Tuning Gone Wild: The Best Cars to Modify

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Thinking of buying a car to transform from humdrum runabout to head-turning, roaring beast? We’ve listed the rides ripe for an extreme tuning project.
The Ford Focus is cheap but powerful
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The Ford Focus is cheap but powerful

Ford Focus

On the surface of it, the humble Ford Focus may look like a rather unappealing prospect for high-end tuning. But it’s always been underrated: its low centre of gravity means it’s a joy to drive at high speed – it just needs an engine to get it there.
 
Look for a cheap 2.0-litre example and swap the engine for a turbocharged version. Install a six-speed gearbox from a Mk1 Focus RS, sports suspension and uprated brakes and you’ve got yourself a car that’ll outperform the RS. For about half the cost, too.

Supercar slaying-potential: With the right garage expertise you could boost the Focus’s engine to 212bhp. Not enough to trouble the next Ferrari that overtakes you, but a big improvement over the standard 2.0-litre power unit.
Tuned Octavias can be seen on track days
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Tuned Octavias can be seen on track days

Skoda Octavia vRS

Since entering the Volkswagen fold, Skoda has gone from strength to strength and yet the cars don’t get quite the recognition they deserve. But that’s good for you, as the Octavia vRS is a relatively cheap tuning project that can yield some impressive results.
 
A standard engine remap – the process by which manufacturer-imposed performance limits are removed – can push power upwards. A new exhaust, filter and a stage 2 tune, which would see the Octavia ready for the occasional track day event, would boost it even further.
 
Supercar-slaying potential: Sporting a very healthy 177bhp as standard, you can eke another 60bhp or so from the engine.  
The SEAT Leon Cupra is a powerhouse with punch
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The SEAT Leon Cupra is a powerhouse with punch

SEAT Leon Cupra

One of the most exciting things for tuners is taking an unremarkable looking car and tweaking under the bonnet to make it a quiet powerhouse. Early SEAT Leon Cupras are just such cars. They feature the same engine as the Octavia, and the same remap and stage 2 tuning processes apply.  
 
Supercar-slaying potential: A total of 235bhp can be wrought from a tuned-up Leon Cupra 1.8-litre, 20-valve engine.  
Almost all parts of the Beetle's engine can be replaced
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Almost all parts of the Beetle's engine can be replaced

Volkswagen Beetle

 
Countless Beetles have been modified, tuned and transformed since it first rolled off the Volkswagen production line in 1938. The beach-loving Baja Bug, amphibian Beetles… even Hollywood’s favourite love bug, Herbie, was no slouch on the racetrack.
 
The reasons are simple. Beetles are cheap to pick up and buy parts for, and they’re simple to alter. Most of the standard model’s flat-four engine is literally bolted together, so just about everything can be replaced with high-performance parts. Larger piston kits, turbochargers and even new engines can be transplanted with minimum effort (it’s not uncommon for Porsche 911 flat-six power plants to be used). 
 
Supercar-slaying potential: A heavily modified Beetle featuring the Type 1, 1600cc engine hit 203mph over a quarter of a mile.  
The Volvo C70 also makes a classy convertible
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The Volvo C70 also makes a classy convertible

Volvo C70 T5

Another overlooked bargain, the Volvo C70 T5 offers plenty of performance potential at a far lower price than comparable cars. The reason: it’s a Volvo. People who want Volvos generally buy estates, while those want coupes buy something else.
 
Not a huge amount of tuning is needed to squeeze another 70bhp from the engine. A remap from a reputable tuning specialist would cost around £500 – pocket change considering the leap in performance.
 
Supercar-slaying potential: There’s a reason Volvo were so successful in various touring car championships around Europe. The standard output of the C70 is 237bhp; with a tune-up under the bonnet, it rises to 305bhp.

The 'pocket rocket' Golf is perfect for modification
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The 'pocket rocket' Golf is perfect for modification

Volkswagen Golf

Starting out as the original pocket rocket, the VW Golf has grown in legend over the last 40 years. Yet it still represents a great tuning and modification opportunity – parts are common and fairly cheap, and there’s a bewildering array of aftermarket kits available. The Mk5 VW Golf GTi is a good compromise of classic Golf appeal and great base power and handling.
 
Pop the bonnet first and give that 2-litre engine a remap for extra middle-gears power. After that, consider an exhaust system refit that includes a larger downpipe. Couple that with a cold air induction kit and you’ll notice a significant increase in acceleration. Elsewhere, you could install a larger turbo, an uprated fuel system and a new intercooler for even more grunt.  

Supercar-slaying potential: The power gain from the remap alone could be as much as 50bhp, while the new turbo and fuel system could give you a bone-shaking 350bhp in all. A new differential might be a worthwhile investment, however, to handle all that extra front-wheel power.
The Lancer is a fine race track car
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The Lancer is a fine race track car

Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX

The Lancer Evo IX, with its rally pedigree to the fore, was built to be taken apart, upgraded and bolted back together again. Take your pick from uprated turbos, intercoolers, reduced-weight flywheels, high-spec pistons and stage 3 custom cams. Delving into even more specialised territory, how about front and rear brake kits, triple plate clutches, 18-inch wheels and semi-slick tyres? Fit all that and you’ll have a track-ready Mitsubishi monster on your hands.
 
Supercar-slaying potential: Factory fresh, the Lancer Evo IX was already straining at the clutch, with 287bhp as standard. It could hit 60mph in 4.2 seconds. With so much scope for tuning, the power potential is almost limitless.

The Toyota Supra is renowned for its potential power
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The Toyota Supra is renowned for its potential power

Toyota Supra

Much like the Lancer Evo IX, the Toyota Supra isn’t so far off being a supercar in its standard production form. Its engine, the 2JZ-GTE, is renowned among petrolheads for having almost unlimited potential. It’s built to last – almost regardless of what you actually do to it – and was originally designed for use on the track.
 
Start by uprating the twin turbos and installing a better exhaust system. That alone will push the standard engine towards 400bhp. Next, a better management system and improved fuel delivery will crank even more power from the engine, while a new stroker kit could expand the engine capacity to 3.4 litres. 
 
Supercar-slaying potential: With a base output of some 300bhp, the only limit is your wallet. Up to 1,500-2,000bhp can be wrought from the Supra with extensive tuning. Never mind comparing the Supra to supercars, this has the room to grow into something altogether more impressive.

Icon have built upon the original Land Rover shape
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Icon have built upon the original Land Rover shape

Icon D90

 
You’ll recognise this project’s famous original shape to the left, but the 1995 Land Rover Defender 90 is an altogether different entity, reworked by US car modification outfit Icon.
 
The engine has been completely re-engineered to include powdered-metal connecting rods, aluminium pistons and special rocker arms. Then there’s the custom intake, cooling and exhaust systems, along with the four-speed automatic gearbox.
 
Supercar-slaying potential: The General Motors 6.2-litre V8 engine packs in plenty of torque, and the modifications made by Icon have pushed the D90 way beyond the norm for an off-roader. It may not be able to go past many supercars, but it could certainly go over them. 
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