In the right hands a stock vehicle, in any condition, becomes the perfect canvas to create an automotive masterpiece. I’ve personally seen my neighbor transform a rusty 1940s Ford into a fire-breathing rolling work of art. The body is still mostly intact, but every aspect of the hot rod has been significantly modified. He added a reworked and transplanted Pontiac V8 engine and six-speed manual transmission, and a Chevy S-10 frame replaced the original chassis that was heavy, rusty and in need of repair.
The tradition of modifying a car to suit personal preferences is almost as old the automobile itself. Whether for cosmetic reasons, performance or utility, even vehicles that appear perfect can often be improved, if only to better suit the owner’s tastes and needs.
While many modifications are simply to solve a problem (for example, a tow hitch added to a minivan to carry a receiver bike rack), this article will focus on nine vehicles that provide the perfect base formula for altering in the pursuit of grin-inducing fun. Our short list is certainly not exhaustive by any stretch; my hope is to point out some shining examples of vehicles that provide almost endless modification amusement.
More Gallop From Your Pony Car: Mustang and Camaro
I have quite a few friends who own Ford Mustangs and Chevrolet Camaros, and while to the untrained eye they may look like a group of conformists driving around in nearly identical cars, the reality is that many pony car enthusiasts have spent hours and a few paychecks to make their car special. With an abundance of easily accessible and often affordable aftermarket parts, the Mustang and Camaro make ideal automotive canvases to work on.
Performance mods can be as simple as replacing the stock air filter with a high-flow direct replacement or a bolt-on cold-air intake. Or they can be as dramatic as replacing engine internals for ultimate horsepower and torque. Swapping out the stock exhaust for an aftermarket replacement can also yield some decent performance gains and has the side effect of allowing your pony car’s engine to boom, gurgle, scream and sing in ways that the typical stock system can only dream of.
Sing a Better Tune: Lancer Evolution and WRX STI
When manufacturers release new cars they typically tune the engine for the best balance of performance, economy and long-term reliability. That typically equates to leaving a lot of untapped power just waiting to be unleashed. Factory turbocharged engines are often the best examples; the preset factory boost levels are fairly conservative to save fuel and keep the mechanicals from wearing themselves out prematurely. Fortunately, modern technology makes grabbing this hidden power fairly easy and straightforward.
Two vehicles especially prepared to handle more power than the engine serves up from the showroom are the rally-inspired Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and its close competitor, the Subaru WRX STI. Both platforms provide road-hugging all-wheel-drive, piano-wire tight suspensions and the precision steering necessary for a high-horsepower application. Spend enough time behind the wheel of either and you realize that while the power is great, you could certainly pile on a good deal more without breaking anything loose (including the tires).
By simply plugging a tuning computer into the vehicles OBD-II port, you can unleash 60-plus horsepower, improve throttle response and facilitate an overall increase in power throughout the entire rpm range. You can also use the same computer to tune for better fuel economy for longer trips. The best part is that you can quickly retune your turbocharged rally car back to stock in minutes, all without touching anything under the hood.
Batten Down the “Hot” Hatches: GTI and Focus ST
When the original Volkswagen GTI arrived on the scene in 1976, the little car that blended performance, utility and economy essentially created a new “hot hatchback” segment. Sure there were a few notable enthusiast-oriented hatchbacks around when VW blessed the world with the GTI, but its fit, finish and performance defined the concept and continue to earn kudos with each new generation.
More recently Ford introduced an enthusiast version of the Ford Focus, which is known as the Focus ST. Powered by a relatively small turbocharged four-cylinder engine, the European influence on the Focus ST is immediately obvious. The precise handling and fantastic suspension lend to hours of fun behind the wheel, and the excellent gas mileage means that you can probably enjoy all of those hours on less than a tank of gas.
Both vehicles make the perfect canvas for suspension mods. Replacing the stock springs and shocks with adjustable coilovers will enhance the already excellent performing suspension and add to the hatchback’s curb appeal with a lower ride height. An added value of a set of adjustable coilovers is the ability to set the car higher off the ground for better road clearance during the winter months in climates where snow is an issue.
Of course, replacing the car’s shocks and struts requires a considerable investment and is one of the more difficult and dangerous jobs for a home mechanic. Thankfully, simply swapping out the rear sway bar on the Golf GTI is notorious for providing a tangible difference in handling, adding grip and reducing body roll during cornering. Even if you can’t afford a new sway bar, upgrading suspension related bushings around an older GTI or Focus ST with graphite impregnated urethane counterparts can result in a noticeable enhancement in the hot hatchback’s driving dynamics without breaking the bank.
Moving On Up: Wrangler and 4Runner
Anyone who has taken a purpose-built vehicle off road can attest to the joys of adventures that begin where the road ends. While there are plenty of vehicles that provide excellent off-road performance, two notable SUVs that are fun to modify include the legendary Jeep Wrangler and the Toyota 4Runner. Both offer traditional body-on-frame construction, which many prefer over newer unibody designs for serious off-roading. The traditional approach boasts an inherent resistance to long-term fatigue, recurrent impacts and the violent twisting often associated with the sport.
Body-on-frame construction also provides a great platform for modifications and replacement of damaged body panels and parts. For instance, wide fender flares can be bolted on to allow larger wheels and tires to be installed, which increase off-road capability and enhance the vehicle’s overall visual appeal.
Speaking of visuals and added utility, it only takes an afternoon for just about any do-it-yourselfer to replace the stock front and rear bumpers with heftier aftermarket units that include tow rings. Add a winch to the front bumper and you’ll be able to pull your Jeep or Toyota out of that nasty spot where you’ve completely lost traction.
The Grass isn’t Always Greener: Modify What You Own
When enthusiasts start to discuss modifications, the conversation tends to drift toward performance and many of the tasks can be a bit overwhelming for the uninitiated. However, modifying your vehicle can be as easy as buying a set of performance tires to replace the worn out ones. A good tire retailer can help you with the choices, and stickier summer tires can enhance your vehicle’s handling more than you would imagine. By the same token, snow tires can make the winter a lot easier to navigate.
Many of the aforementioned upgrades – from an upgraded pop-in high-flow air filter to a complete suspension rebuild – can be done to just about any vehicle. My only warning is that you consider the long-term resale value of your car, truck or SUV. Many of the aftermarket parts that you add will not necessarily increase the value of your car, and some modifications may actually have the opposite effect. You may have always wanted your Camry to have pink polka dots, but the expensive paint work will undoubtedly make it harder to sell when the time comes.