Whenever I first meet someone, more than the house or neighborhood they live in, more than their clothing style; I want to know what kind of car they drive. A person’s car, to me, tells me more about them than almost anything else. When I see a tuner car, I know it is the ultimate artistic expression of the car enthusiast’s personality.
By definition, tuners are cars that have been lovingly changed, upgrading parts and modifying anything on the vehicle in pursuit of increased performance and aesthetic satisfaction. The tuner community would be quick to jump in here to inform you that they have evolved from solely gaudy, Fast & Furious-inspired Japanese coupes to welcome any car that has been “tuned” into their community. So long as you have sacrificed time and money and are deeply, almost worryingly affectionate about your vehicle, you’re in.
Sound enticing? We thought so. For the rest of this article, we’re going to explore five tuner cars you can afford (under $30K) and should consider as your first purchase if you want to be part of the tuner car community.
- Subaru WRX/STI
- Nissan 350/370Z
- Ford Mustang
- Subaru BRZ/Toyota 86
- Mazda Miata
1. Subaru WRX / WRX STI
There is a running joke that Subaru is a cult, once you drive a WRX, you can see why.
In the tuning community, this sentiment is only boosted and the Subaru Impreza WRX is a great place to start if you want to customize your car. Stock (without modification) the WRX comes as a compelling All Wheel Drive four-door, stuffed with Subaru’s famed 4-cylinder turbocharged boxer engine putting out around 250-300 horsepower; practical and powerful. The opposing cylinder setup not only keeps the center of gravity low, but gives it that drool-worthy Subaru burbling exhaust note. You may be asking why we didn’t go straight for the STi. The WRX’s rally ready older brother is rarer and more expensive upfront and while we strongly recommend considering an STi if this passion for tuning keeps going, for a first-timer, a used WRX is a great place to start. You can find a clean used one in the low $20,000s.
Now, why should you consider a WRX as a great tuner car? First, as we said, Subaru people are fanatics, which means support is massive. Aftermarket parts are abundant with variations on every upgrade allowing you to do pretty much anything to your vehicle. Common mods include exhaust system upgrade, better tires, coilovers (whether for the look or performance or both), a better intercooler, and of course, tuning the engine via the ECU. If DIY is your thing, the internet and Youtube are FULL of passionate Subaru owners offering their wisdom. Plus, if you aren’t looking to do the work yourself, you will undoubtedly be able to find a local shop with experience in modifying these rally legends.
2. Nissan 350Z/370Z
There is nothing that screams tuner car quite like a front-engined, rear wheel drive car, and anyone looking for a tuner that one day will kick the back out in smokey style, the 350Z or 370Z is a great place to start.
Out of the box, the 280 horsepower, 3.5 L V6 provides some 6-speed manual fun for enthusiasts. Its successor, the 370Z (with a 3.7L V6) offered the same with increased horsepower. Put some time and tasteful mods into either and you can put out some serious performance.
PS – though they may be named differently, the 350Z & 370Z are largely two generations of the same vehicle and thus are included together.
The prime reason to choose the Z is that for a fairly low cost ($15K on the low end to $30 on the high end), you get a car with a coveted “fun to drive” stamp on it. Short wheelbase, tight steering. Swapping out the stock suspension is a common modification that any owner should consider as a stiffer suspension will improve the handling, and often looks cool too. To keep things literally cool, an improved radiator and thermostat are a must for any performance driver. Since tuning is about customization, Z cars often get wheel upgrades to alter the look, and once and a while to save weight. The Z serves a passionate niche audience meaning that once you’re welcomed into the Nissan coupe community, you’ll never be alone.
3. Ford Mustang
Yeah, we know this one is a bit of a curveball after the last two.
However, if you think about it, the Mustang has a lot in common with the 350Z – front-engined, rear-wheel drive with a high power-to-weight ratio. Plus, if it’s good enough for thousands of TikTok stars and Formula Drift (a racing series formerly reserved for Japanese cars), it should be on your list. You’ll find yourself among a different subset of car enthusiasts, those who appreciate the affordable (sub $20K) power of the 5.0 L V8 and who have an affinity for American cars.
An icon since the 60s, the Mustang is a great option because of the near infinite modification possibilities. Plus, as it is a common track day starter for many budding racing drivers, the performance and repair support is widespread. More than anything else though, it’s a good-looking car pre-modifications that’s fun to drive, imagine how good it will be after you get your hands on it. Unleashing the sound and a bit of power from that V8 with a new exhaust is a great start for modifications and lowered suspension will give you both better handling (it’s a big boy afterall) and that coveted lowered look.
A few other choice upgrades are a set of wheels, better rubber, a tune, cold air intake, and brakes. Beyond those, any custom aesthetic choices – from a body kit to aggressive hood – are sure to make the Mustang your own!
4. Subaru BRZ/Toyota Fr-S
When they came out in 2012, the BRZ & GT 86, jointly developed between auto giants Subaru and Toyota, were an instant success.
With a small sporty front-engine, rear-wheel-drive set up (are you getting the theme here?), the two-door coupe was aimed squarely at us car enthusiasts. Truthfully, even if you aren’t planning on tuning your car, get this one anyway! Its short wheelbase, resistance to the bloated, size increase of current vehicles (sorry Mustang), and a manual make it a must for any car enthusiast.
However, since we are talking about tuning, the 86/BRZ is an ideal tuner for a couple of additional reasons. First, it can look really, really good when modified well. Already sporting those sexy coupe proportions, a tasteful bumper upgrade, some wheels that fit your personal style, and a wing (spoiler) are a great start. We put wing under aesthetic simply because for many the visual gains will largely outweigh the performance ones. Coilovers will enhance the look of your wheels and overall look while also being the ideal handling upgrade – just be sure not to go too stiff and ruin your back over the next few years.
Under the hood, a quick tune will offer an instant horsepower increase, pair it with a new exhaust and you’ll be sounding suave as you burble out of your driveway. Being one of the most anticipated tuner vehicles out there, the part choices and upgrade options are never-ending getting the best of both worlds – a plethora of support and the ability to make your BRZ/86 unique.
5. Mazda Miata
For the record, with one car left, we’re realizing that for every car on this list, there are 2-3 more that could easily make a slightly wider list. However, this is a list of the best choices that you can afford. So last up, we have to conclude with the Mazda Miata.
At first glance, the bubbly convertible may not seem up to the task, but as soon as you jump in the tiny two-passenger and work your way through the manual transmission, you’ll find yourself addicted.
Being cheap ($8-14K), small, and bare bones, they find their way into your heart like a puppy who finds shelter in your garage during a rainstorm. Put some time and effort into the 140 horsepower RWD coupe and its game over – you’ll never want to let your Miata go. Like the others on our list, parts are plentiful, but since it’s small, the real plus is that all those parts come in at a slightly lower price point. We’re not saying this is on the list solely because of cost, but it’s a great bonus With Miatas being renowned for their incredible go-kart-like handling, a great set of tires is a good first upgrade. Go for a stylish summer wheel & tire combo before toning things down for the winter.
For additional performance, add a cold air intake, upgrade the exhaust, and increase stopping power with better brakes. Before long, you’ll find yourself tinkering with your Miata, resisting the urge to jump the shark when it comes to possible upgrades.
Try not to become a “Miata owner” (they’re like essential oil or enneagram people) too fast.
Is Owning A Tuner Car Right For You?
There’s something so incredibly satisfying about taking a mass-produced vehicle like a WRX or Miata and customizing it to your preferences. You’ll feel a tinge of pride every time you walk up to your car and start it up. Plus, all are welcomed into the community of car enthusiasts.
However, before you get sucked up into the romance of it all, we have to be honest about how that journey also comes with a lot of frustration and struggle. Tuners have inside jokes about how their cars are always broken for a reason. There’s a lot of learning involved and even if you get it right, sometimes, inexplicably, things refuse to work. It takes an incredible amount of patience, time, energy, and money. There’s no way around it.
If you’re ready to pay that price, likely putting a lot of other things aside to make it happen, and can see that incredible light at the end of the tunnel, where your car looks and performs how you want it to, go for it.
Buy a tuner car, you’ve got this.