Best "Beginner Car" for Modifying/Tuning

Kirstie_HKirstie_H Administrator Posts: 11,142
edited May 2015 in Honda
Of course, the car you choose depends on what you want to do with it, but this topic will deal with the best choice or choices for the "first-timer", whether he/she is doing it to look good, just enjoy on the street, or to race in various types of motorsport.

Share your beginner success stories!

See Also: A Beginner's Guide to Modifying a Car

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  • ajvdhajvdh Member Posts: 223
    If you want to build one of those "all-show-no-go" wanna-be touring cars, go with the cheapest Civic you can find. Those 18" rims and hundereds of lbs. of wings and bodykit are gonna sap what little performance you have anyway, and you're putting power through the wrong wheels, so why waste extra money on the bigger engine?

    If, on the other hand, you're interested in winding up with something that's big fun to drive, I'd go with a Miata. Decent 1st gens can be had for cheap, they have great handling right out of the box, and you can be competitive in SCCA solo events without any mods. If you want to hod-rod 'em, they're tough and straightforward little beasts and have a good-sized aftermarket, including all sorts of reasonably priced forced induction setups. I've run with some of them on tracks, they're very hard to catch. And if you're totally insane, a Ford 5-liter fits under the hood.

    If you want more serious track or autocross fun, C4 and early C5 'vettes are more money, but still can be had for reasonable bucks, and the SBC probably has the best choice of go-fast parts of *any* engine. But on a tight course, the turbo Miata guy will give you fits.
  • john500john500 Member Posts: 409
    It does depend on what you want. If you want to win street or track races using a street legal car with the least expenditure, get a Mustang GT. Almost all of the other vehicles will require an engine swap to be competitive with the GT.
  • carlisimocarlisimo Member Posts: 1,280
    I'll defend the Civic here a bit...
    (though I would recommend the Miata too, to people who can afford to have a non-daily driver)

    First off, it's a good daily driver. Four good seats, even in the coupe. Great manual transmissions. Great mileage if you shift early. Slow enough to teach car control more effectively. Good safety ratings for its class.

    Second, the pre-'01 models take modifications very well.
    Tons of suspension travel in the pre-'01's, and a high potential (well, theoretically) handling limit since the double wishbone front suspension doesn't lose its camber during body roll. They can be lowered a lot without hurting the car (though obviously, handling will suffer if the dampers don't match the springs). That's not true of the new ones; they have trouble if you change the suspension geometry and the only cheaper kits that don't do that are Honda's HFP and Mugen's SS, both of which are mild in drop and stiffness.
    And there are lots of parts (engines, most importantly) from other cars in the Honda line that drop right in. Easy to find the parts and people who can do the work. Lots of tried-and-tested aftermarket parts too, including turbos and superchargers, that are a bit cheaper than others due to the sheer volume of Civic sales.

    Third, you can tell people you're going to buy a Civic and they'll assume you're sensible, if a little boring.

    On the downside, Civics have had lousy steering feel ever since they got power steering. And a lot of people (here included) are sick of seeing them.
  • ajvdhajvdh Member Posts: 223
    Yeah, the 'stangs a good choice if you're after cheap, straightline speed. If your racing involves turns, you probably want to look somewhere else. The amount of time and work it takes to make a Mustang handle well is well beyond "beginner" status.

    And if you're racing on the street, then you're an idiot no matter what you drive.
  • driftracerdriftracer Member Posts: 2,448
    "The amount of time and work it takes to make a Mustang handle well is well beyond "beginner" status."

    That's a completely inaccurate statement, sorry. Not only is it easy to make a Mustang handle, it's pretty cheap, too.

    Depending on the year, I can give you a short list of products and changes - I made my 1986 GT pull .93 on the skidpad, using z-rated street tires, not slicks or Hoosiers, for under $1300 in suspension components and two weekends at my house.

    That's springs, struts, sway bars, bushings, braces (front upper, front lower, and rear upper) and a camber plate kit for less than the cost of a good set of coil-overs for a Honda.
  • ajvdhajvdh Member Posts: 223
    Skidpad firgures would mean something if all we ever did was drive in circles on perfectly smooth pavement. But the real world is full of transitions, increasing and decreasing radius turns, bumps and holes. The Fox/SN95's basic arcitecture is compromised for that kind of stuff. Ya see, I've owned one (t-bird turbo-coupe). I've also seen (and ridden in) quite a few of 'em both at autocross and as a road-course instructor. It's got roll center and steering geometry problems in the front. The 4-link rear binds up, and doesn't control the axle well.

    Yeah, you can slap big bars, springs and shocks on it, but you'll trade an increase in grip and better turn-in for really skittish behavior on bumps, and the snap oversteer the stock car already has will be even less predicable. Your ride qualtiy will suffer (kind of an understatement). Throwing out the entire rear suspension in favor of a three-link or Griggs setup is good start towards giving it the predictability and compliance it needs to be "good handling", but I'd hardly call that "beginner" level mods.

    If you want to explore good handling, why not start with a chassis that handles well from the get-go?
  • badtoybadtoy Member Posts: 343
    Choose the kind of car you want (60s mucscle car, 90s sport compact, etc.), and then pick the one with most aftermarket support -- that will almost invariably be the one that is reliable and responds best to tuning. Good luck! =D
  • spinzerospinzero Member Posts: 91
    You can weld your axles to the body and pull crazy G on the skid pad. To many, that is certainly NOT the definition of good handling.

    Even with cars that have independent rear suspension, once you slap on bigger anti-roll bar, you'll notice two things right away. One, you get more grip and oversteer, and two, your car will feel more nervous on bumps and during transitions.
  • fastsvofastsvo Member Posts: 31

    There are a lot of good potential cars out there. I honestly would look towards the Grassroots Motorsports Magazine GRM challenge cars as proof that you don't need a lot of money to get above average performance from a broad range of vehicles.

    But, if you asked for my vote, it would be the Merkur XR4Ti, Mustang GT, and the Mazda Miata.

    Eric Atoian
  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright Member Posts: 64,481
    Interesting that you chose the Merkur. That's kind of a devil to get parts for isn't it?
  • fastsvofastsvo Member Posts: 31
    It's not as bad as it seems, but there are definitely some parts that are no longer in production from Ford or are only available in Europe. But on the flip side there are many US vendors that have either imported or remanufactured parts for this car.
    Basically the internet will be your best friend for getting repair information and parts for the XR4Ti.

    Eric Atoian
  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright Member Posts: 64,481
    Thanks Eric for that info.

    I had a Merkur and really liked it except for I'd say that the engine felt pretty rough and noisy. But it was a lot of car for very little money, and once I squared away a few things, it ran and handled very well indeed. I'm wondering if that engine can be smoothed out somehow or if aftermarket mods have been made to do this---better mounts or an engine brace or something.
  • ateixeiraateixeira Member Posts: 72,587
    The Miata is easy to work on, they're abundant (half a million on the road), and even small gains in power are noticed. Strong aftermarket support, too. It's definitely up there on the list.

    Any SBC and Ford V8, too.

    Lately, Subaru WRX is a popular choice. Turbos are easy/cheap to tune.

  • hondafriekhondafriek Member Posts: 2,984
    Buy a BG series Mazda 323, slap a mazda GTX motor in (easy swap apparently)

    Intall ford ZX2SR struts with mild lowering springs, for not a lot of money you will have a little car that is so much fun and reliable you will smile every time you turn the key.

    Cheers Pat.
  • fastsvofastsvo Member Posts: 31
    Yup those 2.3li Turbo Ford engines can sound and even run like a tractor at times. Balancing the rotating assembly during a rebuild helps greatly and even stepping up to a 2.5li crankshaft will really smooth things out.

    Btw, I am really into the idea of owning an STi or even an EVO sooner than later. I believe the STi will be a great replacement for my SVO. Though the new Audi A3 and the new Charger SRT8 has my attention as well. As you can see I am all over the map for my next vehicle, but one thing is for sure, performance will be the major purchase motivator here.
  • ateixeiraateixeira Member Posts: 72,587
    I don't think the engine was quite that big (2.3l). Wasn't it more like 1.6-1.8l or so?

    I do recall it was DOHC and turbocharged, but output was not all that high. But in a light car it would be a hoot.

  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright Member Posts: 64,481
    I like the EVO better than the STi....both have some advantages over the other, but overall I preferred the EVO as a car I would drive everyday. I really romped on the STi and I got torque steer although other folks have said they didn't feel it on test drives. I think the STi is a tad faster but the EVO handles like a dream.
  • ateixeiraateixeira Member Posts: 72,587
    Competition improves the breed - both have received upgrades regularly. The STi has quicker steering and a revised steering rack, I believe that was your biggest "like" when it came to the EVO. STi also got a wider rear track and the rear rims themselves are an inch wider. On top of that it gets a better front differential.

    EVO IX will get some tweaks, most notably more power, so these two really feed off each other. Ain't life sweet? :)

  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright Member Posts: 64,481
    AWESOME cars...unheard of performance at this price range, say 20 years ago.
  • purrnakpurrnak Member Posts: 4
    I think for a beginner a crap car of any kind is a good start. I started with an '83 volvo that I got for pretty much free. It ran like a rock and after tuning and some scrounging for parts in a wreck yard I was able to get it up to 150mph... that might not be much for most, but this was an OLD volvo on it's last legs. It went for another 3 years after me and ended up with the person that owned it before me.

    The mods I did this this car were mostly sound oriented and just changing parts to newer ones but it was a great way to get my feet wet.

    I'm currently working on a Hyunday pony and I've added elwire, stearing wheel, stereo system, got the best spark plugs and points I could find, wired in a second battery and a buddy put in a system to detect when 1 battery is fully charged and switch the alternator to the other battery to charge (don't ask how it works, I have no idea)

    So the best car to work on for your first car, is the cheepest one you can get to get an idea of what can be done. I think anyway.

    My question: What can I do to my car to give it a bit more power? No fuel injections and it's a 4 cylindar. I have it tuned high so I can get off the line faster then most stock cars on the road.

  • ateixeiraateixeira Member Posts: 72,587
    That's wild. And you were able to find spare parts without a problem? I'd be afraid of parts availability, lack of help from forums like this one, and the price of imported new-old-stock parts.

    You're brave. ;)

    Hyundai Pony - are you in Canada? I've seen those cars in other markets but not in the US.

  • hondafriekhondafriek Member Posts: 2,984
    A Hyundai Pony!!! where did you even find one of those? I thought they had all gone to car heaven. Geez those things rusted out even quicker than a Chevy Vega and that's saying something. :)

    Cheers Pat.
  • woods1woods1 Member Posts: 1
    I need some help i have a toyota corona i have just replaced the points and need to know how far i am spose to set the it tis a 1980 toyota corona cs XT130e starfire engine
  • ateixeiraateixeira Member Posts: 72,587
    I doubt you'll find anyone with information quite so specific. Do you have a Haynes or Chiltons manual for that model? That should have the specs.

    Also try a Google search for "Corona Specifications" or something like that.

  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright Member Posts: 64,481
    The site might have these specs.
  • jerdmengerjerdmenger Member Posts: 3


  • ateixeiraateixeira Member Posts: 72,587
    That's what that engine was nick-named. To be honest I'm not sure there's all that much you can do to it, so I'd focus on the suspension, make it go fast around turns.

  • carlisimocarlisimo Member Posts: 1,280
    Yeah, that was not a good engine.

    Your options are to swap it out for a GTI engine, or to give it some forced induction. Given the ideosyncracies of VW electrical systems, it might be hard to make the first one work.

    Someone makes a supercharger for the base Golf engine. It doesn't make it fast though... I don't know if it's worth the money. Find some Golf experts, and look into the possiblity of using junkyard turbos and intercoolers.
  • m1miatam1miata Member Posts: 4,551
    Watch your oil. Those cars can use up to a quart per 1,ooo miles. The HP is plenty to learn on. Driver learning power first, cornering skills, and such, then more straight line power.
  • fordtough60fordtough60 Member Posts: 5
    Well, as everyone has said, it depends on what you're going to do with the car.

    As for drag racing, the Ford Mustang is a cheap and powerful option.

    If it has anything to do with great handling, I'd go with either the Honda Civic, Mazda Miata, VW GTI, or a Dodge Neon for a cheaper, well handled option. If you have a lot of extra cash, the Porsche Boxter is an extreme, but quick, option. A few other cars tha tcould be useful here are the Nissan 350z, and the Subaru WRX STI.

    For street racing, any of the above are great options. I would go with the vehicle with the most aftermarket options, most likely the Civic.

    If you just want to look good, the 350z is a great looking car. The Mustang is a good lookign car as well, but it has more of a muscle-car feel, as apposed to the tuning feel of the 350z.

    -Jake :shades:
  • paisanpaisan Member Posts: 21,181
    For street racing, any of the above are great options. I would go with the vehicle with the most aftermarket options, most likely the Civic.

    We do not promote street racing. Perhaps a bicycle is good for that!

    Seriously though, innocent, non-involved people (not participants or spectators) often are the victims of street racing. Before you do it, think what you would do if your Mother, Father, Brother or Sister were to be killed by a street racer.

    Motorsports and Modifications Host
  • fadetoblackiifadetoblackii Member Posts: 29
    "Almost all of the other vehicles will require an engine swap to be competitive with the GT."

    Wow. There is an awful lot of mustang love going on in here... did the original post say that we were only supposed to consider cars that are currently in production?

    If you want straight line speed (we'll talk about handling later) then forget about a Mustang GT. It requires way to many mods to make it go fast and you'll still get beat by the occasional ricer with a turbo.

    For simple, straight line, affordable speed, there is nothing better than a 4th gen F-body. Get either engine you want (LT1 or LS1) they're both amazing and easy to mod. The LS1 is probably one of the best V8's ever made in terms of ease of modification and out of the box power delivery. In a straight line, the Camaro/Firebirds will flat out smoke the equivalent mustang stock for stock and once you get into mods, the mustang will need a pulley to beat an F-body with just bolt-ons.

    If you buy a '98 Firebird Trans Am (or WS6 would be better, but for money's sake we'll say T/A) and just do bolt on mods, you'll have a car that will be in the 12 second range for far less money than it would take to get a fox body Mustang GT to do the same thing. If you buy a 2001 or 2002 it'll be even cheaper to get them to go fast because those cars had the LS6 intake manifold installed from the factory bringing base hp/tq on the T/A to 310/340 (325/350 in the WS6). The LS6 manifold is able to support upwards of 500rwhp so there's no need to worry about an engine swap to support more power. If cheap straight line fun is all you want, then you don't need to look any further than the 4th gen F-body cars.

    They won't handle as well, but they're incredible as daily drivers (provided you stay street legal with your mods) and even stock you'll be running low 13's at the track with practice.

    In terms of handling, I'm surprised the Mazda RX-8 hasn't gotten any love here. It's one of the best handling cars available (think Miata but better) and with a few mods it'd be a great beginner car, especially since you can get an '04 for ~$13K now.
  • jdmalldayjdmallday Member Posts: 1
    if you think all 2.0z are slow then you have somthing wrong in your head because i have a 1989 honda crx hatchback with a turboed 2.0 in it and its an 11 second car and there are still things i can do to make it faster
  • ateixeiraateixeira Member Posts: 72,587
    That CR-X weighed about half what a new VeeDub would weight, plus your engine is no longer stock.
  • dan1dan1 Member Posts: 76
    Sel it and buy a car that already has some performance from the factory you will save money and headache in the long run.
  • steverstever Guest Posts: 52,454
    Voice of experience?
  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright Member Posts: 64,481
    One can make just about any car go faster but you might not like the trade-offs that come with it. Depends on your goals and expectations, for drivability in normal traffic, comfort, ride, fussiness, noise, etc.
  • ateixeiraateixeira Member Posts: 72,587
    I wonder why they didn't tune the engine, output stays the same.
  • ultrasuperultrasuper Member Posts: 3
    You should consider the purpose for which the car is being tuned. If you have a family car, doing expensive engine tuning or adding a bright yellow flame may not be too wise – this is only acceptable in racing and torque cars. Some modifications such as ECU remapping are not reversible and you should therefore be sure that this is what you want.

    Before you start working on tuner cars, you should get all the relevant information. There are several sources of information that you can consider. You could get your information on from online forums and other online resources. You could get the information by working with an expert, not necessarily a mechanic, for sometime.
  • rvinylrvinyl Member Posts: 3
    There's a recent comparison between the Sonic and the Accent on Hyundai-Forums. In the end, the reviewer icked the Accent as being the better car due to the fact that it is just a better value but the tunability factor clearly goes to the SOnic.
  • ateixeiraateixeira Member Posts: 72,587
    You can do a lot more with a turbo if you're willing to use premium fuel all the time, but the Sonic is heavier, and it's hard to remove weight.

    I'd still guess the Sonic is more tuner-friendly.
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