10 Cars You Can Get Cheap and Easily Modify

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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.

Dodge Challenger

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.

Ford Focus

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.

Honda Civic

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.

Jeep Wrangler

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.

Mazda Miata

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.

Nissan 350Z

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.

Subaru WRX

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. 

By | 2018-10-24T21:14:03+00:00 September 14th, 2018|Car Buying|45 Comments

45 Comments

  1. Tuning July 29, 2015 at 11:36 am - Reply

    I drive a Volkswagen GTI and I can assure you that this is the best purchase I ever made. Especially driving this in turbo function is doing it for me!

    • Nas June 18, 2016 at 12:27 am - Reply

      Sorry for you I’m a tell you the same thing I told my local I love my lancer Evo can’t touch this

      • Bojan September 19, 2018 at 9:29 pm - Reply

        Doesn’t the Evo burn through gas really fast?

        • Evo2j October 11, 2018 at 3:20 pm - Reply

          depending on your mods and how you drive the Evo’s. relatively stock they have great gas milage for a car of their year.

  2. Tom September 1, 2015 at 1:00 am - Reply

    You are wrong about the v6 Mustang not being tunable, a GT costs $10k more, at least and for $5k in a v6 you can turbo/supercharge it for over 500 hp.

    • Thomas w October 15, 2015 at 9:43 am - Reply

      Tom u are tight i have a 2003 3.8 that i have started modifying and have seen nice hp gains for cheap. next will be turbo and still isnt expensive fro the amount of horse power being put down

    • Don't worry about it April 7, 2016 at 8:48 pm - Reply

      My friend has a built thunder bird super coupe and changes engines like underwear at 500whp

  3. Dwayne Adams October 21, 2015 at 11:33 am - Reply

    Don’t forget that certain alterations to the body of your vehicle will necessitate a modification of the driveshaft as well. The ideal angel for most driveshafts is only one degree. It’s pretty easy to miss this mark. If it is off, it can cause damage to your vehicle and turn your upgrade into a huge liability. The biggest culprits that require attention are installing lift kits, changing the exhaust system, and using a car for racing.

  4. Tom October 24, 2015 at 2:35 am - Reply

    I have a 2013 3.7 Mustang. It comes with 305 hp from the factory. Add a procharged kit and it’d be pushing around 500 whp. You need to research cars if you’re going to talk about them.

    • Jon December 6, 2015 at 3:46 pm - Reply

      I have a 3.7 mustang that is 474 rwhp. Still costed less than a gt even with a proc harder and supporting mods

      • Fields Montgomery September 18, 2018 at 6:53 pm - Reply

        TOM Not many people buy a v6 mustang and hot rod it they opt for a GT with the V8 it dosnt make any economic sense to buy a cheap v6 and mod it!

    • Cody March 27, 2016 at 4:35 pm - Reply

      i could build a wrx sti and smoke any of your mustang or build up a dodge neon str-4 and still blow the doors off your mustang

      • Mike August 28, 2016 at 11:44 pm - Reply

        Cody, what did you do? I drive a WRX.

      • Kaden crank February 2, 2017 at 11:19 pm - Reply

        At least you wont hit any crowds in the process

        • devin February 16, 2018 at 2:55 pm - Reply

          lmao

  5. Alexandre November 5, 2015 at 2:55 pm - Reply

    Wheres the mazdaspeed 3? ;p

  6. Gmoney November 10, 2015 at 12:01 am - Reply

    The only problem with 500hp on a Mustang is the lack of ability to corner. So says the STI as it leaves you or a typical corner. 🙂

    • Izodmartin July 5, 2016 at 11:50 am - Reply

      BS… just install the Street Eibach kit. handling on rails after that.
      I will take on an car (with the same hp) on a track with my GT.

    • Ray November 9, 2016 at 2:43 am - Reply

      question about the sti which is on my list of test drive. my pos current new vw gli has major oil consumption issues and read online that some subaru models have same issue. have you had any problems like that? i love turbo cars but refuse to have to walk arround with a jug of oil in my trunk. i would apreciate your input. thanks

  7. Roseanne December 9, 2015 at 9:40 am - Reply

    Hey! I’m at work browsing your blog from my new iphone! Just wanted to say I love reading through your blog
    and look forward to all your posts! Keep up the
    fantastic work!

    • Busa January 20, 2016 at 3:24 pm - Reply

      I second Roseanne… I’m doing the same lol. Good read for a dull moment.

  8. Brandooo April 22, 2016 at 2:17 pm - Reply

    Cobalt ss?

  9. Yay April 22, 2016 at 4:26 pm - Reply

    What about a BMW e46 m3? They go for about $12,000 right now and look bomb

    • Steven Alvarado May 6, 2016 at 4:15 pm - Reply

      just because it looks “bomb”?

    • indrayy November 15, 2016 at 3:40 pm - Reply

      whoever made this was sleeping on bmw’s

    • Insert Generic Edgy Name Here August 3, 2017 at 4:45 am - Reply

      NFSMW “05 E46 M3 GTR

  10. Charlie May 31, 2016 at 7:19 am - Reply

    Oh yes.. because a ford mustang, subaru WRX STi and evo lancer are cheap!!

  11. James August 26, 2016 at 1:13 pm - Reply

    Haha right Charlie especially the Evo good luck getting and evo 8 in good condition for under 15k

    For me I’m going do drop a rebuilt z28 or corvette junkyard engine in a rx7fc and blow them away

  12. Mike September 8, 2016 at 8:43 am - Reply

    Volkswagen MK7 GTI stage 2 ! This thing eats Hemi scat packs, 2015 Mustangs, STI’s, EVO’s and gets over 30 miles to the gallon when you drive rite. The interior is sweet and so is the ride.

    • Joe February 17, 2018 at 11:15 pm - Reply

      VW without a total rebuild for track isn’t gone to touch a stock sti or evo. STI and Evo more horsepower far superior handling. I drive a 2016 WRX and eat VW’s for lunch with it still completely stock.

  13. indrayy November 15, 2016 at 3:39 pm - Reply

    You did not seriously put a honda civic put tuning potential and not put a Bmw 335i which has the N54 engine with a twin turbo, detuned un purpose so the E46 M3 has sales. And they are fairly cheap cars.

  14. Xvarjakpaw December 10, 2016 at 11:35 pm - Reply

    To be honest the best cheap cars to tune is got to be the classic Mini Cooper and the volkwagen bettle just cause you car put a subra engine and they are light and not a lot of people do stuff to the cars.

    • Jaden May 15, 2017 at 1:48 am - Reply

      I think the Honda Civic Hatchback 1996 is the most customizable car, well that’s my opinion

  15. Robbie Vallance January 10, 2017 at 2:15 pm - Reply

    Whoever wrote this article clearly is a import fan. The vehicles, besides the mustangs, on this post will not be “fast”. The modifications are not “cheap” on most of these cars, and to get any real power you will have to spend some serious dough…

    What’s sad too is that you mentioned the v6 mustang not being a good starting point, and then you list a Civic??? Most modded Civics cannot beat a v6 mustang….

    You want to build a cheap fast car, buy a foxbody, camaro, or Trans Am. Will easily beat any of those cars, handle better, and look way better with way less money.

    So sick of this import tuner generation.

    • Joe February 17, 2018 at 11:18 pm - Reply

      You clearly don’t have any idea what your talking about I had a civic si that not only beat v6 mustangs but was leaving 5.0 mustangs by at least two car links. I had less money in my civic than most of the mustangs.

    • Nick C. August 17, 2018 at 1:19 am - Reply

      I like import and American, but I am beginning to get sick of some American brands currently bragging about being American made just so they can raise the price by around 5k, and if they aren’t raising the price they are putting less American parts in it than some of the import brands!

    • Nick R. October 16, 2018 at 10:02 pm - Reply

      I can obviously tell your a big fan of American only too. There are good import and American cars, both have weaknesses and strengths. Personally both aren’t bad depending on which models you consider, though I would prefer some foreign brands over American. I’ve had it with the “Mustang badging adds +50 HP” attitude, and also the people who are like, “Well I obviously have more hp and skill because my car drives on the right side and has a sticker that says Tokyo. “. Let’s be real even if you like a V6 Mustang it doesn’t mean it officially can beat a GT-R or WRX STI with/without mods.

  16. Theo March 20, 2017 at 3:01 am - Reply

    ST fam what’s good????

  17. Adrian May 22, 2017 at 2:18 pm - Reply

    where the bmw 335i

  18. TheVest June 21, 2017 at 2:36 pm - Reply

    I’m surprised at the the fact that the 1983-87 Toyota Corolla Sport GT-S isn’t on this list. In Japan, the Sprinter Trueno AE86 was a very popular car among underground street racers and professional racers alike as they were cheap, light and easy to mod, and had very spirited handling. This car was marketed in the US as the Corolla Sport GT-S, retaining pretty much everything except 12 of the 4AGE’s 124 horses (due to emissions regulations). Due to its low weight and cheap price, I’d argue it’s one of the best cars to start wrenching on (not as true for the JDM Sprinter Trueno, though, which comes with a “Takumi tax” caused by the car’s popularity due to Initial D).

  19. hemi June 24, 2017 at 5:33 pm - Reply

    I’m a Subaru brz kinda guy

  20. Bike Guy November 4, 2017 at 7:00 pm - Reply

    they basically just took the Need For Speed Underground car roster and put it on here. the only cars here that aren’t on the Need For Speed roster are the mustang, and that’s in the second one, and the Scion tC.

  21. Joe February 17, 2018 at 11:27 pm - Reply

    If your a real mechanic and know what your talking about any car can be made fast some will cost more than others. Everyone keeps mentioning HP but HP means nothing without the right setup. Your car can have 1000 hp but if not the right setup will get beat by a car with 350 HP. Tuner will always cost more if trying to make the numbers of a V8 only because a V8 starts off with more HP. The car for you depends on what you plan to do with it. For me I like small cars that are quick to easily move through traffic and the occasional street race keeping fuel consumption in mind. So 4cyl tuner is perfect for this. I have seen a civic with less than 10K run 10 sec at the track but bear in mind that anything you race on the regular will cost money as it will break. Anything with a turbo, supercharger, or NOS will break normally quicker and without the right tune will blow up.

  22. Dan G. September 9, 2018 at 3:18 am - Reply

    I drive a 02 Pontiac Grand am gt and with a few custom mods Now keep up w my brothers 400+ hp hemi

  23. nick ross October 21, 2018 at 10:19 pm - Reply

    BMW 1987 325i, mod that thing and its the sexiest thing alive

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