Top 12 Tuner Cars of the 21st Century

© Evan GriffeyPotent Tuner Cars
Born in the 1990s, the tuning scene gradually evolved and eventually gained worldwide mainstream exposure in 2001 with the first movie of the Fast & Furious franchise, and it’s still working the gears in 2018. There are plenty of 21st-century performance icons that make great tuning platforms, and some have been in on the action since day one. Automakers must tune their engines for worst-case scenarios and 100,000-mile warranties, so the aftermarket is poised to swoop in and maximize powerplant potential in the name of adrenaline. The following list represents the dirty dozen of today’s most potent tuner cars

© Evan GriffeyMitsubishi Lancer Evolution
So raw and powerful, it’s a wonder Mitsubishi was able bring this car to market . . . never mind provide a warranty for it: The Evo tops our list because tuners can amp it up easier than other candidates on our list. The quintessential rally-bred tuner car, the all-wheel-drive Evo was available in three flavors in America: the VIII and its 4G63; the IX, a one-year only 4G63 with MIVEC variable valve timing; and the X with the all-aluminum 4B11 engine. All these engines react enthusiastically to moderate boost increases with an ECU flash serving as the tunpower to the wheels. Build the motor and 600 horses are attainable while retaining some semblance of streetability.

© Evan GriffeyNissan GTR
This Nissan hunts supercars like a cheetah on the Serengeti . . . and if the all-wheel-drive GTR gets the jump, look out. Its VR38DETT V6 pumps out 570 horsepower but is willing to do more. A simple intake, exhaust and ECU remap will drive 40 to 50 more horsepower to the wheels. Got a deep wallet and deeper convictions? There are staged tuning packages that take these engines well into the four-digit realm and, thanks to Nissan’s sophisticated launch control mode, these 1000-horsepower beasts remain supremely launchable yet tame enough for the street.

© Evan GriffeySubaru WRX STI
Immediately identifiable by its distinct Boxer exhaust note, the STI was the Evo’s arch nemesis on the rally circuit. But the Subie faces more challenges in the tuning race. The more ECU-sensitive Subaru gets less out of its stock turbo but has a better starting point, since it is rated at 305 horsepower compared to the Evo’s 291 horses. The Subie’s EJ25 flat four is thirsty for boost and capable of developing 450- to 500-wheel horsepower on stock internals. Pay attention as the WRX received a face-lift every other year in the mid-2000s, so pick a grille that looks good and let loose the boost.

© Evan GriffeyToyota 86 / Subaru BRZ / Scion FR-S
This joint project features a Boxer engine from Subaru fitted with a Toyota-derived fuel-injection system. The naturally-aspirated FA20 powerplant has proven a willing performance partner and garnered plenty of aftermarket support in the form of a supercharger kit from the likes of Edelbrock that adds 118 rampaging horses to the bottom line, pushing horsepower from 168 to 286, measured at the wheels on a chassis dyno. There are also numerous turbo setups available for those who want to go beltless. Beyond power, owners can add style with wings, spoilers, and full wide-body aero kits. Personal creativity is practically the only limiting factor.

© Evan GriffeyHonda S2000
Prefer going topless? Meet the Honda S2000. The fact that production of this drop-top — Honda’s most expensive car at the time — ceased in 2008 only means prices have fallen to a more modification-friendly level. Power comes from the free-revving F20C 4-cylinder engine that has a devout following of naturally aspirated and forced induction power parts. Great balance, a vast powerband and sporty good looks are this car’s calling cards.

© Evan GriffeyNissan 350Z / 370Z
Forget the ‘90s — the Z-car debuted in 1970. Whether it’s the 350Z or 370Z, Nissan’s highly touted VQ V6 produces an intoxicating blend of power and reliability. The first two years of the Z generate 287 horsepower. In 2005 manual-equipped cars got a bump to 300 horses. In 2007 Nissan dropped the 306-horsepower VQ35HR “Rev Up” engine under the hood. In 2007 the Z changed gears, becoming the 370Z powered by the 332-horsepower VQ37DE V6. No matter the variant, there are tons of forced induction kits for the V6, street and racing suspension upgrades, as well as crazy-wide body aero kits.

© Evan GriffeyHonda Civic Si
Long in the tooth and ready for boost, the Civic is the founding father of import tuning but its popularity spans into the 21st century. Honda’s venerable K20 engine is the big attraction. In recent years, the Civic has grown to be bigger than Accords of yore. (The subcompact Honda Fit is about the size of an early-century Civic.) Current Civic models do come with factory turbocharged engines . . . time will tell if they catch on among today’s tuner crowd and carry their tuning prowess into the next decade.

© Evan GriffeyMazda Miata
Maligned as wimpy and underpowered when it was introduced in 1990, this drop top has evolved into a respected performer. Thanks to its superior agility and balance, the Miata’s popularity reaches all the way to the track where it is a proven spec racer. It’s one of those cars that can be driven hard without going too fast. Naturally, engine go-fast parts and suspension enhancements top the mod wish list, with body tuning parts taking a back seat . . . so to speak.

© SEMAFord Focus RS
The brave styling and 350-horsepower EcoBoost engine of the Focus RS are enough to gain domestic entrance into the import-dominated tuner scene. The key to success for power-hungry Focus pilots is the Cobb Tuning AccessPort — a device that downloads custom maps into the Ford’s ECU. It allows owners to take full advantage of basic mods such as air intakes, exhaust systems and headers. The parts pool is not as deep as traditional tuner cars, but suspension kits — and to a limited degree body-tuning parts — are available.

© Evan GriffeyPorsche 911
Akira Nakai is a chain-smoking, hacksaw-wielding wild man with a lust to slice up Porsche’s precious 911 supercar. Nakai-san¬ is the driving force behind Rauh Welt Begriff, a tuning concern that pisses off purists by adding hyper-aggressive wide body kits, Grand Canyon-wide tires and, more recently, big-time power to Stuttgart’s best. Each car is named and Nakai will build one car per customer, so make tuning choices count and prepare to pay the price.

© ABTVolkswagen GTI
Water-cooled V-Dubs are a known commodity in the tuning scene. The GTI — and other performance-oriented Volkswagens — run the automaker’s highly-developed 2.0-liter factory turbocharged four cylinder. The motor, which can trace its lineage back to the 1990s, has long been considered de-tuned from the factory, generating 150, 180, 200 and 220 horsepower in subsequent iterations. Flash ECU tuning has always been the magic key that provides dramatic gains with no additional parts and serious thrust when accompanied by the usual bolt-on suspects.

© Evan GriffeyFord Mustang
The days of imports challenging Mustang “5-point-slows” (disparaging moniker for Ford’s 5.0-liter V8 engine) fade among purists . . . but in recent years many have taken a “let’s just get along” attitude when it comes to the Blue Oval’s pony car. The major crossover point for the Mustang is 2011 . . . it’s the first year the impressive 412-horsepower Coyote 5.0-liter V8 replaces the 315-horsepower modular 4.6-liter V8. One year, 97 horsepower . . . sounds worth waiting for. Like a Honda Civic on the import side, the ‘Stang has legions of aftermarket parts makers working at redline to keep the power flowing.


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