurables, is a joy to drive, and is even better to tune. It’s lightweight and powerful, and if you know what you’re doing 300 horsepower is well within reach.

Start with an upgraded turbo or supercharger and you’re well on your way! There aren’t a ton of these vehicles on the market though, so keep an eye out and prepare yourself to wait.

Mazda FD RX7

Clean Mazda FD RX7

Average Price: $25,000 to $30,000
Drivetrain: RWD
Power Output: 255 horsepower @6,500 rpm
Engine Capacity: 1.3L
Torque Specs: 294 Nm @5,000 rpm
Curb Weight: 2,826 pounds
Weight to Power Ratio: 5.03 kg/hp

If you’re exclusively shopping for cars under $20,000, view this as a “coming soon” listing. That’s because Mazda didn’t sell many of these vehicles in the US domestic market. Instead, they were popular in the overseas market first — especially in Japan.

But since these vehicles need to be older than 25 years to import, only about half of the model years are eligible. And as more model years and vehicles become available, the price should drop some.

However, if you get one of these vehicles, they’re among the best import tuner cars to own and drive. They come twin-turbocharged and produce an impressive 255 horsepower. They’re a great choice, and they have a rabid following.

Our Top Favorites

We like all the cars on our list — as many car lovers would. But when picking the best of the best, it’s necessary to trim down the list a bit.

Below we’ve broken down the best car for each category, and you can’t go wrong with any of them.

For Drifting: Mazda Miata

Did someone mention drifting? If so, you want a Miata. They aren’t easy to slide, but they will make you a better driver. Parts support is excellent, which is important as you’re probably going to bend some things. If you’re unsure what makes an outstanding drift car, check out our guide to the drift cars, we break down everything you need to know!

For Straight-line Performance: Nissan 370z

Lightweight, powerful, and just a bit torquey, the Nissan 370z excels at drag racing, even when it’s still stock. But it’s fun to play with too, which is why we highlighted it again here.

Most Reliable Option: Honda S2000

Honda makes reliable vehicles, and their S2000 is no exception. Not only is it an excellent car to wring more performance out of, but it’s also extremely forgiving. It’s a great choice all-around.

On a Shoestring: Honda Civic EG Hatchback

We’ve all been there — we want a fun car but don’t have fun car money. Don’t worry, the EG Civic is extremely affordable, and you can get parts for it for cheap too. If you’re on a tight budget, get an EG Civic Hatchback and never look back.

Did you like what you read, or do you feel like we missed some better options to tune? Let us know below, we’d love to hear from you!

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