The automotive aftermarket is a huge business in this country. Last year alone, U.S. drivers spent some $287 billion to upgrade their rides. That’s ten times the amount spent on smartphones during the same period. It’s also a reflection of how passionate people can be about their cars.
True, that sales difference is partly because of pricing. It can often cost a lot more to modify a vehicle than it does to buy a new phone. On the other hand, if you’re on a budget, there are plenty of popular modifications that are impressively affordable. A basic performance enhancer, such as a cold-air intake kit, can be well under $200. Real carbon-fiber pedal covers can add a modern, sporty look to your car’s cabin for less than $100.
Another strategy to avoid breaking the bank is to start with the right vehicle. For example, all the choices here are common pre-owned models with plenty of aftermarket support. This means the vehicles themselves are less expensive to buy, parts are easy to find and you can count on an eager community of enthusiasts for advice.
1. Chevrolet Camaro
American muscle cars can feature impressive running gear and wild graphics even when they come straight from the factory. But that doesn’t stop folks from modifying icons like the Chevrolet Camaro. The demand for aftermarket Camaro equipment is so high that Chevy gets in on the action. The Bowtie brand offers an extensive list of goodies for the Camaro going back to the 2010 model year. You can order everything from spoiler-extension kits to complete engines.
Older models can also be a great option for car modding. Just keep in mind that Chevy didn’t sell the Camaro for the 2003-2009 model years.
2. Dodge Challenger
Like its crosstown rival the Camaro, the Dodge Challenger is an iconic muscle car that doesn’t really need any upgrades to satisfy enthusiasts. After all, a model such as the SRT Demon packs a standard 840-horsepower Hemi V8. Yet the Challenger matches the Camaro with a massive aftermarket following anyway. This includes a long list of goodies from both Mopar, Dodge’s official accessories supplier, and the third-party companies. Together, they make it simple to customize the Challenger exactly the way you want it at a price you can afford.
3. Ford Focus
The obvious choice from the Blue Oval is the Ford Mustang, which is the third member of the modern-day muscle car class. The Ford Focus, however, is less money and can be as fun to modify. That’s because even if it doesn’t have the same movie-screen buzz as the imports, it does have the attention of the experts. Ford’s compact car was voted the No. 1 hatchback for car modifications for two years running at the annual SEMA show. Put on by the Specialty Equipment Market Association, it’s the top industry gathering for the automotive aftermarket.
4. Honda Civic
If you do like imported sport compacts, the Honda Civic stands out. The Civic helped kick off the craze for Japanese tuner cars in the 1980s, and it still makes an ideal platform for modifications today. The proof of that is right in Honda’s current lineup, which boasts athletic Civic Si and Type R models.
One particular advantage in the pre-owned marketplace is that Honda has offered the Civic in three body styles in recent years. As a result, you can pick a coupe, sedan or hatchback as your starting point. A strong reputation as a high-quality used car doesn’t hurt the Honda either.
5. Jeep Wrangler
Nor is it only cars that people like to modify. The Jeep Wrangler is among the most popular vehicles of any kind when it comes to aftermarket updates. Here you’ll see a much sharper focus on off-road performance, of course. Lift kits for extra ground clearance, all-terrain tires for improved traction and light bars for better visibility are only a few of the possibilities for Jeep lovers. You can also civilize your Jeep with comfort modifications. For instance, Mopar, which is the official accessories supplier for Jeep, has exclusive seating covers made specifically for the Wrangler with Katzkin synthetic-leather surfaces.
6. Mazda MX-5 Miata
Interested in grassroots racing? The Mazda Miata is a perfect first-time racecar. In fact, Mazda and Long Road Racing have partnered on a turnkey Miata racer for motorsport series around the globe. And that’s not the only reason the Miata is called the “most raced sports car” in the world. It’s also ideal for the DIY approach to the sport.
All production models, going back to the 1990 original, boast nimble handling that’s engineered for the track. You can then find many aftermarket solutions for bringing the Miata up to racing spec, whether it’s installing a roll cage or moving to bigger brakes.
7. Nissan 350Z/370Z
Consider the Nissan Z a Japanese muscle car. The Nissan 350Z and 370Z are rear-wheel-drive performers with hundreds of horsepower under the hood. The 350Z launched for the 2003 model year with a 287-horsepower V6. By the time the 370Z debuted in 2009, output had climbed to 332 horses. With all models, aftermarket wheels and a lowered suspension can bring out the car’s aggressive curves. So can the wide range of aero pieces, including those from Nismo, Nissan’s in-house performance brand. Also, for more variety, don’t forget that the 350Z and 370Z are available in coupe and convertible body styles.
8. Subaru Impreza WRX
Don’t be fooled by the mild-mannered entry-level Subaru Impreza. Despite its mainstream positioning, and because of its standard all-wheel drive, the Impreza has a long history as a championship-winning rally car. The Impreza’s history as a favorite among tuners goes back nearly as far, too. In each case, the preferred models are the Impreza WRX and WRX STI. These already offer significant performance and design enhancements that include a large rear wing for the STI. The aftermarket also supplies many of the same features and more individually, so you can create a custom look of your own.
9. Toyota Tacoma
The best-selling small pickup in the United States, the Toyota Tacoma provides you with a right-sized alternative to bigger, more expensive trucks. The Tacoma does provide a full-size complement of aftermarket options, though. Many take their influence from the retail Tacoma models modified by Toyota Racing Development (TRD). The current crew consists of the TRD Sport, TRD Off-road and TRD Pro. Aftermarket highlights include not only typical trail-friendly hardware but also an assortment of truck-specific equipment. Combining style and functionality, these range from in-bed roll bars to durable bed liners to hard tonneau covers.
10. Volkswagen GTI
A sporty variant of the VW Golf, the Volkswagen GTI is the German competitor in the hot-hatch segment. Indeed, per the automaker, the GTI is the original member of the club. According to VW, the compact hatchback kicked off a new era in performance when it was introduced in 1976. The car also lives up to its billing today: A turbocharged 220-horsepower engine, an adaptive chassis-control system and a lowered ride height (compared to the Golf) are all standard. All of the expected aftermarket mods are available for the GTI, including computer chips that reprogram your car’s engine for more power.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in January 2015. It has been completely updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.