The term tuner is often associated with JDM cars, and for good reason. Most tuners hail from the golden era of JDMs — the '90s. During this period, and spanning until 2005, Japan was experiencing an economic boom, and cars produced in the country had to be subject to a no-competition agreement dubbed the Gentlemen's agreement. This meant that car manufacturers had to figure out a way to make their cars as competitive as possible without exceeding the 276-horsepower mark. So naturally, manufacturers strived to make their cars more affordable with engines sturdier and more competent then they need to be, easily be tweaked to produce significantly more power.
Although the most iconic and ideal tuners are often JDMs, this is not always the case. In this article, we'll rank the most popular and recognizable cars that have proven themselves as ideal tuners. So, if you're curious to see which cars made our list, keep reading.
10 HONDA CIVIC
Due to its nimble and compact stature, the Civic has long been a favorite car for tuners. For optimal handling, you'd wanna opt for one of the hatchback models, which boast a more equal weight distribution. Apart from that, the reason behind its immense popularity as a tuner lies in its chip.
This means that improving your Civic's performance can be as simple as hooking it up to a laptop or a computer. Compared to some of the sports car alternatives, the Civic is quite affordable and ubiquitous, with parts always readily available, with an abundance of turbocharged versions out there, waiting to be tuned.
9 Mitsubishi 3000GT
Widely underappreciated today, the 3000GT (also known as the GTO) was among the most competent and advanced JDM sports cars of the '90s. When it came out, it trumped the likes of the NSX and the iconic GT-R, featuring a beastly twin-turbocharged 3.0L, 320-horsepower V6.
Vastly ahead of its time, the first GTO model included advanced technology features such as the adjustable spoiler, exhaust, pop-up headlights, and even an active aerodynamics system. For later models, the GTO was made lighter, more affordable, and more aesthetic (at the cost of some technology features). However, this made it an extremely attractive tuner choice. Even more so considering its relatively short production run that completely ended in 2000, making it a rare and desirable tuner.
8 MAZDA MIATA
Even today, over 25 years after its debut, the Miata reigns among THE best and most reliable entry-level sports cars out there. Weighing in at 2,300lbs, the Miata will provide the most fun for the size. It's new and improved 181-horsepower 2.0L engine will launch it to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds. However, what makes it a favorite tuner choice are its affordability, suspension quality, and miniature stature. Tweaked for performance and equipped with better tires, the Miata will be good for endless hours of fun.
7 VOLKSWAGEN GOLF
If you're gearhead who lives in Europe, the golf is likely to be your very definition of a tuner car. It reigns as the supreme choice for a quick, nimble, and compact tuner car that looks good and drives even better. This is the image it has kept through all of its seven successful iterations.
Opting for the GTI version will provide you with even more power and performance features straight from the factory, while the R version is the king of the hill. What makes it different than most cars on this list is its German heritage. This means that, for a compact sportster, the Golf features a more user-friendly and upscale interior (depending on the trim), and offers a comfortable ride.
6 NISSAN 240SX
Introduced to the American Market in 1988, the 240SX became an instant success and a favorite JDM car choice for a rapidly-evolving motorsport niche called drifting. For over 30 years, the car has been cemented in the mind of automotive enthusiasts as one of the original and greatest tuners out there.
The 240SX came from the factory lightweight, featuring a rear-wheel-drive powertrain, with a perfect balance ratio for drifting. With a few tweaks, the already exciting JDM car becomes thrilling tuner ideal for drifting. This is why, over the years, the cost of acquiring one of these shot up significantly, often referred to as "drift tax."
5 SUBARU WRX STI
As one of the most recognizable tuners and sports sedans on the market, the STI needs no introduction. Ever since Colin McRae took that win behind the wheel of the 1994 WRX STi, tuners have been nuts about these cars. Even back in the '90s, the WRX packed a 250-horsepower engine connected to an all-wheel-drive system. Since then, the STI had only become better with each iteration. The newest WRX STi boasts a perfected steering and the highest power output yet — 308 horsepower straight from the factory.
4 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution
When Mitsubishi came out with the first Lancer Evolution in October 1992, it had managed to create a car that would eventually out-rally a Subaru. Twenty-five years and four consecutive world rally championships later, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo is regarded as one of the most iconic sports sedans to date. The legendary 4G63 engine powering the first version back in 1992 proved so well-made that its upgrades were used all the way until the ninth generation of Lancer Evolution. The 1992 version already featured an impressive 244-horsepower engine connected to a four-wheel drive, and it only got better from there.
As opposed to the Subaru WRX STI's 2.5L engine, the Lancer managed to hold on to its original 2.0L motor which still somehow produced a bit more power than its counterpart. The Lancer Evolution also offered an attractive design and, despite being in the same sports sedan niche, a vastly different driving experience from the STI. This caused an ongoing rivalry between Mitsubishi and Subaru and resulted in a diverging of enthusiasts' opinions on which one car is truly better. Unfortunately, the Evolution was discontinued in 2015 with the Final Edition Lancer Evolution X produced as a send-off to the iconic sports sedan.
3 Nissan Skyline GT-R
Although it was reengineered into the modern GT-R, we can't deny the classic '90s Skyline its rightful place among the greatest and most iconic JDM tuners out there. Whether you opt for the R32, R33, or R34, you can't go wrong with a Skyline. Each one was created for motorsports, with an easily-tunable Japanese engine subject to Gentlemen's agreement — a no-contest agreement between Japanese car manufacturers to not produce cars exceeding 276 horsepower.
Easily tunable, with a four-wheel drive and a top-notch suspension, the Skyline was one of the most popular and most iconic JDM tuners, earning multiple movie and autosport video game appearances.
2 MAZDA RX-7
Legendary - an epithet that only a few cars on this list deserve to be labeled with, and the 1992 RX-7 is definitely one of them. It's arguably the best use of a Wankel rotary engine in any car in existence and combines thrilling power and performance with a timeless, aesthetic design.
Since its debut in 1992, the RX-7 has been garnering an automotive enthusiast following and TV appearances such as those in Fast and Furious. Today, the RX-7 is remarkably rare to come across in good condition and tends to bear a high sticker price to back it up.
1 Toyota Supra MKIV
Akin to the RX-7, the MKIV Supra is a car that every true car enthusiast has always wanted to own and one that we've been wishing for to come back. From the early '90s until today, the Supra had not lost its status as one of the most legendary and desirable tuner cars on the planet. A big part of its fame lies in the incredibly tunable 2JZ engine decorating the underside of the MKIV's hood.
This exact engine is renowned for its quality and design that gives it the power potential that far exceeds the (albeit impressive) factory turbocharged 276 horsepower for the 2JZ-GTE version, or 220 horsepower for the non-turbocharged 2JZ-GE version. Apart from that, we can't escape the fact that it's also one of the most beautiful sports cars from the '90s, with a timeless design that has managed to remain equally impressive even today.