In the world of automotive tuning and, in a wider sense, that of car modification, there is a perception that in order to gain high levels of quality and successful effect, one has to part with a small fortune. This is absolutely not the case, and we will endeavor to prove that in today’s blog post.
For those not entirely in the know, let’s start with a clear definition of what we mean when we talk about a “tuner car.”
What is a “Tuner Car”?
A tuner car is one that has had many parts replaced so that it is much-boosted in performance compared to its original OEM specification. You could also understand this term “tuner car” as a base vehicle onto which you can easily or effectively apply tuning and modification methods to enhance performance.
Another term you should be aware of is “ricer,” which refers to cars that are tuned and modified but to a less-than desirable effect. The term has become a derogatory one within the scope of car tuning and modification. It tends to point to cars that are modified distastefully, or without gaining any other benefit than pure aesthetics.
What are the Best Cheap Tuner Cars?
And so we come to the meat of today’s article, which is about finding cheap tuner cars that offer tremendous scope for alteration and tuning, but certainly won’t break the bank.
One thing you may notice is that many of these cars represent a brand or model’s earlier generations going back a number of years. Don’t be put off by the model years. Remember that the goal is to find a “blank canvas” to tune and boost up to a whole other level.
The world of tuning is about to become more affordable, so buckle in and take notice. Estimated list prices comes from Edmunds unless otherwise stated:
1. Audi S4 (2nd Generation – B5)
Estimated Price: $5,000-$29,700
The first thing you’ll notice when you’re looking at these Audi S4 models --- originally released for the 1997-2002 model years --- is that you get a choice in body style. You can opt for the sedan style if you prefer, or even a wagon form. The base engine is an impressive 2.7L bi-turbocharged V6 engine that can output 250hp and 258lb-ft of torque. The powertrain is paired either with a 6-speed manual or 5-speed tiptronic automatic transmission.
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One other reason that might prompt you to choose an S4 is to set yourself apart from any BMW E36 tuner cars that your friends might have. Don’t misunderstand, the E36 is also a fantastic and affordable tuner car choice (see number 4 in our list for more), but the Audi S4 was always billed as a serious rival to succeed the years of success the E36 enjoyed from 1990 to 1996.
The S4 has been proven a powerful and potential-filled tuner car, having already won comparison tests in the past against other high-performance models. It may not be a car you thought of as “affordable” originally, and you’d be right if you were planning on tuning up a 2019 model, but the second generation is exceptionally good value.
By Rudolf Stricker - Own work, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5299417
2. Mercedes-Benz 190E (1990-1993)
Estimated Price: $2,195-$10,000
One of the biggest factors that makes the 1990s Benz 190E a great tuner is actually the fact that in its basic form it was among the most uninspiring cars that the German auto giant has ever produced. Estimates above include all manner of models and ages, and this car goes back into the early 1980s. For a 1990s model in good condition, you might pay a bit more than the highest estimate, but it should remain comfortably under $10,000.
Under the hood you should find a 160hp 2.6L inline-6 engine, which gets better when tuned, believe us. It’ll never be a track star, but you can turn the 190E into a stunning car with a fairly simple set of tuning measures and modifications. It’ll look the part and invoke a tremendous sense of nostalgia.
If you do have a bigger budget and insist on getting something with the speed and performance credentials, you could look into an Evo or Cosworth versions, but these will likely cost much more.
3. Subaru BRZ
Estimated Price: $10,000-12,000
Those in the market for a more modern offering would be very pleased with the Subaru BRZ, the early models of which start in 2012-2013 model years and will set you back about $10,000 for one in good condition. That can drop, of course, if you find one with a bit of wear and tear that you can put right while doing your tuning.
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Like the Benz 190E, drivers were a little disappointed initially with the 2.0L boxer engine that sits under the hood on this model. It isn’t the most powerful unit, outputting just 200hp. You might think the BRZ looks very familiar, and that’s because it was also marketed at the Toyota 86 and the Scion FR-S. That’s because the car was jointly developed by Subaru and Toyota.
Where the BRZ really shines, though, is the superlative handling and versatility. It boasts fantastic weight distribution and balance, delivering agility and an easy comfortable ride for anyone behind the wheel. These have been the driving forces behind making the car popular in the tuning arena.
4. BMW 3-Series (3rd Generation – E36)
Estimated Price: $2,900-$17,250
It’s another older one in the list, and as mentioned further above is a terrific foil against the Audi S4 if you know anyone who has opted for that model as their tuner car. The E36 was for many years always looked at as the “ugly sister” of the more collectible and desirable E30 models, and even the more powerful E46 models that came after it in the late 1990s. Now, however, things have changed.
Edmunds gives a very low estimate for this model, but once again condition is very important. To buy the base model could certainly fall within the brackets they give, but if it’s a car that’s already been tuned or modified, you could be looking at a bit more. There are plenty of models out there available, though, so you’ll have your pick of the litter.
5. Honda Civic (6th Generation)
Estimated Price: $500-1,904
Anyone with a bit of knowledge and experience of cheap tuner cars might well be thinking that the Honda Civic just screams “Ricer!” Hear us out on this one. While it’s true that many ricers have been created out of Honda Civics, the fault lies with the owners, not the car. The Civic is actually perfectly amenable to good tuning if the right owner with a bit of taste and restraint can find the right balance.
With a nice set of wheels, perhaps a new spoiler, an engine tune and one of the first models to get VTEC upgrades from the OEM, the Civic does indeed have great scope for tuning, and without breaking the bank at all.
6. Lexus IS300 (2005)
Estimated Price: $1,542-8,604
What comes to mind when you think “Lexus”? We’d estimate that tuner car was quite low on your list of things there. The IS300 is bucking the stereotypical middle-class sensible luxury sedan image that has been afforded it all these years.
The shape, base power and agility in fact make it an excellent candidate for tuning. The 3.2L V6 engine outputs a respectable 226hp before tuning, and that makes it quite similar to the BMW 3-Series in terms of engine tuning.
The compact size still offers 5 doors, and good scope for wheel, suspension and exhaust changes if you want. The brand may also make you think that even a model from 2005 wouldn’t exactly be cheap, but you’d be wrong there. You can get models in great condition for well under $10,000. You can do even better if you’re willing to take on more of a fixer-upper.
7. Subaru (Impreza) WRX
Estimated Price: $3,000-6,000 (2000 model year)
The Subaru WRX has a long history. From 1992 to 2014 it was more widely known as the Subaru Impreza WRX. Since 2014, the WRX model name has become a standalone. You therefore have a huge selection of models from which to choose, which makes the price range also very wide. We chose 2000 for our estimated Edmunds value as a mid-point. It also depends if you go for international models or a JDM model.
By and large, the turbocharged engine under the hood delivered up to 240hp and the WRX can become a very capable racetrack car if that’s something you’re looking for, too. The signature Subaru handling that you also find in the BRX is equally present.
The WRX is one of those cars that those who know it come to quickly love it, but it sits with a smaller following since it was never as “mainstream” a vehicle of some of the other marques in today’s list, such as the Honda Civic or BMW 3 Series.
8. Nissan Sentra SE-R (3rd Generation Sentra)
Estimated Price: $1,000-8,000
The Nissan Sentra SE-R appeared first as part of the third generation of Nissan Sentra models built from 1990-1994 in the US. Even after getting its facelift in 1992, the Sentra was really never anything like an inspirational model.
Just like the older Mercedes-Benz 190E, this is part of what made it so perfect as a tuner car. It works well as a blank canvas; solidly built and generally reliable, but with much scope for enhancement.
The low Edmunds estimate is based on the 1993 model, which is a post-facelift 3rd-generation model of the Sentra. The SE-R did have one interesting side, however, which was that they could be surprisingly quick even though some only boasted a 1.6L 4-cylinder engine with 110hp. Tuners caught on quickly and realized you could push them to great heights indeed!
9. Nissan Silvia
Estimated Price: $13,000 (S13,290 – classic.com)
Arguably among the most iconic Japanese drifter cars ever created, and helped to fame by the success of anime series like “Initial D,” the Nissan Silvia is a tuner’s dream and is mercifully affordable. For years they have been purchased as JDM imports but the US now has a healthy domestic population of these cars.
There is some contention about the Silvia, 180SX, 240SX and related vehicles, however because they have been deemed unroadworthy by some authorities over the years. If you intend to get this tuner car as your street car, then you should check on any rules and regulations governing that where you live. If you are buying it for a different purpose, it could be easier.
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Engines include a 1.8L inline-4 or a 2.0L inline-4 depending on the exact model year for the S13. The S14 models include a 2.4L inline-4. There’s a lot of choice in the models available, but they may command higher prices since many are likely to be already tuned up. They have great nostalgic value and therefore can easily stray north of $10,000.
10. Ford Focus (2nd-Generation European, 3rd-Generation Global)
Estimated Price: $1,744-6,798 (2011, first model year of 3rd generation)
The Ford Focus has been one of the brand’s most successful compact models ever, perhaps second only to the Fiesta internationally. The Ford Focus is a great tuner car, even if some people say like the Civic it has equal potential as a ricer. The base models could only get to 170hp, but with tuning you can get out 350hp from a Focus, which is an incredible increase on this great-value car.
With the right wheels, spoiler, engine tune, exhaust modifications and a little extra styling here and there, you can get a real street-legal rally car effect without going crazy on budget. It is a smaller car, though, often (though not always) only a 2-door model. If you don’t need the whole 4-door sedan thing, however, then there’s scope for real greatness.
The Ford Focus has history going back to 1998. A 2nd-generation European model, or a third-generation global model both make a good choice for tuner cars.
Conclusion: Cheap Tuner Cars are More Common Than You Think
While we feel these are definitely some of the best cheap tuner cars out there on the market, the fact is that there are still many more models and many great deals for you to grab with both hands. An affordable base model has great advantages when it’s your first time taking on a car tuning project because it gives you more scope for your budget to balloon in other areas.
It can be easy to get things wrong and make costly mistakes when tuning, at least if you get the base vehicle right and at a good price, you eliminate arguably the biggest part of that financial risk. Happy tuning!