Everything You Need to Know About Tuner Cars

Tuner car culture has been around in the U.S. for decades. People have been modifying their rides to go faster and look better. If you’re considering tuning or customizing a car, here’s a look at what that includes and some of the best tuner cars you can get:

What is a tuner car?

Police inspecting a tuner car at the Expo Park in Hanover
Police inspecting a tuner car | Julian Stratenschulte/picture alliance via Getty Images

A tuner car is a car that has been modified to perform better, according to Jerry. Typically this means they are made to go faster than untuned vehicles.

Tuner cars began decades ago. Advance Auto Parts says the idea of tuning goes back even further. The Roots brothers hot-rodded blast furnaces in the mid-19th century. Turbochargers were developed around World War I to help airplane engines improve performance. However, the first tuning of naturally aspirated engines began in the 1930s when Americans put Ford V8s into all types of different cars.

Donut Media on YouTube explains that tuning cars has been going on for decades as well. The post-World War II “hot rods” in the 1950s and 1960s would take older cars and tune them up to race.

Internationally, automakers in Japan and Italy would tune up naturally aspirated engines as well. Companies like Singer would take Porsches and make them tuner cars by enhancing the flat six-cylinder engine.

Decades later, more imported cars from Japan expanded the scene in places like southern California. In the early 2000s, the Fast and Furious movie franchise made tuner cars popular once again. There are also tuner cars purpose-made for the drag strip. Some have been adjusted for drift racing and time attack racing attracts all kinds of custom models. Additionally, there’s stance tuning to make cars fit a low-riding look.

What kinds of cars are considered tuners?

Most modern cars can become tuner cars thanks to performance upgrades and changes you can make electronically. Car Performance Boss names five things you can do to tune a car without changing any parts. You can remove the rev limiter and top speed limiter, update the engine torque map, improve throttle response, and adjust the engine’s air/fuel ratio.

Having your car tuned up without modifications can cost at least a few hundred dollars. Jerry estimates a professional tuning can cost up to $900 depending on labor and part costs.

There are many options if more modifications and aftermarket parts are your goal. HiConsumption and Road & Track agree that the best options include:

  • Sporty coupes like the Honda S2000, Mazda MX-5 Miata and RX-7
  • Sedans like the Honda Civic, BMW 3 Series, and Mitsubishi Lancer
  • Muscle car icons like the Ford Mustang

How much does it cost to tune a car?

Tuner cars don’t have to cost a lot. The first Honda to hit 9 seconds for a quarter-mile drag race was a 1991 Civic, according to Donut. U.S. News compiled a list of the best tuner cars, and you can find many used ones for a modest budget. Used cars like the BMW 3 Series, Honda Fit, and Mitsubishi Lancer have generations of tunable models that start at less than $10,000.

If you’re looking to add more performance with aftermarket parts, costs will be higher. A Reddit thread of modifications includes lots of cars that owners have spent thousands of dollars on to go faster. One tuner car buyer spent $10,000 on a Honda S2000 before paying more than $10,000 for modifications.

There is no minimum cost you must spend to tune a car. Cheap models can be turned into thrilling rides with a few modifications. You can decide what to prioritize – look, power, handling, etc. – and spend accordingly.

Is owning a tuner car worth it?

Tuner cars give you the power to decide how you want your vehicle to perform. You can take a stock car and modify it to your priorities. Cheap models can cost less than half of a brand new car. After all the modifications are complete, it’ll still likely cost less but be just as fun to drive.

A cheap tuner car may have higher mileage. However, the automakers that many consider the best tuner cars – Honda, Toyota, and Mazda – are carmakers known for reliability. If you want a truly customized driving experience, tuner cars are a worthwhile investment.

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