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Best Cars To Modify: High Performance And More

David Collins10-minute read
February 10, 2022

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There are many ways to answer the question “What are the best cars to modify?” but the perhaps the most direct answer is: “Yours.” Whatever make and model you drive, from no matter what year it was built, there is a vast array of aftermarket parts and car tuning companies that can help you build a car that is truly individual to your needs and personality.

The cars we’ll discuss below are among the sexiest and most popular tuner cars in the world today. They generate the most buzz at car shows and are the most popular among the young, global, fiercely independent creative class that brings so much energy to modern car modification. Most of these cars are also readily available in the used car market and highly affordable, which helps because upgrades and mods can get costly.

But virtually any car can be modified today, and in a thousand ways. Let’s say your grandfather passed down to you a relatively low-miles, 2008 Ford Crown Victoria, the epitome of a reliable, but not-so-exciting sedan. For a relatively small outlay of cash, you can slap on some 20-inch rims, window tinting, a drop suspension, and a blazing orange paint job and suddenly have the most distinctive low-rider in the neighborhood.

All of these parts and modifications are readily available, whether you plan to do them yourself or hire a mechanic or tuner shop to do them. The automotive aftermarket is massive and getting bigger each year. Each fall the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) gathers in Las Vegas for the SEMA Show, one of the largest trade shows in the world. In 2022, SEMA anticipates more than 1,300 exhibitors will display products and services that constitute a $47.8 billion automotive aftermarket.

The Hows And Whys Of Car Tuning

People have endless reasons to modify their cars, but typically they are trying to enhance the car in one or all of three categories: speed/power, performance and aesthetics. Of these, speed and power are the most common enhancements desired by the modern car tuner. This is done by modifying the engine and management systems of the vehicle to increase power output. In most cases, performance modifications are needed to handle this increase in power, as the stock vehicle components were not engineered to handle it. These can include modifications to the suspension, brakes and transmission. Finally, if you want your tuner car to look cool – and you do – there are modifications like adding a spoiler, custom paint, or low-profile tires that will turn heads on a Saturday night on the streets.

A Brief History Of Car Tuning

People have been modifying cars all over the world for decades, but we’ll concentrate on the three most important tuner scenes since the 1950s – America, Japan and Germany. The real roots of car tuning culture probably go back to euphoric post-war America. Hot-rod culture blossomed in the ‘50s as the economy boomed, and by the 1960s baby-boom kids were teenagers with money in their pockets and a need for speed as muscle cars rolled off the assembly lines in Detroit by the hundreds of thousands. Cruise culture and midnight racing fed the growing call for customization.

While it is still popular to modify American cars, the next wave of the modern tuner movement began simultaneously in southern California and Japan in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Due to rapidly rising fuel costs and tightening EPA restrictions, the small, highly efficient cars made in Japan were suddenly in high demand in the United States as well, particularly in California with its large population of Asian immigrants. Tuners in both countries began modifying these vehicles and have not stopped to this day.

Another place where tuner culture has taken a footing in recent years is Germany. German cars have been known as some of the best in the world for decades, with iconic brands like Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Porsche to name just a few. The passion of the German people for speed and engineering is reflected in a vigorous market for automobile customization.

Best American Cars To Modify

During the hot rod era of the 1950s and ’60s, a lot of the customization of cars was done in Dad’s garage on a shoestring budget. Parts were often improvised or cannibalized from a junkyard. Today there is a massive aftermarket supplying thousands of parts to help you modify your vehicle. And yes, there are still junkyards and parts salvaged from crashed automobiles for those who want to get creative on a budget.

Today’s cars are the best they’ve ever been best quality, best safety features, best fuel efficiency and of tremendous variety. Fierce global competition has driven this, but it has also created parity in the marketplace, with so many cars looking very much the same. The aftermarket has been a response to that. People want to modify their cars. In America, especially, where individualism is such a cultural heartbeat, a car is an extension of their personality.

There are plenty of American cars that are favorites for customization, but here we’ll focus on three: one that’s built for speed and power, one that’s made for adventure, and one that represents the best-selling class of vehicles on the roads.

1. Ford Mustang

Since its smash debut at the 1964 World’s Fair, the Ford Mustang has been an iconic and distinctly American vehicle and is now the longest-running nameplate in Ford history. In 2018 Ford produced its 10 millionth Mustang. Mustangs from all generations of the brand are among the most highly coveted by car restorers and collectors, and since it is still in production there are hundreds of thousands of Mustangs still on the road today. All of this has produced a massive aftermarket for Mustang parts that makes it one of the most fun and easy American vehicles to modify.

Since 2005, Ford has produced two generations of the Mustang, both using a distinct platform unique to the model line. These constitute by far the bulk of Mustangs available on the used car market. Of these, the more affordable S197 model (2005 – 2014) is frequently modified by adding a cold air intake or, for even more power, a supercharger. Besides engine enhancements that can help Mustang draw incredible horsepower (approaching 1,000 hp), the S550 model (2015 – present) can get a performance exhaust kit for impressive road rumble, or stylish rear valances and wings along with custom aftermarket wheels for a distinctive look on the strip.

Start browsing the Rocket AutoSM inventory for used Ford Mustangs for sale nationwide.

2. Jeep Wrangler

Another uniquely American brand, the modern Jeep Wrangler goes back to 1986, but its ancestors stretch back to World War II. The current model JL Wrangler (2018 present) and the recent JK Wrangler (2007 2017) constitute the most available used vehicles today, but previous versions are still highly prized by enthusiasts. An entire culture has grown up around the Wrangler, making it one of the most customized vehicles in the world.

While modern Wranglers are far more comfortable on the highway than their predecessors of 30 years ago, the primary reason for modifying the vehicle is to make it more capable off-road. Most of these mods add more ground clearance with a suspension lift as well as larger wheels and tires. Bumpers, underbody skid plates, and corner guards add protection for heavy terrain. Add an aftermarket winch so you can help get a stuck vehicle either your own or somebody else’s out of a tough spot on a remote trail.

Start browsing the Rocket Auto inventory for used Jeep Wranglers for sale nationwide. 

3. Ford F-150

No list of top vehicles to modify can leave out a pickup truck. In 2021 the top three best-selling vehicles in the U.S. were American-made full-size pickup trucks, and of these the Ford F-150 remains king (Chevrolet Silverado and Dodge Ram were the others). Because there are so many F-150s on the road, a large aftermarket supply has grown up around it, so getting parts is easy.

There are endless customization possibilities for this truck, but for practicality consider a suspension lift, front brush guard, or a snorkel. Many mods also seek to enhance the F-150’s aggressive styling by adding a custom hood or grille, fog lights, sport mirrors, or a custom paint job with decals or racing stripes.

Start browsing the Rocket Auto inventory for used Ford F-150s for sale nationwide.

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Best Japanese Cars To Modify

Compact, fuel-efficient vehicles have always dominated the Japanese car scene. As the country’s economy really began to expand in the 1970s and ’80s, enthusiasts began to modify these cars. When soaring oil prices and fuel shortages hit the U.S. in the ’70s, inexpensive and fuel-efficient Japanese cars suddenly were in high demand in the States.

Soon, Americans brought their own unique energy to the tuner scene, which created a trans-Pacific feedback loop of creativity and innovation. Japanese automakers noticed and began designing certain models to make them easier to modify. With decades of knowledge and a growing aftermarket for parts, these cars, which are relatively inexpensive when new, have emerged as some of the favorite Japanese cars to modify.

1. Mazda MX-5 Miata

Since its launch in 1989, the Mazda Miata has been a beloved roadster worldwide. At more than 1 million sold, it’s the best-selling two-seat roadster in history. As a stock car, the Miata is a fun little ride with some zip and great handling. With modifications, however, this car can star at road rallies and autocross events. It is even used as a training car for young race car drivers. Because there are so many Miatas out there, the aftermarket is strong, with myriad engine upgrades such as a V8 or supercharger, plus performance brakes, suspensions and more.

Start browsing the Rocket Auto inventory for used Mazda Miatas for sale nationwide.

2. Toyota Supra

After debuting in 1979 as the Toyota Celica Supra, this sports coupe gained a loyal following of fans and tuners until it was discontinued in the U.S. in 1998 (a new Supra model returned in 2020). With a big aftermarket to back it up, options for customizing a used Supra are endless, but most tuners begin with the engine. The Supra’s legendary 2JZ straight-six engine is known for durability and adapts well to a turbocharger. It is not unheard of for a modified Supra to reach 1,000 hp.

Start browsing the Rocket Auto inventory for used Toyota Supras for sale nationwide.

3. Honda S2000

Honda built the S2000 from 1999 – 2009 to help celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary, and they definitely put forth a special effort. If tuners have any complaints, it’s that the S2000 was already a fantastic track car when it came off the assembly line. Not much tuning required, but they still do it. At High-Performance Driving Events (HPDE), which are held on dedicated racetracks, there is usually a strong presence of custom S2000s. This car has a dedicated following of enthusiasts, strong aftermarket backing, and a growing reputation. The fact that it was only built for 10 years, with no sign of a new model coming, bodes well for this car’s future as a collectible.

4. Mazda RX-7

The RX-7 is legendary in Japanese tuner culture, in large part due to its unique Wankel-type 13B rotary engine. When it was launched in 1978, the RX-7 was instantly popular in Japan because it could provide ample power with less than 1.5 liters of displacement, which was below the threshold that brought on a significant road tax. Tuners found that the compact, lightweight motor was mounted such that it gave the vehicle good weight distribution and a low center of gravity. Ample modifications to the engine have been developed over the years and are widely available. Some RX-7s have reached more than 800 hp.

5. Subaru Impreza WRX

The Impreza brand was first launched in Japan in 1992 with the WRX version (“World Rally eXperimental”) intended as a staging vehicle for World Rally Cross racing. The WRX featured rally inspired technology including all-wheel drive, a stiffened suspension, and a turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Still in production today, the WRX is in its seventh generation, so there are plenty of cars and parts available for tuners. Like the Mazda RX-7, the WRX is known as a very capable rally car right out of the factory, but tuners always want more power and they’ve had little trouble finding it from this car.

Start browsing the Rocket Auto inventory for used Subaru Impreza WRXs for sale nationwide.

Other Japanese cars not on this list that are also big favorites for tuner enthusiasts include:

  • Honda Civic
  • Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution
  • Toyota 86
  • Subaru BRZ,
  • Nissan Skyline GT-R
  • Nissan 240 SX

Best German Cars To Modify

The German culture reflects a profound passion for precision manufacturing, innovative engineering, and speed – so it is not a surprise that some of the greatest cars in the world have been produced in Germany for decades. These automakers are known for fantastic engineering and elegant, subtle styling – and the tuner culture reflects that in the way German cars are modified. For this reason, loud or garish modifications don’t work in Germany – but also because of strict road regulations that are tightly enforced by the polizei.

1. Volkswagen Golf/GTI

As a hugely popular world car since the early 1970s, the Volkswagen Golf and its upgrade counterpart GTI has been one of the most enduring car brands through seven generations worldwide. Golf’s practicality and enduring quality make it one of the most customized vehicles anywhere. Recent models feature optional stock turbocharged engines that are very powerful, but the Golf’s massive tuner enthusiast community is constantly finding ways to draw out even more speed.

Start browsing the Rocket Auto inventory for used Volkswagen Golfs for sale nationwide.

2. BMW E30 (3 Series)

The BMW E30 is the second generation of the BMW 3 Series, which was produced from 1982 to 1994. These are classic German cars in the very best sense, and with each year that passes the tuner community embraces it even more. One of the most popular models is the 325i, powered by either a 2.7- or a 2.5-liter inline-six engine. Because they are so old, it’s not too hard to find an E30 on a budget. With all of the engine upgrades, body kits, wheels, etc. to be had in an active aftermarket, this German sedan can be transformed into a fun, powerful rally car.

Start browsing the Rocket Auto inventory for used BMW E30s for sale nationwide.

The Bottom Line: Mods Can Take Your Driving Experience To The Next Level

The worldwide auto industry is producing more and better vehicles today than at any other time in history. Alongside this incredible growth, a massive secondary aftermarket has sprung up to help people modify their cars to the limits of their imaginations. Modification can get costly, but it doesn’t have to. In fact, car tuning purists would much rather purchase a 25-year-old Mazda Miata for less than $10,000, put it up on a lift in their garage, and begin scouring the internet for parts they can install themselves. While modern cars strive to be safe, fuel-efficient and durable, nothing says they can’t be fun, too.

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David Collins

David Collins is a staff writer for Rocket Auto with experience in publishing as well as communications, public relations, and web content creation for automotive manufacturing. He has a B.A. in English from the University of Michigan.